Is Ukraine on the brink of civil war?


Last week’s Geneva accord is already faltering. Pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian groups clashed in Slavyansk over the weekend, leading to up to five deaths. With pro-Russian separatists showing no sign of surrendering occupied government buildings in at least nine urban centres in eastern Ukraine, the country is on the brink of civil war. Unlike in Crimea, Kiev has indicated it will use force to re-establish control. Should this happen, two scenarios are likely. If Kiev is unable to restore control – as happened last week, when an operation to confront separatists saw many of its soldiers retreat or defect – separatists will be emboldened to expand their reach further, provoking Kiev to respond with greater force. If Kiev is able to restore control, separatists will call on Russia to defend them against “fascists” from western Ukraine – something Russia will find hard to ignore. Either scenario will lead to civil war. Dr Andrew Foxall is director of the Russia Studies Centre at The Henry Jackson Society.


Ukraine is not about to erupt into all-out civil war, but state cohesion is far from assured. The West wants to freeze the conflict – the US recognises that sanctions won’t change Russia’s behaviour, and there is little support in Europe for an escalation of sanctions. Military intervention has never been a serious option. Russia is intent on removing the existing government in Kiev, an objective that received fresh impetus with the Ukrainian military’s failure to halt Russia’s creeping takeover of the south east. Given the ethnic divides within Ukraine, and Moscow’s covert support for local Russian populations, there is sufficient momentum to force a territorial split, with the south east of Ukraine becoming independent. Ukraine has a relatively short history as a unified entity, and a split would not necessarily be accompanied by large-scale violence or civil war. On the contrary. It could end Ukraine’s uncomfortable position straddling the divide between East and West. Elizabeth Stephens is head of credit and political risk advisory at JLT.