The Borderland

Ukrainian National Unity: An Opportunity Lost

July 4, 2014

The “Heavenly Hundred” who fell during the Euromaidan protests and the soldiers who resisted the Russian invasion of Crimea had the potential to contribute to a unifying national narrative in Ukraine. This opportunity was quickly lost, with fighting and rising casualties in Luhansk and Donetsk cementing regional divisions. The failure of President Poroshenko to quickly resolve the conflict or control the rise of independent pro-Kyiv militias has allowed the situation to escalate to a point dangerously close to civil war. National unity and reconciliation may now be impossible, posing possibly the greatest challenge for Ukraine, a country just entering a critical period of transition and reform.


A New Generation of Heroes


The Euromaidan movement could have been a turning point for Ukraine. A moment to unite a divided population. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest against the corruption and abuse of power of the Yanukovych administration. What originated as a small peaceful protest against the refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement quickly gained size, strength, and scope - fueled in large part by the administration’s strong-arm tactics.[i]


Old and young came from all parts of the country, including the now disputed regions of Luhansk and Donetsk – the first time in the short history of independent Ukraine that there seemed to be an element of national support for any political action. While significant factions still supported and demonstrated in favor of Yanukovych, anti-government protests in eastern cities, including Zaporizhya, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kharkiv, provided evidence that the Euromaidan movement had support outside the nationalist west.[ii]


Tragically, the protests turned bloody, with the violence culminating on February 20. At least 88 people were killed and nearly 600 were wounded in a span of 48 hours in clashes between protesters and police.[iii] In total, over 100 protesters lost their lives. The dead were hailed as heroes, martyrs for the cause, and were honored with the name the “Heavenly Hundred”.


Russia’s takeover of Crimea also provided a new group of Ukrainian heroes. In late February, unidentified gunman, later confirmed to include Russian soldiers, began to seize government buildings and military bases.[iv] Following the referendum for secession on March 16, Crimea and Sevastopol were officially accepted into the Russian Federation. While there were no fatalities leading up to the annexation,[v] the Ukrainian military resisted to the very end. In a notable, but ultimately futile, act of defiance, Ukrainian Captain Yuri Fedash and the crew of the ship Cherkassy evaded the Russian navy for weeks before finally being captured on March 25.[vi]


Ukraine had sustained a significant loss of both life and territory. In the loss, they had gained heroes that had the potential to contribute to the historical narrative of a united, democratic, independent Ukraine. In the few short months since then, this narrative has been shattered by the violence in eastern Ukraine.


Violence in the East, The Martyrs of Donbass


On April 6, pro-Russian protesters, seeking their own referendums to join Russia, seized regional government buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv.[vii] The separatists in Kharkiv were quickly subdued. The self-declared People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk have thus far managed to endure. However, unlike in Crimea, Russia has been unwilling to accept their appeals for annexation.


The response of the new Ukrainian government has been significantly more forceful than their grudging surrender in the Crimean Peninsula. The “anti-terrorist operation” launched on April 13 has resulted in significant casualties on both sides.[viii] The United Nations estimated that 423 people, the majority civilians, were killed between April 15 and June 20, far exceeding the Euromaidan deaths in Kyiv.[ix] Casualties will continue to mount with the lifting of the unilateral ceasefire enacted by President Poroshenko, which lasted from June 20 to 30.


Much has been made of the ethnic and linguistic regional divisions in Ukraine. But up until this point, this conflict has been predominantly political. For the first time since independence, large numbers of people are dying as a result of regionally motivated violence. The failure of President Poroshenko to quickly resolve the crisis threatens to destroy any hope for a unified Ukraine.


A Failed Response. A Failed State?


The Ukrainian military has proved ill-equipped to adequately respond to the separatist militias. Poroshenko’s promise that the anti-terrorist operation “will last hours” has fallen flat, with the conflict already well into its third month.[x]


Some Ukrainians, seeing the impotence of their military, have taken matters into their own hands. As many as 30 independent, volunteer, pro-Kyiv militias have formed to fight the separatists.[xi] Paramilitary groups have already seen significant combat, sending men with no experience into battle with as little as a week of training. As the fighting has continued, a number of the newly formed units, including the Donbass[xii] and Azov[xiii] Battalions, have been officially integrated into the Ministry of Internal Affair’s National Guard. However, their independent roots remain strong and their ties to the military chain of command are unclear.


A new member swears her service to the Donbass Battalion. Source: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters


Supporters of Kyiv will likely laud the patriotic volunteers, many of whom are Euromaidan veterans, that fill the ranks of the new militias. However, by allowing these groups to form and operate autonomously, the Ukrainian government has failed to fulfill one of the most basic functions of a state: to maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.


Ukraine has the right to respond to unrest within its own borders, with military force if necessary. However, allowing the participation of independent civilian militias has escalated the anti-terrorist operation in Luhansk and Donetsk to something dangerously close to civil war.


Cementing Regional Divisions, A Death Blow to National Unity


Ukraine has struggled for 23 years with regional political divisions. The Heavenly Hundred and the soldiers who boldly defied the Russian military in Crimea had the potential to help unite Ukraine. After Luhansk and Donetsk, the project for national unity has been set back decades, if not generations.


The martyrs on the Maidan have been matched and surpassed by the casualties in eastern Ukraine. Conflicting reports and the variety of actors on the ground make it impossible to determine who is responsible for the shelling and shooting that has caused so much damage and death. The facts are inconsequential.


Two opposing narratives have now been created that will undoubtedly endure: the neo-Nazi fascists from the west who destroyed the towns and lives of people simply seeking self-determination; and the separatist terrorists in the east, backed by Russia, who sought to divide Ukraine.


Those who lost their lives in Kyiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk will not soon be forgotten. National unity and reconciliation, which has thus far been elusive, may now be impossible. Moving forward, this will likely pose the greatest challenge for Ukraine, a country just entering a critical period of transition and reform.

[i] Protests gained momentum after students were violently disbursed by riot police on November 30. See:

[v] A Ukrainian soldier was shot and killed hours after Vladimir Putin formally announced the annexation of Crimea. See:


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