Is the Ukraine war a “civil war”?

by Lev Tsitrin

Yes, I know that it is unwise to discuss religion and politics with friends. But agreeing with a good advice, and following it are two very different things — at least for me. Hence, whenever I talk to my Russian friends, the conversation inevitably turns to Ukraine. This is perfectly fine when everyone is on the same page, each providing further examples in support of the points we all agree on. But such is not always the case; I have a friend who has a very different view of the conflict than mine — and the difference came into full view in two recent conversations in which his casual reference to Ukraine events as a “civil war” and my equally casual dismissal of that notion suddenly fired him up. The subject dominated the rest of the conversation; he kept providing new and yet newer argument for his position — and then called again to press further points. His very vehemence told me that I must have touched a raw nerve, and that therein perhaps lies the key to understanding the conflict, if not to resolving it. Yet, there was a glaring, unspoken gap between what he said, and why he said it, the “why,” it seems to me, being of far greater importance than the “what” for understanding the war.

What he said was simple enough, and sensible enough: from the time immemorial (i.e. for the last 350 years or so) Ukraine was the part of Russia — be it Russian Empire, or the Soviet Union. Ethnic origins, mentalities, cultures and languages are close or closely intertwined (I’m sure Ukrainians will hotly debate each of those points; I didn’t, being totally ignorant in such matters); marriages between Russians and Ukrainians are common (which is true), lots of Russians live in Ukraine, and lots of Ukrainians live in Russia (also true); so how is Russia-Ukraine war not a civil war?

Why he was saying it was left unsaid, but became obvious in his explosive reaction to my counter-question with which I dismissed all of the above as irrelevant: did Russia cross internationally-agreed border? If the answer is a “no,” this is a civil war; if “yes,” it is an international conflict.

To the friend of mine, this was a non-starter, a distinction without a difference. To him, neither the disposition of international law, nor the geography of international borders made any difference.

And this mindset, I suspect, is what drives people in the Kremlin. To me, by far the most surprising aspect of this war is that both Mr. Putin, and his past successor/predecessor Mr. Medvedev are lawyers by training, and thus should have instinctively known that the forcible absorption of Ukraine into Russia that started in 2014 in Crimea was an international conflict, and not an internecine war. They still prefer not to notice this. Hence in their mind, NATO is not engaged in a legitimate support of a country fighting to maintain its independence when it supplies arms to Ukraine, but it inadmissibly interferes in Russia’s domestic affairs — hence, Putin’s insistence that in Ukraine Russia is fighting off NATO aggression, rather than trying to conquer Ukraine.

Inhabitants of the Kremlin live inside a mental time machine parked in the past — the past in which Russian borders enclosed much more of the Eastern Europe than they do now. The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the resulting independence of its fifteen constituent republics has not been internalized. The mental border is not where the international border is — and that is the root of the problem.

Back at the time of the Soviet Union, the international travel was reserved for the well-connected. People who have been abroad were envied as some superior creatures — but divided into two different classes of prestige: those who managed to visit the “socialist” countries, and the “capitalist” ones (it was far easier to get a tourist package to visit a Soviet-block country). Out of envy, the jaded Russians who could not travel, came up with a grapes-are-sour rime that dismissed the social glamor of those who visited a “socialist” country: “chicken is not a bird — Poland is not abroad” (it rimes much better in its original Russian; I translated it the best I could.) Poland being nowadays a part of NATO, this is no longer true; but Kremlin’s inhabitants apparently cannot reconcile themselves to the fact that “Ukraine is abroad” — and indeed, for half of their lives it literally wasn’t. The border between Russia and Ukraine not registering in their minds, the war is to them, indeed, a civil war — a “special military operation” fought inside their borders, that is.

But it is not so for the rest of the world — at least to that part of the world where legalities still matter, and the armed crossing of international borders is considered an act of aggression, to be condemned and countered. No one in the West sees the war waged in Ukraine as a “civil war” — and the collective West reacted accordingly, by helping Ukraine maintain its independence via sending it defensive arms (and now promising it light armored vehicles to boot, in a vote of confidence for Ukrainian ability to conduct offensive operations that are needed to fully liberate its territory).

