Is Ukraine Heading for a Civil War?

Speaking on CNN this week, Steven Pifer, senior fellow and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said that, in answer to the question of whether Ukraine is heading toward a civil war:

I wouldn’t quite call it a civil war because that suggests the Ukrainian population fighting among themselves. I think what you are seeing are isolated cases, now in about 8 or 10 towns and cities in eastern Ukraine, where there have been armed takeovers of buildings that very much look to be inspired and instigated by Russian Special Services.

However, he spoke to the Ukrainian government’s dilemma in dealing with this issue in eastern Ukraine:

On the one hand, do they try to take over some of these buildings or retake some of these buildings, risk using force that could produce bloodshed and could be controversial in eastern Ukraine and also might then be a pretext for Russian military action? Or do they sit back and do nothing and watch these sorts of seizures continue? It’s a very difficult situation the Ukrainian government faces. …

I think neither option is good but I worry that the Ukrainian government is increasingly going to feel that if it does not act it may end up losing eastern Ukraine. They’ve now given two ultimatums with deadlines. The deadlines have passed with no action. But at some point I worry that the government is going to feel that it’s compelled to act in a very understandable way.

Indeed, on Tuesday, Ukraine began a military operation against pro-Russia militants in eastern Ukraine.

Pifer also said that Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Kyiv next week “is an important step” but:

The bigger question here is that you have seen the Russians not try to de-escalate this crisis. With the economic pressure, the increase in gas prices to Ukraine, and then again I believe there’s a pretty compelling story that what you’re seeing going on the last ten days in terms of these takeovers are being organized by Moscow. They are not de-escalating, they are increasing the pressure. So it now looks to me time that the United States and the European Union should be considering additional economic sanctions, basically to make clear to Russia that there will be consequences for their efforts not to defuse the crisis.

Are the sanctions currently in place working? Pifer says they are “beginning to have an effect.” He explained that:

In the first quarter of this year, Russia reported that they had as much capital flight out of Russia as in the entire year of 2013, and by some estimates as much as $200 billion can flee Russia this year on the current course. The Russian central bank has spent $25 billion over the last 4-6 weeks to try to defend the ruble. This morning the ruble came under more pressure and the Russian stock markets took a hit. So the sanctions are beginning to have some effect. But I think it’s important that the West demonstrate to the Russians that if they are not going to try to find a solution, that the West can increase the pressure as well. And then we’ll have to see whether increasing economic circumstances in Russia, which could move the Russian economy perhaps even toward a recession, whether that will affect the calculations of Mr. Putin.

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research and commentary from Brookings experts about Ukraine.