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Russian Military Aggression or ‘Civil War’ in Ukraine?

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This is an excerpt from Crisis in Russian Studies? Nationalism (Imperialism), Racism and War by Taras Kuzio. Get your free download from E-International Relations.

There has always been Russian invasion, annexation, and military and other forms of aggression in what Oscar Jonsson and Robert Seely (2015) describe as ‘full spectrum conflict.’ There has never been a ‘civil war’ in Ukraine. Misplaced use of the term ‘civil war’ to describe the Russian-Ukrainian War is correlated with three factors. First, denial or downplaying of Russian military and other forms of involvement against Ukraine. Second, claims that Russian speakers are oppressed and threatened by Ukrainianisation with an additional claim that eastern Ukraine has a ‘shared civilization’ with Russia (Cohen 2019, 17). Third, highly exaggerated claims of regional divisions in Ukraine that point to the country as an ‘artificial’ construct.

This chapter is divided into four sections. The first section discusses terminology on civil wars and provides evidence from Ukrainian opinion polls that Ukrainians see what is taking place as a war with Russia, not a ‘civil war.’ The second section analyses how the Russian-Ukrainian War should be understood as taking place between Ukrainians, who hold a civic identity and patriotic attachment to Ukraine, and a small number of Ukrainians in regions such as the Donbas and their external Russian backers, whose primary allegiance is to the Russian World and the former USSR. An example of civic nationalism is Dnipropetrovsk in 2014–2015 when the region was led by two Jewish-Ukrainians (regional Governor Kolomoyskyy and Deputy Governor Hennadiy Korban) and an ethnic Russian (Deputy Governor and, since 2015, Mayor of the city of Dnipro Borys Filatov), who prevented Russian hybrid warfare from expanding west of Donetsk.The third section analyses the period, usually ignored by scholars, prior to 2014 when Russia provided training and support for separatists and violence during the Euromaidan Revolution, and the crucial period between 2012–2013 when Putin implemented policies as the ‘gatherer of Russian lands.’ The fourth section provides a detailed analysis of ‘full spectrum conflict’ that includes Russian intelligence activities, Russian nationalist (imperialist) mercenaries, Putin’s rhetoric providing signaling to Russian nationalists (imperialists), information warfare and cyber-attacks, Russian discourse on limited sovereignty, and Russian military invasion of Ukraine.

Theory, Terminology, and Why Ukrainians Do Not See a ‘Civil War’

Terminology is problematic in discussions about whether a ‘civil war’ is taking place in Ukraine. Tymofil Brik (2019) took Jesse Driscoll (2019) to task for ignoring the local context, neglecting census results and Ukrainian opinion polls and research (a typical problem found in academic orientalism), and being influenced by his experience working in Central Asia and the Caucasus, ‘which is not often applicable to Russian-Ukrainian relations, neither current nor historical.’ The Donbas War is not an ethnic conflict, unlike conflicts in Georgia and Azerbaijan, as Russian speakers are fighting in both Ukrainian security forces and Russian proxy forces.

A civil war is defined by Patrick M. Reagan (2000) and Nicholas Sambanis (2002, 218) as a war between organised groups within the same state leading to high intensity conflict and casualties of over 1,000 people, a definition which applies to the Donbas. James Fearon (2007) defines a civil war as a violent conflict within a country fought by organised groups that aim to take power at the centre or in a region, or to change government policies. A civil war challenges the sovereignty of an internationally recognised state, takes place within the boundaries of a recognised state, and involves rebels that are able to mount organised, armed opposition.

Sambanis (2002) analyses how grievances have transformed into mass violence. A violent rebellion would be likely if the state unleashed repression against minorities who hold political grievances. Ted Gurr (2000) has stressed the salience of ethno-cultural identities and their capacity to mobilise, the importance of levels of grievance, and the availability of opposition political activities. Scholars have also debated the causes of civil wars as either ‘greed’ or ‘grievance,’ which can arise from contestation over identity, religious, and ethnic factors. The World Bank’s Collier-Hoeffler model investigates the availability of finances, opportunity costs of rebellion, military advantage and terrain, ethnic and regional grievances of minorities dominated by majorities, the size of population, and the period of time since the last conflict (Wong 2006).

