May 19, 2014

Look at the map, Ukraine’s separatism may have a life of its own

Russian President Vladimir Putin has lost control of the battle for hearts and minds in Ukraine. The situation in the divided nation is now even more complicated.

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

The situation in eastern Ukraine remains murky; the optimism that developed a week and a half ago after conciliatory remarks from Russian President Vladimir Putin now seems to have dissipated. According to the BBC, Ivan Simonovic, the United Nations assistant secretary general for human rights, said that things were approaching a "point of no return" and that there were "worrying echoes of the 1990s war in his native Croatia". On Friday it was reported that steelworkers had joined with pro-government forces in Mariupol (on the coast of Luhansk province) to retake control from separatists. It's an odd echo of the old left-wing demand of "arms to the workers", with its implicit threat of full-scale civil war. Putin no longer looks in control of the situation, if indeed he ever was. While I've no doubt that the unrest in the east was primarily Russian-inspired, that doesn't mean Moscow can now do what it likes with it. Nationalist agitation is easier to turn on than to turn off. That makes it important to understand something of how nationalist sentiment works in Ukraine. The essential ingredients are the 2001 Ukrainian census figures and the 2010 presidential election results, which correlate remarkably well. I've tried to summarise them with the aid of this map of Ukraine's provinces (base map courtesy of Wikipedia ...

The pink area is where most of the current crisis is focused: Crimea (including the city of Sebastopol) in the south, and Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in the east. All have Russian-speaking majorities, averaging 62%. But while the majority in Crimea identify as ethnically Russian, in the two eastern provinces only about 40% do. That's a consistent pattern across the country. Language and ethnicity are not the same: far more people (up to twice as many) speak Russian than actually identify themselves as Russian. So when Putin claims a mandate to protect not just Russians outside his country's borders but Russian speakers, he's casting the net very wide -- as was pointed out by Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log. The difference is clearest in the six southern provinces colored yellow. This area voted strongly for the pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, by margins of around three to one. Russian speakers are a minority, but a substantial one: 36% on average, and as high as 48% in Zaporizhia. By ethnicity, however, it's much more obviously Ukrainian; the proportion identifying as Russian ranges from 14% to 26%. More than half of Ukraine's population is in the green and blue areas, which voted for Yulia Tymoshenko for president and where ethnic Russians are very thin on the ground: 13% in Kiev city, but less than 10% elsewhere. The green area, where Russian commands only about 3%, is the most Europeanised, having belonged to Poland, Czechoslovakia or Romania prior to 1939. If Putin wanted to subjugate the whole of Ukraine, safeguarding the interests of Russians, even Russian speakers, was never going to be enough of a rationale. At most, that way of thinking leads to partition. Yet while Russia might be able to absorb Donetsk and Luhansk, moving beyond them, into territory where the overwhelming majority identify as Ukrainian, seems beyond the bounds of practicality. On the other hand, all the signs so far are that -- in contrast to Crimea, which is now clearly lost -- Ukraine will not give up its easternmost provinces without a fight. And if Russia has to fight an actual war, it seems an awful lot of work to go to for just two provinces, amounting to less than a sixth of Ukraine's population -- no doubt at the cost of permanently alienating opinion in the rest of the country. That makes me still think Putin is looking for some sort of settlement in which he can get concessions from Kiev, including recognition of the gains he's already made, in return for reining in the separatists. As Damien Kingsbury said a fortnight ago, the annexation of Crimea is supposed to be "an object of lesson to the Kiev government for what could happen in eastern Ukraine ... not necessarily a precursor to what will happen". The big question is whether separatism in Donetsk and Luhansk now has enough momentum that it will resist any such settlement and succumb only (if at all) to force. If so, Ukraine could be in for darker times to come.

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8 thoughts on “Look at the map, Ukraine’s separatism may have a life of its own

  1. davelec

    I do agree with what you write, but there is something important that is missing.

    I know many people in Ukraine – many. I have been there, and in a few weeks I will return.

    In 2012, while on holiday in Yalta with my friend Larissa and her daughter, Taisia, who are from Odessa, I watched the local version of X-factor with them.

    I asked Larissa whether they were speaking, on the TV, Ukrainian or Russian.

    Larissa answered “both”.

    I asked her to explain.

    She said that each person was switching back and forth between both languages. They would speak a Russian sentence with Ukrainian words, and vice versa.

    I asked her if that confused anyone, and she said no. She said that most people spoke like this, and this is very common on radio and TV in Ukraine.

    So, whilst Laura identified herself as a Russian speaking Ukrainian she freely admitted that she, like most Ukrainians, from either the East or West, South or North, switched freely from one to the other, and often doing so mid-sentence.

