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The crisis in Ukraine started on 21 November 2013 with the Euromaidan protests in Kiev. Six months later, it is threatening to become a full-blown civil war with severe global impacts, unless the situation is stabilized. It is thus very important to assess the short to medium term plausible futures for this conflict, including if stabilization occurs or seem to take place, as the country and the international world will have been impacted. This post starts a series on the conflict in Ukraine, which aims at providing the most possible useful analysis of the situation. As we did with Syria, the series will focus on the states of play for the actors and the situation on the ground, a necessary foundation for any proper strategic foresight and warning regarding the conflict.
After outlining our analytical framework to overcome the difficulties related to propaganda, we shall define and present the three phases of the conflict, so far, and their dynamics and evaluate if we are in the case of a war in Ukraine.
Propaganda, reality and analysis
The analysis regarding Ukraine is particularly interesting and potentially fraught with difficulties because of “The War on Truth in Ukraine“, as underlined by Keith A. Darden, an associate professor at American University in his New York Times op-ed (27 April 2014). Indeed, the situation is highly and violently polarized at both national and international level, and accompanied by corresponding advocacy, to put it mildly, actually propaganda and thus psychological warfare.
It is thus, ideally, all the more important to provide as dispassionate an analysis as possible, because, without it, no proper assessment of the future is possible. It is the only way forward towards both de-escalating the overall situation and strategically, whatever the actor and the goal, seeing one’s goal met. It is also the role and duty of scientists and non-partisan, a-political think tanks to present the most possible unbiased analysis, in a way similar to the Intelligence “speak truth to power”, because only realistic and comprehensive analyses may lead to proper actions and contribute to avoiding costly mistakes and unpleasant surprises.
Yet, we should also not ignore that what one side sees as propaganda, is often revered as “Truth” by another side, or is a vital element of his/her strategy to attain a goal. No amount of effort would convince those who believe strongly in their perspective and their aim that it is only this, a specific worldview, indeed grounded on some facts but interpreted specifically and most often partially. Furthermore, what one side or one actor (understood here collectively) believes will determine how its cognitive filter will sort out information, ignoring some pieces and considering others and then how it will interpret those facts.
Moreover, as far as some facts are concerned, it will be impossible to know with a one hundred per cent certainty what really happened before archives are open and declassified, which means waiting at best 30 years, most often longer for topics related to national security. Even intelligence services with the huge means at their disposal sometimes get it completely wrong, as reminds us the wide literature on multiple intelligence failures (see the excellent bibliography on intelligence maintained by J. Clark).
Thus, besides the most outlandish and outrageous propaganda that can be discarded at the level of facts – but still needs to be considered at the level of beliefs held, how are we to proceed? Rather than fighting against this reality, we need to turn it to our advantage. We shall, of course, rely first on scholarly work, when it exists, for in-depth knowledge, and on investigation journalism, when it is done. Then, we shall try to consider those facts that can be known and that are usually included in all reports and news articles, or rather that can be identified by considering all sources, however being careful with the interpretation given to those facts. Our work here is eased by the relatively large amount of raw information available thanks to new media and social networks, such as videos, photos, or exchanges on twitter or other media.
As overall framework, we shall consider that “All the actors’ beliefs present a vision of reality bent to their respective beliefs and goals. Out of the interactions between the actors motivated by their beliefs and related goals emerges a future Reality, “the Truth,” that is then apprehended and interpreted according to each actor’s information filter and capabilities to gather information” (Lavoix, Nationalism and Genocide, 2005: 195) As a result, listening and paying attention to all actors will give us their beliefs, their goals and their most probable next actions, as well as emerging potential future(s).
Phases of conflict and casualties
Before to start analyzing in detail the actors we need to have a broad understanding of the situation, including identifying if we already are faced with a war, and to assess the overall dynamics, which we shall then refine in the course of the analysis, over the series of posts.
In international relations, two benchmark may be used to specify a situation. The first option is also the easiest one and is quantitative. It is used by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program and considers that “A conflict, both state-based and non-state, is deemed to be active if there are at least 25 battle-related deaths per calendar year in one of the conflict’s dyads” (see definition of the item “active” conflict).
The second benchmark is both qualitative and quantitative and grounded in the work of the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, as explained previously (see “how to analyze future security threats (5): scenarios and crises“). Its assessment is more complicated and the methodology is well explained in the latest yearly publication of the Conflict Barometer 2013 (25/2/2014, pp. 9-10). The crisis in Ukraine entered the Conflict Barometer at level 3, i.e. violent conflict, in November 2013.
We shall thus evaluate what is happening in Ukraine against those two benchmarks, meanwhile recalling the broad dynamics of events.
