Betting it all on Nothing: Ukraine’s opposition has legitimate grievances, but risked everything to gain little

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons

By Mike Burnham |

Since independence in 1991, Ukraine has been subject to one of Europe’s most toxic political climates. In the most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, Ukraine ranked 144 of 176 countries, lower than notoriously corrupt countries like Russia and Pakistan, and on par with the likes of Iran and the Central African Republic.[1] Its ethno-nationalist divide has torn the country straight down the Dnipro River, resulting in dramatic sways in public policy. The current Yanukovych regime has only widened the chasm with new allegations of rampant corruption.

Despite all this, both Ukrainians and bystanders in the West have shown a little too much enthusiasm and not enough caution with regards to the recent riots throughout the country. While Americans love to throw public support behind any struggle in the name of democratic values, it would be prudent to realize there is more to consider in political conflict than the values we espouse. In the case of Ukraine, the Western world should not be picking sides, but rather brokering for peace.

Ukraine’s ethno-national composition made this conflict far more dangerous than most activists realized. The country teetered on the edge of a potentially genocidal situation and has little to show for it. Hitting the reset button on their constitution and ousting their thuggish President may help combat corruption in the short term, but it will not resolve Ukraine’s perpetual turmoil. In reality, the Maidan protests’ most significant impact is that it deepened the schism between the dominant ethno-nationalist identities and placed the country in an even more precarious relationship with Russia.

The rejected free trade agreement with the EU that sparked initial protests in November was merely a catalyst to the identity conflict plaguing the country. The fundamental disagreement between Ukraine’s conflicting regional and ethnic identities lies in their relationship with Russia.[2] While the Northern and Western regions of Ukraine see Russia as a perpetrator of genocide against Ukrainians,[3] the East and South see them as ethnic kin. Both stances leave little room for negotiation.

The persistence of this identity conflict is precisely why Ukraine’s issues cannot be solved by any structural or personnel changes in government. Since the inception of modern Ukraine, these two dominant ethno-nationalist identities have clashed regularly over issues such as language and foreign relations. In a country that makes fisticuffs a regular part of parliament,[4] it is not a question of whether peace can be maintained, but when it will be broken.

How can Ukraine solve its long-term conflict? Like a marriage, identity conflicts have essentially two solutions: reconciliation or divorce. In the case of Ukraine, reconciliation would be the lengthier, but more desirable process. Divorce by splitting the country holds the potential for genocide. As tensions have risen and fallen, Ukraine has teetered dangerously close to spiraling toward divorce. If the Western world raises its voice in favor of anything other than de-escalation, it is being foolhardy.

Reconciliation so that conflicting identities can either coexist (like English and French Canadians), or are absolved into a single national identity (like the United States), is a difficult and lengthy affair. There is no proven formula for success and it may take generations of enduring a tense political climate. Nevertheless, it is the appropriate choice for Ukraine.

Prior to the riots, many observers noted an increase in solidarity among Ukrainian youth. All across Ukraine, youth were more likely to speak Ukrainian and favor EU- friendly policies.[5]

Ukraine has the additional advantage of having a democracy with legitimate competition. While no one ever accused Yanokovych of playing fair, he is no Mubarak. Ukrainians have shown they are capable of inciting change via the voting booth. When that fails, peaceful protests have brought more than a few people to justice. It is possible significant progress will only occur once a generation that no longer identifies with the Cold War era takes over, but voting and waiting is better than the alternative.

It is tempting to look at a voting map of Ukraine and think divorce is a quicker, more elegant solution.[6] However, there will be no velvet divorce for Ukraine as there was for Czechoslovakia. A split in the country will only occur when a conflict like the one we just witnessed spirals out of control.

