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ARCHIVES  Danyliw Seminar 2014
Jesse Driscoll
U California San Diego,





























The War in Eastern Ukraine



Social Conflict and Social Media: “Terrorism” and “Fascism”


The issues at stake in Ukraine's conflict over the Donbas region in Ukraine’s east will be difficult to resolve.  This is in no small part because Russian and Ukrainian nationalists tell the story of the conflict differently.  The Russian story emphasizes its deep historical interests in this area.  When Russians claim they have “vital national interests" in this region, they mean it: Kyiv belongs on any short list of the ancient city-states that at the heart of the historical identity of “the Rus," along with Novgorod and Moscow.  The Ukrainian nationalist story (mostly in western Ukraine) differs significantly by rejecting the premise of these Russian claims.  Many Ukrainians visibly bristle at the assertion that their national history ought to be subsumed into “The Rus."  While Russians invoke historical claims to Slavic brotherhood and solidarity against Western meddling, many Ukrainians are quick to invoke the horrors of the Soviet experiment and a history of standing up to powerful bullies.  Many Ukrainian youth are ready to fight the war of independence that was denied to their fathers and uncles when the Soviet Union broke apart peacefully.  Both narratives motivate unemployed young men to take up weapons.  But where did these stories come from?  And how did they spread so quickly in 2014?


To answer these questions, my paper exploits emergent trends in social media.  Many young Ukrainians used the internet to document their country's slide into war.  I conducted a spatial time-series analysis to document the rhetorical escalation.  This required a content analysis of tweets, and the coding of the individuals’ identities based on how their tweets told the story of the conflict.  Patriots on both sides employed language designed to sabotage civil discourse: Citizens in Eastern Ukraine called the government in Kyiv “fascists"; those in the West called insurgents in the East “terrorists." 


The Russian and Ukrainian narratives are well-rehearsed.  Both narrative tracks are internally consistent, contain many factually true statements, and emphasize different causal processes.  At the time of this writing, contradictory facts about the unfolding crisis are being published, assisted by voluntary activism on Facebook, the blogosphere, and social media sites.  It is already obvious that the result will be a contested historical record.  It is not clear if the Ukrainian and Russian master narratives of this conflict will ever actually converge..


No one attending this conference is going to be surprised by these findings.  We all know that emergent information warfare technologies are being field-tested in contemporary Ukraine.  As Ukrainian-speaking media elites attempt to “control the story," they find themselves competing directly with constantly-updating Russian- and English-language efforts to write the first draft of history on the internet.  It is hard to keep up.  Individuals can now produce and re-produced Ukrainian- and Russian-language propaganda in and distribute it through their social networks.  We speculate that when using Twitter to promulgate information in this way, many Ukrainians imagine themselves to be “brokers" (following McAdam, Tarrow, Tilly (2001)) in the contentious politics of 2014.   Young Ukrainians understand that they have the ability and incentive write history as they see it, posting their opinions in the vague hope that either they can influence someone, or that their data will be permanently archived, or perhaps both.  As a result of this decentralized historical revisionism, basic factual questions about the conflict are contested despite the fact that most key events have been caught on film and uploaded to Youtube.


The particular political behavior that explored in this paper is “tweeting" -- composing a 140-character text to be distributed to one's followers on the social media platform Twitter.  Twitter is a new weapon deployed in the postmodern phenomenon that my coauthor and I call “memetic warfare" -- the creation of viral information packets, with total distain for the verifiability of factual statements, aimed at hardening conflict identities.  Unlike the propaganda wars of previous eras, technological trends have given private actors the ability to transmit information across great distances at negligible cost.  For this paper, we restrict our analysis to “hate speech," but in future work we plan to explore patterns in social mobilization related to the use of Twitter in organizing the Euromaidan events.


At the time of this writing, Ukraine appears to be sliding towards what I have called elsewhere (Driscoll (2015)) a partial incorporation equilibrium, with functionally-independent statelets in the East analogous to Abkhazia or South Ossetia.  Ukraine might even be on the road towards full-fledged state-failure.  What would be necessary to peacefully resolve this conflict, restore order, and re-establish domestic sovereignty in Ukraine?  While I do not have the Ukrainian expertise to answer this question with anything more than speculation, my previous experience in Georgia and Tajikistan provides a springboard for provocative prognostication.  As such, I will conclude with a few policy-relevant observations. 


Georgian history suggests that pragmatism does not emerge in the absence of leadership and sustained political will.  Applying this lesson to Ukraine, Ukrainian domestic actors have to “get over Crimea" as quickly as possible.  The 2014 Parliamentary elections give some cause for hope in this regard, but it is imperative that Ukrainian historical claims to the Crimean peninsula not be allowed to become a litmus test for participation in Ukrainian politics.  There is a pragmatic, nationalist rationale for a gag rule on the Crimea issue: The question “whose history is more right," has no objective answer.  I hope Ukrainian politicians will be able to run for office and get elected, without having to go on the record establishing their nationalist credentials on Donbas or Crimea.  If hostile position-taking on Crimea becomes a prerequisite for electoral viability in Ukrainian politicians, Georgia's past will likely be Ukraine's future.   


