Is Ukraine Headed For Civil War?

With reports of Russian troops landing in Crimea, pundits are warning of a repeat of Georgia in 2008—but the reality is far more complicated.


KIEV—Sunday night, the subway stations within Maidan were cleared. Hours before, what was an intricate security system of multiple checkpoints has now changed. There are still checkpoints on the perimeter, but inside this city within a city a cathartic feeling of victory has replaced the frantic terror that permeated in Euromaidan after police snipers under former President Viktor Yanukovych’s command began shooting protestors in a final desperate attempt to gain control of Kiev. Now the most prevailing scene in the city center is not the barricades of debris and stacked tires, but the makeshift memorials—the candles, flowers, photos and helmets placed throughout the square to honor those who were killed. These are the lost heroes of the Euromaidan movement—which recently ousted Ukraine’s fugitive president—or as some call them, “Heaven’s Hundred.”

Yet the fight is not over. The Russian government fresh out of the Sochi Winter Olympics is already developing a way to maintain some kind of strategic control of its gas-line gateway to Europe: All eyes are on Crimea where the former president has fled as an outlaw within his own country wanted for mass murder. He is being hunted by forces who where under his control (at least officially) only days before. On Monday, Russian parliamentarians flew to Crimea to deliver a message on behalf of the Russian government that Crimeans can claim Russian citizenship. The Russian government has a huge strategic interest in protecting its naval base in Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea fleet is located. And last night, reports of Russian amphibious warfare ships carrying Special Forces Troops to the naval base drew an eerie parallel to the buildup before the August 2008 invasion of Georgia.

Crimea is a historic Russian stronghold in Ukraine and peacefully maintaining control of that region and a united Ukraine will not be easy. Media reports, especially by pundits inclined to take “a position” on U.S. television networks about the possibility of civil war are disingenuous. Still the Crimea situation will not be easy. The Russian government has financial leverage, which the EU does not, though the EU is quickly trying to find a way to bring IMF aid to the Ukraine economy, which has been paralyzed for a very long time.

Ukraine is not at the brink of a civil war. It may have been on Thursday night, when even the Euromaidan medical team, recognizable by their red uniforms and reflective white crosses, were being targeted by police snipers. But after this weekend Ukraine is more united than it has been in a very long time. Or as Anastasia Boichuk—a student representative who is part of a group of students peacefully occupying the Ministry of Education in Kiev until a new education minister is appointed—put it: “The situation is much different than in 2004. The country has changed. Students have changed. Ukraine today is not as divided now as it was nine years ago, not even as much as it was three months ago. Many eastern cities have their own Euromaidan as well. But in the East many people are afraid and we need to show them by example that they don’t need to be afraid—that they must not be passive and careless.”

Boichuk believes that the law passed Monday by the new government to eliminate Russian as an official language is a “senseless political law” and such moves send a dangerous and divisive nationalist message to the (predominantly Russian-speaking) east of Ukraine. Instead she and her fellow students believe that they must rebuild Ukraine’s civil society. “This [Euromaidan movement] is more than just a matter of changing the faces of those in power, we need to change the attitude between the people and their political representatives. We expect real work from these politicians. Maidan is just the beginning.”

The Ministry of Education is surprisingly clean for a building that has been occupied by college students since February 21st. Boichuk points out that the entire Euromaidan movement began with a few student protests when Yanukovych first rejected the EU Associated Agreement in late November. The movement, which began with students, remarkably may also end with them. So far these student groups seem to be most effectively engaging the population in Crimea. They are reaching out to students particularly in eastern Ukraine. While the dramatic hunt for Yanukovych throughout Crimea by the new Interior Minister seems only to be galvanizing pro-Russian or anti-Maidan sentiment, the students occupying the Ministry of Education have development communication channels with student groups in Crimea and are actively engaging and including them in the process of defining the criteria which they are demanding of a new candidate for ministry of education. The new government would do well to follow the student’s lead and engage the people of Crimea in a similar manner.

Anastasia Boichuk and her fellow student representatives believe that the pervasive corruption during the Yanukovych regime occurred because of passiveness and apathy by citizens from both the west and east of Ukraine. As for those who were killed in recent events she declares “We have no moral right to waste their lives for us to live in a better country. These guys who died, they saved us. We must not let that go to waste.”

