The ‘looming civil war’ in Ukraine could become a second Cold War in Europe

The ‘looming civil war’ in Ukraine could become a second Cold War in Europe

Finlandisation of Ukraine, as advocated by Brzezinski and Kissinger, could become an option only if the interim government in Kiev stops seeing its internal opponents as Kremlin agents that must be crushed by force – argues Kyril Drezov

The media pictures of confrontation in Ukraine give few clues about the reasons for such ferocity. The images of dictatorship battling pro-democracy supporters, the West or Russia fomenting unrest, and neo-fascists pitched against anti-fascists give only partial insights into what is happening there. What rarely comes into focus is that this is a country of two nations, roughly equal in numbers, which see the past and the future of Ukraine in radically different terms.

One nation, centered on the west of the country, sees itself as a centuries-old victim of outside aggression – mostly coming from imperial and Soviet Russia. It considers the legacy of Kievan Rus’ as the sole property of Ukrainians, looking upon present-day Russians as Asiatic usurpers of that legacy. Its heroes are poets and soldiers who fought for Ukrainian nationhood against Russian encroachments. It sees Ukraine’s future as a unitary and centralised Ukrainian-speaking nation, and as a European great power firmly anchored in the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

Internally, the main enemies of this nation are all those who insist on official status of Russian on either state or regional level and who oppose the de-Russification of Ukraine, seen as overcoming of centuries of assimilation. Externally, Putin’s Russia with its integration plans for the post-Soviet space is the main obstacle to Ukraine’s mono-cultural and Euro-Atlantic future.

The other nation, centered on the east of Ukraine, sees itself as the proud descendant of both the Russian Empire and USSR. It considers the legacy of Kievan Rus’ as belonging equally to present-day Russians and Ukrainians, seen as closely related and brotherly nations that have for centuries jointly contributed to a common Russian language and culture. Its heroes are Russian empire-builders like Catherine the Great and Potemkin – who founded all key cities in Southern Ukraine – and Russian-Ukrainian writers like Gogol and Bulgakov.

It sees Ukraine’s future as bilingual federation with strong self-governing regions and Ukrainian and Russian as official state languages. Internally, the main enemies of this nation are all those who see the Russian language and culture as foreign impositions on Ukraine. Externally, its leaders are against EU and NATO membership for Ukraine and believe in partnership with Russia in post-Soviet integration.

Ethnicity is of little help in trying to understand these two nations. Nominally, ethnic Ukrainians are in the majority of every region of Ukraine except Crimea. Therefore it is hardly surprising that ethnic Ukrainians would lead the radical Rightist formations prominent in the Kiev Maidan, such as Svoboda and the Right Sector. However, it is less well known that ethnic Ukrainians also lead the Russian-speakers’ backlash in the east of the country. The most articulate speakers of Russian Ukraine – Oleg Tsariov, Vadim Kolesnichenko and Oles’ Buzina – are all ethnic Ukrainians.

Native language is also a poor guide to understanding Ukraine’s two nations. For one, on census forms people tend to record the language of their nominal ethnicity as their native tongue, therefore exaggerating the number of Ukrainian-speakers. And so there is a putative majority of native Ukrainian speakers in a country where the majority uses Russian in their daily communications. And just as there are Russian activists who speak perfect Ukrainian, there are also notable Russian-speaking members of Ukrainian ultra-nationalist formations that are vehemently committed to Ukraine’s de-Russification.

The main issue in Ukraine is that one nation arrogates to itself the right to speak for all Ukrainians, even though it commands the loyalties of only half of them. Through an articulate and well-organised diaspora this particular nation has dominated the Western media and academic discourse on Ukraine for decades, having won the propaganda war there well before Ukraine’s mass protests of last winter.

An article in the latest Forbes magazine gives a perfect illustration of the creed of this nation. It states: “The truth is simple. The notion that there is a strong division between Russian and Ukrainian speakers has been blown out of proportion by the media and is feeding into the Russian propaganda. No matter what language a citizen of Ukraine considers his mother tongue, he is still Ukrainian. And all Ukrainians across the world are united against dictatorship and foreign aggression.”

In fact, both Putin and Russian state propaganda are latecomers to the two-nation struggle in Ukraine, going viral only after the fall of Yanukovich. Russian state media has been notoriously inept in articulating a media-savvy response to the one-nation visions of Ukraine that permeate Western media. It has focused on the need to protect Russian-speakers there and on radical nationalists – ‘banderovtsy’ or pro-Bandera supporters – dominating post-Yanukovich Ukraine. Both notions have invited easy rebuttals along the lines that Russian-speakers are not physically threatened as such or that the interim Ukrainian government is dominated by traditionally centrist parties.

One rarely sees in any media the key problem of post-1991 independent Ukraine, which is that a minority of self-appointed speakers of the Ukrainian nation look upon the majority of the country’s citizens as raw material for their grand national project of a Ukraine that would be essentially mono-cultural and mono-lingual. The west Ukrainian nation – called ‘zapadentsy’ in the East, which literally means ‘from the west’ – has dominated for decades several regions in the west of Ukraine and is in the process of actively establishing itself in Kiev and further east.

In contrast, the East Ukrainian nation is emerging before our eyes on the main squares of cities like Kharkov, Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk and Odessa – in pitched battles with the mobile squads of the west Ukrainian nation. Turning the struggle of these two nations into a proxy war between the West and Russia would be a tragedy for Ukraine and Europe. For reasons of self-preservation, Russia would not allow the consolidation of Ukraine as a state that is internally anti-Russian and externally pro-Western. Finlandisation of Ukraine, as advocated by Brzezinski and Kissinger, could become an option only if the interim government in Kiev stops seeing its internal opponents as Kremlin agents that must be crushed by force.

The experience of the East European velvet revolutions of 1989 offers one way out. A round table with equal representation of both nations in Ukraine could work out an acceptable set of compromises that would be then ratified by the national parliament. The tragic history of former Yugoslavia offers another usable instrument: all constitutional agreements between the two nations should be supervised and underwritten by international mediators – in this case representing the United States, the EU and Russia. In short, a Ukrainian round table underpinned by international mediation along the lines of Dayton 1995 and Ohrid 2001. These East European and Yugoslav precedents are far from perfect but are infinitely preferable to the looming civil war in Ukraine and a second Cold War in Europe.

Kyril Drezov is a politics lecturer at Keele University in the United Kingdom

(First published @

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