The War Might End, but the Battle Will Go On


The fighting in eastern Ukraine might soon end, as Ukrainian forces overpower the so-called separatists. But the divisions within Ukraine are longstanding and deep, and cannot be overcome with military might. When the shooting stops, those divisions might become even more starker by the economic disaster that looms over the country, writes Stephen Crowley

Back in 1991, some months before the collapse of the Soviet Union, I saw a strange vision in the city of Donetsk: muscle-bound, glam-rockers attending nationalist rallies calling for Ukrainian independence. With a closer look, I realised these weren’t tough guys in mascara, but coal miners, unable to wash that last bit of coal dust off of their eyelids.

When I asked these Russian-speaking miners why they wanted an independent Ukraine, they answered simply that they would 'live better,' economically and otherwise, when control shifted from Moscow to Kiev. But the rally’s leaders, Ukrainian nationalists who mostly hailed from western Ukraine, viewed independence quite differently. They saw it not as a means to a better life, but as an end in itself. Indeed, returning to the Donbass only a few years after the Soviet collapse, in conditions of a deeply depressed Ukrainian economy, this coalition had clearly frayed. Even then, miners and others warned me of the danger of ‘fascism,’ a word they associated with nationalists in western Ukraine.

Challenges Ahead

While much of the discussion of the on-going conflict in Ukraine has understandably centred on Russia’s role, Ukraine’s story does not begin and end with Putin. Ukraine faces two steep challenges: first, to heal the wounds of the civil war, and second, to avoid economic collapse.

These two dangers are intertwined. While eastern coal miners and Western nationalists united to help bring down the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s regional differences are longstanding and now starkly revealed. In order to survive as a unified state, Ukraine needs to recognise those regional differences constitutionally, and then embark on a path that promises to bring Ukrainians a better life.

First, consider the regional differences. While many Ukrainians now occupy a metaphorical and geographical middle ground, the country remains polarised politically between a Ukrainian-speaking west, historically rooted in the Austro-Hungarian empire and inter-war Poland, and a Russian-speaking east, long part of the Russian empire. The ghosts of WW II haunt these regions: while nationalists in the West fought Soviet ‘Stalinists,’ Red Army soldiers from the east fought ‘fascists,’ including those from western Ukraine.

The differences are not merely historical and linguistic, but also economic. Unlike the largely agricultural west, the east is heavily industrialised, and its economy is closely tied to Russia.

These regional differences have been reflected in virtually every election held in independent Ukraine. Crucially, as political scientist Keith Darden has noted, the overthrow of Yanukovych and his government shifted the balance of political power from east to west quite substantially: whereas 75 percent of the ministerial officials under Yanukovych came from the Russian-speaking east, under the current interim government 60 percent of officials at the ministry-level and above come from the nationalist west, regions that represent only 12 percent of Ukraine’s population. Thus, while many viewed Yanukovych’s downfall as a popular revolution against a corrupt president-turned-autocrat, many in the east viewed it as coup bringing an illegitimate government to power.

Was Death and Destruction Avoidable?

However, in Ukraine as elsewhere, while conflict is inevitable, violence is not. Putin deserves a substantial part of the blame for the civil war that has ensued. Through the inflammatory rhetoric of Russian media, much of it state controlled, and his barely concealed arming of the Donbass rebels, Putin smacked a hornet’s nest with a stick.

Yet the Ukrainian government, backed and encouraged by the West, is also culpable. In pursuing its so-called ‘anti-terror operation’ more vigorously than negotiations, Ukrainian forces have repeatedly engaged in artillery and air attacks on civilian centres, including houses, schools, and hospitals. The UN estimates that at least 285,000 people have fled their homes as a result. The exact number of casualties, including civilians, remains unclear, but each bloody corpse will make reconciliation that much more difficult. Since all sides concede that significant compromise, including the devolution of power to eastern Ukraine, will ultimately be necessary, there is a high likelihood that the bloodshed and destruction could have been avoided at the outset with more forceful negotiations.

Sliding into an Economic Abyss

While coal miners and others in the east hoped that they would live better in an independent Ukraine, economically speaking at least, the reverse has been true. While Ukraine’s economy was abysmal by the Soviet Union’s end – a major reason for the Soviet collapse after all – the economy of independent Ukraine has been even worse.

By 2009, Ukraine’s real GDP was only 60 percent of what it was in 1989, two years before the Soviet Union came apart. In 2013, its GDP per capita, in terms of purchasing power, was estimated at $7,400 (compared to Russia’s $18,100) placing Ukraine at par with Algeria and El Salvador. And yet, from this lowly position, as then-interim President Oleksandr V Turchynov stated back in February, ‘Ukraine is now in a pre-default condition and sliding into the abyss.’

Melding of East and West

There are no easy answers for Ukraine’s economy, but here it must not choose between east and west – in this case either Russia or Europe - but instead look to both. Like it or not, Ukraine’s economy is closely linked with Russia’s: not only is Ukraine dependent on Russian oil and gas, but Russia is by far Ukraine’s single largest trade partner. While Western sanctions will hurt Russia, a break in trade with Russia could be disastrous for Ukraine.

While many Ukrainians may wish to be free from Russian influence, it is a reality they must face. One hopes that President-elect Poroshenko, as an experienced bargainer with business interests in Russia, can negotiate a compromise on economic relations with his Russian counterpart, though the bitterness from the conflict might play the spoiler.

The billionaire chocolate magnate is less well poised to confront the oligarchic and corrupt capitalism in which both Ukraine and Russia are entangled. This is what so many of the activists of Kiev’s Maidan Square were hoping to bring to an end, in part by establishing closer ties with the EU, with its emphasis on the ‘rule of law.’

Yet Ukrainians should be wary of another easy promise of a better life. The shortcomings of the EU are now clear, and include extremism, corruption and disillusionment in a number of new member states.

Moreover, as acting Prime Minister Yatsenyuk acknowledged, the EU association agreement raises fears of its potentially negative impact on Ukraine’s industrial regions, especially in the east. The EU’s close partner, the IMF, will provide a temporary bailout of the Ukrainian economy, but only on the condition of austerity measures, combustible material when added to an already explosive political situation.

There is no simple answer for Ukraine. Any solution must involve the melding of east and west, both within the country and without, and provide a tangible path towards a better life, the one thing that all Ukrainians might unite behind.

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Stephen Crowley

Stephen Crowley is professor of Politics and chair of the programmes in Russian and East European Studies and Peace and Conflict Studies at Oberlin College.

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