This difference, I suspect, is the hidden reason why my friend instinctively and vehemently rejected the very idea that the conflict in Ukraine is anything but a civil war. Else, it is a naked aggression — and he cannot bring himself to admit that this is what Russia is doing. He has to find excuses — and what better excuse there is than that this is an inter-Slavic affair from which the West should stay away, that it is a mere long-simmering family dispute that suddenly exploded into a brawl — in other words, that it is a civil war in which outsiders should not get involved. Thus, Russia’s behavior is turned into something excusable — and even justifiable.

Not only do I beg to differ, but I suspect that calling it a “civil war” is a thinly disguised way of saying “I think that what Russia is doing is justified,” while seeing it as an international conflict is tantamount to supporting Ukraine. This is what, ultimately, caused the fireworks in our discussion. Our positions suddenly became crystal-clear — and, what is worse, we turned out to root for the opposite sides in the conflict. I haven’t heard from this friend since; hopefully, we will remain friends. If not, it would not only be sad, but serve me as a yet another confirmation that one should not discuss politics with friends. Oh well. Easier said than done…


2 Responses

  1. I think it’s perfectly possible for a war to be both an international war and a civil war, even a multi-sided civil war- Korea, Vietnam and its parallel Indo-Chinese wars, Afghanistan from 1979-89 and again 2001-22, Iraq 2003- ?; Syria even. That’s just high profile recent examples.

    The American War of Independence was also a civil war, as well as a rebellion by the colonies against homeland authority, insofar as a substantial number of colonists both disagreed with and took up arms against the rebels.

    Almost every war betweeen England and Scotland and England and France was also a civil war in Scotland and France, respectively, at least up to the 15th century.

    And so on. Happens literally all the time.

    It doesn’t actually require one to deny that Russia is engaged in the invasion of Ukraine, or even to admit that they are doing so and then having to justify it, although I agree many would use the civil argument in one or both of those ways.

    I would say that Ukraine had a condition of potential civil war the Russians have stoked by backing their most likely proxies for many years, then invaded when that wasn’t working well enough. Justification is largely beside the point.

    The US, amazingly, is much better at this. It has waged many proxy wars, a smaller number of invasions, but has always been better at justification and even when it fails to persuade, can always at least honestly say that they have not tried to annex territory to the US since 1898. That’s not nothing. The US invades to change local governments into something it finds more congenial to its strategic interests and/or to shape regional dynamics in a way more to American advantage, sometimes just to impose its cultural values, sometimes both, but it won’t take land.

    I’ve been quite in favour of most of America’s efforts in these areas for decades, for strategic and occasionally ideological reasons- proxy wars in Central America, invasion of Grenada [legal, insofar as the GG was in a position to ask for the coup regime to be overthrown; tentatively legal if one assumes the OECS had the authority to ask for a US invasion of one of its members], justified by being moves in the Cold War and by Russian interference being a threat; Panama, well it worked well and to US advantage but I’m still not convinced that the US had any business invading a sovereign nation as a law enforcement operation [still, Noriega ‘declared war’ so…]; Kuwait- I’m not wholly on board with Bush’s vision of the world order or America’s role in it, nor think all the consequences of Desert Storm have worked to the west’s advantage on any level, but agree with some of the basic ideas involved; Afghanistan- justified as response to attack but then ambitions were added to it that amounted to US aggression to reshape Afghan society and Central Asian politics, a set of ideological and strategic power moves I have mixed feelings about; Iraq- I don’t really care about the Iraqi casualties and property destruction but that was a huge mistake that seems to have accomplished nothing. Really the only difference is that the US didn’t want to directly annex any part of Iraq. And that its troops weren’t sent there with orders to commit war crimes. These are not meaningless differences, but they’re not the only things at issue.

  2. Too unnecesarily complicated. GeoHistoricoPolitics are the lame excuse for megalomaniacal psychopaths to justify their murderous intents on the citizens which they coerce with patriotic puke.
    The weak justifications for continuing the obscene war do not compensate for the 10″s of 1000″s dead human fodder.
    Simple agreement for each side to demilitarize 200 mile zones from the border and to cease hostilities would allow diversion of military funding to peaceful uses.
    Such effort is beyond the inhuman ken of present misleaders.

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