Ukraine: The Phony War?

Marko Djurica/Reuters
A pro-Russian protester talking to Ukrainian soldiers, whose convoy was halted by a pro-Russian crowd, Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, April 16, 2014

In late April, traveling in eastern Ukraine, I was in the midst of its phony war. Threats were flying, ultimatums were delivered, and jets screamed low over the countryside. Trees were felled to block back roads, tires were piled up to build barricades, and men from backwater towns strutted with their guns, their lives suddenly seeming to have purpose. In eastern Ukraine, where neatly kept memorials commemorate the fallen of the great battles fought there by the Red Army during World War II, all the omens seemed to tell of war coming once again. But even at the eleventh hour it is not inevitable.

This has been a time when normal life continues while men arm themselves and begin to prepare for combat. It is that strange pre-war moment when the possible future overlaps with the present. Rebels make Molotov cocktails a stone’s throw from roadside shops selling garden gnomes. A halted Ukrainian army convoy is surrounded by locals who mill around chatting to the soldiers. The line of armored vehicles is split by a train coming from a Russian holiday resort; it goes through Ukraine because that is the way the Soviet-era track goes. It blows its horn to get crowds out of the way as it passes on its way to Moscow. People wave to the passengers who peer out, wondering what is going on.

As men in beaten-up cars race up country roads past towering grain silos, as groups gather to demand referendums, as people tell me that they don’t believe that war is coming and that Russians and Ukrainians are brothers, I remember the same brave talk, the same euphoria, and the same delusions before the Yugoslavs tipped their country into catastrophe in the 1990s. Ukraine is not like that Yugoslavia, although the atmosphere in the east is a horribly similar combination of resentment and disbelief.


What is extraordinary about the Ukrainian disaster is how fast things have moved. Last October, when I came to talk to people about the country signing a trade deal with the European Union, I was told again and again that Ukraine had a date with destiny. It would look west, not east to Russia. Almost everyone I met thought the deal would happen. President Viktor Yanukovych, the head of the Party of Regions, whose support came mostly from the east, had, when he was elected, been regarded as pro-Russian. Yes, it will be tough, officials said, but the future was with Europe and he would sign.

At the last minute Yanukovych balked. Vladimir Putin decided to stop the deal from being signed. If Ukraine agreed to it, then it could not join his planned Eurasian Union, with Belarus and Kazakhstan, which would be dominated by Russia.…

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