The Ukrainian Civil War That Wasn’t


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 (www.rb.com.ua).  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.

What happened?  The fact that Ukraine is a centralized rather than a federal state is one obvious answer to this question.  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.  Except for maybe a Berkut unit in Crimea, these forces have not shown opposition to the new central government.  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.

Despite toppling Yanukovych, the Euromaidan protest movement has not won over the hearts and minds of Eastern Ukraine.  Over the weekend of February 22-23, some Donetsk residents gave returning Berkut forces a heroes’ welcome.  In Kharkiv on February 23, attempts to demolish its Lenin monument provoked a crowd to assemble around it and chant slogans like “Fascism will not pass!”  One member of the crowd, pointing in the direction of the Euromaidan activists assembled around the Kharkiv governor’s office, said that they needed to “go back to Western Ukraine and get out of here,” even though nearly all of them were locals.  Yet the police, under orders from Kyiv’s new government, separated both sides and kept the protests from becoming violent.

While the situation in Crimea remains volatile, Ukrainians across the regions are starting to establish some kind of dialogue.  Kharkiv’s Euromaidan activists, stressing their support of “European values,” announced on Facebook on February 24 that they decided to call off the Lenin monument’s demolition and put the idea up for public discussion.  On February 25, members of Lviv’s intelligentsia, citing the loss of life in Kyiv and calling for greater national unity, demanded more favorable government policies toward the Russian language.   Lviv residents, in an act of solidarity with the south and east, launched a one-day campaign to speak Russian in public places.  Donetsk Euromaidan activists in kind called on people in the south and east to speak Ukrainian.

The revolution may have only swept “Western Ukraine.”  A serious economic crisis is on the horizon.  However, these attempts at dialogue, and continued public pressure from Euromaidan activists to reform the state, could eventually bring about a government that addresses the concerns of all of Ukraine’s regions.

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

About DAVID R. MARPLES

Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

3 comments

  1. Pingback: The Ukrainian Civil War That Wasn’t - Sean's Russia Blog

  2. Pingback: The Deal that Brought Ukraine to the Brink

  3. The world can not ignore what is going on forever!

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