Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Ukraine Crisis: the players in a European "chess game"

In a recent analysis of the Ukraine Crisis, I talked about three possible outcomes; optimistic, middling, and the "worse case" scenario. The "worse case" scenario was:

"Civil war erupts, with Crimea seceding. Russia decides to intervene directly to protect its strategic interests, as Ukraine represents its "last line of defence"

As of Sunday, now seventy-two hours on from that "worse case" scenario, events seem much closer to that than the most optimistic resolution.

The Russian gambit

As the deal was signed between Yanukovich and the opposition politicians on Friday, it appears that Yanukovich had already decided that the "deal" wasn't worth the paper it was written on.

The decision of Yanukovich to make a "tactical withdrawal" to Kharkov in the middle of the night, while initially bringing reactions of surprise and victorious exultation from the opposition in Kiev come Saturday morning, in reality had a much more ominous motivation.
Later that afternoon, it became clear that Yanukovich's decision to flee from the Ukrainian-speaking capital, Kiev, to the Russian-speaking "eastern capital", Kharkov, was not an acceptance of defeat, or an abrogation of his presidential duties. In the same way that Charles I's decision to flee London for the safety of Oxford was the opening move that created the English Civil War, Yanukovich's retreat to Kharkov had a similar motivation.

During Saturday, Yanukovich's supporters in the eastern districts initially gave serious consideration to forming a breakaway, Russian-backed province of the (Russian-speaking) east and south of Ukraine. Then there were rumours that he was trying to flee to Russia, along with some of his most senior supporters. It was after this, however, that Yanukovich, later in the day, made an announcement that he was the legitimate president, and that those in Kiev were fascists and thugs: words than sound like they were manufactured in Moscow.

An educated guess is that he had been on the phone to the Kremlin, who had their own reasons for not wanting him to surrender half the country so easily. Since yesterday, Yanukovich's support base (The Party Of The Regions) seem to be abandoning him, while still considering the Kiev government to be illegitimate; this may also be part of a Kremlin-formulated gambit.

What are Russia's intentions? While accepting a de facto split of Ukraine on the ground (at least in the short term), accepting it de jure would be another matter, and we know that Russia follows the line that the opposition now in power in Kiev is engineered by fascists that have come to power through a violent coup. On Saturday, having fled Kiev, Yanukovich may well have asked for Russian protection for a Russian-speaking eastern and southern rump state. But the Kremlin may have explained their own motivation, based on their analysis of the opposition: to allow the opposition a taste of power in Kiev (while having no control of the east), playing a waiting game for the disparate opposition to violently turn on each other, allowing Yanukovich and his party to return to power in Kiev soon afterwards, with Russian help or not, depending on the situation.

The above scenario makes some sense in Russian eyes, and events on the ground give some credence to Moscow's thinking, if this is indeed what is on their mind. The Kremlin is playing a long game in Ukraine, and may be happy in the short-term to see opposition in-fighting cause a rapid disintegration of a new Kiev government; all the better if the EU, in its ignorance of the make-up of the opposition, ally themselves with fascists and thugs, who will soon become discredited. It will vindicate Moscow's gambit in the Ukraine Crisis, and lead to the Russia-leaning party coming back into power, with a much weaker opposition.

At the moment, with Yanukovich leaking support from his own party base, Moscow's loyalty to him personally also looks increasingly expendable. For Moscow, he is just one man; the preservation of Yanukovich's party is much more important than the man himself, in order for their gambit to succeed.

The players in Kiev

Who are the opposition? As just mentioned, the EU's support for them seems more in hope than expectation; they support the opposition's "Euro-philia" without looking too carefully at the motivations of the different players that the opposition are made of.

Already, as of Sunday, the opposition in parliament in Kiev look to be over-reaching: repealing laws that give Russian-speakers in the east and south linguistic equality with Ukrainian-speakers. While this may only look like it's reversing a perceived Yanukovich indulgence, this sends a clear signal to Yanukovich's supporters in the east, and given the polarised climate of Ukraine at the moment, hardly sends a message of mutual understanding and goodwill. At present you have a government in Kiev that considers itself the government of whole country, and an almost identical situation in "eastern capital" Kharkov and the rest of the east and the south. This is the recipe for a civil war: all you need is a spark.

Those in Europe who compare these events in Kiev to the Orange Revolution are dangerously behind the times. Yuliya Tymushenko, the now-released former-PM, no longer has a serious power-base; since her time in prison, she has become discredited (as the catcalls during her speech to the protesters show), and others have taken her place.

Furthermore, as Moscow already knows, the opposition movement itself is a disparate group: the only aim that truly united them was to oust Yanukovich. Now that's done, what next? The opposition comprises pro-EU groups, as well as anti-Semitic extreme nationalists. Those nationalists already have a serious hold on the city of Lvov, the "second city" of "western" Ukraine. There is therefore the very real danger that even in the firmly-opposition half of the country, in-fighting over "territory" could break out between nationalists and moderates.
And then there are those areas that are more "contested", where the mix between Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers is more even. What happens there? A linguistic (and election) map shows you that the westernmost regions are the most "Ukrainian", and those in the south-east and Crimea are the most "Russian". Most of the rest is one big grey area. It is here where the risk of violence may be the highest, and could result in a "worse case" scenario.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin looks on, waiting to see if its gambit will come off; and whether "intervention" will be necessary...

No comments:

Post a Comment