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A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


Eastern Ukraine: Is there a way back from violence?

By Sean L Hanley, on 23 April 2014

2014-04-15. Протесты в Донецке 019

Photo: Andrew Butko СС-BY-SA 3.0

With violent deaths becoming an everyday occurrence in eastern Ukraine and the Geneva deal fading, Rasmus Nilsson asks whether there is a way back to stability and peace.

When Ukrainian tanks rolled into Slavyansk last week, only to be mobbed and stopped by civilians and (Russian?) militiamen it did not represent the finest hour of the Ukrainian army. However, in their seeming incompetence the Ukrainian armed forces did manage to hold fire. Ukraine lost equipment, but no soldiers, or civilians lost their lives. In its own muddled way, the ‘battle for Slavyansk’ indicated that Russians and Ukrainians might be able to resolve the situation gradually, with threats but no deaths.

Now, blood is starting to be shed. Recently, pro-Russian militiamen were shot and killed in a murky firefight and the tortured body of what appears to be a pro-Ukrainian politician, from the Prime Minister’s party has now been found. It remains unclear precisely what happened to Volodymyr Rybak outside Slavyansk, but his fate may spur events on.

It is possible that militias killed Mr Rybak to provoke open conflict with Ukrainian troops. It is also possible, if unproven, that the militias were spurred on by figures in the Russian regime. For now, Russia is not commenting on this murder and, indeed, is keeping fairly quiet in what could be either anticipation or confusion.

Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev has, once more, stressed that Russia can overcome any Western sanctions and that business and ordinary citizens should be kept free from political shenanigans. UN Ambassador Vitalii Churkin, meanwhile, seems unsurprised that tensions will take a while to die down – and, following the recent UN report dismissing claims of systematic threats to Russians in Ukraine, now wants the UN removed from eastern Ukraine. Apparently, the OSCE is now expected to stop any unrest that may appear, together with the Ukrainian conscience or some such.
This is hardly belligerent talk from Medvedev and Churkin. At worst, if the Russian administration is connected to the militias occupying parts of eastern Ukraine – and even if recent casualties on both sides have been at least partly provoked by Russian designs to keep Ukraine unstable – and he tens of thousands of Russian troops massed along the border do not seem to be on their way into Ukraine.

Their continued presence is certainly ominous. Unless Moscow fears a Ukrainian thrust towards the Urals there is no credible domestic reason why Russian tanks need to be facing the border in these numbers. Russia would undoubtedly consider an attack if actions by the Ukrainian state resulted (even indirectly) in civilian casualties, but so far this has mostly been avoided.

Kiev’s dilemma

That said, developments in eastern Ukraine have left the acting government in Kiev with a difficult dilemma. One month remains before the presidential election to decide the successor to the exiled Viktor Yanukovych. Such an election seems impossible under current circumstances, with the most populous (and bar Kiev, the richest) part of the country subject to unelected rule of masked men.

 Even if (some of)  the militias in eastern Ukraine are genuinely concerned with locals’ welfare- which is unlikely given the readiness with which militias let unarmed civilians face down armed Ukrainian soldiers and tanks –  they have not been elected by any significant part of the local population in any of the cities they occupy.

Donetsk versus Dagestan

The official Russian view of democracy is encapsulated in its willingness to let politics be decided by the barrel of a gun – this was the case in Crimea and it is also the case in eastern Ukraine. Let us say, for the sake of the argument, that a majority of Crimeans wanted to join Russia and that most people in eastern Ukraine feel the same way. Why could observers from the OSCE and the UN not have been admitted to Crimea before or during the referendum? Why does UN ambassador Churkin want to keep the UN away now?

And, if regions in Ukraine can vote to join Russia – an idea for which arguments may be found – why should Chechnya not vote to secede from Russia?  Moscow would never allow a local referendum to decide the matter.  Thousands have died in the North Caucasus in recent decades – including many Russians – but apparently Dagestan is lower priority than Donetsk.

It may simply be easier easier for Russia to deal with unrest in Ukraine, where the Kiev government can still be blamed for any trouble. Or maybe Ukraine, like the North Caucasus, remains subject to Russian ‘off the cuff’ politics, to use Tor Bukkvoll’s wonderful phrase

Bumbling great power politics

The crime of Vladimir Putin’s Russia right now is less the imperial gluttony suggested by The Economist and more a bumbling necessity to prove Russia as the great power of which Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeatedly reminds us.)

Mr Lavrov  should be aware Russia still has one of the highest levels of income inequality in Europe, if not much of the world; significant proportions of its male population suffers from alcohol abuse, losing years of their lives in the process); that his country appears to be more corrupt than Mali, Nicaragua, or Pakistan.  It is all fine and well that his government wants to protect Russians living in Ukraine; please it remember to protect Russians living in Russia too.

Unfortunately, Lavrov and his colleagues may not have much time in coming days and weeks to focus on domestic challenges. Following recent events, acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and acting President Oleksandr Turchynov both directly blame Russia for the upsurge in violence. Militias occupying cities in eastern Ukraine are now uniformly referred to in worrying tones as ‘terrorists’ to be treated as criminals, not military representatives of a foreign state.

 I agree with Turchynov’s (and the West’s) call for Russia to withdraw its troops from Crimea (leaving the Black Sea Fleet, one would assume) and to condemn unequivocally any violence in eastern Ukraine. Yet Turchynov is also calling for Ukrainian security forces to re-launch operations in the east.

The last Ukrainian offensive ended in farce; let us hope we will not soon see farce turn into widespread tragedy.

Rasmus Nilsson has a PhD in Political Science from UCL-SSEES. His thesis dealt with Russian perceptions of Ukrainian statehood. His interests research focus on post-Soviet politics, particularly relations between Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and he is currently working on a monograph on Order and Justice in the Post-Soviet Space.

 He also published research on the status on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and writes a regular blog about current events in Ukraine and the post-Soviet region.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

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