Sambanis (2002) argues that realism and neo-realism are unable to explain the outbreak, duration, and termination of civil wars because both sets of theories assume that the state is a unitary actor and cannot therefore explain why ethnic, religious, and class divisions emerge and threaten a state’s sovereignty. Neo-liberal theories, Sambanis (2002, 225) believes, are better equipped to explain the outbreak of civil wars and the role of non-state actors in fomenting them.

Constructivists believe that mobilisation of protestors is the work of elites (defined as ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’) who fashion beliefs, preferences, and identities in ways that socially construct and reinforce existing cleavages (Fearon and Laitin 2002). In the Ukrainian case, this argument would point to Manafort’s racist ‘Southern Strategy’ being used by the Party of Regions in the decade prior to 2014. An argument against defining the Donbas conflict as a ‘civil war’ is therefore the long-term work of Russian and Donbas ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ during the decade prior to the 2014 crisis (Na terrritorii Donetskoy oblasty deystvovaly voyennye lagerya DNR s polnym vooruzheniyem s 2009 goda 2014). A constructivist approach has particular resonance in the Donbas, where oligarchs and the Party of Regions political machine dominated Ukraine’s only Russian-style managed democracy.

An important discussion of ‘civil war’ in Ukraine has been made by Sambanis, Stergios Skaperdas, and William Wohlforth (2017), who discuss how an external sponsor, in this case Russia, ‘can use different combinations of the different instruments at its disposal to induce rebellion and civil war.’ Russia’s intervention ‘activated’ cleavages and increased polarisation, ‘making it harder for the state to suppress the rebellion’ (Sambanis, Skaperdas and Wohlforth 2017, 13). As polarisation increased, inflamed by Russia’s information warfare and politicians’ rhetoric and outright disinformation, violence escalated. Without Russia’s intervention, anti-Maidan protestors in the Donbas would not have transformed into armed insurgents (Wilson 2015).

What is often ignored in discussions about whether what is taking place in the Donbas should be described as a ‘civil war’ is Ukrainian public opinion. Ploeg (2017, 177) dislikes the fact that only 13.6% of Ukrainians believe that there is a ‘civil war’ in their country and blames this on ‘anti-Russian’ media. Petro (2016, 198; 2018, 326) refuses to accept Ukrainian polling data, believing that they understate pro-Russian feelings, exaggerate anti-Russian attitudes, and downplay regional divisions.

Polls conducted in 2015 and 2018 found that between 16.3% and 13.4% of Ukrainians believed that a ‘civil war’ was taking place in Ukraine (Perspektyvy Ukrayinsko-Rosiyskykh Vidnosyn 2015; Viyna na Donbasi: Realii i Perspektyvy Vrehulyuvannya 2019). In a 2018 poll, the Donbas conflict was viewed as a ‘civil war’ by a low of 5.1% in western Ukraine and a high of 26.5% in eastern Ukraine. The number of those who believed in a ‘civil war’ in the east (26.5%) was lower than the 34.2% in eastern Ukraine, who viewed the conflict as a Russian-Ukrainian War (Viyna na Donbasi: Realii i Perspektyvy Vrehulyuvannya, 2019).

Furthermore, 72% of Ukrainians believe that there is a Russian-Ukrainian War, ranging from a high of 91% in the west to 47% in eastern and 62% in southern Ukraine. In Ukrainian-controlled Donbas, views are evenly split between 39%, who believe a Russian-Ukrainian War taking place, and 40% who do not (Poshuky Shlyakhiv Vidnovlennya Suverenitetu Ukrayiny Nad Okupovanym Donbasom: Stan Hromadskoyii Dumky Naperedodni Prezydentskykh Vyboriv 2019). Respectively, 76% and 47% of residents of Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk believe that Russia is a party to the conflict, with 12% and 31% respectively disagreeing (Public Opinion in Donbas a Year After Presidential Elections 2020).

