Will Ethnic Rivalries Continue After The Ukraine War Is Over?

Will Ethnic Rivalries Continue After The Ukraine War Is Over?
The Western press is abuzz with reports that give an impression that Russia is losing its edge in its war against Ukraine and the options left for its safe and respectful exit are very limited. The new counter-offensive drive of Ukraine that has helped it regain control of a large area in the northeastern Kharkiv region that borders Russia and no slowdown of Ukraine’s onward march into the areas that were earlier controlled by Russia are the reasons for the western press to become optimistic on an outcome of war that appears to be in favor of Ukraine. Encouraged by this apparent victory, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy vowed to continue the onslaught until the Russian forces are ousted from Donbas – a region that was split into Ukraine and Russian-held regions back in 2014.

This twist in war in favor of Ukraine became further eminent when the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, blamed the Western bloc (US and NATO) for its sinister plan of destroying Russia – a vague admission of new emerging realities. To fend off this threat, Putin gave a nationwide call for mobilization of nearly 300,000 people to join the battlefield. A call that created public reaction in the form of mass protest and flight of people from the country.

Putin’s blame against the Western bloc was not simply out of reason. Ukraine owed its success to the use of long-range missiles and other modern weapons newly arrived from the USA which had significantly degraded Russian’s combat abilities. Nearly a month before this successful advance of the Ukrainian forces, the USA had announced supply of around $3 billion in weapons and equipment to Ukraine.

Faced with a retreat, Russia resorted to multiple war fronts - use of political and economic leverage and a threat the western allies of Ukraine with a possible nuclear attack. By disrupting the Russian gas and oil supply to Europe, it tried to cripple European economy whose industry and households are highly dependent on these two supplies. The next Russian step was to focus on Asia by further strengthening its ties with China, India and Middle Eastern countries. The mysterious twin explosions under the Baltic Sea that ruptured the giant gas pipelines from Russia to Germany has not only further bolstered the fears of painful shortages of energy in Europe during the winter season but also spread a message of what disasters the continuation of war can bring to the warring countries and to the rest of the world.

The Western observers, foreseeing Ukraine as the winner of this war, have now started talking of development plans and other reconstruction plans that will be next task for the western world once this war ends as they expect.  Writing on the economic fall out of the war, Paul Krugman, made the following observation in his column that appeared on 16 September 2022 in the New York Times:

“Lately I’ve been seeing what seems like a growing number of reports about Ukraine’s economic difficulties. And it definitely makes sense to focus more on the country’s economy now that the tide seems to have turned in Ukraine’s favour on the battlefield.”

Of course, there is no denying the need of such an economic recovery plan for the war devastated country. But there is another factor far more important than the restructuring of Ukrainian economy; it is to address the issues that had caused this war. This is a war that has divided Eastern Europe and Balkan countries basically on ethnic lines and their tolerance level is almost down to zero. It’s a legacy left behind by the former Soviet Union when it was collapsed. The Russian speaking people who were once the key players in the former Soviet Union and its allied countries are now the targets of those who look back at the Soviet era with disdain and contempt. They feel that the Soviet Union was not a liberator but a usurper of their freedom.

The ongoing Ukrainian War has its links with its past that created hatred between the Russian speaking and non-Russian speaking population of Ukraine. For the last two decades, a power struggle between them has been a cause of conflict within the Ukrainian polity that borders along the ethnic lines.  These rivalries created a playing field for Russian and western powers to play their roles.

Ukraine has nearly 20% of its population that speaks Russian and around 77% speak Ukrainian with 90% of the population being Christian and they have a long history of living together in harmony. A crack in this harmony came to light when a political strife, supported by Russia, on ethnic line came to surface as an aftermath of electoral result of 2004 that declared Russian supported presidential candidate, Victor Yanukovych, as the winner. It triggered people’s uprising, known as Orange Revolution, that ultimately ended in nullifying the electoral results. In a re-election Yushchenko defeated Yanukovych by achieving 52 percent of the vote.

During Yushchenko’s rule (2005-10), he developed good relationship with the EU but he lost the next election to Yanukovych and with his emergence in power these relationships began to decline. The country, once again, divided on ethnic rivalries with Russian speaking population supporting the policies of Yanukovych and the others were against it. A protest at “Maidan” continued for about 90 days and on 22 February 2014 the Ukrainian parliament deposed Yanukovych, who left Kyiv soon after.  Putin called it a coup d’état and declared that “Russia reserves the right to use all available options, including force as a last resort”.  No reason was cited for justification of such an interference into the affairs of another country’s internal affairs.

A month after the removal of Yanukovych, Crimea, an autonomous state of Ukraine held a referendum for its unification with Russia and it was later annexed by Russia. Soon, a war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine began and pro-Russian separatists declared independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Two referendums in support of independence were held in Donetsk and Luhansk that attained massive support (Russia has recently annexed these two regions and declared them part of Russia).

From December 2013 to February 2022, Ukraine and its separated regions continued taking actions that were cause of rift among Ukrainians, separatist regions, and Russia. While, NATO continued refusing to change its policy of allowing the willing countries to join its organization, Moscow continued demanding a guarantee that Ukraine will never join them. On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.  The main objective of the attack, as Moscow envisages it, was; “to demilitarize Ukraine and eradicate radical nationalist elements in its government and armed forces”.

After nearly eight months of war, Russia now appears to be on the losing side with Ukrainian forces making advances by regaining control of one region after another.  The western press is calling it a deflation of MAGA macho myths of Russian supremacy by a small country like Ukrainian. The victory will remain useless if its causes remain unaddressed. The hatred sown in the past will continue to haunt the region and the ethnic minority will be a target of repression, intimidation, and hatred at the hands of winning ethnic population. This, in my opinion, is the biggest challenge for the world community to address.

The author is a freelance journalist and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Research & Security Studies