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One of the worst things that could happen in the Ukraine crisis just happened

Pro-Russia militias organize in Pisky, Ukraine
Pro-Russia militias organize in Pisky, Ukraine
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

One of the worst possible things that could happen to make the Ukraine crisis potentially even more unstable has just happened: an anti-Russia Ukrainian militia has killed one of the pro-Russia separatists who've been fighting the Ukrainian government in the country's east.

The pro-Ukrainian militia stormed a government building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Torez, where pro-Russia separatists had taken over, and fired at two of the separatist fighters, according to the Kiev Post. They killed one and maimed the other, who is currently "fighting for his life" at a local hospital.

The reason this is so potentially bad is that it could give Russia an excuse to meddle even more in eastern Ukraine, or to step back up its meddling after having eased off in the last couple of weeks. Meanwhile, in Donetsk, a hotbed of pro-Russia militias, separatists attacked and killed 16 people, 14 of them Ukrainian troops.

Moscow has been claiming for weeks that Ukraine was being torn apart by far-right militias who were violently targeting Ukraine's Russian-speaking population, and that this threat justified and necessitated Russia's support of separatist militias, its annexation of Crimea, and its thinly veiled threats of invading eastern Ukraine.

Those claims were nonsense: Ukrainian far-right militias are not targeting Ukrainian Russian-speakers. But the fact that they are now coming a little bit true could give Moscow what it feels is enough of an excuse to increase its meddling in Ukraine, whether by supporting more pro-Russia militias or trying to foment fighting. Less likely but potentially much worse, it is possible that this incident could be the beginning of organic, earnestly felt violence between pro-Ukraine and pro-Russia militias, escalating into the kind of conflict that Moscow has been warning about, however disingenuously.

The issue is that Russia has premised its meddling in Ukraine in large part on the supposed threats of civil war and the far-right targeting Russian-speakers, neither of which was really true. But this incident makes those threats at least appear slightly more real, which gives Russia more of the excuse it has sought to escalate the crisis.

The pro-Ukraine militia that did this is associated with a radical Ukrainian political leader named Oleh Lyashko, who is the leader of a political party literally named Radical Party. It's not popular — the Radical Party won only one percent of the national vote in 2012 — but they do represent Ukraine's crazy nationalist far-right. In December, Lyashko proposed a bill that would have considered anyone who participated in Crimea's pro-Russia protests a saboteur, punishable by the death penalty. (The bill failed.)

It is entirely possible that this will be an isolated incident that goes nowhere. That is the best-case outcome. But it's also possible that we're seeing the beginning of vigilante right-way pro-Ukraine violence, which would be bad on its own, bad because it would increase the risk of a broader internal Ukrainian conflict, and bad because it would give Moscow more of an excuse to stir up trouble in eastern Ukraine. Let's hope it ends here.

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