    She also told me that whilst Odessans consider what they spoke as Russian, Russians would have trouble following what they said, because of their accent, and the foreign words, (English, Greek, Ukrainian) that Odessans used. In fact people often say that people from Odessa speak their own language ‘Odessan”.

    This idea that the East speaks Russian and the West Ukrainian is little more than Russian propaganda.

    And in the West, the idea that almost everyone is fluent in at least two (if not more) languages is too alien. In Lviv, people will also intermix Polish. And there are Romanian, Hungarian, and Slovakian, as well as Tatar, and even a 400 year old version of Greek spoken, on top of both Russian and Ukrainian in various parts of the country.

  2. Grumpy Old Sod

    @davelec. From what I have read the difference between Ukrainian and Russian revolves around 5 or so letters. Other than that the two languages are virtually the same. Regional differences, such as your example of Odessa which by the way I found fascinating, would explain the rest.

    The aspect of all this that I find interesting is the juxtaposition of the US/UK NATO based alliance and the rapidly changing view of Russia from within Continental Europe. For example: on Sunday the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier initiated a phone conversation with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov about how to de-escalate the situation in Eastern Ukraine. It is in Germany’s interest to do this as they have a very healthy trading situation with Russia – Russia supplies the gas and Germany supplies manufactured goods to Russia with the cross trade being at around $110 billion and rapidly growing. Ten percent of German exports are to Russia. Neither side wish to see this fall on troubled times and there are reports of captains of German industry lobbying the German government to ensure that it doesn’t.

    In addition, Putin and the Chinese President Xi-Jinping are meeting in Shanghai now and are in the process of consolidating their existing very strong economic relationship with what Putin yesterday described as being “at the highest level in history”. With the railroad between China and Russia terminating in Germany at what is being called the largest inland port in the world one can see that there is emerging an extremely strong bloc of countries which most certainly will challenge the USA’s preeminence. Many informed commentators suspect that this is the real cause of these problems; the US/UK based NATO alliance that was formed to ensure the Atlantic supremacy now being seriously challenged by Russia, China and probably Germany with France desperate to be included in the equation as evidenced by their ongoing contract to supply Russia with 2 naval ships which both the US and the UK would like to see scrapped but which the French are honouring.

    Thus, even with these few examples it can be demonstrated that the old alliances are weakening and new ones taking their place. It was to this end that the fascist based coup in Kiev focusing on Maiden was indeed initiated by the US through their under secretary of Eastern Europe Victoria Nuland. Even more interesting are the reports of some of the Ukrainian regular army deserting in Donetsk with only the hastily recruited far right lunatics such as those responsible for the Odessa massacre actually engaged in fighting in both Donetsk and Luhansk. More frightening are the reports of 400 or so Blackwater mercenaries being already within those two provinces. If that is the case then you can bet the covert Russian presence already there would be bolstered quickly by specialty undercover Spetsnaz forces. Heaven help the people of that area should this report be true.

    My reading of all this is that Putin does not need to fight and thus doesn’t want to fight. The tide of events are with him and all he has to do is ride that tide. Probably both Donetsk and Luhansk will be re-emerged within Russia at the most or either become separate states (unlikely) or have far greater autonomy within Ukraine than what the so called government in Kiev would currently allow.

  3. Tyger Tyger

    Agreed up to a point with you, Grumpy Old Sod, particularly on Western efforts to pressure Russia by absorbing the former Soviet satellites into the EU and NATO and push these institutions ever further east, despite Bush the Elder’s promise to Gorbachev that the U.S. wouldn’t support such a move in response to the U.S.S.R. pulling out of Eastern Europe in the early 90s. It’s hardly surprising the Russians are pissed off by that. Can’t agree on Maidan though. While the far right were clearly involved and I wouldn’t be the least surprised if it turns out the West had a surreptitious hand in things, those on the ground witnessed a more spontaneous movement than the one you describe. The London Review of Books has run some excellent articles recently on the situation and it’s more nuanced than you make out (Not sure if these are pay-walled. Some LRB articles are and some aren’t.) The following is from James Meek, 20/3/14 (Vol. 36, No. 6):

    “It wasn’t the decision by Yanukovich, on 21 November, to back away from a deal for closer ties with the European Union that brought about the Ukrainian revolution. That merely set off demonstrations; a small-scale attack by protesters on the government on 24 November was easily beaten off by police firing tear gas. The catalyst for something more momentous was a series of video clips of an incident six days later, when the authorities made a heavy-handed attempt, in the small hours of a Saturday morning, to empty the square of a peaceful, unarmed crowd, many of them students hanging out to discuss the situation. Hundreds of riot police went in with batons, laying about them and shedding blood. Later the authorities said they had to clear the area to put up Kiev’s New Year tree. The images of police brutality accompanied by the screams of terrified protesters flashed around the country, and brought thousands of people in coaches from Lviv, the centre of Ukrainian nationalism in the west, and a hundred thousand or more Kievans onto the streets of the capital.”

