If pressures acting on Ukraine are not defused – such as by decentralizing the powers of the Ukrainian government – we could be looking at a potentially explosive situation in Europe.

Ukrainian servicemen stand guard at a checkpoint near the town of Amvrosievka, in Donetsk region June 5, 2014. Photo: Reuters

We are now approaching the 100th anniversary of Sarajevo and, thus, of the outbreak of World War I. Sadly, we might now be closer to a global disaster than at any time since the Cuba missile crisis. The recent civil war-like clashes in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, are escalating into a broader conflict involving non-state actors, insurgent groups and the Ukrainian army sent there by the new Kiev government.

A key question worrying analysts is whether the Ukraine crisis could degenerate into a potential macro-regional catastrophic event. In the field of political science, there are already some benchmarks to alert decision and policy makers when such an event might be imminent and to explain why other conflicts – like Syria – have not sparked such a catastrophic event. There is also a vast literature on “crisis management.”

However, all this does not provide an answer to the question of whether or not the Ukraine crisis, due to the major powers involved and to long-standing historical issues and socio-economic tensions, could be the harbinger of something more serious.

In other words, is 2014 Kiev a potential analogue of 1914 Sarajevo?

Defusing the tensions in Ukraine before it’s too late

The general lesson is that, in today’s closely intertwined world, one should make all efforts to keep well away from disruption points, and it is difficult to estimate how far Ukraine lies at present from such a point. What needs to be kept in mind is that the Ukraine crisis is somehow the spin-off of adjustments in different socio-economic-political “domains” underpinning it.

These include the development of the post-Soviet Union; the competition between global geopolitical players, including Russia and the West; the demand for energy security, which is based only on oil and gas commodities; tensions among sectors of the population with different historical and cultural ties; and, last but not least, the isolation of clusters of these domains, forming Ukraine at large, not only geographically, from the stabilization process that is granted, if mainly economically, by globalization.  

The current state of unrest, social tension and conflicts in Southern-Eastern Ukraine, whatever the motivations leading to it may have been, risks pushing the world, or at least the West and Russia,  too close to the brink of disaster, so that defusing tensions in the region is a matter of utmost urgency.

One might object that the type of civil war going on in Southern-Eastern Ukraine has been going on for some time in Syria, and yet it has not resulted in a macro-regional conflict. The key difference is that tensions lie at the border of Russia or, perhaps more impressively, within the borders of what during czarist Russia used to be Novorossiya (at the end of the 18th century).

Moreover, just as the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was frustrated in 1914 by the loss of influence and power experienced since the Vienna Congress, Russia has been put under severe strain after the end of the Cold War, due to the expansion of both the European Union and the NATO military alliance within geographic areas that used to be linked to the former Soviet Union.

Effective mitigation dynamics may be the key to hold away from a rupture point, if urgently and effectively implemented. It would seem crucial, in this respect, to overcome the alienation of the Southern-Eastern oblasts, to improve their social and economic benefits, to provide strong administrative and financial autonomy, to favor multi-cultural and multi-language environments, etc.

The leitmotif of these defusing measures would be the “decentralization” of the Ukrainian government’s powers, enhancing ties between Russia and the U.S.-EU bloc in boosting the economic societal status of the Eastern oblasts and creating an international cooperative environment vis-à-vis Ukraine. In other words, Moscow, Washington and Brussels should quickly cooperate in a win-win scenario to stabilize Ukraine and to avoid a catastrophic upsurge.

Can we close Ukraine’s Pandora box in time?

Unfortunately, the Pandora’s box opened by the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West in Ukraine is well open and not on the way to being closed soon. The lack of stabilization in the area might create the premises for a 1914 Sarajevo-like scenario, driving Russia to a full-scale military action in defense of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.

This tragic move might be driven for Russia, as was the case for the Austrian Empire in 1914, by a widely felt need to assert its power in face of the external pressures suffered or perceived after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The conflict might contaminate neighboring parts of the Russian Federation, and perhaps even the Baltic Republics.

Unfortunately President-Elect Petro Poroshenko has little time ahead to find a proper balance between the need for internal cohesion and the Eastern insurgency, while the harsh military offensive in the Donetsk region entails growing civilian casualties that are likely to exacerbate the dispute.

Drawing lessons from the 1914 crisis, the current Ukrainian situation ought to be treated as a global issue rather than a marginal local accident. The stakeholders should make any effort to keep the social system in the same phase by adopting effective mitigation measures like those discussed above. In particular, a “Reconciliation Conference,” rather than being left for the end of a dramatic conflict, should be readily called up under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation of Europe (OSCE).

Given the current state of affairs, this event should involve not only representatives from Russia, Ukraine and the West, but also some from the Donetsk Republic. The Conference should aim at reaching a truce within a few weeks, in order to prevent more violent escalations of the ongoing military clashes.

During this temporary truce the international community and humanitarian organizations should bring assistance to the civil population that was hit by the conflict, and should also start some modest reconstructions of key infrastructures such as hospitals, schools, etc.

Not attempting a reconciliation process featuring all current stakeholders could result in a balkanization of the Ukrainian crisis, while external interventions would readily result in a Syria-like scenario. In this case, further destabilization phenomena could readily spread across Eurasia, bringing the whole situation and the current global order rapidly out of control.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.