In central Kiev, as Euromaiden now seems to be shedding layers of improvised security checkpoints by the hour, the Euromaidan security force seems to be growing more and more organized if not ominous as it performs its marching drills throughout the Maidan territory in groups of 25 men in helmets, body armor and armed with wooden clubs. It would be easy to write off these groups as far-right extremists, but as Boichuk points out, these are the guys who were on the front lines of every Maidan battle. They took sniper fire, tear gas and shock grenades for days on end. Had it not been for these groups, Euromaidan surely would have fallen. No one is more aware of this than the main (former opposition) leaders of the new government. Though the majority of Euromaidan and the people of Ukraine are far more moderate than this small group of ultra-nationalists, the leaders of Euromaidan relied on this group when they needed them most. Yet it is precisely these small extremist fringe groups that give the Russian media and critics of Euromaidan the ammunition they need to try and paint the opposition as a fascist movement.

To be clear, Euromaidan is not a fascist movement, it’s not even so much a nationalist movement as it is a movement for a new kind of Ukraine. Yet within this movement there is a group of several hundred individuals whose brand of far-right extremism made them terrifyingly effective fighters and vice versa. Indeed they are an intimidating bunch. It will be very tempting for moderate leaders like Vitaly Klitchko and Yulia Tymoshenko to attempt to disband and disenfranchise these groups, but this would be a grave mistake. The new government would have no more success in dispersing the Euromaidan “Security Patrol” than the Yanukovych government did. Instead these individuals should be brought into the political process. They must be represented by the government and held accountable for their actions by that representation. Ideally they will be respectfully honored, trained and incorporated into to the ranks of the police and army where they can be ordered and absorbed by a chain of command.

Ukraine faces a much larger problem than that of mere unification. The country’s economic situation is not currently sustainable and Russia hasn’t even raised gas prices yet. As one correspondent here in Kiev put it, the irony is that most of the $40 billion needed to resuscitate its economy, which will now come from the EU, U.S. and IMF, will actually be paid back to Russia. This will be in exchange for the large amounts of natural gas needed to fuel the industrial steel and fertilizer plants in eastern Ukraine. There is a vast discrepancy between the actual price of natural gas and the price that Ukrainians are currently paying for it. The difference has been compensated in the form of Ukraine’s ever-snowballing debt.

The only way out of this scenario is to reform and modernize the industry in the east of the country. Most of the steel plants use outdated Soviet technologies, which consume gas at extremely inefficient rates. Yet to do this, the new government will have to work with the oligarchs who control these plants. In the long run, improving and modernizing the industry which supports the eastern part of the country will benefit everyone, but it will be a hard pill to swallow. Both sides will have to make concessions.

Many throughout the country are grieving the deaths of those who perished in the struggle to overcome the Yanukovych regime. Yet if they truly want to honor those sacrifices, the new government must not dwell on revenge, punishment and prosecution of all those associated with Yanukovych government—however tempting and cathartic it may be. Instead they must use this fleeting opportunity to build a new Ukraine, the kind of Ukraine for which many were willing to die. This will not be easy. It will require drastic modernization techniques and it will require anti-corruption measures all across the board.

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The Ukraine people must be prepared to stomach higher taxes, higher gas prices and possibly even cuts in their pensions. These will not be popular steps but in combination with considerable western aid from the IMF, this is the only way out of the country’s current cycle of debt, corruption and political unrest. Strong leadership and swift action is needed from the new government. As Moscow begins to use its financial leverage on the country, while fomenting breakaway-sentiment in Crimea, the new Ukraine government must be a source of unity, compassion and wisdom—and it must remind the country of what a united Ukraine can become and not what each region or faction has to lose.

This will be no easy task. It is time for Europe and the U.S. to be the partners and allies that those fighting in Euromaidan believed they were. They must help Ukraine become the kind of country for which many were willing to die. All parties have daunting expectations to live up to, but one must only look at the hope that the events of the last several days has given to those opposing dictatorships throughout the region. For that reason alone the promises made to and made by the Euromaidan must be kept. Far more than just Ukraine’s autonomy is at stake. Dictators everywhere should fear what the people of Ukraine have proved is possible.