While there have been numerous chances to avoid a civil war in Ukraine, none of the major players in this political standoff have been effective at managing the crisis, much less solving the underlying issues. A conflict of some kind now seems almost unavoidable.


Ukrainian soldiers stand near APCs, that fly a Ukrainian flag, as the Ukrainian army troops receive ammunition in a field on the outskirts of Izyum, Eastern Ukraine. Photo: AP

As the great power game between Russia and the West plays out in real-time, it is now entering a more dangerous phase where the unwillingness of either side to back down could lead to civil war within Ukraine or even direct confrontation of some kind. Unfortunately, the strategic maneuvering of the two sides over the past months has exposed many realities about Ukraine that will make it increasingly difficult to arrive at any sort of compromise.

First, there is no sense of Ukrainian national identity. Prior to this crisis, politicians had been playing off the perceived difference between ethnic Russians and Western Ukrainians to further their own political agenda. What little unity and national identity there once was is now completely fractured as the result of unrest throughout the country.

Pro-Russian demonstrators have essentially taken control of parts of the country in Eastern Ukraine. They have captured government buildings and have started forming their own regional government. The Ukrainian government immediately suggested that Russia was behind this movement, claiming that Russia had sent Special Forces operatives to coordinate the attacks on government buildings, and was instigating unrest in Ukraine with the eventual goal that Eastern Ukraine would be quickly assimilated by Russia in the same manner that Crimea became Russia’s newest territory.

Secondly, sanctions have not worked to defuse the crisis. The West first tried to punish Russia with sanctions that would affect the elites responsible for Russia’s actions in Crimea. The sanctions have had little effect on Russia’s actions, and if anything, have served only to reinforce the fact that the West is unable to influence Russian behavior.

Where there was once little doubt about the resolve of the United States to maintain its status as the world’s most powerful country and its ability to influence all other countries, now the United States’ newest NATO allies find themselves worried and doubtful about the United States’ ability and desire to protect them from the Russian threat.  

The United States now feels compelled to show that it is serious about its commitments to its NATO allies, and will begin sending more forces to Poland and will more than likely send additional troops to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to quell the fears of the alliance. In addition, mounting domestic and international pressure will be brought to bear on President Barack Obama to send more lethal weapons and assistance to the Ukrainian government to fight the pro-Russian separatists.

From Russia’s perspective, NATO has continued to expand, which is directly threatening to Russia.  While Russia was once respected as an adversary, it has been belittled and treated as a vanquished foe by the West. Russia is tired of having to accept NATO’s expansion at the expense of its own security. It is tired of having the West dictate policy to Russia and merely having to accept it.

Russia has argued that the United States’ withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), NATO’s expansion, and events in Syria and Libya have all shown the fact that the United States and the European Union were constantly working to isolate Russia, contain it, and eventually totally defeat it.

In the case of Ukraine, the European Union specifically tried to convince Ukraine not to cooperate with Russia by signing an agreement with the European Union. Some of the requirements involved not only cooperating with the European Union through trade, but also forcing Ukraine to begin to stop cooperating with Russia. This was not acceptable to Russia, so Russia developed economic incentives that would ensure that Ukraine would continue to cooperate with Russia and not the EU. Ukraine became a tug-of-war between Russia and the EU.

Unfortunately, in a game of tug-or-war, if the rope is not strong enough, it can break. This is what we are now witnessing in Eastern Ukraine. The rope is showing signs of breaking. Civil war has almost broken out. By moving against the separatists in Sloviansk, the Ukrainian government has set into motion a series of events that could lead to further violence and bloodshed.

The Russian government has already initiated new military drills along its border with Ukraine. It believes that it must protect the citizens in Eastern Ukraine, and if the army attacks the protesters, Russia will have no choice but to send its military to protect those citizens.

If Russia does invade Ukraine, then the United States and EU will be forced to respond with more than just sanctions. One of the options will be to increase lethal aid to Ukraine in the form of weapons and intelligence that will help the Ukrainians fight the Russian army. Another option would be to send U.S. troops to Ukraine to help defend it. In short, the situation has become a game of chicken. Both countries are heading towards a much more serious conflict, and neither side wants to swerve first.

In chicken, there is only one way to win. You must convince your opponent that you have no way to swerve. In a car, you can disable the steering to ensure that you cannot turn away from hitting the other car. Your opponent sees this and then must swerve to avoid an accident since you cannot. In the case of Ukraine, Russia and the United States are heading towards conflict of some kind. Russia seems willing to go to war over Ukraine. The question that the United States must answer is if it is willing to go to war to defend Ukraine.

It was once thought that this situation could be resolved peacefully, but there is now growing uncertainty. The point of no return will be the spread of conflict to other states like Moldova, which might happen next. In a worst-case scenario, NATO would get involved militarily, and we could be faced with another European war. 

There is one other option, though, that could prevent this game of chicken before it becomes fatal. That is to create a new constitution that creates a federal system with regional autonomy for Eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government must win back the hearts of the citizens in Eastern Ukraine. A new constitution would buy enough time to de-escalate the situation and reduce tensions.

Ukraine could become a model for a country that is a bridge between Russia and the West instead of ground zero in a new Cold War that could quickly become very hot. The West must urge the Ukrainian government to establish a new constitution, and Russia must urge the pro-Russia separatists to work with the Ukrainian government to achieve this. Until this happens, the situation in Ukraine will continue to spiral out of control and have the potential to start a new global conflict.

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