WASHINGTON, February 24, 2014 — Ukraine is at a tipping point. The political and social situation is tenuous, people are still angry, and the fight is not over. Ousted President Viktor Yanukovych has fled to his support base in the Eastern part of the country, as a warrant has been issued for his arrest on the charges of mass murder. He has made it clear that he will not relinquish power.
In his absence, the opposition protesters and their allies and supporters in Parliament have claimed an early victory. The former speaker of Parliament Oleksandr Turchinov has been chosen to be the interim president, since Parliament recently vacated the former head of state’s presidency and rendered it null and void. This is makes things interesting considering that ousted President Yanukovych has made statements to the tune of, “I’m still President, and you haven’t won yet.”
Citizens in Kiev and all around Ukraine rose up in protest against what they saw as the tyrannical abuse of power by their president. Responding to this, the president ordered the protestors dispersed. Fighting ensued, promises were made and broken, and more fighting ensued. The opposition makes serious gains and draws support, having successfully painted the president and his allies as tyrants and criminals. The fighting turns deadly, soldiers open fire on protesters and dozens are killed. Violence escalates, and soon more Ukrainians are flocking to Kiev to take part in protests and clashes with police and military units.
Eventually, the opposition gets the upper hand and storms government buildings having overrun government forces. The president flees by helicopter to his power base in the East, home of Russian sympathies. The opposition in Parliament declare his presidency over, and warrants are issued for his arrest and the arrest of several of his allies. Home defense units are raised out of former protesters in order to maintain order and keep the opposition going while the military attempts to remain neutral.
All of this has the makings of a very costly civil war.
On one hand, there is Western Ukraine, which favors joining the European Union favoring. On the other is President Yanukovych and Eastern Ukraine, who favor closer ties with Russia. The European Union relies on the Russian natural gas flowing through Ukrainian pipelines. The United States and much of the West are backing the EU effort for peace talks and intervention through economic sanctions, while Russia backs their now-outlaw friend Yanukovych.
Historical warning signs are there in plain sight.
As soon as Yanukovych rescinded his offer of greater parliamentary powers and less executive authority, the writing was on the wall. Rulers, presidents, monarchs throughout history have learned the wrath of their people one way or another through the failure to keep promises or the revocation of charters and rights.
There are three indicators that could lead one to believe that a civil war is brewing.
First, there have been reports of groups of former protesters forming defense units, or volunteer protection units. That is, various groups who were protesters and opposition forces have been raising militia and para-military units because they believe such entities are necessary. This is similar to what happened in Syria, most notably groups such as the Kurdish defense brigades operating in the Northeast portion of the country. In addition to the Syrian Civil War, much of the same occurred after the treaty signing in the months preceding the Irish Civil War in the early 1920’s. Preparing for violence, groups with fighting experience or who wanted to take part in one faction or another formed volunteer groups and trained accordingly. The result was a bloody, two year long civil war. These groups are not forming randomly, and they are not forming for no reason. The military cannot remain neutral forever, and when they do look to see reports of everything from training officers embedding themselves in volunteer groups to whole units assuming militia into their ranks. When that happens access to firearms and munitions will be easy, and violence will escalate.
Second, with the president retreating to his power base in the Eastern Ukraine, it sets a clear political line in place. The West is Opposition, and the East is Government. These are not pocketed and sporadic spheres of influence and resistance, this is a clear and defined line with clearly allied territories and frontiers. It is not like Syria or Libya where certain cities or territories are held behind enemy lines, or where tribal and family alliances keep certain municipalities loyal. West vs. East is clearly defined, which for all intents and purposes makes the political division palpable and geographical.
Lastly, the political landscape is clearly divided not just in terms of regional and national politics, but in terms of global support as well. Eastern Ukraine has close ties to Russia economically, diplomatically, and culturally. As we speak, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine has been recalled for “consultations” over the deteriorating situation. It is clear that Russia does not approve of what basically amounts to a coup of established Russian-backed authoritarianism in Ukraine.
Yanukovych has his big backer in Russia, who would more than likely supply him and any allies with arms and training they would need to fight a civil war. On the other hand there is the Western Ukraine, which has recently been pining for greater diplomatic relations with the European Union and other Western powers. They see themselves more as European than their Eastern countrymen, and have a willingness to partner with the EU and the United States. Should Yanukovych attempt to retake the presidency by force with Russian help, the EU and the United States would most likely back the Western half of the country.
Although this outcome may not happen, all of the indicators are there. Groups are already organizing, there are clearly defined political and territorial lines, and each faction has major international backing. Furthermore, such fighting along clearly divided geographical lines with equal or somewhat equal international support could lead to a stalemate in any combat that would arise. This in turn could lead to a standstill after months if not years of fighting. We have seen this in Syria, where there are no clearly defined winners or losers except the non-combatants civilians.
However this situation does have the potential to play out like another civil war, when after years of stalemated conflict the nation was split in two. South Sudan split with Sudan after years of civil war and a referendum from the people. The case of Ukraine is not much different, especially considering the natural resources and land the two nations hold, it is entirely possible that if this situation does evolve into civil war, we could see an Eastern Ukraine and a Western Ukraine when this is all over.
If something is not done quickly and Yanukovych is able to rally supporters behind him, the situation will only creep closer to a violent conflict where both sides are armed to the teeth. And as we have seen in recent civil wars that have escalated out of peaceful oppositions, they can be long, drawn out, and costly. Unless a strong hand is brought down in the Ukraine, or until a strong leader steps up and truly takes charge, Ukraine may be headed for a civil war which will draw in many world powers.