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December 01, 2004

The Future of the Ukraine: a tale of three paradigms

Posted by Brendan Simms

What can past experience tell us about the likely outcome of the current crisis in the Ukraine? Dr Brendan Simms - fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge - suggests that there are three paradigms of how the Ukrainian situation might unfold: Theatre, Amicable Divorce, or Tragedy and Crime?

It is a cliché that, as Marx once said, History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. As we contemplate the escalating crisis in the Ukraine, one wonders in which form the events of the past decade or so will repeat themselves.

Will it be as Theatre, as in Serbia in the autumn of 2000, and more recently in Georgia, when the old guard attempted a similar theft of the elections? On those two occasions, the democratic opposition, extensively funded by European and American non-government organisations – and probably by the secret services as well - mounted a series of street protests until they prevailed. Despite widespread predictions of a bloodbath, violence was limited and in the case of the storming of the Serbian parliament, dramatically telegenic. A similar carnival atmosphere prevails on the streets of the capital of the Ukraine, Kiev, today. The protestors hope that the Supreme Court will rule the elections invalid and that a fresh poll will sweep their party to power. This is still a possible solution, and from the point of view of the west, the most desirable one. There are, however, powerful forces stacked against such an outcome: the vested interests of the industrial and security complex of the eastern Ukraine; pro-Russian sentiment in the east; and the attitude of President Putin of Russia himself, who has made clear his sympathy for the supposed victor, Mr Yanukovich. It is easy to see why Moscow fears the prospect of a westernized Ukraine joining NATO as most of the rest of the former Soviet empire has already done.

Will it be as Amicable Divorce? This is what took place between the two constituent parts of the old Czechoslovakia. On New Year's Eve 1992, the eastern part, Slovakia, and the more westerly Czech Republic went their separate ways. In certain respects, the gulf which divided the two halves resembled that between eastern and western Ukraine today. From an economic point of view this division would be damaging: most of the natural resources and heavy industry are in the east, while the west is more agricultural and entrepreneurial. But there are already much less viable states in Europe – such as Moldova and Macedonia – and both sides would simply have to make do. There would be pain: some supporters of the democratic opposition, such as their La Pasionaria, Julia Timoshenko, hail from the east. Yet partition would certainly be feasible, for the territorial divide between Yuschenko and Yanukovich supporters is fairly neat. Culturally and linguistically the divide is equally clear: Catholic, Uniate, and Ukrainian-speaking supporters of Yuschenko in the west, and Russian Orthodox, Russian-speaking supporters of Yanukovich in the east. A two-state solution would allow the western half centred on Kiev to join NATO and the EU, while Russia hugged the east close; its capital would probably be the Russian-speaking city of Kharkov. Supposing this could be done bloodlessly such a division would be sad, particularly for young easterners whose last hope of prosperity would disappear, but it would be no disaster.

Or will it be as Tragedy and Crime? Here the paradigm is clearly the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, when Serb nationalists sponsored by Belgrade implemented what the Hague Tribunal has described as a "joint criminal project" to cleanse parts of Croatia and virtually the whole of Bosnia of its non-Serb population. There is at present no reason to believe that anything similar is being planned in the Ukraine, but the motive, opportunity and infrastructure are certainly there. The declaration of some eastern districts that they plan to proclaim autonomy if the election result is over-turned, is a straw in the wind; there were similar declarations by Serb councils in the countdown to war in Bosnia 1991-1992. If the old regime and its security apparatus in the Ukraine decide to go down this route, then watch out for the following signs: media "rediscovery" of Ukrainian collaboration and atrocities in World War II; attacks on catholic and Uniate churches in contested areas; intimidation and possibly murder of western civic leaders; infiltration of Russian special forces to provide additional military muscle; culminating in a one-sided military contest between Moscow-backed separatists and lightly armed defenders of a unitary Ukrainian state. Expect to hear a lot about traditional Ukrainian anti-semitism from Yanukovich sympathisers, and non-interventionists in the west.

If this were to happen, the implications for the process of European integration and transatlantic relations would be profound. In Bosnia, France and Britain found themselves locked into a prolonged and damaging "stagfight" with Washington, which wanted to help the Sarajevo government with all military means short of the dispatch of ground troops. A similar policy against the western Ukrainians would be hard to sustain, especially given the overt sympathy of the Germans and nearby Poles for their cause. But it is not too fanciful to suppose that there will be voices in Paris who might see Kharkov as a counterweight to Berlin and even Washington. The result could easily be a prolonged and vicious civil war right on Europe's doorstep and a new cold war between Russia and the west. Even though it is "out of area", NATO might eventually be forced to intervene, as in Bosnia. In that event, it would be better to do so sooner rather than later.

There is no way of telling in the abstract which of these three paradigms will repeat themselves. Experience is a guide to possible not certain outcomes. In this respect, the historian by analogy resembles the businessman who recognised that half of the money he spent on advertising is wasted. "The trouble is", he added, "I don't know which half".

Dr Brendan Simms is Newton-Sheehy teaching fellow in international relations at the Centre of International Studies and fellow in history at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He is the author of Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia.


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The three paradigms may look neat - but there are in fact only two possible outcomes. Russia is the ultimate arbiter here. Unless the oranges can swiftly obtain genuine political gains from the present Ukranian establishment - and that can only mean, in the circumstances, unequivocal acceptance of Yuschenko - then hard weather and a deteriorating economy means circumstances moving irrevocably away from their favour. And if Putin decides to send in troops 'to help maintain public order' - which he may very well do - no Western government will step in to prevent or dissuade him. There will be no long period of warfare as in Yugoslavia. Here comes - I'm afraid - the new USSR. Our leaders, in Europe and in the US, have neither the will or the power to stop it.

Posted by: David Conway at December 2, 2004 11:22 PM
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