Eastern Ukraine: The Neverending Crisis

September 3, 2014 Topic: SecurityForeign Policy Region: UkraineRussiaUnited States

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).

Majorities in Donbass (60 percent in Donetsk and 52 percent in Lugansk) disagree with the view that Russia is organizing the rebels and guiding their actions. Moreover, if a referendum were held today (April 2014), only 25 percent would want to join EU, compared to 47 percent wanting to join the Eurasian Customs Union.

It should be noted that early on, the rebel leaders in Donbass were demanding only greater local autonomy within Ukraine, through a referendum on federalism. After Kiev rejected this, however, local attitudes hardened. A Gallup survey in June of this year, funded by the U.S. government's Broadcasting Board of Governors, concluded that Ukraine “is more divided now than it was before events starting in Crimea in March." As much has been acknowledged by Kiev’s own appointed governor for the Donetsk region Sergei Taruta.

This is not to say that there have not been foreign volunteers crossing over the Russian border to fight alongside the rebels, just as there are foreign volunteers fighting in the forces fighting against them. In both cases, however, they seem to be a fairly small percentage of total fighters (nongovernment estimates range from a mere handful, to as high as 30-40 percent). Most media accounts have pegged the rebel fighters as disgruntled locals, and it is not hard to imagine that their ranks have been bolstered by some of the twenty-thousand law-enforcement personnel (nearly 1500 in Donbass alone) who have been summarily fired and threatened with prosecution for treason by the current Ukrainian Minister of Interior, Arsen Avakov.

It is sometimes said that the while Russia may not be officially supporting the rebels, it is surely providing them with indirect support by allowing volunteers and weapons to cross the border. Even this version of official Russian complicity, however, has been challenged by some Western reporters on the scene, most notably, Mark Franchetti who wrote a remarkable piece for the London Sunday Times after spending several weeks embedded with rebel forces. His assessment is backed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the OSCE observer mission that has been deployed to the border region since the end of July. Both say they have seen no evidence of weapons or military personnel crossing from Russia into Ukraine during this time, even as U.S. and NATO officials say the exact opposite. Moreover, between April and July of 2014, as Russian Ministry of Defense likes to point out, eighteen international inspection teams visited the border region and found “no violations or undeclared military activity.”

Nor can the presence of weapons manufactured in Russia among the rebels, even large caliber ones, be considered a wholly reliable indicator of official Russian involvement. First, because such weapons are in abundant supply in Ukraine. Second, because they were easily available to the rebels, either from units that defected to their side, from arms depots they had captured earlier, or by other means.

The following incident is highly suggestive. According to the hacked email correspondence, allegedly sent by the head of the Dnepropetrovsk military security service Colonel V. Pushenko, between June 20 and July 20, three Ukrainian military units under his jurisdiction “lost” (profukali) twenty-five tanks, nineteen infantry fighting vehicles, eleven armored personnel carriers, eleven multiple rocket launch systems (BM21), twelve Grad platforms, five D-30 howitzers, sixteen 82 mm caliber mortars, five automotive tractors and two antiaircraft guns. Somehow all of these wound up in rebel hands.

How Crimea and Donbass Differ

The absence of official Russian support for the rebel cause is important because it highlights the differences between Russia’s approaches to Donbass and Crimea that tell us a good deal about Russia’s overall objectives in Ukraine.

In Crimea, Russian legislators set the stage for official support by visiting the region early on at the request of the Crimean legislature. Only after this visit did Russia up its military presence on the peninsula, within the limits provided by the Black Sea Fleet Treaty, and arrange for some of these forces to assist the regional government and their militias in providing for the local defense. I remind you that this agreement was reached on March 1, when the Crimean parliament had not yet taken any decision on separation. This military boost proved sufficient to allow the Crimean government to hold a referendum on independence without interference from Kiev.

In Donbass, by contrast, the Russian officials quickly distanced themselves from the rebels, offering them nothing but generic statements about the need to respect the will of the people. When the rebels scheduled their own referendum on secession, President Putin publicly urged them not to hold it. They refused. Russia conducted military exercises near the Ukrainian border in late February, but returned these troops to their barracks in late April, after the beginning of Kiev’s antiterrorist military campaign. Most importantly, at the end of June, as the military campaign in the East was ramping up, Putin asked the Russian parliament to rescind his authority to use troops outside Russia. He also recognized as legitimate the de facto president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko. The substantial differences in Russian policy toward each region suggest that the Russian government decided, sometime in late April or early May, that it was not going to intervene on behalf of the rebel cause.

