Ukraine, Is This Civil War?

Ukraine: Is This Civil War?

Erin BaumannDr. Erin Baumann: School of Politics & International Relations, UCD

To say the situation in Ukraine is developing rapidly is a vast understatement.  Since Monday the country has gone from promising calm to rapidly descending chaos.  In the midst of this many observers both inside and outside the country have been quick to suggest that Ukraine is on the brink of civil war.  While the images we see from Maidan Square in central Kyiv are undeniably alarming and disturbing is this actually civil war?

There are myriad definitions of civil war.   Some, such as those as Singer and Small, focus almost entirely on the number of deaths resulting from a conflict, others, such as Fearon and Laitin, emphasize the duration of the conflict and the involvement of state sanctioned armed forces.  The one consistent factor between definitions of civil war is the domestic nature of the conflict.  Whether fighting occurs between segments of the population or the population and the government, the primary way in which we have come to ‘know civil war when we see it’ is by identifying violent conflict within one state.

As the situation in Ukraine unfolds the one thing becoming increasingly clear is the violent nature of the conflict between protestors and government forces in Kyiv and elsewhere.  Since Tuesday 18th February estimates place the death toll at anywhere between 50 and 100, and the number injured between 500 and 1000.  Police and protestors are both rumored to have used live ammunition against each other and claims that both sides are taking prisoners are now on the rise.  Despite this level of violence it is debatable if we can call what is happening in Ukraine a civil war.   Or for that matter if such assertions help or hurt the situation.

Media outlets have reduced the conflict down to a linguistic or ethnic division between Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers.  They have even offered ‘helpful’ maps that show a clear dividing line across the country and between these two supposedly opposing populations.  Ukrainian speaking populations from the West, they suggest, universally align with the Opposition – represented by Arseniy Yatsenyuk (of the Batkivshchyna party) and Vitali Klitschko (of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform) – while Russian speaking populations from the East are lined up behind President Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions.  This overly simplistic notion, however, plays into the hands of those who see Ukraine as a divided state that has never truly been ‘fit for purpose’.

This narrative has long been popular amongst Russian elites who have never fully accepted Ukraine’s independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Putin and other supporters of the ‘Eastern Slavic’ national ideology view Russians and Ukrainians, as well as Belarusians, as constituent members of one overarching nation.  In the early years of Ukrainian independence such ideas continued to hold sway among large portions of Ukraine’s population – particularly in those Eastern and Southern regions that had been subject to Russian rule (in one form or another) for hundreds of years prior to the establishment of the Soviet Union.  Over the course of the last twenty years, however, citizens across the state have shown an increased propensity to identify with the independent Ukrainian nation, as well as the independent state of Ukraine.  Despite overly simplistic reports to the contrary, Ukrainians on the whole have also shown an increased affinity with the state’s titular language.  According to the 2001 census more than two-thirds of Ukraine’s population identified Ukrainian as their native language.  In only 3 of Ukraine’s 27 administrative regions, in fact, did more than 50% of the population list Russian as their mother tongue.  Today, the vast majority of Ukrainians identify as bilingual and feel at ease operating in both the Ukrainian and the Russian languages.  They also overwhelmingly support the sovereignty of Ukraine.

This is not a conflict between national groups seeking dominance of the political system nor is it a conflict between regional factions seeking political partition (although some commentators continue to suggest that this is the best solution to the current crisis).  This is a conflict between citizens and politicians from across Ukraine over the future of the state and the leaders who should guide it there.

The Yanukovych administration’s decision on 21 November 2013 to turn away from the EU Association Agreement towards which they had worked for over a year may have been the spark for the Euromaidan protests, but the tinder of corruption and political distrust had been laid long before.  Viktor Yanukovych has long been one of the most divisive figures in Ukrainian politics.  His role in the 2004 presidential elections that eventually sparked the Orange Revolution, his wavering position on the question of genocide in the Holodmor famine, his involvement in the prosecution and detention of political rival Yulia Tymoshenko, his support for deepening relations with Russia, and his nepotistic promotion of the political and financial interests of his inner circle – now commonly known as ‘The Family’ – have sparked outrage among the Opposition.  They have also served to entrench public perceptions of the President as a corrupt, self-interested puppet of powerful oligarchs, outside interests, and perhaps even the Kremlin.  Among his staunchest supporters in the industrial eastern regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Zaporizhia, however, Yanukovych is seen as the strong, pragmatic, and decisive leader Ukraine needs.

This type of political tension is, sadly, more common in post-Soviet Eastern Europe than many in the West like to admit.  In the last five years alone protests similar to those seen in the early days of Euromaidan arose in both Moldova and Belarus.  What was missing then and there, however, was the level of out-and-out violence we now see on the streets of Kyiv.  When protestors stormed back into Maidan Square on the morning of Tuesday 18th February they were not looking for bloodshed.  Though, arguably, some may have been looking for conflict, the majority wanted one thing – an end to Viktor Yanukovych’s creeping authoritarian grip on power.  While the President’s desire to accede to such demands was obviously negligible, his interests did not then and do not now lie in civil war.  Yanukovych is, as his opponents suggest, self-interested.  He is also, as his supporters suggest, pragmatic.  As such, he is likely to recognize that his political career, and at this point perhaps his life, depends upon a retreat from violence and a peaceful resolution to the current crisis.  On the other hand, he may now be, as one protestor suggested, like a caged rat – desperately clawing and chewing his way out of this mess.

Is what we are now witnessing between protestors and government forces in Kyiv, Lviv, and elsewhere in Ukraine civil war – no.  The situation has turned undeniably violent within the state, but the newness of the conflict, as well as its disorganised, inconsistent, and generally amorphous nature leaves it beyond the scope of reasonable definitions of this concept.  Does this mean that such an outcome is outside the realm of future possibility – no.  But it means that calling what is happening in Ukraine right now a civil war is both incorrect and, potentially, irresponsible.


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