First phase: Euromaidan
The conflict in Ukraine started on 21 November 2013, notably on a backdrop of severe financial difficulties (see forthcoming post, The Oligarchs -1) with the Euromaidan protests in Kiev. On this day, the Ukrainian parliament failed to vote the law to release jailed former Prime Minister Yiulia Tymoshenko, which de facto meant suspension of the negotiations for the signature of the Association Agreement with the European Union, when joining the European Union was seen as an ideal by many (BBC News, 21 Nov 2013). Meanwhile, ex-President Yanukovich announced the dialogue with Russia was pursued, when Russia was feared and rejected by those favouring the European choice (Al Jazeera, 21 Nov 2013). As a result, “opposition party Batkivshchyna [see below] leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk [now interim Prime Minister] called, via Twitter and Facebook, for protests (which he dubbed as #Euromaidan)” (Wikipedia).
— Arseniy Yatsenyuk (@Yatsenyuk_AP) November 21, 2013
The first phase of the crisis lasted until ex-President Yanukovich was ousted by a 328 majority vote out of the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian Parliament) on 22 February and fled (for details and related constitutional problems on number of votes (constitutionally 338), motivation and procedure, see Daisy Sindelar, “Was Yanukovych’s Ouster Constitutional?“, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, 23 Feb 2014). On 26 February, the new government (see graph below) was presented and voted by the Rada the next day.
New presidential elections must be held on 25 May 2014 (Sindelar, Ibid.). They are currently considered as the crucial objective to reach by the international society of states, although, as time passes and escalation progress (see below), they may or may not have the stabilizing effect that most seem to expect, assuming they can properly be held on the whole territory of Ukraine, as defined by the interim Kiev government, the U.S., the E.U. and its member states.
Casualties amount for this phase to 142 deaths (129 protesters and 13 policemen – Wikipedia “list of people killed during Euromaidan“) and more than 1500 wounded (Ukrainian Pravda, 20 Feb 2014). On 20 February, the shooting of what was then estimated to “at least 88 people” by snipers (the death toll reached 126 people Wikipedia, Ibid), while heavy fighting was taking place, created outrage and shock and finally led to the victory of the protesters (BBC Ukraine crisis timeline).
Another consequence was the dissolution on 25 February of the Berkut police, the Ukrainian elite anti-riot police force created in 1992 with “4,000-5,000 members stationed across Ukraine”, held responsible by the interim government for the 20 February’s deaths (BBC News, Ukraine’s Berkut police: What makes them special?” & “Ukraine ‘disbands elite Berkut anti-riot police“, 26 Feb 2014). Ukraine, as a state, thus saw its legitimate monopoly over violence lowered: not only was it deprived of an elite force (the question of what to do with a force that starts being seen as illegitimate is a difficult one), but men trained as special forces were now idle and potentially feeling punished for having followed orders.
Second phase: the rise of protests in the SouthEast
The second phase flared as the first ended, with protests in Crimea, on 23 February, “to declare allegiance to Russia” (Howard Amos, “Ukraine crisis fuels secession calls in pro-Russian south“, The Guardian, 23 February 2014). Meanwhile, on the same day, the Rada in Kiev decided to annul the 2012 law “On the principle of State Language Policy” (see Ukraine Parliament 23 February session 13:03), which allowed, in each region, the use of other official languages besides Ukrainian, if a language is spoken by at least 10% of a region’s population (see Law; Sabra Ayres, “Is it too late for Kiev to woo Russian-speaking Ukraine?” The Christian Science Monitor, 28 Feb 2013).
In other cities, anti-Russian acts by Maidan demonstrators, such as the dismantling of monuments to Lenin or Russian military figures, alienated those Ukrainians who held dear a Russian and Soviet past, as reported among others by Ayres (ibid.) in Kharkov, for example. Protests that were dubbed “pro-Russian” spread throughout the Eastern and Southern part of the country, countered by pro-Kiev interim government demonstrations.
Other causes may also be at work and would necessitate a full analysis, for example the issue of shale gas in the Donbass region with the Yuzovsky site involving Shell, while Chevron has won the Olessky site in the Lviv region (e.g. “Post-Soviet Countries Poised to Join the “Shale Revolution”. The Multinationals Will Help“, Oil & Gas Eurasia, 24 June 2012; Calihunter, “Shell: Ukraine ~3.6 trillion of unexplored shale natural gas in the eastern provinces“, Roosh V forum; News of Donbass, 28 April 2014 and News of Donbass “articles on shale gas in the Donbass” – use Chrome to translate pages in Russian). In the same line of thoughts see also the controversial appointment of US Vice-President Joe Biden’s son to the board of a Ukrainian gas company (Mollie Hemingway, The Federalist, 13 May 2014). The possible existence of those causes, however, does not change the escalation process and the polarization that must be addressed.
