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Ukraine races towards civil war


Pro-Europe protest in Kiev on 29 November 2013In mid-April, Tim Judah, highly regarded historian of the post-Yugoslavia wars of secession, toured Ukraine for the New York Review of Books. His essay 'Ukraine: the Phony War?' just came out in the 22 May NYRB issue. It is hauntingly prophetic. He predicted things were about to go very badly in Ukraine:

This has been a time when normal life continues while men arm themselves and begin to prepare for combat. It is that strange pre-war moment when the possible future overlaps with the present. Rebels make Molotov cocktails a stone's throw from roadside shops selling garden gnomes. A halted Ukrainian army convoy is surrounded by locals who mill around chatting to the soldiers ...

As men in beaten-up cars race up country roads past towering grain silos, as groups gather to demand referendums, as people tell me that they don't believe that war is coming and that Russians and Ukrainians are brothers, I remember the same brave talk, the same euphoria, and the same delusions before the Yugoslavs tipped their country into catastrophe in the 1990s. Ukraine is not like that Yugoslavia, although the atmosphere in the east is a horribly similar combination of resentment and disbelief.

Just two weeks later, Ukraine races towards civil war. In the pro-Russian, Russian-speaking eastern provinces — the famous Donbas heavy industrial region, with its hero cities of the Soviet Union like Donetsk — the irresolute and panicked new government in Kiev has ordered the Ukrainian Army to retake cities from pro-Russian militia demonstrators who had bloodlessly occupied key government buildings to popular acclaim.

After initial reverses, the Ukrainian Army has orders to use lethal force to regain control of those centres. People look on aghast as Ukrainian soldiers shoot local militiamen, and even unarmed demonstrators:

Local people claim the Ukrainian army shot at unarmed citizens who formed a human chain near a road blockade on the edge of the village of Andreevka, only a few miles from Slavyansk. 'They are killing peaceful people,' said Igor, 29, a farmworker from the village ...

'Where is Russia? Putin stays silent. Russia, Russia, there is no Russia here. Why? We beg Putin to come and save us,' said [a local woman], visibly distraught.

At this rate, it may not be long before Moscow's hand is forced, as it was in Georgia, into massive and overwhelming armed intervention.

The Washington Post reported on 4 May that the Kremlin says it is weighing its response to 'thousands' of pleas for help from Ukraine. On 3 May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly told US Secretary of State John Kerry that 'the punitive operation in south-eastern Ukraine is putting the country into a fratricidal conflict'.

Moscow news agencies report that Lavrov called on the United States 'to use all its influence to force the Kiev regime protected by it, which has declared a war on its own people, to immediately halt the military action in the south-eastern regions, remove the troops and release protesters'.

I fear Lavrov is right, But it may already be too late to halt the remorseless escalation into bloodshed and dissolution of the fragile Ukrainian state.

The accelerating civil war is not confined to the pro-Russian far eastern parts of Ukraine. In the south, in the historic Black Sea city of Odessa, near Ukraine's Western border, there was murderous civil violence over the weekend. In this highly cultured, ethnically complex city (with 62 per cent Ukrainians, 29 per cent Russians, and various Balkan and Jewish communities), a group of peaceful pro-Russian demonstrators barricaded themselves in a city building. Pro-Kiev contra-demonstrators set the building on fire. Dozens were burnt or suffocated.

And so the madness grows. There cannot be much left now of Ukraine's fragile and uneasily asserted national identity. As happened in Ireland in 1919, as in Spain in 1936, as in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(W. B. Yeats, 'The second coming', 1919)

Yet I had not expected civil society to deteriorate so quickly in Ukraine, in civilised 21st century Europe. In my essay on the Crimean crisis in Eureka Street on 4 March, I wrote that Putin 'would prefer to try to keep Ukraine united, with whatever government it elects, as long as that government retains good-neighbourly relations and strong economic links with Russia'.

That vision has now been destroyed by the provocative clumsiness of Kiev and its Western cheerleaders. It is hard to see any outcome now other than bloody secession of the east, supported by Russian armed might, and continued bloodshed and unrest in what will be left of Ukraine: a weak and resentful rump state, ripe for the picking by neo-fascist Ukrainian nationalist elements.

It would have been better had the West cooperated in Putin's original vision to keep Ukraine united, geopolitically neutral, and not anti-Russian.

