Crimea and eastern Ukraine: Things can always get worse

Thursday, March 6, 2014

While things in the Crimea are bad, it could always get worse. Conflict between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine would make the events taking place in the Crimea look relatively simple by comparison.
While there are ethnic Russians in both the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the situations in the two regions are different. The Crimea, unlike eastern Ukraine, is a republic. It is in fact a ‘mini-republic,’ one of the smaller entities within the fifteen Soviet Socialist Republics that became independent during the time that the USSR was breaking up in 1991.

I’ve written a lot about ‘mini-republics,’ a term I’ve used to describe the smaller entities that were within the Fab 15 republics of the USSR. The Fab 15 all became independent during the time that the USSR was breaking up in 1991. Since then, most of the major confrontations taking place in post-Soviet space have resulted from disputes over the borders of these mini-republics. Such has been the case with Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and now the Crimea as well.

As many people have been learning in recent months, western Ukraine is mostly Ukrainian and eastern Ukraine is mostly ethnic Russian. Nevertheless, the populations overlap. Unlike the Crimea, which is a republic that has already been transferred once from Russia to Ukraine, dividing up eastern Ukraine would involve drawing up some brand new borders.
In fact, a lot of the maps circulating of Ukraine give a pretty simplistic impression of the degree to which the country is divided. A lot of these maps make it look like it would be relatively easy to separate people.

Maps like this one give the impression that there are clean divisions between ethnic groups. In fact, it's a lot more complicated.

It is in places like eastern Ukraine like this that things can get very messy. Carving out a new border in eastern Ukraine would create a direct link between the ethnicity of the people living in a certain area and the country that an area becomes a part of. This is how ethnic cleansing takes place.

While the Crimea has established borders, any conflict between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine would be fought from town to town, village to village, house to house. This is what happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, where it was not so much ancient hatreds but rather the prospect of re-drawing borders that made the stakes so high. High enough that otherwise normal-seeming people eventually grew to believe that they needed to kill their neighbors in order to escape their own death.

Eastern Ukraine is far from finding itself in a situation like Yugoslavia was in. However, there have been worrying signs, such as reports of violent clashes between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in Kharkiv and elsewhere. Some people, perhaps local Russians, have put up Russian flags over city administration buildings in a manner reminiscent of developments taking place in the Crimean capital of Simferopol in the days before the Russian invasion. While Vladimir Putin must realize that getting involved in eastern Ukraine would be a disaster for Russia, events could spin out of his control. 
The ways in which events in the Crimea could unfold over the following months will receive close attention from lots of people in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere. The Obama administration needs to keep this in mind when weighing its options regarding how to respond to Russia’s actions in the Crimea. 


Also see:

Tough Options

Russia and the Politics of Citizenship

The Crimea: More Than Just a War

More Thoughts on the Crimea

Crimea on the Brink: What's Going On?

South Ossetia and the Fate of the Mini-Republics

More thoughts on South Ossetia

Obama, Russia and the Middle East

Trouble in Ukraine

Beating the War Drums Again


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