What's going on in Ukraine?

Some thoughts on Ukraine

The editors of Anthropoliteia would like to welcome a special guest post from Michael Bobick as part of our developing Forum What’s Going on in Ukraine?

Much of what has been fascinating in Ukraine has been how perceptions of public order have framed interpretations of this conflict. The Maidan protesters certainly wrote another chapter in the ‘how to topple a corrupt government’ handbook that is, from the Russian perspective, far more dangerous than any particular nationalist regime might be. If unrest rises in Russia and a viable protest movement emerges (think motorcycle helmets and molotovs, not signs and chants), they will look to the experience of Maidan. The escalation of the conflict was, from the Russian perspective, something that should never have had to happen. Like in Kazakhstan (google Zhanaozen ) or Uzbekistan (Andijan), autocrats tend to stomp open dissent out before it can morph into something autonomous like Maidan. These suppressions as a rule occur off the books and without further inquiry. Yet it is precisely this idea of accountability that drove Yanukovch from Ukraine (that, along with an awkward telephone call from Putin). 

The crucial factor in Ukraine was the sudden “disappearance” of the elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, which created a perceived power vacuum that Russia acted on. Youtube is filled with videos of Russian politicians and unnamed agitators handing out wads of cash, and evidence exists that a core group of pro-Russian “victims” have been bussed around the country and performed the same skit for the cameras. (*editor’s note: you can find a clearinghouse for fake information here)

Photos of Pro-Russian demonstrators with bag of money in Lugansk, Ukraine’s easternmost city. Via http://censor.net.ua/photo_news/273797/prorossiyiskie_boeviki_delyat_sumku_s_dengami_v_luganske_fotoreportaj

I don’t want to get into geopolitics, so I’ll try to keep as close to the ground as possible. In situations in which Russia military or irregular forces (armed volunteers, Cossacks, etc.) intervenes, it does so not to achieve a decisive victory but to keep the de jure sovereign at bay. This happened in Moldova during the 1992 war between Transnistria/Russia and Moldova. The conflict began when locals loyal to separatists began taking over the tangible instruments of Moldovan state power — police stations and government buildings. This is happening in Crimea too, except instead of the police it is Ukrainian military/naval installations. Next, the ill-defined borders of the emerging polity will be fortified and later codified to some degree through negotiations. There is a reason that bunkers and checkpoints suddenly proliferated, and that airports and the ferry terminal at Kerch were taken over. These facilitate not only the movement of troops and arms, but serve to filter unwanted individuals from entering. The new Ukrainian government has no means of entering, much less controlling Crimea. Its only loyal forces are in a standoff with local irregulars and the Russian army. The longer this goes on, the more likely it is that violence will occur and the response will be swift.  Ukraine has a long history of guerrilla warfare against outsiders perceived as threatening to the nation (Poles, Germans, Russians), and ethnic cleansing.

This situation in which the de jure sovereign is kept at bay emboldens locals and otherwise marginal politicians who now take the stage as true leaders. The leader of the Crimean separatists, Sergey Aksyonov, led a party that received only 4% of votes in the last elections. His only biography of note is his criminal one. By diminishing Ukraine’s sovereignty, Crimean separatists and their patrons in the Kremlin will be able to create a prolonged period of uncertainty in which their original claims of discrimination and violence will shift from fantasy to reality. Ukraine’s fledgling government will be increasingly forced to look at declaring martial law (the Russian term is Военное положение, which roughly translated as war situation) and further creating uncertainty insofar as their legal claims to be the rightful successor government have already been questioned and undermined by Russia. The Russian state has shown that provocations and conflict are integral to domestic legitimacy (witness the two wars in Chechnya).

What I find most interesting aspect of Crimea is the performative nature of the incursion. At first, soldiers operated without insignia and, ipso facto, unofficially. Yet now that they have been surprisingly unmasked as Russian forces, their presence enables the new Crimean authorities to perform the constituent actions of any sovereign — a people must be created around which the institutions of government can cluster. This will happen later in March when a referendum is scheduled, after which point the people will have spoken – there will be a constituent holder of sovereignty, screened and vetted by the Russian Federation. Yet after this happens, the performance cannot stop — they will have to begin performing the core functions of government, most of which were done by Ukrainian civil servants and bureaucrats. Practically, public order and policing functions will be outsourced to irregulars, soldiers, and Cossacks. Yet each of these is largely unskilled in doing any actual policing. Furthermore, if they alienate Crimea’s Turkic-speaking Tatar population, who collectively have a far worse victimization at the hands of Russia than perhaps any other constituency in Ukraine, Turkey might get involved. One only needs to look at the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to understand that the Russians are by no means the only ones capable of playing the separatist card.

Ukraine is a country of over 45 million people. It has a long history of being oppressed by outsiders. It will not go down easily (listen to its national anthem if you have any doubts). Trotsky’s thoughts on Ukraine are perhaps more relevant than many of the talking heads dominating the airwaves now (Trotsky on ‘The Ukrainian Question’ in Socialist Appeal, 22 April 1939):

“The Ukrainian question, which many governments and many “socialists” and even “communists” have tried to forget or to relegate to the deep strongbox of history, has once again been placed on the order of the day and this time with redoubled force…. We are dealing with a people that has proved its viability, that is numerically equal to the population of France and occupies an exceptionally rich territory which, moreover, is of the highest strategical importance. The question of the fate of the Ukraine has been posed in its full scope. A clear and definite slogan is necessary that corresponds to the new situation. In my opinion there can be at the present time only one such slogan: A united, free and independent workers’ and peasants’ Soviet Ukraine.”

Michael Bobick (@naturaporia) is a UCIS Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and Anthropology Department at the University of Pittsburgh. His research focuses on the legitimate and illegitimate forms of political and legal authority that emerged in Eurasia after the fall of the USSR. He is currently writing a book about his field research in Transnistria, a separatist state located in Eastern Moldova.  

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3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Ukraine

  1. Pingback: Recap of Ukraine Coverage | Anthropoliteia: the anthropology of policing

  2. Pingback: Little green men: Russia, Ukraine and post-Soviet sovereignty | Anthropoliteia

  3. Pingback: Active Measures: Separatism and Self-Determination in Russia’s Near Abroad | Michael Bobick in Reviews & Critical Commentary | Anthropoliteia

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