One year ago, Ukraine had its problems, but it was stable and peaceful. Twelve months later, the east and the south of the country are ravaged by civil war, while the Crimean Peninsula has become part of Russia. The lowest estimates suggest that over 300 people have died so far during the conflict, and the BBC reports that over 14,000 refugees have fled the fighting and crossed the Russian border.
The turmoil which has engulfed Ukraine, since President Yanukovych fled the country following protests and violence in Kiev, is, above all, desperately sad. From the Rada's declaration of independence in 1991, until the latter part of 2013, the country’s fractious, fragmented politics remained peaceful, barring the odd bout of fisticuffs in parliament. The new nation state managed to span, more or less successfully, a complicated patchwork of cultural identities, languages and political affiliations.
The two sides in the civil war now badly need a little time and some common ground in which to shape an accommodation. While the situation in Ukraine is confused and confusing, it is clear that months of propaganda and demonisation, from either side, have had a polarising effect.
This week there were developments offering some hope for compromise. Following President Poroshenko’s proposal of a ceasefire, successful talks with ‘pro-Russia’ leaders took place in Donetsk. The Guardian claims that this truce has been patchily observed so far, but Russia took further steps to ease tension, yesterday, when Vladimir Putin asked the Duma in Moscow to withdraw its permission for Russian troops to intervene in the Ukrainian crisis.
The new President in Ukraine is reported to have a peace plan. It is said to be based on an amnesty for ‘rebel fighters’ and a degree of autonomy for the eastern regions of the country.
If Poroshenko does make proposals along these lines, they would be relatively close to measures which Moscow believed could reconcile eastern Ukrainians with the new government in Kiev, toward the beginning of the crisis. It is a tragedy that it has taken so many more months of bloodshed, hate-mongering and, now, civil war, to reach this point.
If ever there were a time for governments in the US and EU to exercise a moderating and calming influence, it is now. Poroshenko should be nudged along the road of dialogue and compromise, rather than encouraged to attempt to defeat militarily the various pro-Russian groups based in eastern Ukraine.
It is endlessly tempting to take a partisan or simplistic view of the Ukrainian civil war, based on pre-conceived notions about Russia, but it is also unhelpful and unenlightening. The situation remains complicated, contradictory and difficult to decode, particularly from a distance.
There is an increasing body of evidence which disproves the notion that groups in Slavyansk, Donetsk and other pro-Russian strongholds are waging a proxy campaign on Putin’s behalf. Watch the Sunday Tomes journalist, Mark Franchetti, confound his hosts on a Ukrainian discussion show, by refusing to back up propaganda about ‘Russian’ militias. Read Julia Ioffe, a seasoned critic of Putin, admitting that everything about the war is shrouded in confusion.
Ukraine has a legitimate grievance about Russia’s annexation of Crimea, an act of opportunism which stoked separatism in other regions. However the ‘counter-terrorist’ operation launched by Kiev against pro-Russian protesters has left a trail of civilian dead in Odessa, Mariupol and Slavyansk which has also nourished separatist feeling.
Many Ukrainians in western and central Ukraine are convinced, no doubt genuinely, that Russia is fighting a war of conquest against its troops, in the east of the country. Many Ukrainians and Russians in the east and south believe, equally sincerely, that ‘fascist’ militias, fired up by extreme nationalism, are pursuing a campaign of genocide aimed at ensuring a mono-cultural, mono-lingual state, within Ukraine’s existing borders.
No doubt there have been incidents in the grubby, bloody fog of civil war which lend legitimacy to both of these viewpoints. Unfortunately, rather than urge calm and moderation, politicians and media in ‘the West’ and Russia have been inclined to inflame the situation by encouraging one or other perception. It’s a dangerous game, to which a range of commentators have contributed.
For instance, read Anne Applebaum, in a frankly disturbing article, championing the cause of Galician nationalism and dismissing the concerns of Ukrainians who are appalled by the influence of Pravyi Sektor and other far right nationalists in the new regime and its security forces. More nationalism, rather than less is her perverse recipe for a successful Ukraine.
My gut feeling is that the only sensible reaction to the situation, from foreign observers, is genuine sorrow, rather than a rush to take sides. The deterioration of protests in Kiev into a bloody coup and the subsequent slow descent into civil war are a national tragedy for Ukraine, as well as a serious emergency for the immediate region and the continent of Europe as a whole.
The situation has been aggravated by powers in the west and Russia playing out their rivalries through Ukrainian politics. The least people in Ukraine now deserve is a concerted international effort to promote peace and compromise as the basis of a solution, as well as a much more honest attempt to understand how political and cultural differences in the country have been allowed to cause violence.