Ukraine: Civil War/Proxy War

By Metta Spencer | 2014-10-01 12:00:00

With Ukraine you get two wars for the price of one: a civil war and a proxy war between Russia and the West. I will discuss them separately, commenting in italics about unresolved issues that, if settled, might obviate the rationale for such crises in the future.

The Civil War

Though Ukraine’s economy had declined since Soviet days, last year it seemed promising. The forthcoming trade agreement with the European Union would enforce transparency and stop the rampant corruption.

But in November President Yanukovych reneged when forced to choose between the EU deal and a Russian $15 billion counter-offer. (Comment: It is unclear if this dilemma was avoidable. If not for Russian-EU rivalry, might a compromise have been feasible? May it still be?)

Yanukovych chose Russia, agreeing to join Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union—an unpopular decision that especially outraged Ukrainians in the West and Kyiv. Yanukovych had already besmirched his legitimacy by reverting to an old constitution to increase his power.

A tent city sprang up in Kyiv’s Maidan (Independence Square), the centre of the Orange Revolution of 2004-5. In December 800,000 came to one demonstration, demanding that the president accept the EU’s offer instead of Putin’s.

But the Maidan did not remain nonviolent this time. From mid-January onward there were increasingly deadly clashes with the police. When I phoned two different pro-democracy activist friends in Kyiv, they each said they had stopped going to the Maidan weeks before because they disliked the tough tone there.

On February 20 all hell broke loose in Kyiv, with at least 88 deaths. The next day Yanukovych accepted a compromise that had been brokered by visiting European diplomats. However, the protesters rejected it and seized his offices, now insisting that he resign. Parliament promptly voted to remove him, issued a warrant to arrest him, appointed an interim government, and set May 25 for elections. That night he fled to Russia, still claiming to be the legitimate president of Ukraine.

Many Russian-speaking Ukrainians, as well as Putin himself, concurred. Yanukovych had been legally elected and had even consented to hold an early election that might have replaced him. Indeed, he was ousted unconstitutionally, partly by neo-Nazi thugs from Western Ukraine.

(Comment: If the leader of a state betrays the will of the electorate or usurps the constitution and loses legitimacy, a universally accepted way of replacing him is needed, other than by waiting for the next scheduled election. The Maidan protesters did violate the rules of democracy, but Yanukovych had changed the constitution illegally, so who was more wrong—the crowd or the president? It would be helpful if the UN or World Court would develop legal ways of changing a government that loses legitimacy. Such a mechanism might have resolved this civil war.)

A week later unidentified pro-Russian gunmen appeared in Crimea, and rallies began in Eastern Ukrainian cities populated by ethnic Russians. Putin promised to protect such people with force. In a hastily organized March 16th referendum in Crimea, 97% voted to join Russia, which joyfully annexed that peninsula two days later.

The action shocked the Western world, but not Russians, including Mikhail Gorbachev, who remarked, “Now all of this has taken place in Crimea at the request and desire of the people. It is good that they processed it this way, through a referendum, and showed the world that people really want to return to Russia, showed that no one has forced them to do anything.”

But the people in other Southern and Eastern cities would be forced to do a great deal. Most of them wanted to stay in Ukraine, but separatist militias declared Donetsk and Luhansk to be independent states. Thus began a five-month war.

On May 25, most polls in the East remained closed, but Petro Poroshenko was easily elected president. He signed the EU association agreement that Yanukovych had rejected.

The fighting grew uglier. The pro-Ukraine side included extremist militias such as the Neo-Nazi Azov Battalion. The rebels were reinforced by Russian weaponry and at least 1,000 Russian “volunteers.” Those soldiers had been told that they were being sent for further training, but at the border were discharged from the army and ordered to become “volunteers” in the separatist militia. Bold journalists mentioned secret military funerals and burials. An estimated 200 Russian soldiers have been returned to their hometowns in zinc coffins, sometimes being buried at night.

