The Ukrainian Civil War That Wasn’t

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Originally posted at Current Politics in Ukraine. Reposted here with permission.

By William Risch

Last week, world television stations featured horrific clashes with police and protestors in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Up to 100 died in shootouts on February 18-20. At the center of the protests – Independence Square, commonly known as the Maidan – the protestors’ main headquarters, the Trade Unions’ Building, burned to the ground. Then the violence suddenly stopped. After the political opposition reached an agreement with President Viktor Yanukovych, Yanukovych fled for parts unknown. Opposition leaders removed him from power and began laying the groundwork for a new government.

Ukrainians had real fears civil war would break out. In a poll taken in Ukraine January 25-27, up to 8 percent of respondents believed a civil war would definitely happen, 32 percent said it was a real danger, and 31 percent said it was a possibility; only 20 percent said they absolutely did not believe a civil war would happen in Ukraine. Yet there was no civil war. Nothing came of a February 22 meeting of separatists in the eastern industrial city of Kharkiv, a pro-Yanukovych stronghold. Over the next few days, elites from eastern and southern Ukraine ditched Yanukovych and announced that they would cooperate with Kyiv. The Russian invasion of Crimea, while alarming, has failed to produce mass support among locals for their would-be liberators.

What happened? For one thing, Ukraine is not a federal state, but a centralized one. Ukraine’s armed forces and police forces take orders from Kyiv’s central government. The armed forces limited their involvement to general calls for unity and order. Kyiv’s new government returned Berkut, riot police, and other law enforcement to their barracks. Oligarchs and other elites in southern and eastern Ukraine most likely stayed out of separatist politics because of financial reasons. Ukraine’s banking system, unlike its U.S. counterpart, is highly centralized. The system of electronic cash payments, rather than being run by separate clearing houses in private banks, is run from one central server in Kyiv. It would have been very easy to block the accounts of aspiring separatist politicians and leave them without cash in as little as six hours.

Yet I would like to suggest another explanation.  Serious differences scholars have noted between western and central Ukraine (“Western Ukraine”) and southern and eastern Ukraine (“Eastern Ukraine”) over such issues as relations with the EU and Russia, language use, and historical memory might not have been as salient as predicted. This scholarly consensus drew me, a historian of Lviv, Ukraine’s more “western” other, to Kharkiv and Donetsk. I visited these cities January 7-17 to find out more about people’s attitudes there toward the Euromaidan protest movement, the EU and Russia, and Ukrainian politics. In addition to interviewing Euromaidan activists in Kharkiv and Donetsk, I collected written narrative responses to questionnaires from 10 people in Donetsk who were from their mid-30s to their 60s, and I interviewed 4 residents from the Donetsk area who were in their 20s and 30s.

My findings confirmed the numerous polls indicating Eastern Ukrainians’ lack of support for the Euromaidan protestors. While a few were sympathetic to them, most saw them as people who didn’t work, were being paid by politicians, had no clue what they were doing, or were being manipulated by extreme nationalists. Two women in their late 20s and early 30s voiced similar perceptions. Yet almost all of them said that the “division” between Eastern and Western Ukraine was artificial, exploited by politicians. While criticizing some of the slogans made at Kyiv Maidan demonstrations and associating these with the far right, they seemed more concerned about protestors’ lack of plans for fixing Ukraine’s serious economic problems. While a woman in her late 20s saw Yanukovych as having been more effective than his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma, she stressed that Ukraine lacked real leaders fit to be president, and that it was unrealistic to remove Yanukovych from power. This woman also suggested that the Donetsk Region’s skepticism about the EU did not mean greater affinities for Russia. She said that Ukraine faced a false choice between Russia and the EU and that it should look after its own interests.

Thus, I see great potential for the new regime to gain support from such people. So far, that has not happened yet. March 1 was a sad reminder of this. In Kharkiv, hired thugs, some from Russian cities like Voronezh and Belgorod, came to a meeting of “patriotic Kharkivians” organized by Mayor Kernes and stormed the governor’s office, seizing about 30 Euromaidan activists inside and beating them up and humiliating them on Freedom Square. Those storming the building hoisted Russian flags from its upper floors. In Donetsk, demonstrators from a crowd of about 7,000 pro-Yanukovych supporters tried to storm the governor’s offices there and hung a Russian flag on a nearby flag post. Crimea’s parliament decided to move up to March 10 a referendum on the autonomous region’s status.

Despite these worrisome signs, the new regime and Euromaidan forces are trying to bring the country together. The interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, promised to veto a new language law that appeared to discriminate against Russian speakers and alienate potential support in Eastern Ukraine. The new government this weekend appointed billionaire oligarchs from Eastern Ukraine – Serhiy Taruta and Ihor Kolomoiskyi – governors of the Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk regions to provide greater stability and unity. Kharkiv Euromaidan activists last week put off plans to demolish the city’s Lenin monument and chose to have the public discuss the issue further. In Lviv, the reputed heartland of right-wing nationalism, members of Lviv’s intelligentsia early last week called on the government to enact more favorable policies for Russian speakers and back away from political extremists, and they urged people not to take the law into their own hands. We end the week with Ukraine facing not a civil war, but an unprovoked foreign occupation of one of its southern regions.

William Risch is Associate Professor of History at Georgia College and made two trips to Ukraine during the Euromaidan protests.