It's not yet quite as bad as the battle of Vukovar, but the armed conflict in Ukraine is looking increasingly similar to the war in Croatia fought in 1991. One by one, Russia is trying to chip off the predominantly Russophone southeastern parts of Ukraine either through direct annexation, as in the case of Crimea, or by setting up puppet regimes akin to the one the Serbs established in eastern Croatia during the war.
The latter scenario appears to be implemented in the coal-rich region of Donbass, where on May 11 Russia-backed militants conducted a vote on either independence or autonomy from Ukraine (depending on how you interpret the vaguely worded question people had to answer). Although they called it a referendum, it was abundantly clear that the poll was neither fair nor representative.
The region is gripped by terror that is sown primarily by the insurgents. They have kidnapped dozens of Ukrainian activists and politicians. Three of them were found in a river near Sloviansk, the epicentre of the insurrection and the main rebel HQ, with signs of torture and their bellies cut open. Ruthless and armed to their teeth, the insurgents left the Ukrainian government with no other choice, but to use the army in an urban environment. The army's often hapless performance has contributed to the overall chaos.
The insurgents didn't have access to updated lists of voters, commissions at polling stations were comprised of people appointed by rebel commanders and there were just a handful of polling stations in large cities like Donetsk (population 1 million) and Mariupol (population 500,000). The latter fact combined with the genuine support for unification with Russia by a significant part of the locals (around 30 percent, according to various polls) led to massive crowds forming in front of them. Pictures of these crowds were delivered to the Russian TV audience as a proof of universal support. It seemed that obtaining these pictures was the main reason for holding the vote.
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Kremlin propaganda is pushing the narrative of "oppressed" Russians rising against "the artificial state" of Ukraine on the lands that "accidentally" became a part of this country as a result of the Soviet collapse in 1991. This image appears to be very far from the truth when you actually travel in Donbass. Society appears extremely polarised over the issue of separation from Ukraine, but it looks much more as a class warfare than an ethnic conflict.
Educated, middle-class people tend to support a united Ukraine, even though practically 100 percent of them are Russian-speakers. Supporters of separatism are largely comprised of pensioners and state employees craving for paternalist social state, like the Soviet Union. They are mixed with members of local criminal gangs and employees of law-enforcement agencies, which in a highly criminalised region like Donbass is largely the same social group.
Both the West and Russia appear to be describing the conflict in Ukraine in the same ethno-national terms as those in former Yugoslavia. Western politicians and media accuse Russia of imperialism and revanchism, reducing the extremely complex Russo-Ukrainian mutual history and densely intertwined cultures to the primitive and rather unhelpful empire-colony model.
At the same time, Russian propaganda is peddling a ridiculous grotesque image of Ukraine being taken over by extreme nationalists, who - it claims - want to ban the Russian language and eliminate every bit of Russianness in a country, where at least half of the population speaks Russian in daily life.
When I was talking to supporters of the separatists in Donbass, they were telling me horror stories about the Ukrainian government planning to introduce special passport stamps for people without ethnic Ukrainian heritage with the view to their further deportation, or about Kiev planning to stage an artificial famine in Russian-speaking regions. Despite the outlandish nature of these accusations, they seemed to sincerely believe that those were genuine threats.
Apart from being deeply flawed, the ethno-political discourse diverts people's attention from the root of the problem. The essence of the battle under way in Ukraine, as well as in Russia and other former Soviet countries, is best described by arguably the most popular (and definitely the shortest) slogan of the Ukrainian pro-democracy movement. It goes "Bandu get'!", which means "Down with the gang!". By the "gang" people mean the extremely corrupt regime, linked to organised crime and backed by a cruel repressive apparatus that benefits from looting businesses and robbing individuals - a mafia state. Different versions of such authoritarian kleptocracy are now in control of all of the ex-USSR countries, except Baltic states and arguably Georgia.
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In Ukraine, the popularity of this slogan spans across the traditional ethno-linguistic divide between the Ukrainian-speaking West and the Russophone Southeast. Euromaidan protest that started last November and resulted in the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovich united both Ukranian - and Russian-speakers. Similarly at Moscow's Bolotnaya Square protests in 2012, the same anti-corruption and pro-democracy slogans united people across the political spectrum - from the extreme left to liberals to the extreme right.
Yet in Ukraine, the divisive ultra-nationalist component was constantly getting in the way, distracting people from the real agenda and alienating sceptics in Russophone regions. It was also fuelling the aggressive Russian state propaganda, which is itself characterised by extreme nationalism and toxic xenophobia, by far exceeding the Ukrainian rhetoric on this front. As a result even the pro-democracy movement in Russia is divided over Ukraine - many Russian liberals are either buying the propaganda argument about "Ukrainian fascism" or their own nationalism prevents them from understanding and supporting the Ukrainians.
The ethnicisation of the Ukrainian conflict suits the Kremlin. Its worst nightmare is a Ukraine growing into an alternative Russia - a better place for talented and entrepreneurial Russians to live and work than Russia proper. Or even worse - a united pro-democracy front rising against the mafia state in all of the former Soviet republics, with Ukraine in the lead.
The West misinterprets Putin by thinking that he wants to rebuild an empire - it is much more likely that the real goal is a compact, monoethnic and ultra-nationalist Ukraine, with the Russian element reduced to a minimum. Being intimately linked to Russia at many different levels, a successful, democratic and tolerant Ukraine threatens the existence of the mafia state and that's what is at stake for the Kremlin rulers.
Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.