Kiev’s assessment is, of course, very different. According to Ukrainian government officials, Russia seeks to destabilize Ukraine in order to prevent it from leaving Russia’s orbit. By promoting instability, Russia can continue to exert political and economic pressure on Ukraine. Breaking this influence is typically characterized as making a “civilizational choice” for Europe and against Russia.

But from Russia’s perspective, this is not a civilizational choice. It is merely the choice of the present Ukrainian government. So long as Ukraine remains a democracy, it is possible, even likely, that some future Ukrainian government will choose close cooperation over confrontation with Russia. Indeed, one of the main reasons that Russia objected so strongly to being excluded from any discussions of the impact of EU association, is that it enshrines the notion that a civilizational divide exists between Russia and Europe, and that Ukraine must choose one over the other.

The present government in Kiev has embraced the ideology of “civilizational choice” and given full vent to the notion that choosing the EU is a rejection of Russia. In keeping with this ideology, it has made “Russian aggression” a core aspect of its political strategy.

The Uses and Abuses of “Russian Aggression”

It is quite understandable that Kiev seeks to place the blame for its all of its setbacks on Russia. Promoting the notion that the country must rally to defend itself against external aggression is a time-honored strategy among fledgling regimes. It is troubling, however, that this motif is increasingly shaping domestic policies and limiting opportunities for political dissent.

In the name of resisting “Russian aggression,” for the first time in post-Soviet Ukrainian history, mass political parties have been banned from parliament, legislation is being introduced that would prevent whole categories of civil servants from ever again participating in public life, foreign television broadcasts are jammed, and the Ukrainian media is now subject to legislation that makes it a violation of national security to say anything, or even to show pictures, that might undermine the war effort.

Given the historical absence in Ukraine of classically liberal parties and politicians, and the gutting of institutional and judicial constraints on abuse of power, nationalist rhetoric has become the mainstream in Ukrainian politics. Moreover, it has become a handy tool for suppressing criticism of the current government. Thus, Prime Minister Yatseniuk recently suggested that anyone opposed to the draconian hikes in utilities fees must be an agent of the Russian security services. Even Maidan activists are not immune from accusations of being paid Russian agents.

The following is a partial short list of recent government initiatives to combat “Russian aggression:”

- In addition to banning certain Russian films for “distorting historical facts,” the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture has also come up with a list of 500 Russian performers and artists who will not be allowed to perform in Ukraine. Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Sych has gone a step further and proposed that all Russian language books be licensed and quotas imposed on all foreign literature sold in Ukraine.

- The State Television and Radio Committee has asked all Ukrainians (not just officials) not to speak to any Russian news agency. To give teeth to what have so far been merely requests, new legislation would allow the government to close media and block websites on national security grounds without a court order. [Reporters Without Borders, http://en.rsf.org, August 12, 2014]

- Other legislation recently introduced gives state authorities the right to confiscate the assets of any official, media entity or private enterprise that is deemed to have expressed separatist sentiments, or that might do so in the future. Such “de-separatist lustration,” as it is known, will allow the government to confiscate the assets of individuals suspected or accused of separatism, and prevent them from holding public office for fifteen years.

Some might argue that such legislation is necessary to prevent rebel leaders from someday being elected to local office. That day is still far off, if it ever arrives. Meanwhile, the law is being applied to some of the most moderate voices in Ukrainian politics, like Sergei Kivalov, a longtime representative from Odessa in the Ukrainian parliament who is also the dean of a local law school, and Ukraine’s longtime representative to the European Commission for Democracy through Law, better known as the Venice Commission.

He is probably best known, however, for being the co-author of the 2012 law that allowed regions to adopt languages other than Ukrainian for official use. His past sins caught up with him last month when the current governor of the Odessa region formally requested the Prosecutor General of Ukraine to investigate Kivalov for treason.

The broad strokes with which the term “Russian aggression” is being applied have dramatically changed the Ukrainian political landscape. Less than two years ago, the European Parliament deemed the political views of the Svoboda Party to be so “racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic” that it called upon all Ukrainian political forces to eschew any coalition with it. Today, with the deputy speakership of parliament and four ministerial portfolios, it is considered almost mainstream in Ukraine.

