There have been worrying signs this past week that a conflict that has precipitated the worst crisis in West-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War is on the verge of a new escalation. Renewed violence in and around Donetsk and rumours of more Russian tanks rumbling over the border have prompted a heated exchange of words, with President Poroshenko declaring a willingness to engage in a ‘total war’ and Putin making his most explicit commitment yet to arming the pro-Russian rebels.
This political posturing is rather starkly juxtaposed with another development in eastern Ukraine this week – the return of Dutch investigators to the MH17 crash site. Now, just as then, the wreckage-strewn fields just outside Grabovo stand as a poignant reminder of the human costs of conflict. It was a contrast most visible during the speeches made by the Dutch and Australian foreign ministers at the UN Security Council days after the crash; carefully crafted vignettes of intimate suffering and pain that etched a fine-grained, human narrative into the geopolitical horse-trading that had dominated debates in the chamber to that point.
Coming to terms with the ‘human’ factors
But giving too much weight to macro factors can risk painting the conflict as a rather abstract affair that glosses over the horror and the suffering of those whose lives it touches. In any case, to really understand and counter the violence in Ukraine peacemaking efforts need to be situated at the interface between the macro and the micro, where political realities intersect with the complex web of identities, emotions and loyalties of the protagonists on the front line. Political settlements are crucial, but peace in Ukraine will be impossible without the intervention of peacemakers versed in the local conditions and human factors that have helped to escalate and perpetuate the violence.
The power of fear
For me, the critical role of civil society and local peacemakers in delivering peace in Ukraine becomes apparent once we begin to think about the way one of the most powerful ‘human’ drivers of conflict has worked in Ukraine – the pervasive sentiments of fear and insecurity.
For most of human history, fear has played an essential evolutionary role. But in conflict scenarios fear has a sort of deadly, spiral logic. We tend to respond to fear and insecurity by seeking out safety in numbers and making aggressive shows of strength to reassure unsettled allies and to ward off potential aggressors. History suggests we’re also more likely to countenance repressive moves to either eliminate or sufficiently disarm the source of threat.
The problem is that such moves are invariably self-reinforcing, because when we mobilise, or engage in ‘aggressive defence’, our actions tend to exacerbate the sense of fear in our rivals, encouraging ever greater mobilisation and ever louder expressions of solidarity – a sort of social arms race, if you will. As the level of fear increases, gestures of détente, conciliation and compromise are increasingly seen as threats to the fragile sense of security, or as first steps on the path to defeat and, ultimately, annihilation.
Fear also has a tendency to be self-fulfilling, because attempts to alleviate the sense of fear often prompt, in turn, feelings of injustice, anger, or fear among rivals that bring the realisation of the anticipated threat ever closer. As a conflict situation escalates the middle ground is increasingly ceded to militants and extremists who appear to offer two commodities the moderates cannot – security and revenge – but that also fulfil the expectations of rival groups in a way that appears to legitimise initial acts of aggression.
Escalation in Ukraine
It’s not difficult to find evidence of these dynamics playing out in Ukraine. What began as a peaceful public protest against the Yanukovych adminstration’s decision to turn its back on an agreement with the EU unravelled quickly after government ministers, fearful of the movement’s consequences, ordered security forces to clear the Maidan of protestors in late November. The move prompted greater militancy and mobilisation among the protestors; surveys conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation tracking the motivations of Maidan protestors revealed that 70 per cent of the protestors had joined in response to the brutal dispersion of protestors on November 30.
Journalistic narratives, such as those of Kyiv-based journalist Kristina Berdinskikh, flesh out these statistics, revealing that for many the police intervention had been ‘a point of no return’ when Maidan ‘became a personal matter to everyone’. Some protestors felt less vulnerable on the streets than at home, evidence of the capacity of solidarity to overcome individual fears. One protestor summed up the collective sentiment when he told Berdinskikh: “Of course I am [scared]. Each normal person would be scared. But if you make one step back, your enemies will make two steps forward. There is no way to retreat.”
Much the same recurred a month later, when an increasingly desperate government introduced the infamous ‘Black Sunday’ anti-protest laws, only to intensify the resistance further still. As fear and distrust of the government increased, right-wing extremists were increasingly able to paint themselves as ‘defenders of the people’ enjoying an unprecedented upsurge in popularity. The public emergence of hardline ‘bandarite’ nationalists among the protests inevitably fuelled the sense of fear among pro-Russians, a fear adroitly harnessed by the Kremlin-backed pro-Russian media to deepen anti-Ukrainian and, by proxy, anti-western sentiments.
