The events of recent months: “Euro-Maidan revolution” in Kyiv; Russia’s annexation of Crimea; the emergence of a pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern and southern regions (clandestinely supported by the government of the Russian Federation); and the “counter-terrorist operation” by the government in Kyiv; resulted in the de facto break-up of the fragile political community confined by the borders of the old Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. What we are witnessing now is the crystallization of new political communities and their efforts to assert their own political legitimacy and sovereignty over territories they regard as rightfully theirs.
The largest of these political communities can be called the “Maidano-Ukrainian nation”—driven by a loose coalition of oligarchs, functionaries of the post-1991 Ukraine, Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, liberal civic activists, journalists, academics and other democrats of yesteryear. Dominated by ethnic Ukrainians, this political community is a work in progress and encompasses people of different ethnic, linguistic, and political background. It is in principle open to everyone and highly tolerant of those on the inside (herein lie the roots of the ostensibly paradoxical alignment of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, liberals, non-Communist left, and pro-Ukrainian Jews. This paradox has occasionally been encapsulated by the neologism “zhydobanderivets’” [“Judeo-Banderite.”]).
Members of the “Maidano-Ukrainian nation,” however, can be ruthless towards those deemed outsiders both in discourse and in action (e.g. events in Odesa on 2 May). The instruments of coercion include the organs of the state and numerous paramilitary structures that operate on the margins or outside the legal realm: the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVS), the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), the armed forces, the National Guard, special police battalions formed under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior and consisting in part of members of organizations of the radical right, the remaining units of the Maidan self-defense, and informal groupings of football (soccer) fan “ultras.”
The community plays an important, though not exclusive role in defining the criteria of membership. The other in Maidano-Ukraine is not a “Russian,” “Pole” or “Jew” (historical antagonists of the Ukrainian national movement in the era of ethnic nationalism), but a “Rushist” (a neologism evoking both “Russian” and “fascist” and designating a member of the Russian political community), “separatist,” or “federalist” (the latter two notions are usually collapsed together). Since members of the “Maidano-Ukrainian nation” now control much of the apparatus of the post-1991 Ukrainian state and enjoy international recognition, they have a structural advantage in projecting their legitimacy claims as a “community of citizens” within Ukraine, certainly as far as Ukrainian speakers and ethnic Ukrainians are concerned. The “Maidano-Ukrainian nation,” however, has failed to persuade the whole population of the country of its legitimacy and now has to contend with armed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic”).
The latter are anything but democrats, are supported by Russia and, according to the latest poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, enjoy the active or passive support of close to 30% of the population of the respective regions (primarily among local Russians).
The success of the separatist challenge in the eastern regions has been predicated on the synergetic confluence of several structural and conjunctural factors:
a) The comparatively large share of ethnic Russians in the general structure of the population of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (38% and 36% respectively as per the 2001 census).
b) Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
c) The crisis of legitimacy of the Kyiv government in the Donbas in the aftermath of the “Euro-Maidan revolution,” which in late February and March assumed the form of sizable anti-Maidan demonstrations (not only in the Donbas, but also in Kharkiv and Odesa)—the so-called “Russian spring.”
d) An information campaign first against the Euro-Maidan and subsequently against the new interim Ukrainian government by the Russian state media
e) Destabilizing operations by Russian special services in Ukraine following the fall of the Yanukovych regime (according to various functionaries of the MVS and SBU, Russian special services have in the course of recent years managed to infiltrate extensively both the organs of the Ukrainian state and various pro-Russian organizations.
f) Weakening of the Ukrainian state apparatus in the aftermath of the “Euro-Maidan revolution,” most notably in the law enforcement segment (in large part due to the influence of factors No. 2, 3, 4, and 5).
g) The arrival in April 2014 in the problem regions of roving paramilitary units under the general command of Igor Girkin-Strelkov, which carried out armed assaults on government buildings and police precincts in a number of localities (most notably in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk), re-subordinated parts of the local police forces, and pushed the local separatist movement in the direction of armed insurrection.
While efforts by the SBU to portray Girkin-Strelkov as a colonel in the active service of the Russian military intelligence appear thin on evidence, there is little doubt that much of his fighting force has special expertise and combat experience. Some of the rebels have been identified as veterans of the Russian and Ukrainian armed forces and members of the paramilitary Russian nationalist and Cossack organizations (both Russian and Ukrainian citizens). There is also evidence of links between the activists of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the Russian neo-Nazi organization “Russian National Unity” (RNE), led by Aleksandr Barkashov. RNE engaged in recruitment of volunteers for the combat operations in the Donbas.
The continuing “counter-terrorist operation” by the Kyiv government and the pseudo-referenda on 11 May legitimating the creation of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (followed by Girkin-Strelkov’s decree subordinating to the “DNR” all coercive actors on the territory of the “republic”) signal a deepening of the conflict, which will now definitely be resolved by force. The ultimate outcome of the armed confrontation at this point is difficult to predict. Certain trends, however, are already visible and may become even more pronounced in the near future.
1) The KIIS poll from several weeks ago (prior to the events in Odesa and the resumption of “counter-terrorist operation”) places the level of support for separation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions at close to 30%. While the majority of the population would prefer to remain part of Ukraine if the question were to be asked in a referendum, only 5-10% at the time regarded the government in Kyiv as legitimate, which makes the matter of allegiances completely unpredictable and contingent on the local perception of the relative might and benevolence of the belligerents. Thirty percent of the adult population of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions is a lot of people in absolute numbers when it comes to real politics—especially when these people are active. Adherents of the united Ukraine in the Donbas at this stage may be more numerous, but they for the most part stay home. Moreover, most of them offered ambivalent support for the Maidan: this is true of both the local elites (e.g. Rinat Akhmetov) and ordinary citizens. The possibility of military intervention by Russia is another important factor. In the final analysis, whoever succeeds in establishing effective control over the territory without delegitimizing themselves through criminal activities, will also enjoy an increase in legitimacy.
2) Militant civic nationalism in “Maidano-Ukraine” can be expected to lead to strengthening of repressive functions of the state (engaged in what would appear to be an existential battle) and the increased role of paramilitary organizations, which, in its turn, may precipitate a shift of the discourse further to the right and in the direction of ethnic Ukrainian nationalism (e.g. through spontaneous strengthening of the positions of the Ukrainian language).
Elimination of ambiguity and consolidation of rival political communities, as people on the proverbial fence will be forced to choose sides. Active adherents of the rival political communities that will wind up on the losing side in each of the contested regions will find themselves at serious risk.
3) Barring Russia’s military intervention, one can expect a further shift of power towards the strongest and militarily competent factions within the “DNR” and “LNR,” i.e. towards the group of Girkin-Strelkov, Russian Nationalists, and Cossacks from Russia, and away from local activists.
4) The intentions of the Russian government are difficult to predict. But if groups such as RNE are relatively independent actors, one can expect the spread of their subversive activities into the remainder of “Novorossiya,” should the “DNR” and “LNR” prevail in the confrontation with “Maidano-Ukraine” in the Donbas.
Oleksandr Melnyk is a native of Kherson, Ukraine, and a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto