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All eyes on Russia as Ukraine hurtles towards civil war

The Ukrainian government has announced that it will mount a full-scale military operation to regain control of the east of the country and has set a deadline of 6am on Monday morning for occupied government…

Ominous signs as pro-Russian protesters take to the street in Odessa. EPA/Volodymyr Petrov

The Ukrainian government has announced that it will mount a full-scale military operation to regain control of the east of the country and has set a deadline of 6am on Monday morning for occupied government buildings to be evacuated by armed protesters. An emergency session of the United Nations Security Council late on Sunday night failed to calm a situation that has significantly deteriorated over the past few days.

Pro-Russian armed groups have taken over police stations and government buildings in towns and cities across eastern Ukraine, including Donetsk, Makiyievka, Mariupol, Kharkov, Kramatorsk, Yenakievo, Zaporyzhia, and Harcyzsk. This campaign of destabilisation escalated badly in Sloviansk where a gun battle between Ukrainian police forces and armed protesters killed at least one member of the Ukrainian security services.

These events followed a failed attempt by the Ukrainian government on Friday to de-escalate the crisis with promises of federalisation and an explicit distinction between non-violent protests and armed occupations of government buildings. It also comes as the “quad” – Russia, the Ukraine, the US and the EU – prepare for the first round of direct talks on Thursday in Geneva.

Russia has already hinted that the escalating violence has the potential of undermining the Geneva talks and the Kremlin could very well use the ongoing violence as both an excuse not to attend the talks and as a pretext to “protect” ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in eastern parts of Ukraine.

If Moscow were to pull out of the talks, this would be yet another clear indication that the Kremlin is not interested in any genuine stabilisation of the situation in Ukraine and, indeed, has further plans – if not of territorial annexation, of at least making Ukraine ungovernable and denying the government in Kiev full sovereignty of what remains of mainland Ukraine and would give Russia a reason to avoid recognising the results of the Ukrainian presidential elections, currently planned for the end of May, and to continue its current narrative of an illegitimate, Western-backed government in Kiev solely responsible for the worsening crisis.

Zone of influence

Russian geopolitical interests to restore a zone of influence that is permanently under its control can realistically extend as far east as Moldova and as far south as Kazakhstan and potentially further into Central Asia. While annexation of the Baltic states (and especially of Latvia and Estonia with their significant ethnic Russian populations) is off the table because of their NATO and EU membership, Russia could still stir up significant trouble there.

As has become clear from recent events in Ukraine, it only takes small groups of armed men to bring an already volatile situation to crisis point. Long dissatisfied with an ineffective and corrupt central government and its local representatives, local populations in eastern Ukraine are receptive to the relentless Russian propaganda that paints the Kiev authorities as threatening and Russian actions as legitimate responses to Western attempts to isolate and undermine Moscow. In these terms, Crimea appears to offer a precedent that offers a straightforward “solution” to everything that is wrong with and in Ukraine.

Add to that the easy availability of weapons and multiple local interest groups with their own axes to grind and there is very little that the Kremlin needs to do in order to escalate and expand violent and non-violent unrest. This does not mean that the Kremlin, despite denials, is not behind most of the recent escalation.

East Ukraine: vulnerable to Russian intervention. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The manner in which the armed take-overs were carried out, their predominance in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and the similarity of the pattern of local action and Russian reaction there to what occurred in Crimea less than a month ago make it difficult to believe in anything but Russian coordination.

Russia in the box seat

The spread of protests and the push-back against armed violence from the Ukrainian government both work in Moscow’s favour. The geographic extent of pro-Russian protests, even if they usually involve no more than a few thousand protesters at best, can be presented as evidence of wide-spread dissatisfaction with Kiev and desire to follow Crimea’s path. The government’s response, for Moscow, demonstrates the unwillingness of state institutions to respond constructively to legitimate local concerns and the state’s inability to maintain law and order.

Ukraine has no capacity to resolve the situation by force. The EU and US have no interest in further escalating a crisis that has been deeply destabilising not just for Ukraine and the post-Soviet region but for the international system as a whole. But for any de-escalation to happen and for a diplomatic solution to gain traction it takes sincere Russian co-operation. The current situation and the recent track record of Russian actions, however, would suggest that the Kremlin is intent on keeping all its options open, including that of an actual military intervention in Ukraine. What little hope the talks in Geneva may offer would thus be to buy time to dissuade Russia from crossing this particular Rubicon.

Join the conversation

11 Comments sorted by

  1. R. Ambrose Raven


    Never mind Russia; “we” need to recognise just how weak “we” have become.

    A continuing Western economic and social crisis has been greatly worsened by criminal Imperial adventurism.

