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Breathe easy: this chart shows why Ukraine will probably not have a civil war

A Ukrainian troop guards a checkpoint near the contested city of Slavyansk
A Ukrainian troop guards a checkpoint near the contested city of Slavyansk
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The fighting in Ukraine is getting worse. On Thursday morning, the Ukrainian military again sent troops against the pro-Russia separatists who have seized government centers in some eastern Ukrainian cities. Previously firefights have left several dead, and in some cases with the separatists seizing heavy military equipment to add to their weapons cache.

There are valid reasons to fear that this could escalate to a bigger internal conflict. It's been over a week and the fighting has only escalated; eastern Ukrainians civilians, already skeptical of the new government put into power by mostly western protesters, might resist the government forces; the militias could get stronger; dissatisfied eastern Ukrainian troops might decide to break off and join the separatists. The country's broken economy and still-sensitive demographic divide don't help.

But there is at least one very big, very important reason to think that this fighting will not escalate into a civil war. You can see it in this chart showing the results of a recent opinion poll of eastern Ukrainians:


This chart shows how Ukrainians in the southeast (interchangeably referred to as just the east) answered when they were asked what might cause them to take up arms. The answer was pretty clear: short of immediate physical threat to themselves or their family, not very much. Based on this poll, eastern Ukrainians are just not interested in fighting out of anything other than self-defense. These are not a people primed for civil war.

If civil war were a huge risk, that teal bar would be a lot higher. That's the share of eastern Ukrainians who said they would take up arms against threats to their region from the central government in Kiev — in other words, the people who might be willing to shoot back against those incoming Ukrainian government troops. It's only 4.4 percent, which is not very much. That's smaller than the group that answered "hard to say." About eight times as many eastern Ukrainians said that "nothing" could prompt them to take up arms.

This is not exactly William Wallace stuff here. And that's great news. The fact that eastern Ukrainians are so uneager to join the separatist militias in taking up arms against the government makes this whole thing a lot less likely to spiral out of control. There cannot be a civil war if there is no mass popular insurgency to fight against the government.

Another good piece of news here is that the only situation that did seem to make Ukrainians see taking up arms as a possibility was if the "territorial integrity" of Ukraine were threatened, which 10.4 percent said would be cause for taking arms. In other words, while Moscow may be scheming to annex eastern Ukraine as it annexed Crimea, this is something that Ukrainians are willing to fight against. Obviously we should not hope for a Russian occupation or a protracted Ukrainian insurgency, but this at least suggests the eastern Ukrainian sentiment leans against annexation rather than for.

But, on the question of whether Ukraine might have a civil war, this simple point bears repeating: You need two sides to have a war. And there are not two sides to this conflict.

Right now, it's just government troops against a relatively small number of separatists (most likely backed up by undercover Russian special forces), and with regular Ukrainians unwilling to rise up it will probably stay that way. That's still very serious — it can and is causing bloodshed. Worst-case, it is possible that a botched Ukrainian operation to clear the separatists, if it goes really badly and leads to lots of violence, could provide Russia enough justification to invade with those thousands of troops it has massed across the border. That's bad, but it's not as bad as a civil war, and unless public opinion in eastern Ukraine changes dramatically we can probably rule civil war out.

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