Escalating Tensions Spark Fears of War in Ukraine

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Pro-Russian activists guard a barricade set at the Donetsk regional council office building on the eastern city of Donetsk on April 7, 2014.
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Over the weekend, several thousand pro-Russian demonstrators in the Eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to send troops to the region and demanded a referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

Now Russian nationalist demonstrators are occupying Eastern Ukrainian government buildings after a tense night of confrontation with police. The Ukrainian government is accusing demonstrators of being part of a Russian instigated plot, which has raised fears that Russia may try to annex more territory after having success overtaking Crimea last month.

The Obama Administration has expressed deep suspicion that the building takeovers and uprisings were spontaneous.

“There is strong evidence suggesting some of these demonstrators were paid,” says White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's security forces have arrested scores of demonstrators in what it is calling "an anti terrorist operation." In reaction, there have been stern warnings to the Ukrainian government from Moscow that the use of violence against the demonstrators could result in an all out civil war.

According to reports, tens of thousands of Russian troops are now amassed near the Ukrainian border.

“If Russia were to intervene further in Ukraine, it would be a historic mistake,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters Tuesday in Paris. “It would have grave consequences for our relationship with Russia and would further isolate Russia internationally.”

Kimberly Marten, a professor of political science at Columbia University's Barnard College, weighs in on the way forward for Russia and Ukraine.

"Its especially disturbing because the pro-Russian demonstrators have not merely been taking over government buildings, they've also been taking over Ukrainian security force buildings and have been taking the weapons from those buildings," says Marten, who adds that demonstrators are still inside a Ukrainian security services building in Luhansk, which has an arsenal of 300 machine guns.

When asked if these demonstrators are part of a Russian plot, Marten says it's difficult to know where allegiances lie, but adds that the behavior of the demonstrators is peculiar. 

"We do know that in Donetsk, another one of the cities in Eastern Ukraine, when the people first came into the city they were asking for the mayor and trying to storm the opera house—they didn't know the difference between the opera house and the regional government building," she says. "That would indicate that, at best, they are not actually Donetsk residents that have lived there for a long time."

Marten says that it's not clear if these demonstrators are coming directly from Russia, but adds that it does appear that they are coming from Crimea and into Eastern Ukraine to try and agitate tensions on the ground. Additionally, it is difficult to determine who is truly a local citizen because of the complex history saddling the region.

"The borders have changed so many times—up until World War II broke out, the territory that is now Ukraine was divided between what was then the early days of the Soviet Union on one side, and an attempt at a reconstituted Poland on the other side," says Marten. "But even just a few decades before that it had been split between multiple empires, with part of it being long-term in the Russian empire and another part of it being long-term in the Habsburg empire. Going back in history, the population movements have been incredible."

Furthermore, during the Soviet Union there were no distinctions between Ukraine, Maldova, Belarus and other areas in the region.

"They were all just republics within the Soviet Union," says Marten. "People would go from one place to another depending on where the jobs and where the industries were. There's been just an immense amount of population change over time."

Present day, these historic population shifts have blurred the lines and make it difficult to determine what motivations demonstrators may have. According to Marten, the most recent Ukrainian census figures from 2001 show that about 38 percent of the population throughout these Eastern cities identified as ethnically Russian, with the remaining majority identifying as ethnically Ukrainian.

Though the majority in these Eastern cities identify as ethnically Ukrainian, Marten says it would be unusual for those who identify as ethnically Russian to feel threatened. 

"There has not been any threatening activity that has come from the government in Kiev to these areas," she says. "It's all based on a sense of rumors, and maybe fears about what might happen in the future. Certainly there are Ukrainian nationalist groups, who are very small minority, who are violent. But they have not really taken out violence against Russians for being Russian—it appears that if there are fears, the fears have been artificially stoked. It's not that something has happened that has caused people to feel threatened."

It is not just ethnic Russians that might feel threatened—Marten isn't so sure that Ukrainian government has the resources or support to protect itself or its citizens from Russia.

"What Ukraine would need to protect its territorial integrity is military support coming from NATO, and that's not going to happen," she says. "Ukraine is not a NATO member; NATO has no interest in getting militarily involved in the situation. The truth is, Russian military forces are strong enough that if Russia decided to come over the border, they would find themselves enmeshed in a civil war. It would not be an easy thing, but they could, with fighting, manage to control all of Ukraine."

Though Russia would likely be greeted with a Ukrainian guerrilla campaign and insurgency, Marten says there is literally nothing Ukraine can do to stop Russia.

"The situation that the Ukrainians find themselves in is trying to negotiate, trying to figure out if there's some way to convince Russia not to go in," she says. "But they're not going to get what they would need from the West to stop Russia from going in."

Russia's Foreign Ministry said that demonstrators are facing a crackdown by Ukrainian authorities, adding that violence could lead to civil war. Marten, however, finds Russia's warning about potential civil war disingenuous. 

"What's provoking everything is the support that's coming from Russian territory and now from Russian-occupied Crimea," says Marten. "The people who are taking over these government buildings are stealing weapons and acting violently. To claim that somehow it's Ukraine that's provoking this, that is a lie."

Marten says that these fears of civil war are the result of a propagandist campaign by Russian officials. 

"It's the kind of thing that we would expect from somebody who is a KGB operative, which is what Putin's background is," says Marten. "He is very good at using information campaigns and he always has been. I think it's important to sort out what the truth is. The situation is obviously ambiguous, but so far it's not the Ukrainian government using force—it's these people who are calling themselves pro-Russian protesters, but don't know where their own regional government building is."

What's playing out right now in Donetsk, says Marten, is strikingly similar to what happened in Crimea.

"It was not locals who were doing it [in Crimea], it was people coming over from the Russian side who were essentially KGB operatives or in some cases, even special operations forces who came in civilian clothes and turned out to have some form of military uniforms hidden," she says. "This is Russia that's doing this—this is not people who are just frightened Russian speaking citizens of the Eastern Ukrainian area."