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Kyiv’s Multi-dimensional Challenge

The crisis in the eastern part of Ukraine created a complex and multi-faceted problem for the government. In the coming weeks, it will have to address a variety of different challenges across military, internal security, social, political and media-related dimensions. The complexity of the task is immense and the odds are clearly stacked against Kyiv, at least in the short term.

May 6, 2014 - Adam Klus - Articles and Commentary

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Photo by shutterstock: Nikita Starichenko

Pro-Russian demonstrators in Donetsk. Photo by Nikita Starichenko/Shutterstock

  

Facing the Russian army at the doorstep

The military aspect of the crisis is arguably one of the most visible. Ukraine faces a significant build-up of Russian military forces on the other side of its border. Moscow has clearly indicated it may consider using its armed forces if deemed necessary. It has, however, remained somewhat ambiguous under what circumstances it would consider doing so, hinting that escalation of the crisis might make it more likely. Such tactics forces the Ukrainian side to second-guess Moscow’s reaction when planning operations against separatists.

Apart from the political constraint, the presence of Russian armed forces physically absorbs the resources of the Ukrainian army. Given that a military conflict is a possibility, Kyiv needs to position its troops to defend the country against a potential attack. This naturally limits the amount of resources which can be effectively used domestically against separatists. In this context one also needs to note that Kyiv is in a passive and reactive position. The Ukrainian side, being weaker, would naturally seek to avoid direct military confrontation with Russia. Such a disposition gives Moscow the benefit of initiative as Kyiv is unlikely to make the first move against Russian forces. Therefore, the initiative lies squarely on the Russian side, which will be able, if it decides so, to choose the time, place and form of an attack.

The build-up has also upped the ante for the international community. The threat of Russian military intervention is credible and realistic enough to be factored by the West as a possible scenario. This acts as an incentive for international players to agree on a compromise which would otherwise be more difficult to accept. Clearly, no western power would be eager to call Moscow’s bluff.

Finally, there is also an economic aspect. Keeping forces on a high alert comes at a very real economic cost for both sides. However, it takes a relatively higher toll on Kyiv. This is due to Ukraine’s weak economy and the fact that in addition to keeping its army in a state of combat readiness, it has also decided to call up reservists. Mobilisation takes people away from their jobs; further weakening the economy. All things being equal in this contest of economic attrition, Ukraine is again in a disadvantageous position.

Asymmetric nature of the problem of internal security

Domestically, Kyiv is facing a mix of conventional and asymmetric security challenges. Several cities in the eastern regions of the country have been taken over by organised, trained and well-equipped paramilitary groups without a national insignia. These groups are now also supported by unarmed civilians. Barricades have been built in the captured cities and key buildings have been occupied and fortified. The military objective of the separatists is to create a defence which is strong enough to require Kyiv to use substantial force to regain control over the city.

Such an operation would be difficult to conduct for at least two reasons. First is the fact that available resources are already scarce. Given the limited role of the army, the burden of anti-separatist operations falls on the internal security forces which are smaller and less well-equipped. The fact that Kyiv decided to create completely new formations such as a National Guard or paramilitary units suggest a shortage of available manpower. Furthermore, the government would need to make sure that the operation is not conducted by a “politicised” militia. Pitting radicals from the west against radicals from the east is a recipe for starting an actual civil war.

Secondly, as can already be seen, such an operation resembles conventional urban warfare rather than an anti-terrorist raid. This carries a significant risk as the use of air strikes, artillery fire or tanks could cause significant destruction and high number of civilian casualties. A military “victory” would come at a very high political cost by deepening internal divisions in the country, provoking a strong Russian reaction, and possibly even causing international condemnation.

Therefore, Kyiv may opt for an option to isolate and surround the separatists. However this doesn’t solve the problem – it only changes its nature. Political costs of imposing a strict blockade on a city may be high, as the civilian population would likely suffer even more than the separatist militants. In case Russia decides to provide humanitarian aid to the surrounded areas would Ukrainian government decide to shoot down civilian planes carrying food and medicines?

To add to the challenge, even a successful military operation would not automatically provide a political solution. A heavy security presence and policing would likely be required to prevent the re-emergence of a separatist threat, creating an impression of occupation and leading to more provocations aimed at reigniting the conflict. Overall, the use of military force has a limited application in solving this crisis.

A question of population support in the east

The social dimension of the crisis is also fraught with challenges. Winning “hearts and minds” of the population in the eastern regions already proves to be very difficult for Kyiv. One could roughly divide the local population into three groups. The first one would consist of people who support or otherwise sympathise with separatists. Given that their cause has relatively good prospects at the moment they would be unlikely to seek accommodation with the government.

People who oppose secession constitute the second group. They refrain, for the time being, from manifesting their support for national unity, fearing armed separatist militias and also potential future repressions. This group would be potentially ready to oppose the separatists. However, if Kyiv decides to arm its supporters, it would almost certainly lead to an uncontrolled and bloody confrontation of pro and anti-government groups. Such a move would essentially sanction civil war in the country.

