Civil wars have a way of erasing shared history. People who for most of their lives believed they were Yugoslavian will have grandchildren who identify as Slovenian or Serbian or Croatian, and rebuilding a communal identity that has been torn through violence is an often insurmountable task.
Before the current crisis in Ukraine, separatism barely existed there as a political movement. The spark that ignited it came from Moscow. Following a protest movement that toppled the pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February, Russia invaded Crimea—first with disguised troops, then openly—and annexed the territory.
Now a similar situation is unfolding in eastern Ukraine. NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, Philip Breedlove, said in a speech in Ottawa this week that Russian special forces are on the ground in areas where militants have seized government buildings and declared their opposition to the new pro-Western government in Kyiv. This allegation is supported by photos that appear to show the same men identified as both Russian soldiers and supposed local insurgents in Ukraine.
Dozens have been killed in the past week in clashes between pro-Russians and pro-Ukrainians. The deadliest incident so far occurred in the southern Black Sea city of Odessa, which had previously been mostly calm. Following violent clashes with pro-Ukrainian activists, crowds of pro-Russians retreated into a trade union building. A fire broke out, likely the result of Molotov cocktails thrown by pro-Ukrainians on the street below. At least 40 people died: burned, suffocated or their bodies broken after jumping from upper-floor windows.
Their deaths provoked outrage and sorrow in Odessa, and they were not isolated. A Ukrainian military operation to clear out separatists controlling eastern cities, and the fierce resistance it faced, has resulted in a steadily rising death toll. Each casualty is a wound that cannot easily be healed, a barrier to eventual reconciliation. “I think a threshold has been crossed,” a European diplomat told Maclean’s. Suddenly, civil war looms over Ukraine as a frighteningly real possibility.
“If they don’t fight, well, no one’s going to fight for them,” says Mark N. Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, speaking of the Ukrainian government. “If they don’t fight to keep their territory, they’re probably going to lose it. They have to be the ones, like it or not, to raise the cost to Russia.”
An April poll of residents in southern and eastern Ukraine by the Ukrainian newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnia revealed that few living there want to join Russia, and most oppose the militants taking over their towns and cities. Still, for weeks following the initial wave of assaults on government buildings in the east, Ukraine’s military response was halting and tentative. Some troops sent to confront separatist militants lacked capability and will. But Kyiv also feared that any large-scale assault would trigger an outright invasion by Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed a right to use military force to protect Russian citizens in Ukraine.
That dilemma is still there, but with separatist forces steadily expanding their control across the east, it seems Kyiv has renewed its commitment to confronting them with force. Its military operations have intensified, but so has the resistance of pro-Russian insurgents. They have shot down at least four Ukrainian helicopters in recent fighting.
Predicting how this growing conflict will develop is made difficult by the fact that no one is quite sure what Russia’s next moves will be, and what its ultimate intentions are. Breedlove originally believed Russia would invade eastern and southern Ukraine, taking Odessa and thereby cutting Kyiv off from the Black Sea, before driving all the way to Trans-Dniester, a breakaway region of Moldova whose leaders want it to join with Russia. Now, he says, Putin may be able to accomplish his goals without an overt invasion.
“The most likely course of action is that he will continue doing what he’s doing: discrediting the government, creating unrest, trying to set the stage for a separatist movement to create some sort of federalization of the oblasts in the east that will make it easy for him to have a military and, critically, an economic hold on that part of Ukraine that creates so much of its wealth and capacity,” said Breedlove.
In other words, Putin may want a civil war that he can control. A pro-Western government in Kyiv that cannot pacify the eastern part of the country will be weak and unstable. Fighting in eastern Ukraine will also frustrate plans to hold a presidential election later this month. Moscow has said the May 25 election should be postponed.
“Putin cannot have his cake and eat it,” says Judy Dempsey, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—noting that Putin has claimed Ukraine’s current interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, is illegitimate, while simultaneously condemning an election that would give Ukraine’s next president a popular mandate.
Dempsey believes the election should go ahead. The results may undercut some of Moscow’s propaganda about public sentiment in the pro-Western parts of Ukraine. Russia has portrayed those who backed the movement against Yanukovych as fascist extremists. But the election winner will almost certainly be a political moderate, probably wealthy businessman Petro Poroshenko.
This may not be enough to de-escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine, especially if Moscow is intent on keeping it burning. “The more civil strife continues, the more it feeds into radical elements,” says Dempsey. “That’s when it becomes very difficult to stop, and it generates a momentum of its own.”
Ukraine is sliding into a conflict that has already frayed many of the bonds linking its citizens. The deeper it falls, the more difficult it will be to repair them.