Civic Ukrainian versus Russian World Loyalties

Arguments in favour of a ‘civil war’ fuelled by competing regional and national identities are only made possible by ignoring Russia’s long-standing chauvinistic attitudes towards Ukrainians, the many aspects of Russia’s ‘full spectrum conflict,’ and the intervention in Ukraine from February 2014 (Kudelia and Zyl, 2019, 807). Regional versus national identities provide a weak explanation for why protestors transformed into armed insurgents in the Donbas, but not in the other six oblasts of southeastern Ukraine. Transforming minority support for separatism in Donetsk (27.5%) and Luhansk (30.3%) was only possible because Russia provided far more resources in its ‘full spectrum conflict’ to these two regions. The Donbas had deprecated and denigrated Ukrainian majorities, while aggressive pro-Russian minorities were accustomed to undertaking violence against their opponents.

Some scholars emphasise the local roots of the crisis in the Donbas (Matveeva 2018; Kudelia 2017; Kudelia and Zyl 2019; Himka 2015). Tor Bukkvoll (2019, 299) attempts to have it both ways, confusingly describing the conflict as an ‘insurgency’ until August 2014 ‘even though Russian political agents and special forces most probably played an important role in its instigation.’ A regional versus national identities framework of the ‘civil war’ is at odds with the claim of an ‘absence of an ideology’ among pro-Russian forces in the Donbas (Kudelia and Zyl (2019, 815). This can only be undertaken by ignoring Putin’s belief of himself as the ‘gatherer of Russian lands’ implemented through Medvedchuk and Glazyev’s strategy (O komplekse mer po vovlecheniyu Ukrainy v evraziiskii integratsionyi protsess 2013) and Ukraine’s participation in the Russian World (Zygar 2016, 258).

Matveeva (2018, 2) is one of a small number of scholars who describes the conflict as one between civilisations, emphasising allegiance to the Russian World as ‘politicized identity.’ Scholars writing about identity in the Euromaidan have also talked about ‘civilisation choices’ (Lena Surzhko-Harned and Ekateryna Turkina 2018, 108). In contrast, ‘Ethnicity is a poor marker in Ukraine, and loyalty and identity are weakly correlated with it’ (Matveeva 2018, 25). From 2006, Putin began to talk of Russia as the centre of a Eurasian civilisation with superior values and distinct to the EU, which he portrayed as a harmful actor (Foxall 2018). This took place a year before the creation of the Russian World, three years before the launch of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, and four years before the creation of the CIS Customs Union. Attachment to civilisation identity (civic Ukrainian or Russian World), rather than language, is a better marker of loyalty in the Donbas War as there are Russian speakers fighting on both sides.

Nevertheless, Matveeva’s (2018) discussion of civilisation is confusing, as she wrongly defines it in civic terms as corresponding to Rossiyskie citizens of the Russian Federation. Tolz (2008a, 2008b) and other western scholars have long noted that civic identity is weak in the Russian Federation. The 1996 Russian-Belarusian union, a precursor to the Russian World, was a ‘challenge to the civic model of Russian nationality’ (Plokhy 2017, 319).

The Russian World is, in fact, a claim to the allegedly common Russkij ethno-cultural, religious, and historical identity of the three eastern Slavs. Russia is a ‘state-civilisation,’ and Putin is gathering ‘Russian’ lands that he believes are part of the Russian World. Taking their cue, leaders of the ‘Russian spring’ spoke of an ‘artificially divided Russian people’ (Matveeva 2018, 221). In both cases, they were saying that Ukraine is a ‘Russian land’ and that Ukrainians are a branch of the ‘All-Russian People.’ The Russian Orthodox Church concept of ‘Holy Rus’ supports the rehabilitation of Tsarist Russian nationality policy of a ‘All-Russian People’ with three branches. The Russian World and Russian identity are defined in ethno-cultural, not in civic terms (Plokhy 2017, 327–328, 331).