Some will say the East Ukrainian militiamen provoked the crisis, acting as Moscow's pawns. I don't buy this. I believe people in the eastern provinces felt genuinely outraged and threatened by Prime Minister Yanukevich's violent ouster on 22 February in Kiev, and that they were determined to assert new demands for regional autonomy and human rights from the mistrusted new government in Kiev. Kiev in turn behaved provocatively and clumsily e.g. in attempting to pass laws downgrading the official status of the Russian language.

Now, this government has borne out the eastern people's worst fears, by treating them as traitors and turning national troops on them.

I do not think there can be any going back now from this slide into civil war. The news from Ukraine will get worse before it gets better.

Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Cambodia and Poland and author of several books including Reluctant Rescuers.

Image of protest in Kiev from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ukraine, Russia, Tony Kevin



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Existing comments

Oh please do you honestly think Mr Putin is innocent he wants Ukraine n it's fold. The grandeur of the soviet era once a KGB always KGB never trust them

Irena | 06 May 2014  

So why has Russia massed 40,000 troops on the border and why are pro-Ukrainian demonstrators beaten up if they dare show their flag. Kevin fails to mention why and how the corrupt Yanukovich govt, under pressure from Putin, precipitated the crisis. As for Putin's vision the only credible motive one could assume for him would be a return of the USSR, the dissolution of which he has publicly lamented in the past.

Ann | 06 May 2014  

What sad echoes of Yugoslavia, Ireland, parts of Africa....people aghast, unable to believe they're being attacked by neighbours they'd known for years, whose children had played with theirs...Thank you, Tony, a very clear and rational article. It doesn't cheer but it does inform.

Joan Seymour | 06 May 2014  

So much distortion here! Kevin totally misunderstands Ukraine's right to be independent from Russia and Putin's control. It is Putin still controlling by providing his cleverly placed agitators and guns to create fear and chaos. Nationalists are not fascists. Years of communism russianized parts of Ukraine and now Putin is using it to his own advantage.

Halia Rebij | 06 May 2014  

"...provocative clumsiness of Kiev and its Western cheerleaders..." eh? How would Australia respond to a heavily armed insurrection, supported by a neighboring country, that demanded independence for a half to a third of the country, attacked and killed peaceful pro-Australian demonstrators, seized government buildings, kidnapped journalists, shut down opposing media and citizens voices, and captured, tortured and murdered opponents? Sorry Mr. Ambassador, you don't know what you are talking about. Better yet, ask the Poles - whom you should know very well - how they would respond. Take that lesson to heart - they have been the victims of Russian geopolitical ambitions for centuries.

Jurij Homziak | 07 May 2014  

Mr. Kevin appears to see only one side of the story. He is not operating in accordance to facts, but rather uses his personal believe system to convince reader that a malicious Ukrainian government mistreating its own people. For example: > this government has borne out the eastern people's worst fears, by treating them as traitors and turning national troops on them Ukrainian government did not turn national troops (whatever that supposed to mean) on people in Eastern Ukraine. Government has (finally!) begun anti- terrorist operation in some of the towns in Eastern Ukraine. Besides, the forces have an order of NOT to shoot if civilians present. > a group of peaceful pro-Russian demonstrators barricaded themselves in a city building. wow! does Mr Kevin works for Russia Today?! There are numerous videos that show "peaceful" pro-Russian demonstrators attacking a peaceful Ukrianian demonstrators in Odessa. Pro-Russian militants shooting from behind police backs into unarmed people. > Pro-Kiev contra-demonstrators set the building on fire. again, please check the videos online, youtube is full of them. Even separatists's recordings show fire on a 3rd, 4th floor inside the building, behind (not broken) windows. who set those floors on fire? molotov cocktails thrown from the ground could not have reached there! I am not even talking about all these horrible horrible pro-Ukrainian who were rescuing people from the burning building. Or about strangely burned people who for some reason did not leave burning areas; did not try to break windows; whose faces are burned out, but their clothes aren't, etc. This article is an example of propaganda and does not have much to do with journalism

Oksana | 07 May 2014  

Putin would prefer...Great! Did he ever propose? Did he bring flowers and diamond ring and ask to marry? No! It seems that he made the decision .....buy Ukrainans did not know, were not told, nothing was explained. It seems Ukrainians were lied to. Who would except this and say Yes?!