On 27 February, regional administrative buildings were seized in Crimea, followed by similar moves with various fates in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, etc. as some buildings changed hands many times (for a detailed list, see Wikipedia, 2014 pro-Russian unrest in Ukraine, Timeline; for a perspective from Russia: RT “Ukraine Turmoil Live updates“; for a perspective from the U.S.: Radio Free Europe “Live blog Ukraine in Crisis“).
The second phase may be seen as ending with the incorporation of the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to the Russian Federation, procedure finalized between 18 and 21 March 2014 (Russian President), after a referendum held on 16 March (for details, e.g. Wikipedia).
From the United Nations General Assembly’s point of view, which voted on 27 March on a “resolution calling upon states not to recognise changes in the status of the Crimea region“, 100 states supported the resolution, 58 abstained including all of the BRICS, 11 voted against and a further 24 chose not to be present, including Israel. Thus, as suggested by Ian Kearns and Denitsa Raynova, the isolation of Russia is far from being total (“Is Russia really isolated on Ukraine?“, European Leadership Network,1 April 2014).
Nonetheless, the absorption of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol in the Russian Federation heightened the international polarization and the perception by the interim Kiev government and part of the Ukrainian population as well as by the U.S., the E.U. and the European states of an all-powerful Russian hidden hand behind all events, which underlies the rounds of individual financial and economic sanctions imposed against Russia, the latest being imposed on 12 May 2014 (e.g. CBCNews, 13 May).
By contrast, it is important to understand that, from a Russian perspective, American and European actions can similarly be perceived as aggressive against Russia, as well shown by historian Nick Ottens (“Russia’s Crimea Invasion Follows Decades of Perceived Humiliation“, Offiziere.ch, 5 March 2014). Casualties for this phase amount to two deaths and four wounded Simferopol Incident, Wikipedia).
Third phase: escalation and conflict
The third and current phase is about the escalation taking place in Eastern and, so far in a lesser way, Southern Ukraine. The milestones, which can be identified and upon which we shall come back in forthcoming posts, show clearly an escalation and the spread of the conflict to civilians, who are increasingly forced by events and shocks to take side as fear and outrage spread. Furthermore, a most likely unintended consequence of the extreme focus on Russia as “omnipotent culprit” by the U.S., the E.U. and European member states is that, by the same token, events on the ground, as they continue to unfold, also appear to be dismissed or belittled. As a result, protesting populations most probably feel at best misunderstood and abandoned, as indicates the tweet below, at worst opposed and aggressed, which only further polarizes the overall situation.
Roza Kazan (@rozakazancctv) May 11, 2014
Meanwhile – and logically as grievances of part of the population are not heard – the interim government and the international players also see events spiraling out of control.
The most salient milestones are:
- The declaration of the Donetsk People’s Republic on 6 April 2014 (e.g. DPA and Reuters, “Pro-Russian activists declare Ukraine’s Donetsk an independent republic“, Haaretz, Apr. 7, 2014);
- The start on 15 April of operations by the interim government dubbed “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO) as fighters in the East had refused to lay down arms (e.g. The Guardian, Al Jazeera, 15 April);
- The short-lived international attempt at de-escalating the situation with the 17 April Geneva agreement (signed by the interim Ukrainian government, the E.U., Russia, and the U.S. see EEAS official pdf Geneva statement140417_01_en); Casualties by then would amount to three people having been killed (Wikipedia, 16 April Donetsk)
- The re-launch of the ATO on 22 April, notably against the Donetsk oblast focusing more particularly on Slavyansk and surrounding areas (e.g. The Irish Time, 22 April);
- The declaration of the Luhansk People’s Republic on 27 April (e.g. Adam Justice, International Business Time, 27 April 2014);
- A renewed “ATO” offensive always on the same areas beginning 2 May (e.g. The Guardian live 2 May 2014),
- 2 May ended with the tragedy of Odessa involving “pro-Russian” and “pro-Ukrainian” civilians and activists and police forces, where many pro-Russians died burnt alive as they were blocked in the Trade Union building where they had taken refuge (see The Guardian for a live blog, see RT, Odessa slaughter for an account from the “pro-Russian” side; see also Andrey Tselikov, “Tragedy and Confusion in Odessa“, Global Voices, 3 May 2014, for the shock and polarization linked to the tragedy). According to Kim Sengupta from The Independent (7 May 2014) “The dead are still being counted from Odessa’s terrible fire: it was 31 at first, then went up to 48, while the number of injured has risen to 200. “
- The dramatic attack on 9 May 2014 on Mariupol civilians commemorating victory over Nazi Germany leaving between 9 and 20 dead (Kim Sengupta, “Ukraine crisis: Terror and disarray mars vote for self-rule in east of the country“, The Independent, 11 May 2014), figures being disputed (see RT Timeline, May 10, 20:49 GMT)
- The referendum for or against self-rule held in Donetsk and Luhansk, denounced by the interim government in Kiev, by the U.S., the E.U. and European member states, that Russia had asked to postpone but that was nevertheless organized.
