Nuclear Weapons

Preventing Ukraine From Spiraling Out of Control

05.09.14 | 5 min read | Text by Martin Hellman

The crisis in Ukraine continues to simmer, but thankfully has not yet boiled over. Here are some of the developments since I last wrote on this topic, followed by some thoughts on what is needed to minimize the risk of the conflict spiraling out of control.

Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma assessed the situation as follows:

Russia does not recognize the legitimacy of the current government in Kyiv and will not negotiate with it. Ukraine has no chance there. Ukraine could have taken concrete steps in this direction in the beginning but we didn’t do that. For instance, a delegation of lawmakers could have gone to Moscow [to bring Russia into the process.] …

To analyze Russia’s actions, you have to try to understand Putin’s point of view. Russia has always feared having NATO right under Moscow’s nose. … Putin never trusted Ukraine, especially its government. He always assumed that one day someone would come to power in Ukraine that would ignore the Russian-Ukrainian friendship, and Ukraine would join the European Union and NATO. …

I don’t see any candidate [for the Ukrainian presidency] who enjoys enough popularity to unite Ukraine. …The future leadership should include representatives of all regions in order to unite the country. If it consists of only half of Ukraine, there will consequences in the other half of the country.

Prof. Keith Darden of American University wrote in Foreign Affairs:

A pro-European, pro-NATO government ruling a regionally divided country – and one that is quite vulnerable to Russian military intervention – is a recipe for instability, not for European integration. Simply pushing forward with EU association and NATO integration without pushing the government in Kiev to address its illegitimacy problems through means other than arrest is not much of a strategy. It’s not even much of a gamble, as it is almost certain to fail. One way or another, power in Ukraine needs to be spread out. …

The most obvious way to do that is through some form of constitutional change. Call it what you want: decentralization, federalization, regionalization. … Kiev needs to transfer some very substantial powers, including those over education, language, law, and taxation, to the regions. … The Russian plan to federalize Ukraine, which, in reality, is a plan to turn Ukraine into a weak confederation where the central government is largely ceremonial, is a step too far. … [But] As long as Ukraine retains its highly centralized winner-take-all political system, and one regional faction sits in Kiev with the backing of either Russia or the West, Ukraine is going to be unstable. With a little bit of constitutional accommodation, though, the divided house just might stand.

The interim Ukrainian government (or junta in Moscow’s view) has repeatedly attempted to use military force to evict pro-Russian demonstrators (or terrorists in Kiev’s view) from government buildings in the eastern part of Ukraine. These efforts have had limited success, with some Ukrainian units surrendering or defecting to the pro-Russian side. This may lead (or already have led) Kiev to consider using some of Ukraine’s more virulently anti-Russian elements (e.g., the Pravy (Right) Sektor and the Svoboda Party) since they can be counted on not to avoid bloodshed.

Russia sees the West as exercising a blatant double standard in that it warned Yanukovych not to use military force against the Maidan demonstrators who eventually brought down his government, yet approves the use of similar force against pro-Russian demonstrators. Of course, Russia itself is not immune to holding double standards, but that makes things doubly dangerous. If both sides in a conflict mistakenly believe they are in the right, they then expect the other (“wrong”) side to back down. When both sides have thousands of nuclear weapons, the risk is clearly heightened.

Conditions almost boiled over last Friday (May 2) when pro- and anti-Russian gangs clashed in a bloody riot in Odessa and dozens of pro-Russian demonstrators were burned alive in a fire. According to the New York TImes:

What followed were hours of bloody street clashes involving bats, pistols and firebombs. … The pro-Russians, outnumbered by the Ukrainians, fell back … [and] sought refuge in the trade union building.

Yanus Milteynus, a 42-year-old construction worker and pro-Russian activist, said he watched from the roof as the pro-Ukrainian crowd threw firebombs into the building’s lower windows, while those inside feared being beaten to death by the crowd if they tried to flee.  …

The conflict is hardening hearts on both sides. As the building burned, Ukrainian activists sang the Ukrainian national anthem, witnesses on both sides said. They also hurled a new taunt: “Colorado” for the Colorado potato beetle, striped red and black like the pro-Russian ribbons. Those outside chanted “burn Colorado, burn,” witnesses said. Swastikalike symbols were spray painted on the building, along with graffiti reading “Galician SS,” though it was unclear when it had appeared, or who had painted it.

It should be noted that anti-Russian reports allege that the fire was started by the pro-Russian group when they threw Molotov cocktails down from the upper floors. It is impossible at this point in time to say which version is true, and that cautionary note applies to almost all reports.

Harvard’s Prof. Graham Allison summarized the nuclear risk well in a recent article in The National Interest:

The thought that what we are now witnessing in Ukraine could trigger a cascade of actions and reactions that end in war will strike most readers as fanciful. Fortunately, it is. But we should not forget that in May 1914, the possibility that the assassination of an Archduke could produce a world war seemed almost inconceivable. History teaches that unlikely, even unimaginable events do happen.

Given that less than six years elapsed between the Georgian War and this current crisis, each with the potential to lead to armed conflict between US and Russian forces or nuclear threats, even a small probability for each event to escalate can result in an unacceptable cumulative risk.

Adding to the risk, British Foreign Minister William Hague just told Georgia that its bid to join NATO enjoys his “very clear support.” Such promises appear to have played a role both in emboldening Georgia to fire the first shots in its 2008 war with Russia and in Russia’s outsized reaction. While the promise was made to Georgia, it seems clearly linked to the situation in Ukraine.

To reduce the risk of the Ukrainian crisis spiraling out of control, both the West and Russia should stop viewing the conflict as a football game in which there is a winner and a loser. Instead, we need to start being more concerned with creating a situation in which all the people of Ukraine can live reasonable lives, without fear of subjugation or physical harm.