January 17, 2022 could be a day that remains in infamy in the history of Ukraine, certainly Maidan Ukraine, and perhaps the world. The malodorous tension of 1914 Sarajevo, 1917 Petrograd, or 1939 Poland is in the air. A kind of perfect storm is brewing and bearing down on Kiev. Ukraine’s Maidan regime could be on the verge of its greatest crisis, one that could destabilize the regime and even spark a second civil war on Ukrainian territory. This comes as Russia and the West faceoff in the tensest crisis in direct Russian-Western relations. Moscow sees growing instability and radicalization under the weak and unpopular Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelenskiy. The West has accused Moscow of planning to invade by mid-February if not sooner, and both sides have accused the other of preparing a provocation in Donbass in order to escalate the slow-burning civil war there into a full-scale war to include a major Russian invasion. Alternatively, Monday see just another kick of the can down the road.
Ukraine’s domestic crisis has been long in coming. The Maidan regime was born in the blood of the 20 February 2014 snipers’ massacre carried out by the neo-fascist that infiltrated the originally peaceful Maidan protest movement opposed to President Viktor Yanukovych’s corruption and his decision not to sign a European Union association agreement. While the West blamed Yanukovych’s ‘Berkut’ riot police, the actual perpetrators, who shot and killed bith police and demonstrators, hailed from neofascist groups such as Dmitro Yarosh’s Right Sector. Since the inception of the Maidan regime the next day after mobs angered by the ‘Yanukovych’s snipers’ stormed government buildings and chased Yanukovych out of Kiev it has been plagued by continuing divisions, corruption, and the lawless violence of ultra-nationalist and neofascist groups.
The Zelenskiy administration has seen a gradual, but complete collapse in its popularity and now finds itself opposed by almost the entire polity. In response, it has become increasingly repressive, shutting down opposition media, banning Russian language education and squeezing Russian language use on the Internet, arresting opposition figures, and claiming coup plots coming from every direction (https://gordonhahn.com/2021/12/03/is-zelenskiys-ukraine-on-the-path-of-putins-russia/). Most recently, in mid-December, ex-president Petro Poroshenko was indicted by the Zelenskiy government on charges of ‘state treason’ for supposed state purchases of Russian coal during the Donbass civil war while he was president. He is set to return from abroad on Monday morning, January 17th, having departed Kiev almost immediately after being handed the indictment, is set to appear in court at 11am.
Supporters and members of his ‘European Solidarity’ party from all over the country have promised to descend on the airport to protect their leader upon his arrival. Poroshenko’s party has been in a loose alliance with other parties united only by their opposition to Zelenskiy. This loose coalition has included most notably the often violent ultra-nationalist and neo-fascist groups such as Yarosh’s Right Sector and Andrei Biletskiy’s National Corps and their armed militia groups the Volunteer Corps of Ukraine and Azov (incorporated into the state’s National Guard along with other radical-dominated volunteer battalions), respectively. These informal armed formations have units at the Donbass front, the members of which routinely violate the shaky ceasefire there and are not shy about admitting so. These ultra-nationalist and neo-fascist groups have had a testy relationship with Zelenskiy, and the latter has tried to appease them, with little success (https://gordonhahn.com/2021/12/03/zelenskiys-theater-of-simulacra-as-coup-hoax-and-the-activation-of-bad-actors-in-and-around-ukraine/). This was far less true for Poroshenko when he was president, and since the former president and the radicals have cooperated in opposing Zelenskiy (https://strana.news/articles/analysis/371012-kak-biletskij-ostalsja-s-avakovym-i-sblizilsja-s-poroshenko.html).
Opposition forces and police or other state officials dispatched to arrest or ‘escort’ Poroshenko to court will converge at the airport on Monday morning. This confrontation is fraught with the threat of violence that could spread to Kiev and beyond. In short, it cannot be ruled out that a new phase in the Ukrainian civil war could begin. The civil war, which has been hot only in Donbass and cold elsewhere in Ukraine, could spread and turn hot more across the country as occurred in winter 2014 and even lead to a general civil war involving at three forces: Poroshenko’s, Zelenskiy’s, and the Donbass separatists. The possibility of the neo-fascists subsuming Poroshenko’s moderates or breaking with them, forming a fourth force, cannot be ruled out.