Anna | 07 May 2014  

I am shocked by this one sided look at the problem!! The Ukrainian people (and different nationalties) have lived for decades more or less peacfully. Putin took over Krimea as soon as,his beloved Olympic Games were over. As a former ambassador in Poland Mr: Keven should definitely know better how the Russian propaganda and KGB are working - just ask ANY Polish citizen today how they feel about Russia changing borders within days!

allexia504@gmail.com | 07 May 2014  

Mr. Kevin is not operating in accordance to facts, but rather uses his personal believe system to convince reader that a malicious Ukrainian government mistreating its own people. > government has borne out the eastern people's worst fears, by treating them as traitors and turning national troops on them Ukrainian government did not turn any troops on people in Eastern Ukraine. Government has (finally!) begun anti-terrorist operation in some of the towns. Besides, the forces have an order NOT to shoot if civilians present. > a group of peaceful pro-Russian demonstrators barricaded themselves in a city building. There are numerous videos that show very aggressive pro-Russian demonstrators attacking and shooting at peaceful unarmed Ukrianian demonstrators in Odessa. > Pro-Kiev contra-demonstrators set the building on fire. Please check the videos online, youtube is full of them. Even separatist's sources show fire on a 3rd, 4th floor inside the building, behind windows. Molotov Cocktails thrown from the ground could not have reached that high! Also, pro-Ukrainian were rescuing people from the burning building while being shot at from the roof of the building.

Name | 07 May 2014  

You have gotten the whole thing backward. Russian meddling has created instability and the drive toward war. Yanukovych wasn't violently ousted. he left and was impeached by people who were just as democratically elected as he had been. They even waited for a legal quorum to be constituted before they put it to a vote. The Russian Federation Council was not so cautious and were without a quorum when they voted to allow Putin to interfere in Ukraine by sending troops.

Sigi | 07 May 2014  

Interesting to see that those commenting on Tony Kevin's benign interpretations of Putin's revanchist Ukraine policies were not the usual procession of PC luvvies his articles normally attract, especially those on our asylum seeker policies. While prepared to ignore the fact that Putin is a dictatorial kleptocrat who wants to re-establish the Soviet empire Kevin continues to inflict his agonised diatribes on us about what he perceives to be our gross violations of the human rights of asylum asylum seekers which many Australians would view as mostly self-selecting migrants. The real refugees we should be helping are those unfortunate Syrians rotting in tent cities in Lebanon.

dennis | 07 May 2014  

Most of the letters so far focus on the question "who is most to blame for this deteriorating situation?" My essay asks a different question: "is there any way the world can help stop Ukraine's slide into civil war? To me, a large part of the answer to that question must be, listening to Moscow's views, and trying to cooperate with Moscow. I guess that makes me an appeaser?

Tony Kevin | 07 May 2014  

Apart from revanchist desires to regain former Soviet territory Putin's main concern seems to be to prevent the Ukraine from joining the EC. If it did then he's afraid that it would also join NATO whose forces would then be a mere 400kms from Moscow. If Putin could be assured that the Ukraine would not join NATO then he might be prepared to stop meddling in E. Ukraine. Such an offer should be combined with threats of tougher sanctions against the financial assets that Putin and his fellow kleptocrats have in the West. - including freezing the US$40 billion he has stashed in Switzerland. This might be enough to compel Putin from abandoning his Peter the Great ambitions for Russia and concentrate on the duller but more worthwhile task of transforming it into a peaceful, prosperous and democratic society.

dennis | 08 May 2014  

There is no civil war in Ukraine. It is an invasion by Russia. Yanukovych was delivering Ukraine back into slavery for Russia and its thugs. Go and see and ask genuine Ukrainians not paid traitors

ivan | 08 May 2014  

Well Tony it appears that you have not communicated your admirable question adequately since so many of us missed the point. Even your title does not suggest the question you belatedly posit.

Ann | 08 May 2014  

Under Stalin's aggressive regime many Ukrainians died and whole villages were annihilated. Then the Russians were sent in to inhabit these Ukrainian villages. Russian separatists? Say no more. Are we now to believe, in this day and age, that any country who has Russian residents and wish to claim this land for Russia that this is an invitation for Russia to walk in and claim this land as theirs. Where does it end?

Luba | 08 May 2014  

An appeaser is one who does not understand how hard Ukrainians fought and suffered for their freedom and independence.

Luba | 08 May 2014  

I guess it does make you an appeaser, Mr Kevin. How much of Ukraine's history do you know? Are you aware of the extent of Stalin's genocide across Ukraine? Perhaps it would then be easier to comprehend why negotiating or compromising with Putin is such horror for Ukrainians. It is Russia and Putin creating the chaos and something must be done to stop his influence.

Halia | 08 May 2014  

Maybe the writer should have talked to more Ukrainians, I know more about what is going on from family and friends living there. So much for accuracy of the press or the writers unbiased research or first hand knowledge. But then maybe I should learn to understand reporter talk ???

Janina | 11 May 2014  

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