Russia vs Ukraine: a crisis to be averted

Ukraine is about to go to the polls to elect a new president. Though the election is unlikely to provoke a violent escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, politicians and bureaucrats on both sides should start thinking how to react in case it does happen, warns Andreas Umland

On December 26 2009 the famous Crimean city of Sevastopol saw yet another confrontation between Ukrainian and Russian nationalists. A group of activists of the All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda”, Ukraine’s largest openly nationalist party, tried to conduct a March Against Illegal Immigration, as they called it, through the town that hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet. As was to be expected, they soon encountered a pro-Russian counter-demonstration. Although there was some violence, Sevastopol’s police were able to keep the two groups apart and prevent an escalation.

It is not easy to arrive at a straightforward political interpretation of this incident. The Russian nationalists labelled their Ukrainian opponent “fascists”.  This label is not entirely inappropriate for the members of “Svoboda”, an organization that has grown out of the manifestly ultra-nationalist Social-National Party of Ukraine. At their march in Sevastopol some of the “Svoboda” demonstrators gave the Roman Salute, once used by the NSDAP and today by neo-Nazis worldwide. However, according to a report by “Sevastopol Life”, the pro-Russia counter-demonstrators also included activists from the Vitrenko Bloc. Natalia Vitrenko, the leader of this faction, has for several years been in an open alliance with Russia’s so-called International Eurasian Movement, whose leader, Alexander Dugin, in turn, has repeatedly eulogized fascism in general and the Waffen-SS in particular. For instance, the neo-Eurasianist leader at one point praised SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, the Holocaust’s initial organizer, for being a “convinced Eurasian.” Dugin has made many similar statements.  For this reason it is difficult to believe that Vitrenko and her entourage had not noticed his fascist tendencies and makes their usage of “fascism” as a term of abuse for their Ukrainian opponents sound odd.

Whatever the exact meaning of the incident, similar future events are likely, especially in the Crimean peninsula. The worst case scenario would see them getting out of control, which could result in bloodshed.  There are politicians and political groups in both Ukraine and Russia who, for purely domestic reasons, would clearly benefit from such an escalation. It is true that most Ukrainian and Russian citizens would be horrified by the idea of a violent confrontation between their fellow countrymen. But a small circle of determined extremists, whether within Russia or Ukraine, may be able to succeed in provoking such an escalation – especially if, as happened on 26 December, there are pro-fascist activist on both side of the confrontation.

What might be the repercussions of this possible bloodshed? In Russia, and to a lesser degree in Ukraine, many may feel it necessary to react decisively. One can easily imagine the President, Prime-Minister and/or/ Pseudo-Parliament of Russia issuing yet more offensive statements concerning the Ukrainian nation state and political class. Worse, in both Russia and Ukraine, state and party officials might start engaging in a public debate about how to respond appropriately to violence in Sevastopol or elsewhere. This could trigger a kind of “patriotic bidding” between politicians trying to demonstrate their superior allegiance to the supposed national interests of their respective countries. It would sooner or later include discussions of a military “solution.”  In principle both Russian and Ukrainian politicians may well understand that deploying troops could not result in a quick victory for one or the other side. But emotional public debates in Russia on the proper “protection” of ethnic Russians in Crimea, or an outburst of patriotism by Ukrainians worried about the sovereignty of their young state would put pressure on both states’ commanders-in-chief. It might create a dynamic that could supersede rational calculations of the actual pros and cons of a military intervention.  Russia demonstrated in Georgia that it has no qualms about the rapid deployment of its regular troops beyond its borders for the “protection” of people regarded as its own, who are perceived as being physically threatened.

In such a situation, Kyiv would have to remember that a military confrontation with Russia should be avoided at almost all costs. As the case of South Ossetia has shown, NATO is not prepared to step in for a non-affiliated state. True, the Ukrainian army would be a much more formidable opponent for the Russians than Georgia’s armed forces. But a military confrontation, even at only one circumscribed location such as Sevastopol, would have repercussions in other Ukrainian regions with large ethnic Russian communities. Even an unlikely Ukrainian victory in a relatively short war in Crimea would put the integrity of the Ukrainian state as a whole under strain.

Russia too should not be swayed by any illusions. True, it has a large conventional army, is a nuclear superpower, and would be the more likely winner of such a war (though “victory” would surely not come as easily as it did in Georgia). Russia may even be able to re-unite with Crimea. But this military success would be costly on the international scene. Russia may have partly succeeded in portraying one unfriendly post-Soviet leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, as a madman, but it would be more difficult to convince the world that yet another democratically elected post-Soviet government is mad. Whatever spin Russia’s political technologists may put on it, most people around the world would start thinking that the real madmen are in Moscow, rather than Tbilisi or Kyiv.

A Russian-Ukrainian war would also trigger a full-scale second Cold War with the West, affecting economic relations, cultural exchange, travel freedom, etc. The EU-Russia summits, the Olympics in Sochi, Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe, Russian participation in the Eurovision contest – these and many more joint events, common projects and Russian-Western links would be put under question. The International Criminal Court may, as in the case of Serbia’s former leadership, issue arrest warrants for Russian leaders.

Moreover, after the de facto annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another Russian territorial expansion would make the leaders of such countries as Belarus, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan have second thoughts about their alliance with Moscow. Together with other Russian allies in Europe and Asia, these countries were conspicuously silent during and after the Russian-Georgian War of August 2008. None of them has recognized the independence of Abkhazia or South Ossetia.  Another Russian intervention on the territory of a neighbour might lead even those few international partners that Moscow still has today to look for security and cooperation elsewhere. If there were a war in Crimea, Russia might be able to take back that treasured peninsula. But the price would be thousands of Russian and Ukrainian deaths and far-reaching international isolation for years, if not decades, to come.

While these scenarios sound fantastic today, they would become feasible once blood has been spilled. Groups who stand to gain politically from a Russian-Ukrainian escalation are on the rise in both countries, so the likelihood of an escalation in- rather than de-creases. Against this background, the leaders of both Russia and Ukraine should keep reminding themselves what the outcome of a military intervention by either of them would inevitably be. 

Dr Andreas Umland is general editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” (www.ibidem-verlag.de/spps.html )

About the author

Andreas Umland is a DAAD Associate Professor of European Studies at the Political Science Department of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He is a member of the Valdai Club and Expert Council of the Ukrainian parliament’s Committee for European Integration. Among other publications, he edits the scholarly book series 'Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society' (published by ibidem Press, Stuttgart/Hannover). His articles have been published in various newspapers, including the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, Die Welt, Die Zeit, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Moscow Times, Kyiv Post and Le Monde Diplomatique as well as on the websites of the National Interest, World Affairs Journal, Russian Analytical Digest, German Marshall Fund, and Harvard International Review.

Read On

The complexity of Russian-Ukrainian energy relations, Opinion by Agata Loskot-Strachota, February 2009, European Union Institute for Security Studies

Russia and Ukraine in Intensifying Standoff, by Clifford J. Levy, New York Times, August 27,2009

The Business and Politics Behind the Russia-Ukraine Gas Dispute, Bernard Gwertzman interviews Jeffrey Mankoff, Adjunct Fellow for Russia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, January 9, 2009, www.cfr.org