Trying to get a handle on events in Ukraine is no easy matter – Although the escalating conflict has received steady media coverage there are still conflicting reports about the motivations and actions of the different factions involved. Are we to believe, for example, that there is in fact a massive groundswell of support among Russian-speaking Ukrainians to leave Ukraine and join Russia ? Who are the armed men that have taken control of government buildings in some disputed areas ? What does Putin ultimately hope to achieve and what can the US and Europe actually do about Russia’s expansionist aims?
There are no easy answers, but I do think that Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss do a pretty good job of unpacking some of the complexity in a piece recently published on the Politico website. In it, they write of the confused situation in Ukraine ,“The biggest obstacle to walking back from the Abyss is Chaos. It has become a fact of life in many parts of eastern and southern Ukraine that nobody knows who is in charge and nobody seems to know who is in charge.”
They go on to consider how an atmosphere tinged with anarchy has essentially created a power vacuum in this eastern European nation and, adroitly pointing out the actual limitations that the US and Europe face in bringing influence to bear on Russia, outline a number of logical steps to take, conclude that a “national conversation” in Ukraine is needed. I agree, but can’t help wondering in the middle of this explosive brew of Russian nationalism, ethnic tension and political tension, in which people have already lost their lives, how anyone can effectively apply the brakes in order to convene such a conversation. In my mind, without a cessation of violence on the ground, such a move seems intensely difficult.
There are no shortage of reasons to be concerned about this conflict, but there is also a burning humanitarian question here: if the chaos continues and more of the Ukraine is washed away (only to arrive on Russian shores, as it were) will it be a neat and orderly transition that reshapes this part of Europe, or will those who are often most at risk in such situations, including women, children and minority groups, bear the brunt of any violence that follows?
I believe that Rumer and Weiss have correctly focused on the chaos at the core of this conflict as a dangerous catalyst, but they leave unaddressed the question of how the US and Europe might successfully reorient the principle stakeholders (Russia, Ukraine, Russian-speaking separatists) in the direction of dialogue. Without such a pivot, there is no reason to think that the chaos will abate any time soon, or that the world should not be watching closely to make sure that the most vulnerable do not become invisible in this conflict. It's the very least we can do.
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.