I am cautiously hopeful that this is an outcome that can be avoided, but it will not be easy.  While the West had every reason to encourage the emergence of a pragmatic conservative coalition willing to compromise and strike politically difficult bargains, there are two huge problems that do not have obvious solutions.  The first is that many Ukrainian voters feel, with reason, that if they acquiesce on Crimea, then they will practically be inviting Russians into Odessa.  The second is that the main tools that the West has at its disposal to shape domestic politics are financial incentives.   The general hope is that that Western states would come to the rescue with low-interest loans, generous IMF packages, Millennium Challenge Corporation funds, and sanctions on Russia.  On the diplomatic front, negotiators are hard at work hammering out arrangements that would make credible federal guarantees acceptable to both domestic constituencies in Ukraine and Russian-speaking audiences.  The hope is that Russia would stop waging its undeclared proxy war via warlords in break-away provinces and the Ukrainian underworld or contribute to the rebuilding effort by lending the assistance of its security forces to quickly settle the matter.  If Russia were to close its border and begin forcibly disarming warlords, the kinds of collateral civilian damage on display in the summer of 2014 would not be repeated.  But Putin could also decide to simply march his forces further, link up with Transdeniestria, and claim all of the North shore of the Black Sea for Russia.  It is impossible for Russia to credibly commit to not do such a thing, given Putin's recent actions.  This possibility is widely-recognized, and is itself a strong argument for not making security guarantees to Ukraine (such as promises to admit Ukraine to the NATO alliance).  As in the South Caucasus, the benefit that Russia accrues from keeping its neighbor destabilized -- keeping the NATO alliance out of its immediate neighborhood -- likely outweighs the costs of absorbing refugees and enduring scolding from international diplomats and op-ed writers. 


But what if the West took a principled stand against Russia, pouring post-war reconstruction aid into Ukraine in the kind of localized Marshall Plan that some have advocated?  It is not impossible to imagine a consensus emerging to stand up to Putin's aggression.  The thought-leaders would presumably be residents of the Baltic states, supported by offshore Anglophone idealists.  The costs of persistent conflict would likely be borne by German, French, Dutch, Turkish, Spanish, Polish, Italian, and many East-Central European constituencies (measured in gas prices at the pump) and by many Ukrainian families (measured in acute human suffering).  It is even possible to imagine scenarios in which Ukraine is invited into NATO without first settling the Crimea border issue. But two things should be remembered.  First, once the aid arrived, Western donors would immediately lose control of how it is distributed.  The aid would become a source of rents, distributed in the service of keeping the government in power.  This means much of the aid would almost certainly end up lining the pockets of the most loathsome kinds of intermediaries: cynical vote-brokers, war profiteers with multiple passports, and real estate speculators.  Recent history demonstrates that trying to purchase peace with foreign aid is an ugly business.  Second, even if it were possible to target the aid toward reconstruction in the shattered cities, some of the main beneficiaries will be local warlords in the East -- individuals who can, by force of arms, veto the particulars of distributional politics.  Increased transparency and contemporary forensic accounting techniques may make it possible for tomorrow's social scientists to trace the side-payments as they accrue to local mayors, regional governors, and police chiefs.  These are the social actors best positioned to drag their feet, demonstrate their power to be disruptive, get their bribes from Kyiv, and then decide whether or not to play their part to keep their districts from joining the Ruble zone.


It may be valuable, as an analytic exercise, to try to view this crisis from the East and not the West, and employ the value-neutral metaphor of bargaining, or a game of nerves.  It might be the case that Putin is doing all of this to signal that, when it comes to the defense of core interests the Russian Federation in 2014, he is willing and able to fight dirty – but so far he has also fought a war of limited aims.  No doubt, one of his favorite tools has been his ability to engage in a disciplined propaganda war that cynically distorts reality.  Still, the chorus of scolding voices claiming that the Crimea precedent will unravel the post-World War II international order may be somewhat off-the-mark.  By redrawing the map conservatively, and provoking a containable war in a part of the world that is in Russia's sphere of influence, perhaps Putin was communicating where post-Soviet Russia's revised security red-lines actually are. 


It is too early to tell whether sanctions or lower oil prices will change Russian policy.  I would be surprised if they do.  It is easy to imagine scenarios in which Russians rally 'round the flag’ in response to the sanctions, tightening their belts and blaming the West for their hunger.  It is easy to imagine scenarios in which counter-sanctions on food and agricultural imports from the West ultimately deepen Russia's economic and security relations with post-Soviet republics and jump-starts the EEU.  In contrast, it is difficult (for me) to concoct realistic scenarios for either regime change in Russia or for a policy reversal on Crimea absent regime change.  


Finally: I doubt that this war will end according to the script for war termination that is often championed by advocates of the International Court of Justice.  I would be surprised – shocked – if either the relevant heads of state (Vladimir Putin, Petro Poroshenko) or any of the prominent warlords (such as Alexander Zakharchenko, the premier of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic) are ever indicted under the mechanisms of the Rome Statute.  I suspect that the gap between universal rhetorical promises of international human rights law and its cynical selective enforcement will persist for quite some time. 

Jesse Driscoll (PhD Stanford) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California San Diego.  His book Warlords and Coalition Politics in Post-Soviet States, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, compares processes of state formation in Georgia and Tajikistan since independence.  He has published in the Journal of Survey Statistics and Methodology, Research and Politics, and The Journal of Conflict Resolution.


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