On this background, both the siloviki (the military, the Security Service of Ukraine or SBU, and the Interior Ministry and police) and the informal neofascist volunteer battalions at the Donbass front would be faced with a difficult choices. Those at the front who might support Poroshenko could choose to move west to Kiev to support Poroshenko and their neofascist comrades against Zelenskiy, who will have to rely on the state’s siloviki. Indeed, some may undertake a coup or some provocation in Kiev once the police attempt to or actually detain Poroshenko. Many in the siloviki departments sympathize with, outright support or are themselves members of neo-fascist groups—that is, ‘Zelenskiy’s’ state siloviki could split, aggravating the nascent civil war. At any rate, there is little likelihood that in a crisis, the siloviki departments will be loyal to Zelenskiy. Perhaps the only way all or much of this can be fully excluded is if Poroshenko gets a guarantee before he is detained that he will be released after the court arraignment to house arrest and urges his supporters and quasi-supporters to disperse home, though the radicals may use the confrontation even before Poroshenko attempts to play peacemaker. Back to the picante smell of Sarajevo. One bullet killing the right target could explode the situation in Ukraine. Poroshenko would be the next best right target after Zelenskiy, and the neo-fascist alliance with Poroshenko is only one of convenience.
This is where the rest of the perfect storm circling around its eye in Ukraine could raise any clash in Kiev to an entirely different level. The three rounds of ‘Strategic Stability’ talks last week failed to produce any meaningful results. This and the still murky nature of the origins of the insurrection in Kazakhstan likely leave Moscow further riled than it was before. After Moscow expressed its dissatisfaction with the talks and suspicion in some quarters in Moscow that the Kazakhstani events were an attempt to complicate Moscow’s life on a second front, Washington and Kiev countered Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s mid-December claim that Russian intelligence had information that U.S. mercenaries were planning a provocation in Donbass involving a chemical attack with their own claim that it had intelligence that Moscow was planning a provocation in order to justify an invasion of Donbass. Prior to the US warning about a Russian provocation, Ukrainian intelligence issued another in which the provocation would occur in Transdniestr in the unlikely form in which Russia would detonate a Russian weapons depot in Moldova’s breakaway republic (https://strana.news/news/371709-belyj-dom-obvinil-rf-v-provokatsijakh-na-donbasse.html). All these foreign and domestic propaganda and other machinations around Donbass and Ukraine can only raise the temperature on both sides of the line of contact and make a provocation or simply an escalation more likely. And there are enough hotheads on both sides of the front lines.
So if any conflict or coup in Kiev occurs, turns violent and begins to look like civil war, external forces – Russia and/or the West – could use the chaos to undertake measures, such as a provocation, to take matters under their control. Russia could invade in order to seal off Donbass from the fighting. Elements in Donbass could support one or another of the Kievan parties to the conflict. The West could undertake its own provocation. Perhaps hotheads from Poland, Lithuania or Belarus would begin entering Ukraine to join one or another element, depending on their assessment of pro-Western or pro-Russian credentials.
Zelenskiy, who from his presidential campaign has positioned himself as a peace candidate, has recently expressed regret that he has not been more bold in pursuing peace talks directly with Putin, who in turn demands that Kiev negotiate directly with the Donbass separatist leaders, as the Minsk accords require Kiev to do. Before the weekend, Zelenskiy proposed three-way talks between Washington, Kiev, and Moscow; something that should have taken place years ago. This could also provoke the ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists and their allies among the siloviki and pro-nationalist parties like Poroshenko’s to strike, as they are firmly opposed to any agreement with Putin and have threatened a coup numerous times in the past should there be one. Obviously. At any rate there will be no trilateral meeting by Monday. We will find out on that day whether Tuesday will be too late. Hopefully, Poroshenko will submit to the authorities, and the danger will pass for now.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021) He has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.