    In the waging of a war of aggression against Iraq, war criminals and mass murderers George Bush, Tony Blair, and John Howard did not merely commit crimes against peace. They also bankrupted the US economy, triggered Peak Oil, lengthened the occupation of Afghanistan, and triggered the global financial crisis…

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    1. Jay Wulf

      Digerati at

      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      Worse yet, the Iran and Afganistan conflict not only have bankrupted the US financially, but it has corrupted 'the West' morally by removing any semblence of moral high ground after the Sith lord and Co. (Including Howard) were done with re-inventing the Casus Belli no less than at least *THREE* times for the Iraq war.

      Though my sympathy lie with the Ukraine and their desire to side with the West, we are now in no position for Kremlin to demand to abandon their conquests... after all 'we' have done quite well making Iraq and Afganistan into our puppet provinces.

  2. Elena Berwick


    Well, the whole mess in eastern Ukraine now is a result of the first steps of the junta government in Kiev. The United States thought they could use 10 thousand guerillas from Western Ukraine to gain power in Kiev and here we go, the whole Ukraine is under control. They failed to recognize that Eastern Ukraine is big enough to resist and Eastern Ukrainians should not be ignored.

    The current junta government decided to use force against people of Eastern Ukraine, which is against all laws of Ukraine…

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    1. Tim Burrell

      Project Manager

      In reply to Elena Berwick

      I think it's super that we're seeing so many ordinary English people (even Accountants like yourself) becoming impassioned by the blatant bias and denigration of Russia to dedicate so many posts revealing to us the story behind the story. Keep up the good work.

    2. Elena Berwick


      In reply to Tim Burrell

      It is always good to see a new person who registered his profile a couple of days ago and instead of writing messages on the topic looks at personal profile of someone and then tries going personal.

      Keep up your good work the "project manager". I trust your project's goal is to tell us all about bias and denigration of Russia. That's ok, the only problem is that we are not your students but rather adults who can see what happens behind the scenes, use our life experience and separate the husk from the grain.

  3. robert roeder
    robert roeder is a Friend of The Conversation.


    I am impressed, the authors managed to produce an article more one sided and bias than a Murdock News piece, that not easy. The US and NATO have been conducting regime change and false flag operations since the Gladio project in 1948. What next, will you try to convince us that Saddam had WMD's.

  4. Sean Douglas

    logged in via email

    Geopolitics can be such an incredibly hideous creature. I have no skin in this game. We've been fed all manner of docs, foreign correspondent reports, headlines for a decade and half now regarding Russia et al and broader geopolitical realities from Iraq to GFC and near financial meltdown ... Everywhere I look I see people suffer under all manner of yokes. It's been a horror story all round, albeit on a slow boil relative to WW2 or if one was Vietnamese in the 50's and 60's. Which side don't seem…

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  5. Patrick Brindle


    I guess my question (to the authors? to Putin?) is what ultimately would Russia have to gain by seeing a Balkans-style civil war erupt on its western border? I don't claim any expertise on this topic, but I do know that eastern Europe, Ukraine, Russia remain kaleidoscopic mixes of ethnicities and communities, where the destabilisation of one could have huge unforeseen impacts on the other. And then there would be the impact on the Russian economy, its exports, its outlets to the EU etc...

  6. Robert Tony Brklje
    Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Ukraine only remains in crisis because they are being lead by those ignorant to reality. Simply allow regional referendums and allow the parts of the Ukraine to go where they will, problem solved, crisis over and everyone can move on. The US triggered the mess and right now it is Russia's interests to allow it to drag on, chaos will spread throughout the country and start to affect every country that borders the Ukraine and Europe will blame the US, the sure to be helped by Russia allowing evidence it has likely gathered over months to trickle out at critical junctures to most embarrass the US.
    The longer it drags on the greater the chaos and the worse the impact that Ukraine has on the rest of Europe and the greater the threat of Ukraine far right wing crime gangs pervading Europe.

  7. Andrew Gilmour

    logged in via Facebook

    It is evident how hypocrisy of our governments goes on and on with this Ukrainian issue and blaming Russia when in fact Ukrainian crisis is mainly the USA’s orchestrated problem and partially the EU’s orchestrated problem.

    We have not seen the Russian politicians visiting Ukraine or clear evidence of the Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine, whereas a list of Westren politicians directly interfering with the Ukrainian internal matters is very extensive. Just some of them are as follows.

    Ms Nuland…

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  8. Brandon Young


    "narrative of an illegitimate, Western-backed government in Kiev"

    Is that all it is, narrative?

    Nothing to do with the US trying to carve out a semi-global empire - the Trans Atlantic partnership to install the corporations in power over Europe, and the Trans Pacific partnership to do the same thing to our region?