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There are more sides to the conflict in Ukraine than appear from most articles on the subject. As the situation continues to devolve, it becomes more important to identify and understand the players in this conflict. Unfortunately, much of what the opposing sides say to discredit each other is true, but the situation is far more complicated than usually appears. There are two sets of corrupt oligarchs, two sets of disillusioned and frightened common (or not-so-common) folk, and there's an unfortunately powerful fringe. There are also two main external groups involved in the conflict. Altogether, there are eight discrete groups or sides involved in the conflict, and while four can be lined up on the side of Ukrainian unity and independence, and the other four as more-or-less pro-Russia, if we allow ourselves to think of each group separately and examine the needs and wishes of each, we'll gain a much deeper understanding of the conflict, as well as some insight into possible resolutions.


With the breakup of the Soviet Union, a small coterie of people, many of them members of the Soviet nomenclatura, managed to acquire title to most of the wealth of Ukraine. (This occurred in Russia and the other former Soviet republics as well.) A smaller handful of people managed to launch successful new enterprises, and then acquire more of their country's wealth from the strength of their newfound positions of influence. These two small groups of people together formed a new class of oligarchs, controlling both the wealth and the politics of the country. Many of the Ukrainian oligarchs are ethnically mostly Russian, others are ethnically mostly Ukrainian, many are mixed Ukrainian-Russian, and a few are Jews, Tartars, and members of other minorities. The population regards them with deep resentment.

Yanukovich, the ousted president, inspired resentment and wrath in large part because the population perceived him as stealing the national wealth for himself and his family. Tymoshenko, one of his rivals, was in prison for corruption until the government turnover, and one of her main partners in the intersection of business and politics, Pavlo Lazarenko, was convicted of corruption by a US court in 2006. Ukrainians used to call Tymoshenko the “Gas Princess,” because she acquired much of Ukraine's gas industry when it became privatized. She is now attempting to raise, or may have already raised, a private army.

The oligarchs are now divided between those who support, or are part or plan to become part of, the new Ukrainian government and its bid to join the European Union, and those who support closer ties to Russia. Regardless, the oligarchs are not particularly eager to rid the country of corruption. Any money that the international community allocates to helping Ukraine risks diversion at their hands. While the nationalistic group of Ukrainian oligarchs and the Russian-oriented group appear to be on opposite sides in this conflict, they share a commitment to their own ever-increasing wealth and power that is in stark contrast to the interests of the Ukrainian population, including the Ukrainian-Russian population. This commitment is greater than any ideological commitment any of them may profess. Lacking passion, charisma, popularity, and extensive experience in government, they are politically and militarily weak.

Both Russia and the West find it generally fairly easy to collaborate with the oligarchs. The Russian government is similarly oligarchical. US government differs primarily in the extent to which corporations mediate wealth, in the legitimacy that most Americans still ascribe to extreme wealth, and in that most US oligarchs purchase influence by financing politicians instead of becoming politicians themselves. The Russian oligarchy is not significantly different from the Ukrainian; fear of a similar fate undoubtedly inspired some part of Putin's support for Yanukovich.


The Maidan protesters consisted of a temporary alliance of ordinary citizens who were sick of the corruption, intellectuals eager to improve ties with Europe and help their country achieve greater independence from Russia, and far-right ultra-nationalists. All three wanted an end to corruption, independence from Russia, and to bolster their identities as European.


European identity is of particular importance to the Ukrainian intelligentsia. Most of the protesters at Maidan were intelligentsia or ordinary citizens coming together in hope of launching their country on a path to integrity, freedom, and economic well-being. Russian propaganda entirely ignores the existence of this group, although it actually comprises most of those who favor the Ukrainian side of this conflict. According to Russian propaganda, the Maidan protesters consisted entirely of fascists and neo-nazis, supported and directly aided by the West, especially by the US. Western propaganda, on the other hand, ignores the existence of this right-wing fringe and insists that the Ukrainian side consists entirely of ordinary citizens and intelligentsia. In reality, most of the supporters of Ukrainian unity and independence distance themselves from the fascist fringe, although some empathize with the far right's strident opposition to Russia. A few weeks ago, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian intellectual (Rodion Komarov) published an article about his own transition from a moderate supporter of the Maidan to a newly-minted “Banderovets.”


