“Blood was spilled once again in Ukraine,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Facebook today. “There’s a sense in the country that a civil war could break out.” Putin “is getting many requests” from eastern Ukraine “to intervene in one way or another,” his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters yesterday.
It’s significant that Medvedev invokes “civil war.” No civil war exists in Ukraine–there is a bit of unrest, possibly a near-insurgency. But if a civil war did exist, it would help pave the way for a Russian intervention. Strictly speaking, foreign countries are supposed to stay out of civil wars under international law. But, in practice, they never do. If Russia does intervene, Putin will be sure to cite U.S. involvement on the side of the rebels in the Syrian civil war. An even better precedent is U.S. aid to the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, where the U.S. played a facilitating role similar to Russia’s in Ukraine.
Still, if and when a civil war breaks out, it will break out in large part because of Russian encouragement and indeed leadership, so we will need to put into the category of “hubris” any future Russian argument that it must intervene because a civil war has broken out in a neighboring country. Yet if that happens, it will increase Russia’s bargaining power with the west, because Russia is in the best position to broker, monitor, and enforce a peace agreement between Kiev and the “rebels.”