    The article goes on to make the case that, more than anything, the Ukrainian people were fed up with the corruption of the Yanukovich regime (which is not to say they’ll get any more joy from the current lot!):

    “Corruption. Not Bandera, not Russia, not Europe – corruption.”

    Again on “the tide of events” being with Putin, this from Tony Wood, 22/5/14 (Vol. 36, No. 10):

    “One of the most striking features of the pro-Russian movements in eastern Ukraine, in fact, has been the institutional vacuum in which they have operated. In the absence of recognisable political parties that might channel their demands – but also defang them – the rough-and-ready methods of popular assemblies have taken hold; hence, too, the improvised character of the 11 May referendums. Whatever their level of support in Ukraine, these movements, combining nationalist appeals to Russian ethnicity and tradition with rebellious impulses to self-organisation, set an example Putin has no more desire to see emulated in Russia than he did the Maidan.”

  4. Luke Helbling

    Is there an even vaguely likely possibility that this nationalistic”demostrating”could backfire deeper in Russia by escalating anti-Russian sentiments into action in places like Chechnya?

  5. David Penington

    It’s encouraging to hear that the pro-russian militias are having trouble recruiting.

  6. Charles Richardson

    Thanks everyone for the replies. Some quick thoughts:

    davelc, that’s a really interesting point. Ukrainian and Russian are very closely related, so it’s not at all like, say, Dutch and French in Belgium. People switch back and forth and in many informal contexts use a mixture of the two. In some ways that makes it more interesting that people’s description of what language they use can differ so much from their ethnic identification.

    Sorry G.O.S., but you lost me at “fascist based coup in Kiev”; I think that’s a Russian propaganda line with no basis in reality. If you’re looking for reminders of fascism, they seem a lot more prominent on the separatist side. You make some good points about economic interdependence; I’ve said all along that the ultimate goal has to be to draw Russia into the European net. But that’s now clearly going to be a project for after Putin.

    Tyger: thanks, that agrees pretty much with my reading of things. That Tony Wood article is especially good, making it clear that Putin is acting from a position of weakness, not strength: “carving up Ukraine would guarantee it a hostile pro-Western client state on its doorstep, when it’s much more in Russia’s interests to keep it fragmented and semi-sovereign within its present borders.” And I loved the line that “The West … has nothing to lose but Ukrainian lives.”

    Luke: Yes, I think Putin probably realises that nationalism is a dangerous card for him to play. His problem is that it’s about all he’s got.

  7. stuart richardson

    On the money,grumpy old sod. I posit that the fact that Nulands recorded conversation (now a matter of public record) with the classic “and you know, f__k the EU” has not made the mainstream ‘news’is proof enough that there is a cosy arrangement between the US and Co.

  8. Tyger Tyger

    There’s an article in today’s Guardian by Oliver Bullough that’s particularly relevant to this discussion. It concludes:

    “This is what the revolution is about: Ukrainians trying to wrest control of their country from the oligarchs of Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk and elsewhere who – with help from east and west – have robbed them for 23 years. The left should be cheering them on.

    “The east against west story does have one beneficiary: the Kremlin. In Ukraine Moscow is trying to preserve a crooked regime against the wishes of Ukrainians who want to live with dignity, because the old ways made it money. It also fears a united and stable Ukraine would join Nato. That’s why Russia is sheltering Yanukovych, and threatening not to recognise the elections on 25 May. Russia is deploying its propaganda apparatus to present this as an ideological struggle rather than a mercenary one. RT, the channel formerly known as Russia Today, addresses the outside world, while state television channels bombard Russian-speakers with denunciations of the “fascists” in Kiev.

    “Journalists who grew up in a world when Moscow and the west were equal adversaries feel comfortable in this narrative. It’s far easier to sell Ukraine if it’s Czechoslovakia 1968, rather than a messy failed state, a European Congo.

    “With media on all sides forcing Ukraine into a west v east narrative, Ukrainians keep hearing that this battle is geopolitical and inter-ethnic, rather than an attempt by ordinary people to take control of their destinies. There is enough truth in the caricature – west Ukrainians do speak Ukrainian, east Ukrainians do speak Russian – that Ukrainians have started believing it, and started fighting about it. And people got killed. And the propaganda is turning into the truth.

    “Journalists have a responsibility at a time like this. They should learn what’s really happening before making sweeping conclusions. They should remember this is about ordinary Ukrainians, not about Moscow or Washington. And they should be aware that their lazy judgments are tomorrow’s incendiary propaganda.”

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