Violence in Eastern Ukraine between ethnic Russians and non-Russians could spread to other post-Soviet countries. It’s possible to prevent this scenario if both Russia and the West learn important lessons from recent events and post-Soviet history.

Flowers on a broken window in memory of the people killed by fire in the Trade Unions House on Odessa's Kulikovo Field Square. Photo: RIA Novosti / Anton Kruglov

On May 2, Odessa - a city not unlike Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Mostar two decades ago - became the scene of the worst incident of terror in Europe since the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s. After clashes between pro-Kiev Ukrainians and Russian-oriented supporters of Eastern Ukrainian autonomy in the center of the old city, a group of Ukrainian activists and soccer fans were reported by media to have chased anti-Kiev demonstrators into a building and set it ablaze. The incident killed more than 40 innocent civilians.

The Odessa atrocity will likely be seen as the day Ukraine’s civil war began. In reality, it began with violence connected with the revolutionary seizure of power in Kiev by a coalition of democratic and ultra-nationalist forces. It escalated with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the declaration of independent republics in Eastern Ukraine, and Kiev’s dispatch of military to put down rebels in the east.

In response to Odessa, separatists and autonomists in eastern and perhaps southern Ukraine are likely to step up efforts to consolidate their positions and resist a mounting offensive by Kiev-dispatched federal forces seeking to re-establish the revolutionary provisional Maidan government’s sovereignty.

Recent reports from the resistance in Slovyansk, Donetsk claim its forces suffered tens of additional fatalities on May 5, and the Lugansk regional assembly acknowledged “with enormous pain” that “civil war is taking place in Ukraine” provoked, as they claim, by the acting authorities in Kiev.

In addition, there are reports that rebels in Lugansk seized a border crossing with Russia opening a corridor for the hundreds, even thousands to join the tens, perhaps hundreds of Russian volunteers already supporting the east’s breakaway republics. Similarly, there are reports that Georgian activists are being recruited in Georgia to fight on Kiev’s side.

It cannot be excluded that such efforts on behalf of both sides will occur in other post-Soviet republics – such as the Baltics, Moldova and Azerbaijan – and even within Russia, especially in places like the North Caucasus, Tatarstan, and among the Tatars of newly acquired Crimea.

Indeed, violence between ethnic Russians and non-Russians could spread to other post-Soviet countries.

In Kiev, the new regime will be forced now to abandon its alliance with neo-fascist groups like the Right Sector, the Social-National Assembly, and Svoboda Party and begin negotiations with the eastern provinces or to strengthen its fatal alliance with the ‘ultras,’ further integrating them into the army and National Guard and intensifying its eastern offensive.

Previous trends indicate that they might choose the latter, all else remaining the same.

Tackling the Ukrainian crisis: What should the U.S. and Russia do?

In order that all else does not remain the same, the U.S. and Russia must cease the vitriolic rhetoric, attempts at isolating the opposing party, and the escalation of military tensions around Ukraine and instead force the warring parties in Ukraine to sit down at the negotiating table.

In particular, Russia must stop claiming that the Maidan revolution was simply a CIA operation to prevent Russia from ‘rising from its knees’ and that the provisional government in Kiev is entirely neo-fascist.

Moscow should learn from post-Soviet history that besides Western meddling, its tendency to overreact (as Putin did in Crimea) and imperialist historical legacy are often part of the problem.

For its part, the West’s leaders must cease their personal attacks on Russian President Vladimir Putin and overblown rhetoric about Russian designs to “recreate the USSR” and “dominate Europe.”

The West also must once and for all learn the lessons of post-Soviet history. First, there are few good guys in this post-totalitarian region (our experience with the “beacons of democracy” like Boris Yeltsin, Askar Akaev, Mikheil Saakashvili and Viktor Yushchenko should be instructive in this regard).

Second, there are very many bad actors in each post-Soviet and post-Communist country.

Third, bad actors manifest themselves most often as communalists (extremist ethno-nationalist and/or religious leaders) and often include a mixture of both communalist ideologues and criminal elements.

The West’s, especially, Washington’s hubristic, naïve, and ultimately failed efforts to make Iraq, Afghanistan, and the entire Middle East democratic overnight is an important lesson learned from outside the region.

Ceasefire is key

In practical terms, Putin should withdraw his troops from the Ukrainian border, and Kiev should withdraw all its military and para-military units from the east as part of a pre-conference ceasefire.

With or without a ceasefire, the two great powers primarily responsible for the crisis – the U.S. and Russia – should make a joint proposal to convene under UN auspices a two-tiered, four-party negotiating process between the West, Russia, Kiev and eastern Ukraine.

In addition to four-party meetings, there should be two sets of bilateral talks – international (the West and Russia) and Ukrainian (Kiev and eastern Ukraine) – in order to resolve the intertwined international and Ukrainian issues that led to this crisis.

Any solution must exclude Ukraine becoming a member of a military alliance and create a federative, but not a confederative, Ukraine. With NATO expansion to Ukraine out of the picture, the EU, Russia and Ukraine should be able to negotiate or live with whatever Kiev’s relations with the EU and the Eurasian Customs and Economic Unions are to be.

The lack of leadership in this crisis, especially in Washington, has been appalling. Unless that changes, Ukraine and perhaps other nations will be awash in bloody conflict of a kind not seen since World War Two. Even with leadership now, it already may be too late.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.