This referendum was certainly not organised according to most sophisticated standards (e.g. among many others Sengupta “Tens of thousands vote…” and Adam Withnall “Chaos, confusion and violence …“, The Independent, 11 May 2014). However, those people who voted believed in its importance (e.g. Sengupta, 11 May), while potential local opposition to the referendum remains unknown, but could be translated in the future by voluntary internal displacements or “civil” fighting within the area. The results announced were overwhelmingly for self-rule (e.g. RT, “Referendum results …”, 11 May 2014 ) and led to
- The extremely quick surprise demand by the Donetsk People’s Republic to Russia “to consider its absorption into the Russian Federation to “restore historic justice” (Matt Robinson, Reuters, 12 May 2014).
- The ultimatum by the Donetsk People’s Republic to the forces of the Kiev interim government to leave their territory expiring at May 15 22:00 local time (20:00 GMT) (Euronews, RT Timeline).
- The overtaking of Mariupol from separatist forces by steelworkers and miners working for oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, and their deployment in four other cities on 15 May. The workers will constitute “Volunteer People’s Patrol” (Andrew Kramer, New York Times, 15 May 2014). However, on 18 May, freelance journalist Roza Kazan reports that “police confirms cooperation with reps of #Donetsk People’s Republic to restore law & order “.
- Meanwhile fighting continues.
— GrahamWPhillips (@GrahamWP_UK) May 19, 2014
According to Bloomberg quoting the UNIAN news service, “At least 40 people have died in two months of fighting between government forces and rebels in Donetsk” (Bloomberg, “Ukraine in ‘Undeclared War’ With Russia as Rebels Unite“, 13 May 2014). Actually, as the ATO started in mid-April, we are talking here about four weeks of fighting, with the bulk of deaths taking place in May. Eleven dead, including 7 ATO military, should be added to this count up to 15 May (BBC News 13 May, RT Timeline). “At least 14 Ukrainian servicemen have been killed and 66 injured since the beginning of the military operation in Eastern Ukraine. The numbers were given as of late May 6 by the Ukrainian information agency UNIAN, based on security service data” (RT Timeline 7 May 12:13). Meanwhile, according to RT on 5 May, “since March 13, when clashes started spreading across the region, nearly 500 people have asked for medical attention” (Nota: we do not know if this includes people injured in Odessa – RT Timeline, May 5, 15:19).
For the third phase, up until 15 May, we would thus have an estimate of 99 people killed, counting Odessa. Since November 2013, an estimated 243 people died while more than 2000 were injured.
Considering the high and mounting number of casualties, way above the “25 battle-related deaths”, we are clearly in the case of an open conflict for Uppsala.
If we use the HIIK methodology, we obtain the estimative monthly table below. For the light use of heavy weapons, contrast with Syria, for example where we have a heavy use of heavy weapons. The personnel involved is estimated for all sides, including police, army and “fighting activists”. Destructions are assessed to be taking place along one dimension, cultural, a common and similar feeling of “Ukrainian-ness” that would be shared by all people. However, since the referendum economic destruction seems to be increasing (e.g. video by Graham Philips Andrievka Destruction. There is no clear evidence regarding the existence of refugees and IDPs although Russia mentioned an increase in migrants since February then of illegal migrants towards Slovakia in May (RT, “Slovak PM: Growing inflow of illegal Ukrainian migrants to Slovakia raises concern“, 16 May 2014). According to our assessment using the HIIK methodology, there is war in Ukraine.
It would be crucial to integrate the perspective of war when making declarations or when acting – even if one does not say so officially – to make sure that adverse unintended consequences are not added to an already dramatic and volatile situation.
This sets the grim stage upon which actors interact, as we shall start exploring next, with the oligarchs.
(updated 20 June 2014) Featured image: Crowdsourced Map for 16 May around Slavyansk – The application Military Maps was developed on the Russian social network Vkontakte (read “Crowdsourcing Ukraine’s Rebellion“, Global Voices, 4 May 2014). The app on VK coud initially be accessed here (no need to login), and the page of the group here. The map on Ukraine has now (20 June) moved to FB and can be accessed here.