The recent talks in Minsk were reported in the West in terms of a conflict with Russia – as in this week’s Economist leading article, entitled “Putin’s war on the West”. Alternative narratives are possible and less dangerous. Ukraine’s civil war can be seen as just that: an uprising by a portion of its population that believed that its interests were being ignored by the government in Kiev. It can also be seen as an objection by that part of the population to a major change in the country’s status: a move towards joining the EU. It will now be difficult to have a united Ukraine forming part of a borderland between Russia and the EU.
The Cold War narrative is convincing. The West is sensitive about Russian expansionism and the Russians don’t want Ukraine to join the EU and NATO. Russia has been assisting Ukraine’s Russian-speaking separatists, in pursuit of its own geopolitical agenda. Europe and America have responded in geopolitical terms – and America has talked of sending arms to support Ukraine’s West-leaning government. This is a dangerous way of framing the conflict in Ukraine. The West’s support for the Kiev government echoes America’s attempt to prop up the government of South Vietnam – which failed.
There is much less danger of escalation if the conflict is seen as a civil war, where the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine’s population is protesting against being treated as second-class citizens. As commented previously on this website, the Kiev government has failed to be inclusive, i.e. to take into account the concerns of its Russian-speaking population. Attempts to prevent the use of Russian as an official language strengthened that impression (although that law has since been repealed). The interests of Ukraine’s Eastern population, such as its trading links with Russia, seem to have been virtually ignored by the Kiev government. There is an alarming parallel with events in Iraq, where Nouri al-Maliki’s government discriminated against the Sunni population; as reported by Al Jazeera, this gave an opportunity for groups affiliated to Al Qaeda to launch a rebellion – and now the so-called ‘Islamic State’, feeding on Sunni discontentment, has grown far beyond Iraq.
The conflict can be framed as a protest by Russian-speaking Ukrainians against the Kiev government’s desire to tilt towards the West. There are echoes of the events in Cyprus from 1955 onwards; Turkish Cypriots became alarmed at a proposal by Archbishop Makarios for enosis (unification) with Greece; this eventually led to an invasion by Turkey to “protect” the Turkish-speaking minority and a subsequent partition of the island. The ceasefire agreed in the Minsk talks looks like a partition – and if this remains, President Putin would be able to trumpet success in further enlarging his empire.
If Ukraine wishes to stay a single country, the negotiated ceasefire has to hold and it has to propose a constitution which attends equally to the requirements of its different constituencies. A neutral Ukrainian federation might be acceptable to Russia, the West and the Ukrainian population – if it offers adequate safeguards for the Russian-speakers and if it guarantees not to join either the EU or NATO. An escalation of the war is not a viable alternative; at best it would lead to a partition like those in Cyprus (and Korea).