Last Friday’s burning House of Trade Unions in Odessa, which left over 40 people dead and scores of injured, has given an insight into how brutal and ugly a civil war in Ukraine might be. Different reactions in Kiev and in Eastern Ukraine to what has happened in Odessa demonstrate that the country is fast acquiring a civil war mentality. If history is any guide, a full-scale domestic conflict in Ukraine can be messy, long, and exceptionally painful.
Odessa, in fact, was an off-center development. Three weeks before the scheduled presidential elections, the Ukrainian interim government has been busy clamping down on separatists in the Donbas region. Kiev’s objective is clear: it needs to demonstrate that it controls the territory, in order to ensure the legality of the vote. Helping install a fully legitimate authority in Ukraine is also a key objective of the United States and the Europeans. There is little doubt that the May 25 poll will be held. A new president, however, will hardly inaugurate stability.
Kiev’s main problem is not so much the local militias or any Russian meddling. Rather, it is the rapidly worsening socio-economic situation and the growing disenchantment of many Ukrainians with the results of the February revolution, which, if anything, have strengthened the oligarchical rule in the country. Potentially, this could lead to a new Maidan, and a new revolution.
Meanwhile, brief hopes of a U.S./EU-Russian agreement on Ukraine have evaporated. With hindsight, it appears that the Geneva understanding was itself based on a misunderstanding. Today, Washington’s and Moscow’s goals with respect to Ukraine look essentially incompatible. What is happening on the ground is very much a full-scale intelligence war between the two powers.
Will this intelligence war become a prelude to a military conflict? The horrible deaths in Odessa might look like the equivalent of the 1992 mortar attack on the Sarajevo market, or of the expected 2011 massacre in Benghazi. President Vladimir Putin, however, is also aware of the immense dangers and enormous costs of an invasion/proxy war against the United States, and follow-on occupation/rehabilitation of Ukraine, which would sap Russia’s strength and suck dry its resources.
Ever since the Kiev revolutionary coup of February 21-22, Putin has been resolute and ruthless, but also calculating and careful. He might well avoid falling into the fast trap where his many enemies would wish to see him, and hold off long enough before the bulk of the work is done for him. One can only hope that Ukraine decides its future before it turns into a burnt-out case.