In recent days and weeks, as ‘little green men’ have popped up in Eastern Ukraine, occupying government buildings, declaring independence, and generally causing havoc, a debate has erupted among political analysts as to the role of Russia in all of this. Certainly, some argued, this wouldn’t be happening without the Kremlin’s involvement! Certainly, others retorted, the feelings of ‘rebels’ in the Donbass are no less genuine than those of ‘rebels’ in Kiev and the west of Ukraine!
Putin, of course, made matters worse when he said today that the gunmen declaring independence from Kiev are all locals, operating autonomously and with no links to Russia, followed not too long thereafter by a statement that Russian troops were, of course, used in Crimea. (To be fair, it was a long q&a session, and he’s not getting any younger.)
My colleague Keith Darden, writing in Foreign Affairs, argues:
It is not hard to see why the Russophile regions have raged against the new government, which the regional press calls the Kiev junta, the Maidan government in Kiev, or simply Banderovtsy (the informal name for the anti-Soviet insurgency that was based in the Habsburg west).
The west, poll data show, want to join NATO and the EU, while the east, broadly put, doesn’t. And so doesn’t that mean that the conflict in the east is real, and not manufactured? And so doesn’t that mean that Russia, as Keith writes, “is not the problem”?
Let me ask a different question: Why are we looking for a simple answer to a complex question? Simple answers to complex questions got us into this mess in the first place: they will not help us get out of it.
Let’s start with what we know:
(1) There is every reason to believe that the feelings of those residents of eastern Ukraine who came out against the Kiev government are genuine. There is also every reason to believe that these people are representative of some significant section of eastern Ukrainian society, although there is no good way to know how much (and any poll taken now will be wildly inaccurate).
(2) There is every reason to believe that Russia has been intimately involved in the uprisings and occupations in eastern Ukrainian cities. The level of coordination, preparation and equipment all speak to this being a not-entirely-grassroots phenomenon.
(3) There is no reason to believe that points (1) and (2) are in contradiction.
Embracing the joys of complexity allows us to see these two things as intertwined. Russia is able to intervene because there is a level of genuine sentiment that supports its opinion. (If you’re interested in what I think Russia is up to in a strategic sense, click here.) And the sense of support from Russia emboldens the bearers of anti-Kiev sentiment to mobilize, possibly making them even more radical in the process. The result is a self-reinforcing spiral of escalation – one that does not end well, but that is nonetheless internally logical.
When we fail to embrace complexity we simplify the world to a caricature, such as the idea of Ukraine’s ‘finlandization’, supported in the West by Zbigniew Brzezinski and in the East by Dmitri Trenin. This kind of approach pretends that factors (1), (2) and (3) above are all products of great-power competition, figments of geopolitical imagination, but accepting that approach requires pretending that Ukraine is, for all intents and purposes, uninhabited. We tried that once (at least). How about we don’t try it again?