The situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate heading into what looks like a crucial week for the country.
The political unrest took an ugly turn over the weekend when more than 30 protesters were killed in a fire in Odessa after storming the city's trade union building. As with many of the recent events in Ukraine, the exact details of what occurred are murky, though this series of first-person accounts from the BBC offers perhaps the best picture of events. Competing pro-Kiev and pro-Russian rallies turned into a string of running street fights between the two groups that culminated in the pro-Russian side storming the trade union building. Accounts on what happened next differ. The building was set on fire by molotov cocktails, though it is unclear whether the petrol bombs were being thrown at the building or by those inside as well. The pro-Russian group claims that the pro-Kiev protesters prevented the pro-Russians from fleeing the building, while the pro-Kiev demonstrators say that they tried to help rescue people from the fire. Some 30 people are said to have died in the fire with several others dying as they jumped from the building to escape the burning building. All sides though seem to agree that Odessa's police were ineffective, doing little to either stop the fighting or to control the scene around the burning trade union building and facilitate a rescue of those inside.
The situation in Odessa is shocking because the city is far removed from the Ukraine/Russia border region that has previously been the site of the pro-Russian unrest. According to the BBC report, Odessa had been quiet up until this weekend's violence, with tourists – even Russian tourists – enjoying springtime on the streets of this city by the Black Sea. Ukraine's government is once again blaming Russia for fomenting unrest in Odessa, claiming that Russian agitators snuck into the region from Moldova's pro-Russian breakaway region of Trans-Dniester, which is near to Odessa, to cause trouble in the city. Both sides are seizing on the death toll from Odessa as proof of the brutality of the other, further ratcheting up tensions in the country and making the successful staging of the May 25th presidential election seem even more unlikely.
In addition to Odessa, there are two other factors that could make this the decisive week in whether or not there will be a full-scale war in Ukraine.
This Friday, May 9, is Victory Day in Russia, a national holiday to commemorate Germany's surrender in what most of the world calls World War II, but what Russia still refers to as the “Great Patriotic War”. While Victory Day serves the same purpose as Memorial Day does in the United States, it also traditionally is the most patriotic day on the Russian calendar, a time to celebrate Russia's armed forces and the date of a massive military parade in Moscow. The key symbol of Victory Day – the black-and-gold St. George's ribbon (analogous to the Memorial Day poppy in the US and Great Britain) – has already been appropriated by Ukraine's pro-Russian separatists as a sign of their solidarity with Russia. It is possible then that Russia could use this very patriotic holiday to launch their long-threatened military action to rescue the supposedly threatened Russian minority in Ukraine.
The second reason has to do with the make-up of the Russian military itself. Russia still relies on conscription for the bulk of their armed forces, with men over the age of 18 (supposedly) required to serve at least one year in the military. As Pavel Felgenhauer explains here in Foreign Policy, conscripts are typically taken into service in two cohorts per year and the hitch for one of those cohorts is reaching its end, meaning that these troops are, theoretically, at the peak of their military training. Once their conscription period ends though, they will be replaced by a new batch of raw recruits who will have to go through the process of learning to be a soldier from scratch, greatly diminishing the effectiveness of the 40,000 or so Russian troops stationed along Ukraine's eastern border. From a Russian military point of view, the time to strike is now.
Whether Russia will remains an open question. By Pres. Vladimir Putin's benchmarks, with the deaths in Odessa and ongoing Ukrainian “anti-terrorist” operations being conducted in the pro-Russian separatist cities in eastern Ukraine, the causes belli exist. Putin may also be emboldened by another round of relatively weak sanctions laid down by the United States and the European Union. Plus, as discussed earlier, Putin's larger goal of destabilizing Ukraine would be set back if the country can stage a successful presidential election at the end of the month. It is more likely than not then that Russia will conduct some type of direct military action against Ukraine in the coming days, though with Putin, nothing is ever quite what it seems.