At the heart of the issue is the city at the heart of the country — Kyiv. To both parties, Kyiv represents a piece of indivisible territory. The city, symbolically split in two by the Dnipro as much as it is by ethnicity, is seen as the economic and cultural capital by both ethnic groups. The presence of indivisible territory has been shown to be one of the strongest predictors of violence in ethnic conflicts.[7] What kind of violence could we expect in Ukraine? The 2012 Human Security Report indicates that intrastate conflicts where one side achieves victory result in 2,500 battle deaths, on average.[8] This is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Ukraine is particularly susceptible to ethnic cleansing.[9] In an analysis on settlement patterns and ethnic violence, it was found that patterns of concentrated majority groups were most strongly correlated with violence and rebellion.[10] A concentrated majority is an apt description of virtually all major cities in Ukraine, the notable exception being Kyiv. Had the conflict spiraled out of control, cleansing would have most likely been one of the first orders of business as ethnic majorities remove minorities from cities via displacement or slaughter.

In addition to human life, there is the economic damage to consider. The Economist reported that full recovery from civil war takes, on average, a full decade. The resulting loss is around 105% of the country’s pre-war GDP. Loss to neighboring countries is worse, around 115% of GDP.[11]

The point of all this is not to argue that violence is inevitable or that the opposition did not have legitimate grievances. Cautious was certainly in order when Ukrainian members of parliament voted President Yanukovych out of office on February 22. More simply, observers in the West should better understand what is at stake before they dawn their Che Guevara t-shirts and join the revolution. It is sexy to fight for democracy, but wars are an extremely costly endeavor in terms of blood and treasure. Yanukovych is gone, but the underlying conflict persists. What, then, has been gained by risking civil war other than reinforcing ethno-nationalist divides and providing an excuse for Russian aggression?

Protests can be a powerful political tool, but when signs turn to barricades and words to bullets, we should first ask if the cause is worth the cost, particularly when a better end can be achieved through a combination of patience and faith in the democratic process.

Mike Burnham is an MA candidate in Georgetown’s Security Studies Program and GSSR’s Associate Editor for Military & Defense.


[1] “Corruption Perceptions Index 2013,” Transparency International, Accessed February 22, 2014, http://cpi.transparency.org/cpi2013/results/

[2] For a brief summary of the origins and perspectives of the identities see: Nicolai N. Petro, “Ukraine’s Culture War,” The National Interest, accessed February 22, 2014, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/ukraines-culture-war-9838?page=1

[3] The Holodomor was an artificial famine inflicted on Ukraine by the Soviet Union from 1932-1933. Casualty estimates are at about 3.3 million, but can vary widely. See: “Holodomor: Memories of Ukraine’s silent massacre,” BBC, accessed February 22, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-25058256

[4] The most recent fight occurred February 21, 2014. See: “Deputies fight in Ukrainian parliament,” Reuters, accessed February 22, 2014, http://news.yahoo.com/deputies-fight-ukrainian-parliament-093158474–sector.html

[5] “Russian language failing to attract Ukrainian youth,” The Lithuania Tribune, accessed February 22, 2014, http://www.lithuaniatribune.com/52073/opinion-russian-language-failing-to-attract-ukrainian-youth-201352073/

[6] An example from the Kyiv Post is located here: http://www.kyivpost.com/media/images/2012/10/30/p17ap69ploj3hbn61hrk1ebh3us4/big.jpg

[7] Monica Duffy Toft, The Geography of Ethnic Violence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 31.

[8] The United Nations “2012 Human Security Report” pg. 179, accessed February 22, 2014 http://hsrgroup.org/docs/Publications/HSR2012/2012HumanSecurityReport-FullText-LowRes.pdf

[9] That pattern in which protests unfolded in various cities gave early hints at ethnic cleansing. Minority protests were focused in the West and minority protestors in the east were assaulted in multiple locations. Reports are here: http://www.euronews.com/2014/02/20/ukraine-s-regions-begin-to-rise-against-yanukovych/ and http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/02/22/lvov-ukraine-protests/5724589/

[10] Duffy Toft, The Georgraphy of Ethnic Violence, 35-40

[11] “The Price of Peace” The Economist, April 22nd, 2004, accessed February 22, 2014, http://www.economist.com/node/2610959

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