The “Banderovtsy” are real. Pravyj Sektor and Svoboda are extreme right-wing, ultra-nationalist parties that are part of the new Ukrainian government. They really do regard Stepan Bandera, the leader of Ukrainian Nazi support from 1941-1943, as a national hero, and there is a statue of him in Lviv. 1000 people just marched in Ukraine to celebrate the 71st anniversary of the founding of the Ukrainian SS division “Galichina.”. This fascist fringe exercises appreciable influence in the government, enough so that the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Lviv government cancelled plans for the annual celebration of V-E day on May 8-9, and announced that it would replace the celebration with a day of mourning. The government isn't entirely fascist, and tried to show some tact in introducing these changes by banning any show of Nazi flags as well as of Communist ones, and by saying that the mourning would be for all the war dead. While the Ukrainian government didn't entirely follow suit, they did cancel the annual commemorative parade. This is a part of the world where history remains alive in minds, discourse, and politics.  

The fascists are a combination of the usual skinhead thugs and people who are so fed up with Russian control over Ukraine that they have embraced Nazi ideology to celebrate those whom they perceive as taking the strongest stand against it. It's not impossible to understand them, but they do pose a real menace. Naturally, the Russian takeover of Crimea helped the Ukrainian fascists expand their influence. These groups are now experiencing frustration with the new government, despite their own inclusion in it, for failing to put down the pro-Russia separatists in southern and eastern Ukraine. Rumor has it that they are considering or planning an effort to oust the new government so as to install a government both more compatible with their ideology and ruthless in putting down the separatists.

According to Western propaganda, the “banderovtsy” either do not exist, or are so marginal that one can ignore them. Ukrainian propaganda also plays down the neo-Nazi element among their supporters. Russian propaganda, on the contrary, is exaggerating the fascist influence on the government, but this propaganda unfortunately does have some basis in reality. At the same time, the more Russian troops surround or enter Ukraine, the more moderate Ukrainian nationalists move to the right. Despite the differences in propaganda, the current Ukrainian government and the West will share Russia's dismay if neo-Nazis succeed in taking over the government.


The other group of “ordinary folk,” Russian-oriented Ukrainians consist largely of working-class Russian speakers who have seen Ukraine's economy tank under oligarchy and fear that it will disintegrate altogether under the IMF's austerity plan. They identify with Russia culturally to a greater degree than they do with Ukraine, but many of them would like to remain part of Ukraine, provided that they can do so while enjoying economic safety and cultural respect. They value the safety net that Russia has supported Ukraine in maintaining and that the IMF will cut. They have good reason to fear a change of allegiance that comes with such severe austerity measures as the IMF generally imposes. Their core concerns are support for the flailing Ukrainian economy, including maintaining and expanding the social safety net, and cultural freedom. The new Ukrainian government began by revoking the status of Russian as the second language of Ukraine. More than a mere faux pas, this was a danger sign to all Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The government backed down, but this part of the Ukrainian population remembers and needs guarantees protecting their linguistic and cultural rights and freedoms. They share the general resentment of the oligarchs. According to Western propaganda, they, or their needs, do not exist; according to Russian propaganda, they comprise most of southern and eastern Ukraine. Naturally, the longer the Ukrainian government ignores them and their needs, the more of them become militant.


The militant separatists / federalists share these concerns as well, but want to pull away from the central power of the Ukrainian government. Some of them want their territories to secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia, others want a loose federal structure with a weak central government, and others want independence. These are the people who are taking over local governments in southern and eastern Ukraine. According to Western propaganda, they consist primarily of Russian citizens; according to Russian propaganda, this is an entirely homegrown, Ukrainian movement. In fact, it seems to consist primarily of Russian-oriented Ukrainians, supported by Russia. It enjoys the support of an appreciable  percentage of the local population; estimates range from 25% to 80%, but what that means is unclear; a large chunk of that support comes from the non-militant Russian-identified Ukrainians who would be happy to stay part of an integrated Ukraine that addressed their economic and cultural needs.


Russia is obviously a major party to this conflict. Russia clearly supports the separatists, although Putin maintains that he does not wish to annex their territory. If this is so, the reasons are in part financial; bailing them out will not be cheap. The other reason is fear of absorbing a sizable anti-oligarchical population with experience in political organization and protest movements. Russia is clearly interested in seeing the Russian language enjoy equal status with Ukrainian in those parts of Ukraine where Russian speakers predominate, in ensuring that Russian speakers not face discrimination, and in restoring Russian hegemony to the region. Above all, Russia wants to ensure that Ukraine will neither join NATO nor permit the stationing of NATO troops or weapons on its territory. The current crisis has led to a huge and successful propaganda drive in Russia against the West in general and the US in particular. The propaganda is both nationalistic and vitriolic. Some of Russia's leading propagandists and nationalist ideologues are as right-wing and fascist as the Ukrainian nationalist groups they deplore; notably, Alexander Dugin and his disciples differ from Pravyj Sektor and Svoboda in allegiance but little else. According to Western media, Russia is poised to invade Ukraine and is already flying drones over the border.