Individuals and groups even more extreme have profited from this rightward shift. Oleg Lyashko, Ukraine’s own version of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, gathered a surprising 8 percent of the national vote in the presidential elections earlier this year, while the coalition of political forces known as the Right Sector has been able to parlay its own virulent brand of nationalism into political clout that far outstrips its electoral support.

The Kyiv Post reports how this past June, the city’s chief prosecutor and three of his deputies were suspended at the insistence of the Right Sector. And in late August, the Right Sector’s leader, Dmitry Yarosh, told Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko that he had just forty-eight hours to release the members of his organization detained by the police, and fire the deputy minister of internal affairs, Vladimir Evdokimov. Failure to do so, he said, would result in a mobilization of the Right Sector’s reserve battalions for a “march on Kiev.” Needless to say, Yarosh’s demands were quickly met.

President Poroshenko himself has not commented publicly on any of these incidents, though he did refer to the members of parliament who oppose the current military campaign because of its heavy toll on civilians as “a fifth column controlled from abroad.” He also signed into law legislation to disband the Ukrainian Communist Party in parliament. Both actions make his inaugural pledge to protect the distinctiveness of eastern and southern Ukrainians ring hollow.

Same Problem—Different Solutions

So how does this conflict end? Both Russia and the West say they want stability in Ukraine, but they have very different ideas about how to achieve it. Western governments appear oblivious to the cultural context of the conflict and how it affects the country’s political and economic choices. They assume that the main problem Ukrainian society faces is corruption. If corruption can be tackled, so the argument goes, then regional differences will simply fade away.

Russia, on the other hand, sees Ukraine as a culturally fragmented society. Endemic corruption builds on these divisions and leads to political gridlock. Only by finding a way to resolve this cultural divide, Russia argues, can Ukraine prosper.

These different perspectives lead to very different approaches to resolving the conflict. For the West, dealing with the concerns of the Russian-speaking population is a distraction. Moreover, Kiev has convinced many in the West that Russia is only supporting the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine for its own political advantages and that it is therefore perfectly justified in promoting Ukrainian culture at the expense of Russian culture.

Russia, on the other hand, does not believe that the issue of cultural rights in Ukraine is going away anytime soon. Based on the previous experience of the Yushchenko regime, it believes that government efforts to forcibly Ukrainianize the east will exacerbate social tensions and lead to a backlash. The only way to ensure the stability of Ukraine is to grant the Russian cultural minority equal rights throughout Ukraine. This is something that the current regime in Kiev categorically opposes.

None of this bodes well for a rapid end to the conflict. While military resistance in the region may eventually be quashed, Ukrainian military commanders understand that this will not end rebellious sentiments in Donbass. According to the deputy commander of the Azov battalion, one of the many privately funded units that fight alongside the Ukrainian army, his men are being retasked for the indefinite mission of combating the “separatist underground.” To assist in future pacification, President Poroshenko recently signed legislation that allows state prosecutors in liberated areas to initiate investigations without judicial oversight.

Since it cannot count on the loyalty of former officials, Kiev will also be obliged to impose an entirely new political and economic elite on Donbass. By some accounts, the governing oligarch of the neighboring region of Dnepropetrovsk, Igor Kolomoisky, is planning to acquire a large portion of Donbass after it has been pacified.

For the foreseeable future, therefore, Donbass will most likely be deprived of any effective political voice, becoming essentially an occupied territory. Local concerns will no longer be effectively captured in national elections, since the parties popular in the east and south have been suppressed. As a result, resistance will be driven underground, spawning a subculture of resentment against “the occupiers” that will haunt Ukrainian politics for many years to come. Persistent unrest also means that the political and economic reforms envisioned by the EU Association Agreement will be impossible to implement nationwide. The United States went through a similar phase after the Civil War. In the North, it was euphemistically referred to as Reconstruction, but in the South it was more commonly called “carpetbagging.”

But the most insidious danger, as yet little understood in either the West or in Ukraine, is that after the end of the fighting, the threat of “Russian aggression” will continue to be used to deny the people in eastern Ukraine not just their cultural rights, but their political rights as well. Should the psychological and financial burden of the occupation of Donbass linger, it will most likely spell the end of Ukrainian democracy.

Nicolai N. Petro is professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island. He has recently returned from a year-long Fulbright research scholarship in Ukraine.

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two part series.

Earlier versions of this and part two of this series were presented at the Center on Global Interests in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

Image: Kremlin website