Now on the other side of this equation, pro-Russians fearful of their future in the new administration took to the streets in ever-greater numbers and, as the protests became more violent and widespread, called on Moscow for protection. Pro-unity Ukrainians, on the other hand, responded by enlisting the support of the ultra-nationalist ‘ultras’. Both sides, in the depth of their fear, had played up to the crude stereotypes each side drew of the other, acting in ways that appeared to justify aggression on the other side and therefore intensifying, rather than relieving, the endemic insecurity.
Paranoia and hysteria prevailed: Russian banks and businesses were attacked in Ukraine on the basis of alleged support for ‘terrorist’ organisations; pro-Russian mobs chanted ‘fascists’ at those who stood against the pro-Russian insurgency; many pro-Unity Ukrainians became convinced that pro-Russian groups were infiltrated by Russian Cossacks, Transdnistrian irregulars, ‘followers of Stalin and lovers of the ‘czar-father’…Orthodox fanatics, nostalgic-Brezhnevite grandmothers, and fighters against juvenile justice, gay marriage, and flu shots’. That some have even interpreted the symbolism adopted by the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic (which includes the ‘Berkut’ eagle) as a deliberate attempt to intimidate pro-unity Ukrainians is further evidence of just how deeply fear has embedded itself into the lived experience of the conflict.
The importance of civil society and local actors
Though we sometimes like to think of states as rational actors immune to such dynamics, the Ukraine crisis shows just how intimately the major geopolitical powers have themselves been caught up in this spiral. Russian, Ukrainian and western leaders have all been guilty of sponsoring (and sometimes authoring) divisive narratives that articulate – but also fuel – the feelings of insecurity felt by those on the frontline.
The new Kyiv government has consistently sought to undermine the legitimacy of pro-Russian demands by dismissing the militias as ‘terrorists’, a word with particular resonance, of course, for its western allies, who have been relatively quick to reach for Cold War stereotypes and to label Putin as a dangerous imperialist. The Russian government, for its part, has deliberately framed events in Ukraine as part of a broader, Slavic struggle against the western forces of fascism. Such simplistic narratives elide nuance and difference, heightening the sense of a massed, unified ‘other’ and obscuring present-day grievances and concerns behind the veil of historic mistrust.
One reason states have engaged in such unhelpful practices is because state leaders are uniquely placed to profit from such narratives. In Kyiv, firm resistance to Russian provocation has helped to secure the new government’s legitimacy and political support in the wealthy, pro-European western oblasts. In Russia, Putin’s popularity has often surged whenever he has been seen to defy the West’s interests and wishes. Obama too feels the pinch; the White House’s foreign policy is inevitably shaped by the powerful influence over sectors of the electorate exercised by cold warriors like John McCain, while the US might also see international dividends from being seen to fulfil its treaty obligations vis-à-vis insecure NATO partners in Eastern Europe.
This fatal implication of state leaders in the dynamics of fear inevitably limits their capacity to drive peace in Ukraine other than as legal guarantors of any peace settlement, placing great onus on civil society to drive the delivery of peace on the ground. Under such conditions local actors become critical too – not only because they possess intimate knowledge and insights into the relationships of the protagonists at the frontline, but also because of the trust and authority they enjoy within combatant communities; assets worth their weight in gold in contexts of spiralling distrust and insecurity.
Conflict resolution practice
Once we understand the spiralling power of fear, we can also see the value of a number of areas of good conflict resolution and peacebuilding practice. Since every act of violence and response serves to deepen and entrench collective feelings of fear and insecurity, rapid or even pre-emptive responses, in the manner of the preventive diplomacy practiced by the UN and other peacemaking bodies, become absolutely imperative.
Once the violence has been stopped, peacebuilding involves not only dealing with political grievances but also addressing the underlying emotional drivers. This means building mutual recognition of the legitimacy of opposing identities and political projects – for just as actions born of insecurity can become mutually reinforcing, so too can those which begin to emerge where opposing groups are feeling more secure and confident about their own prospects. The contribution made by public narratives to the escalatory dynamic also highlights the extreme importance of countering misinformation and propaganda campaigns in any attempt at bottom-up conflict resolution.
Finally, understanding how fear binds people together and increases the salience of singular ‘conflict identities’ helps us to see that among the most important and urgent tasks of the peacemaker is that of raising the credibility and support for alternative identities. Coming to terms with the complexity of identity inevitably means questioning the simplistic narratives that encourage both sides to see their opponents as an overwhelming, monstrous threat. Ukraine, a country with a rich history of intercultural exchange, has no shortage of capacity and need for such work.