The West supports the Maidan group, and is offering some support to the interim government. It stands to gain a strategically located ally and a trading partner with intellectual and natural resources open for exploitation. Russian propaganda maintains that the United States fomented the Maidan protests from the start and has been offering the Ukrainian fascist parties support for years in an effort to pluck Ukraine from Russia's sphere of influence. According to Russia, Western mercenaries are among the fighting forces in Ukraine already, and the US is raising a mercenary army to join the fray in defense of the current Ukrainian government. Western multinationals have an obvious interest in the region, and an equally obvious influence on Western politicians. The Russian and pro-Russian separatists correctly point out that a western austerity plan will weaken Ukraine's already failing economy. Western eagerness for political influence and economic exploitation parallels Russia's interests in Ukraine, but the more legitimate interests of both external camps actually coincide; both stand to benefit from resolving the conflict, restoring stability, and seeing a responsible government at the helm of the country.


The ordinary pro-Maidan and Russian-identified groups also have more interests in common than at odds. Both want to see an end to corruption and oligarchy, both want peace and stability, and both could reasonably agree to limited regional autonomy within a unified, centralized Ukraine. If these two groups can collaborate, perhaps they can succeed in restoring regional peace and giving their country a future. Similarly, Russia and the US have many interests in common in Ukraine. For more about this, click here.


Russia has made much of the anti-Semitism of some of the extreme right-wing members of the new Ukrainian government. This is a real concern, but it is not among the underlying issues in the current conflict. Both Ukraine and Russia are rife with prejudice of many kinds generally, and extreme right-wingers in both countries tend to be virulently anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, racist, and anti- any number of other groups. (Anti-gay feelings are nearly universal in both cultures, even among relative liberals.) Nonetheless, this is not a major focus in the current conflict.


The actual issues are:

  • What level of centralized power, and what level of regional autonomy, should Ukraine have?
  • To what extent should Ukraine ally itself cultural, politically, or even militarily with the west?
  • Can and should Ukraine serve as a key lynchpin in Putin's Eurasian Alliance?
  • Can the poorest Ukrainian workers (many of whom are ethnically Russian, at least in part) receive the assistance they desperately need?
  • Is anyone willing to prop up Ukraine's economy? Can Russia and the West find a way to collaborate on this?
  • Can Ukraine free itself of corrupt oligarchic politicians?
  • If so, will this inspire revolt in Russia against Russia's corrupt oligarchic politicians?
  • Can anyone prevent Western oligarchs and multinational corporations from grabbing whatever of Ukraine is left to grab?
  • Can Ukraine resist Russian hegemony?
  • Can the claims of Ukraine to territorial self-determination and integrity be reconciled with the claims of individual territories within Ukraine to regional autonomy and self-determination, and if so, how?
  • Should neo-Nazi parties participate in the Ukrainian government? If not, to what extent can or should they be suppressed?
  • Can both sides come together to protect the environment and prevent its exploitation?
    Can Ukraine bring Russian-oriented southern and eastern Ukrainians into the government and take their needs into account?
  • When this conflict is resolved, can the new cold war that it has engendered end? Is Russia prepared to put an end to its vitriolic anti-american propaganda?


The following table summarizes the discrete groups involved in the Ukrainian conflict:

Pro-Maidan Groups Supporting Ukrainian Independence, Unity, And Close Ties To Europe
Pro-Maidan Ukrainian oligarchs
Groups Supporting Closer Ties Between Ukraine and Russia Notes
Pro-Maidan Ukrainian oligarchs Pro-Russia Ukrainian oligarchs Very similar. Some of the pro-maidan oligarchs are now raising private armies.
Intellectuals and “ordinary” Ukrainians who  want an end to corruption, independence from Russia, and closer ties to Europe Mostly working-class, “ordinary,” Russian-identified Ukrainians who want to maintain and expand the social safety net and guarantee their linguistic and cultural rights
More similar than they realize;   both seek an end to corruption. Their other goals, while differing, are not necessarily contradictory.
Ultra-nationalist “Banderovtsy”: fascists, including Pravjy Sektor and Svoboda Militant separatists / federalists Not equivalent, despite the shared militancy.
The West (US and Europe) Russia More similar than they realize.
It should be clear from this analysis that three of these four sets of political groupings have as much, or more, in common with their opposing counterparts than with their supposed allies. If they collaborate, they may find a way out of the morass. For more ideas on possible US-Russian collaboration, see The True Interests of the US and Russia in Ukraine.>

Nina Judith Katz

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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