Russia still denies having invaded Ukraine, but by late August the “volunteers” were winning. Poroshenko, admitting that he could not defeat a determined Putin, accepted a ceasefire.

What have been the effects of this war? By September, a million Ukrainians had fled from their homes—many of them to Russia. The death toll has exceeded 3,000, according to the UN, and may be much higher. Eastern Ukrainian provinces will probably gain more autonomy, but not independence. Nor do they want to secede or join Russia anyway; in an online survey between Sept 4-10, only 23% of the respondents in Eastern Ukraine approved of the idea of creating a new state in their region, and only 26 percent wanted Ukraine to be part of Russia.1 Both sides have lost the war. However, they may actually have been fighting that war, not for themselves anyway, but for other countries—Russia and the West.

The Proxy War

Russia and the West fervently supported their respective teams: the separatist rebels versus the Poroshenko government. The real physical war was a proxy fight for control of what had been the Soviet “sphere of interest.” In the end, Russia (which is militarily weaker) simply cared more about Ukraine than did the NATO countries, so Putin won. Probably Ukraine will never be admitted to NATO, whether or not its citizens or its government want that. But a militarily neutral Ukraine need not be truly non-aligned. It may eventually be admitted to the EU, and surely will be more attracted to Europe than to Russia. Putin will tolerate that outcome, for Russians can never hate Ukraine very long—or even Europe. It’s America that they really hate.

And there are objective grounds for anger. The US (sort of) promised Gorbachev that NATO would not move eastward, but Clinton reneged. The US made Kosovo independent from Serbia—a precedent that Russia followed in Crimea. The US endorsed the Orange Revolution and the Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, and even Syrian uprisings. These are the grievances Russians adduce to explain their anti-Americanism.

But it’s an inadequate explanation for such an intense society-wide feeling. Five years ago, they saw NATO as no problem. Both Yeltsin and Putin had expressed a desire to join NATO, but they were never invited. But NATO is controlled by the US, which continues to ignore Russia. For twenty years, the ex-superpower was too weak to matter, but now Putin is not going to accept humiliation any longer!

Richard Ned Lebow has studied the causes of war.2 He argues that “most, if not all, foreign policy behavior can be reduced to three fundamental motives: fear, interest, and honor.” Many people would attribute the Russian vs. US struggle over Ukraine either to fear (Russia’s security concerns about NATO’s expansion), or to interest (both the EU and Russia want Ukraine for trade and natural resources). Lebow, however, stresses the importance of honor: a desire for what he calls “standing.” When a country loses status, its rulers and its ordinary people alike feel the loss of prestige as a stinging sense of shame. I think Lebow is exactly describing Russia today.

Some people (especially proud males) imagine that others are gloating triumphantly over their defeat, while they cover up their shame. Usually they hide it with rage.3 Thus a loss of “standing” is the chief precursor of warfare.

Putin’s goal is to restore Russia to its rightful position as a world power. He enjoys the support of 85% of the Russian population, for they (like all human beings) want respect and they trust him to win it for them.

They feel that the West (especially the US) disrespects them. Their resentment is boundless and partly based on a real fact. North Americans and Western Europeans do mainly honor people who value democracy and human rights. Toward others we may feel either scorn or pity, but little respect. That cannot be helped. Respect cannot be willed into existence.

But if our disrespect cannot be successfully disguised, it cannot be openly acknowledged either. To speak honestly to another person about his, or his society’s, lower “standing” is to end all possibility of friendship. Especially when it is true, it must not be mentioned, although when left unmentioned, it causes hatred.

(Comment: So I cannot foresee an easy reconciliation between Russians and Americans. But relax, Ukraine. It’s not your fault.)


1 Tracking Real Open-Source Ukrainian Sentiment.

2 Richard Ned Lebow, Why Nations Fight: Past and Future Motives for War (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

3 See Thomas Scheff, Bloody Revenge: Emotions, Nationalism and War (Universe, 2002)

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2014

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2014, page 26. Some rights reserved.

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