Last Wednesday Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Ukraine “is as close to civil war as you can get.” This triggered a host of fearful articles and lots of emails asking if I thought this was true. Here’s my response.
Ukraine is not close to a civil war and Putin and his Foreign Minister know this. Why do I think there will be no civil war in Ukraine? Two reasons. First, the groups most likely to start a civil war (armed separatists in southeastern Ukraine) don’t have Russia’s support and Putin shows no sign of giving it to them. This is a smart strategic move by Putin. Annexing additional regions of Ukraine (such as Donetsk and Luhansk) doesn’t deliver the same political, economic and strategic benefits to Putin that Crimea did. Annexing Crimea allowed Putin to build nationalist support for his regime at home. It allowed him to gain drilling rights to offshore oil and gas reserves in the Black Sea. It also allowed him to control the territory surrounding Russia’s large naval base at Sevastopol. And it allowed him to gain control of a piece of land already 60 percent ethnically Russian. The same is not true in other regions of Ukraine. Sending the Russian military into Donetsk and Luhansk to help the separatists would bring little additional benefits to Putin but far more costs. Not only would Russia suffer deeper economic sanctions from the West and further declines in capital and investment, but it would pay much higher occupation costs. Less than 40 percent of the people living in Donetsk and Luhansk are ethnically Russian. There are no good reasons for Putin to help any more separatists and without Russia’s help, the separatists will have no chance against the far larger and more powerful Ukrainian military.
The second reason there will be no civil war is that the separatists do not have sufficient local support. Small groups of armed separatists can occupy buildings and cause trouble, but they are unlikely to convince a sizable portion of local citizens to fight against the Ukrainian military in order to become part of Russia. The armed separatists continue to cause trouble not because they believe they will be granted independence but because they are using violence (and the threat of more violence) to bargain for greater political autonomy. In this respect they are likely to be successful.
So why did Putin, through his Foreign Minister, announce that Ukraine was on the brink of civil war? To influence the elections in Ukraine next week. Putin’s main goal at this point is to ensure that Ukraine remains aligned with Russia not the West. This means he needs a Ukrainian President in place who will resist the urge to join NATO and the EU, and he needs a Ukrainian population willing to support this. Putin knows that Petro Poroshenko, a pro-European candidate, is likely to win the May 25th election. Exaggerating the threat of civil war sends a clear message to Poroshenko and pro-Western citizens that integration with Europe comes with potentially heavy costs. Continue to push for European integration, and civil war could result. Putin’s message, therefore, is clear: move too far to the West and the risk of intra-state war supported by Russia is always there.