Western mass media has been full of dramatic pictures and stories from Kiev, Ukraine, during the past weeks. Journalists, politicians and lay observers connect the partly exhilarating, partly worrying images from the Ukrainian capital to those that during recent years have been reaching us from Egypt, Libya or Syria.
Yet, the frequent comparisons of events in Kiev with recent escalations in Islamic countries in Europe’s southern neighborhood are misleading. The Ukrainian people are a European nation with close, multiple ties to the EU and its member states. This young post-communist state until recently had a tradition of moderate political conflict and peaceful civic resistance. President Viktor Yanukovych’s inept policies led to a break with the earlier temperate pattern of political confrontation solution in Ukraine. A major violent escalation in Kiev, with hundreds or thousands of dead, is unlikely.
Equally misleading is the popular scenario of Ukraine becoming a dictatorial regime like neighboring Belarus.
Ukrainian politics, media and society are far too diverse and self-sufficient for installation of a full-scale authoritarian regime. The European orientation of Ukrainian foreign relations and future development are axiomatic among the vast majority Ukraine’s politicians, intellectuals and managers.
Members of the country’s elite may have different opinions of when and how Ukraine should join the Union, but they are united around the aim of eventual EU membership. Moreover, rapprochement with the EU is popular among large parts of the population of Ukraine, especially the young.
Not only are thus the fundamentals of Ukrainian politics objectively different from those of Belarus or Russia, subjectively too, most of Ukraine’s civic activists, political experts, influential journalists and public figures – Yanukovych and his advisers may be exceptions – understand that attempts at a domestic centralization or international isolation of Ukrainian political life are futile.
There is, nevertheless, no reason for Brussels and the EU member states to relax concerning recent developments in Ukraine, and the future of East European security. Ukraine’s political Achilles’ heel is its regional- cultural division, and the close ties that the russophone parts of Southern and Eastern Ukraine have to Russia.
Among many citizens of the Russian Federation, there is a feeling of obligation toward, and claim of responsibility for, the approximately 8 million ethnic Russians and additional millions of Russian-speakers among Ukraine’s population. The Ukrainian russophones mostly live in regions along the long border between Ukraine and Russia, as well as in the Black Sea area. The Ukrainian russophones have free access to, and are considerably influence by, Kremlin- controlled Russian mass media, above all the three main TV channels “First,” “Rossiia” and NTV. (In Russia, Ukraine’s Russian-language TV channels are unavailable.) Moscow’s effective electronic propaganda machine portrays the protests in Kiev as an attempted coup d’état by an unruly mob directed by russophobic fascists, foreign agents and amoral liberals.
The model which may best preview the Ukrainian state’s possible future is neither Belarus nor Syria. Instead, it may be post-Soviet Georgia and Tbilisi’s armed confrontation with Moscow in 2008 which should be taken into account when assessing Ukraine.
The scheme of Russia’s intervention is simple: An already bubbling domestic conflict, with a little help from the Kremlin, escalates and turns violent.
The use of force leads to a request for protection from the clash’s pro-Russian side, portrayed as being under a ruthless attack by local ultra-nationalists.
Moreover, ethnic Russians or/ and holders of Russian passports are real or potential sufferers of a supposedly home-made conflict. They may even be under the threat of becoming victims of an ethnic cleansing, in Russia’s neighborhood.
In response to a desperate cry for help from potential prey of neo-fascists, Moscow starts a “humanitarian” intervention based on three assertions: First, Russia has the right to secure stability and security on its borders, for self-protection. Second, the Kremlin is obliged to save from suppression or/and mass-murder those who are bound to the Russian Federation either by blood (ethnic Russians) or by law (Russian passport holders). Third, the Russian army cannot help but to play the role of a Eurasian peace-maker who brings order to unfortunately chaotic regions, and pacifies unruly local politicians.
For instance, in South Ossetia in August 2008, the Russian army, according to the reports in Kremlin- controlled mass media, stopped nothing less than an alleged Georgian “genocide” of South Ossetians, many of whom happened to also be owners of Russian passports.
The relevance of the Georgian model for today’s Ukraine is amplified by the ambivalent reaction of the West to the Russian military intervention of August 2008. As a representative less of France than of the rotating French presidency of the EU then, Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated with then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev a peace settlement that presumed a return of the Russian troops to Russia. However, not only did Russia not fulfil the agreement, Moscow was even able to renegotiate with the EU a modification of the agreement that was later criticized by NATO.
The inconsistent and confusing behavior of the West in August-September 2008 aided Russia in its de facto annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It signaled to the Kremlin that, however loudly the West might be rhetorically supporting objects of Russian foreign intervention, the EU is unable or unwilling to project its potentially high power when it comes to military confrontations.
Today, a similar script is being implemented in Ukraine. On Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula with a majority of ethnic Russian population, in particular, calls for protection by Russia are being voiced by prominent politicians and activists. Pro-Russian mass media and political groups in Eastern and Southern Ukraine are repeating the Russian allegation that the Euromaidan represents an attempted overthrow of the state by Ukrainian extreme ethno-nationalists – hinting that this could be a pretext for a partition of the Ukrainian state.
In order to avoid an escalation of tensions as happened in the Southern Caucasus, the West should already now signal to Moscow that it will behave differently today than in August-September 2008. In particular, the EU should make clear that it is ready to use its considerable economic weight to resolutely sanction, if necessary, a repeat of a new Russian foreign intervention and territorial annexation in the post-Soviet area.
The author is the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) Associate Professor of European Studies Department of Political Science National University of “Kiev-Mohyla Academy.” ku-eichstaett.academia.edu/AndreasUmland.