The third group could be called apolitical. These will be people who just want to get back to their daily routine regardless whether it will be in Ukraine, Donetsk Republic or Russia. They will most likely remain passive and take a “wait-and-see” attitude. As they may be ambivalent about the political aspect of the crisis, they will likely focus on the economic side. This could arguably work to the separatists’ advantage as a vision of closer economic relations with Russia, which is perceived as a stronger and more stable economy, will likely constitute a positive prospect for this group.

All in all, the majority of the regional population will likely remain passive and neutral. This will work towards the separatists’ advantage as a lack of active opposition among the population should be enough for them to further their agenda.

An intricate domestic and international political situation

The national political arena is posing its own set of problems. The gravity of the crisis calls for a broad-based political consensus. This, however, will be difficult to achieve for several reasons. To start with, Ukraine has a long history of political quarrelling, bordering on parliamentary anarchy. In addition, the events related to the Euromaidan had a destabilising effect on the national political scene. A recent brawl in the parliament shows that tensions continue to be high. Upcoming presidential elections could also serve as a destabilising factor, due to pre-election rivalry between powerful politico-economic groups representing two main candidates.   

A stable political configuration with a clear parliamentary majority and representative voice for all parts of the country could offer a good chance of providing necessary support to effectively deal with the crisis. A polarised and chaotic political scene will render the country ungovernable and effectively provide an argument for the secessionist movement.

Internationally, Kyiv has managed to successfully attract support mainly from the United States and key European Union countries. However, the West will avoid causing the crisis to escalate and will call on both sides to show restraint. This puts Ukraine in a difficult position because it creates pressure to refrain from more aggressive measures to defeat separatists. Therefore, Kyiv needs to balance Western demands to reduce tensions with the necessity to continue active politico-military operations against the militants to reverse the unfavourable status quo.

There is a risk that by agreeing to formal multilateral peace negotiations which would include separatists, Kyiv could inadvertently legitimise them in the eyes of international community. Overall international support, while certainly a positive factor, is not entirely working to Kyiv’s advantage.

Handling international and domestic media

Arguably, the strategic domain in which Ukraine has been so far enjoying the most favourable position is Western mass-media. Coverage of the crisis has been extensive and mostly sympathetic to the Ukrainian side. This helps to keep western public opinion interested in the developments and also favourably predisposed to Kyiv. It also keeps the “Ukrainian issue” on the international political agenda. However, the longer the crisis continues, bar any major escalation, the less attractive it becomes as a news item, leading to an erosion of media coverage. Thus, the Ukrainian government is facing a risk that in a couple of weeks it may still need to face the unfavourable status quo while having much less international media support.

On the home front, Kyiv faces a different challenge. A de-escalation of the conflict in domestic media would likely work in the government’s favour. Emphasis of moderate voices and conciliatory rhetoric would certainly help to reduce tensions. While messages advocating radical solutions and antagonising different parts of the population will facilitate the spiral of violence.  

Tough choices ahead

Kiev faces a complex situation and there is no silver-bullet solution available. The crisis needs to be handled in a comprehensive manner addressing all relevant strategic domains. The authorities need to face multiple difficult trade-offs. Too much of military power used in attacking the separatists may provoke Russian reaction, potential backlash from the West and likely result in antagonising even larger part of the population. Too little and the separatists will manage to consolidate or even expand their gains. The use of pro-government militants from the west might provide the much needed manpower, but risks the start of an actual civil war. Insufficient direct international involvement in the crisis will weaken Ukraine’s position. Too much, and the pressure for de-escalation might cement the unfavourable status quo.

Paradoxically, if the situation persists for much longer the odds might somewhat improve for Kyiv. Separatists are likely to face increasing backlash as their actions ultimately have a disruptive impact on the daily lives of local residents. Despite support for their cause, people would prefer to lead their lives in peace, send kids to school and earn their living. For Russia, military activity comes at a price too, both economic and strategic, and cannot be maintained at the current level for an extended period of time.  

However in the long-term there is another risk factor which Kyiv will have to deal with – a weak economy. In the short-term, bar sudden financial meltdown which can be temporarily averted with the western help, the importance of economic factors will be limited. However, its weight will increase over time. An economic crisis could even change the dynamics of the situation from politically–driven to socially-driven, with demands for wages, social welfare and price stability destabilising rest of the country, creating a vicious circle making arguments in favour of secession more attractive.

Overall, the crisis is likely to continue in the foreseeable future. The politico-strategic aspect is too complex to be resolved quickly by anything but a radical solution such as blanket security guarantees from the West against Russia or Kyiv consent to separatists’ demands. Otherwise Ukraine faces a choice of becoming a Northern Ireland from the 1970’s, or worse – another Syria. If the latter happens, and no immediate international peacekeeping presence is established on the ground, a Russian military intervention might indeed be the best solution, however unpalatable politically.

Adam Klus is a PhD student of the Past, Space and Environment in Society Doctoral Programme at the University of Eastern Finland. His research interests include; geopolitics of Eastern Europe, country risk analysis, asymmetric threats, unconventional use of military force, and geopolitically disruptive technologies. He works as an investment professional and has several years of experience from financial companies in London and Helsinki.

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