Eastern Ukraine: The Neverending Crisis

"Russia has responded to popular aspirations in eastern Ukraine very differently from the way it responded in Crimea."

According to president Vladimir Putin, Russia’s objectives in Ukraine have been the same since the beginning of civil unrest there—a stable national government that represents and respects all of its people. Why then, has there been so little willingness to work together with Russia to end this crisis?

The most obvious answer is Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which many Western governments have interpreted as a rejection of the post–Cold War status quo and a possible prelude to further territorial expansion. To be fair, however, Putin addressed both of these points in his speech to the Federal Assembly on March 18. Crimea, he insisted, was an exceptional circumstance—a unique combination of the overwhelming desire of the local population to secede from Ukraine, and the need to prevent military clashes on the peninsula, which might escalate and involve the Russian troops already stationed there. Russia, he has said repeatedly since then, desires no expansion and poses no challenge to the international order.

Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine provide a good test of whether Crimea is indeed an exception, or a prelude to further expansion. Russia has responded to popular aspirations in eastern Ukraine very differently from the way it responded in Crimea. These differences, however, have been ignored by most Western observers, who base their analysis on three assumptions. First, that despite his disavowals, Putin is in fact actively supporting the rebels with weapons and finances. Second, that without this support, the rebellion would collapse for lack of popular support. And finally, that once the rebellion is suppressed, Ukraine will embark on economic and political reforms that will stabilize the country.

Because each of these assumptions is quite far from the mark, not surprisingly, so is Western policy toward both Ukraine and Russia.

Who Is Fighting and Why

The most remarkable thing about the claims that Russia is officially supporting the rebels in Ukraine is how little evidence there is to back them up after five months of fighting. During this time, Ukrainian officials have claimed almost monthly that Russian military forces have invaded. NATO has endorsed these claims by providing satellite images that it says show Russian military equipment inside Ukraine, but which Moscow claims are faked. But while Kiev recently claimed that “thousands” of Russian soldiers and hundreds of tanks are fighting on its soil, it has been able to demonstrate just nine soldiers who, according to Moscow, inadvertently crossed the border in late August. That is the sum total captured during the entire five-month period, though many more are said to have been killed.

American officials routinely support such claims by Kiev but have been at pains to provide any more evidence. Instead, State Department spokespersons have pointed to social media and blithely asserted that “the Russian separatists . . . could not be doing what they’re doing without the Russians.”

This is a telling statement, not only because it utterly confuses Ukrainians with Russians, and rebel insurgents with official troops, but because it assumes that the insurgency has no native resources or support. This fits with the notion, popular in the West, that the grievances of the Donbass are contrived, and that the entire conflict was manufactured in the Kremlin.

This view of the conflict, however, stands in sharp contrast to sociological surveys taken in April, May and June of this year—all since the onset of the military campaign against the rebels. Detailed survey findings are available in Russian on the website of the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, but a summary has recently been translated and posted on the website of the Washington Post by University of Ottawa professor Ivan Katchanovski.

Among its key points: the Ukrainian public remains sharply divided over the legitimacy of the protests on the Maidan, and the coup that removed President Yanukovych from office. While there is little love for Yanukovych anywhere in Ukraine, three-quarters of the populations in Ukraine’s eastern cities regard the Euromaidan protests as illegal.

Specifically, two-thirds of Donbass residents consider the Maidan to have been “an armed overthrow of the government, organized by the opposition, with the assistance of the West.” A similar percentage believes that the Right Sector is “a prominent military formation that is politically influential and poses a threat to the citizens and national unity.” That may explain why most people in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine (62 percent) blame the loss of Crimea on Kiev, rather than on Crimean separatists (24 percent), or on Russia (19 percent).