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Ukraine

The specter of civil war hangs over Ukraine

Russian President Putin has said that Ukraine is on the brink of civil war. Are his words just posturing in order to put the West under pressure, or could the situation really turn bloody in eastern Ukraine?

This week the Ukrainian leadership began operations against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine with several hundred soldiers, tanks and military helicopters.

But Russia and Ukraine have already been waging a war of words: the deputy commander of the Ukrainian Special Forces, Vasyl Krutov, has threatened that if pro-Russian militias don't lay down their arms, "they will be destroyed." And the secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense has said the Ukrainian armed forces are prepared to defend their country.

Meanwhile, in a phone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that Ukraine is on the brink of civil war. The US, on the other hand, has rebuffed Putin's dramatic civil war scenario.

A self-fulfilling prophecy?

Stefan Meister from the European Council on Foreign Relations said he doubts Putin is actually worried about the wellbeing of the Ukrainian state. Quite the opposite, in fact. According to Meister, Moscow's support for the pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine has sparked much of the unrest in the country. "If someone is fostering civil war, then that's not just the Ukrainian government but Moscow as well," he said.

Dr. Stefan Meister
(Photo: Copyright ECFR)

Meister doesn't believe that Russia wants to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine

Meister said that by invoking a civil war, Putin might be trying to fan the flames in Ukraine. He added that for weeks, Russia has been trying to present the government in Kyiv as unable to keep the peace in the country, partially in order to put the EU under additional pressure.

According to Meister, the West has grossly misinterpreted Moscow's moves: Russia is not at all interested in de-escalating the situation in Ukraine. "This is what Moscow calls 'controlled destabilization,' with the aim of moving the US and the EU towards compromises so that Russia can retain its influence over Ukraine."

Thugs in ragtag uniforms

But how close is the situation to actually spinning out of control? According to DW correspondent Markus Reher, the situation on the ground is not quite as dramatic as Putin makes it out to be. In the past few days, Reher has travelled over 500 kilometers (about 310 miles) throughout Ukraine's northeastern region. He saw many occupied government buildings, barricades made from tires and men with truncheons and ragtag uniforms. "But we haven't seen any sign of great popular uprisings here - that's why I don't believe in a violent civil war," he added.

Reher said the actions of pro-Russian forces are small pockets within people's daily lives: "As soon as you move a few meters away from the occupied buildings, normal life takes its course. And you wouldn't even think that there is some sort of uprising currently under way against the central government in Kyiv," he said.

According to Reher's observations in eastern Ukraine, a maximum of 2,000 demonstrators have gathered in Donetsk, while other cities have seen just a few hundred or a few dozen demonstrators. "But what you see is that the people here are taking a firm stand on whether they are for the pro-Russian activists or against them. And that can often lead to outbreaks of anger or to fist-fights," he said.

A map of southeastern Ukraine

The situation in many eastern Ukrainian cities is volatile

Tense calm in Kharkiv

Mario Radermacher, an academic at a local Kharkiv university, said he also fears an increasing polarization between the pro- and anti-Russian parts of the population. Radermacher has been living in Kharkiv, a city around 40 kilometers from the Russian border, for some time now, and has seen the Ukrainian and Russian tanks facing off against each other for several weeks.

According to Radermacher, the situation in Kharkiv has been much quieter than further south near Donetsk. But he added that the atmosphere has been rather tense and that people feel insecure, because they don't know whether Putin is hoping to take the region around Kharkiv into his sphere of influence.

Several of the administrative buildings here have been occupied for around a week, there have been clashes in the streets and metro stations have been closed. "I do notice that there are now some restrictions on my daily life," Radermacher told DW. "It's worth avoiding certain places at the moment, especially in the vicinity of the demonstrations."

Pro-Russian demonstrators gather near a Lenin statue in Donetsk
(Photo: Friedemann Kohler / dpa)

Many worry that the situation in Kharkiv could escalate as it did in Donetsk

Radermacher said the people he speaks to seem to be particularly worried about the economic situation: unemployment is increasing and many factories have closed because they don't know what will happen next - and because Russia has stopped buying certain products.

"There is an increasing number of people who no longer have anything to lose, which of course increasingly politicizes society," Radermacher said, adding that people are particularly angry that the government hasn't been able to get the economy under control. Many of the people who have joined the pro-Russian demonstrations are merely hoping Russia might provide them with higher pensions or salaries, he said.

Sitting on packed suitcases

Radermacher said he can imagine the situation in Kharkiv escalating in the same way it has in Donetsk. He said there are rumors of similar pro-Russian protests taking place at the end of the month. "Kharkiv is on the verge," he explained.

Few might be able to imagine a civil war taking place in Kharkiv, but many people seem afraid of escalation, Radermacher added. "There are people who are thinking about leaving the city in case Russian troops, with or without insignia, march in."

Eastern Europe expert Meister said that's exactly the sort of a move that could split the population. "Much more so than in Crimea, there could be a social conflict between segments of the population who are more inclined to look toward Russia and those, especially the young people, who don't want that at all," he said.

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