Kudelia (2017) believes that a clash over identities was fuelled by the influence of Ukrainian nationalism in the Euromaidan, which allowed Russian authorities to paint it as a ‘nationalist putsch.’ A more insightful way is presented by Matveeva (2018) who discusses a ‘civilisational’ divide between Ukrainians in the Donbas, who were oriented to the Russian World, and Ukrainians whose civic allegiance was to Ukraine (Kuzio 2018, 540).

This civilisation divide is perhaps what Dominique Arel (2018, 188) refers to when he writes of the ‘rebellion of Russians’ (that is, those living in the Donbas who thought of themselves as part of the ‘All-Russian People’). Arel (2018) alludes to an understanding of ‘Russian’ (i.e. All-Russian People’) identity as encompassing the three eastern Slavs. This also shows that those in the Donbas who viewed themselves as members of the ‘All-Russian People’ agreed with Russian leaders that Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one people’ (D’Anieri 2019, 162–163). Ukrainians in the Donbas who thought of themselves as ‘Russians’ were most likely the same as those who claimed to hold a Soviet identity. Russian and Soviet were de facto the same in the USSR.

The 2001 census recorded 17% of Ukraine’s population as Russians, but only 5% of these were exclusively Russian with the remainder exhibiting a mixed Ukrainian-Russian identity (The Views and Opinions of South-Eastern Regions Residents of Ukraine). During the 2014 crisis, sitting on the fence was no longer possible, and many Ukrainians who had held a mixed identity adopted a civic Ukrainian identity to show their patriotism. The proportion of the Ukrainian population declaring themselves to be ethnic Ukrainians increased to 92%. Currently, only 6% of Ukrainians declare themselves to be ethnically Russian, down from 22% in the 1989 Soviet census and 17% in the 2001 Ukrainian census (Osnovni Zasady ta Shlyakhy Formuvannya Spilnoyi Identychnosti Hromadyan Ukrayiny 2017, 5).

Between two opinion polls conducted in April and December 2014, mixed Russian-Ukrainian identities in southeastern Ukraine collapsed (O’Loughlin and Toal 2020, 318). Six years on, mixed identities have declined even further. In Dnipropetrovsk, those with mixed identities halved from 8.2 to 4.5%. In Zaporizhzhya and Odesa, mixed identities collapsed from 8.2 and 15.1% to 2 and 2.3%, respectively. Mixed identities were never strong in Kherson and Mykolayiv, where they collapsed to a statistically insignificant 0.6 and 1.6%, respectively. Kharkiv registered the lowest decline, from 12.4 to 7.7%. This is what Kharkiv scholar Zhurzhenko (2015) called the ‘end of ambiguity’ in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine no longer has a pro-Russian ‘east.’

Russian Intervention in the Decade Prior to the 2014 Crisis

Training and Support for Separatism in Ukraine

In November 2004, Russia supported a separatist congress in Severodonetsk in Luhansk oblast, organised by Yanukovych in protest to the Orange Revolution denying him his fraudulent election victory. In February 2014, a similar congress of the Ukrainian Front in Kharkiv was planned after Yanukovych fled from Kyiv, but failed to go ahead after regional leaders from southeastern Ukraine and the president failed to turn up.

Yanukovych’s plans in 2004 and 2014 drew on a long tradition of creating pro-Russian fronts. So-called ‘Internationalist Movements’ were established by the Soviet secret services in the late 1980s in Ukraine, Moldova, and the three Baltic States to oppose their independence. The Donetsk Republic Party, which is one of two parties ruling the DNR, is a successor to the Inter-Movement of the Donbas founded in 1989 by Andrei Purgin, Dmitri Kornilov, and Sergei Baryshnikov. Its allies were the Movement for the Rebirth of the Donbas and Civic Congress, which changed its name to the Party of Slavic Unity (Kuzio 2017c, 88–89).

The Donetsk Republic Party was launched in 2005, not coincidentally a year after the 2004 Orange Revolution with support from Russian intelligence (Na terrritorii Donetskoy oblasty deystvovaly voyennye lagerya DNR s polnym vooruzheniyem s 2009........

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