Nobody expected it to happen in the city of Donetsk. One of the hosts to the European Football Championships in 2012, the city boasted a modern airport, and state of the art infrastructure. Its economy wasn’t as healthy as in times past, due to reduced demand for coal and steel, but the city still had a lot to be proud of. Sure, there had been reports of checkpoints manned by pro-Russian paramilitaries in villages, and smaller cities—cities like Slavyansk and Kramatorsk. But the police or military would surely take care of those issues.
In May of 2014, the city erupted in violence. Within weeks, loyal policemen and members of Ukraine’s security service were run off or killed, and before long, those armed men wearing balaclavas were setting up checkpoints in and around Donetsk, stopping anyone with a Ukrainian flag on their car, rounding up the opposition for intimidation, torture, or worse. They robbed banks, occupied government buildings, and before long, declared a “people’s republic of Donetsk.”
Ostensibly tied to laws mandating the use of Ukrainian language, this violence began before the law entered effect, and was, in fact, part of a broader attempt to destabilize Ukraine, seize as much land as possible, and turn it into a small rump state in order to punish it for spurning Moscow. The Russian-led and Russian-funded operation found adherents in all the places such violent and destabilizing insurrections do—the desperate, the unemployed, the criminal cast-offs, the traitorously-hearted. All those to whom the idea of a sovereign Ukraine and Europe were anathema—all those, in fact, to whom law and order and civilization were anathema.
These events played out just a month and a half after Russia had seized Crimea, and illegally annexed it. Surely if ever there was a time to view Russia with skepticism and suspicion, it was after March of 2014. But the action was viewed as a fait accompli—a tragedy that was complete and total, and not some kind of preparation for further violations.
The invasion of Eastern Ukraine was something different—an exponential expansion of the potential scope of hostilities.
Five months later, in September of 2014, active duty Russian army units were maneuvering on the Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine. The ensuing conventional war and the cold war that followed a cease-fire in March of 2015 cost both sides thousands killed, tens of thousands wounded, and led to over 2 million civilians displaced or fled.
It could never happen here
Poor Ukraine! Luckily, that country is far away, and has nothing in common with the U.S. They speak a different language, their customs and architecture are different, they’re right next to Russia, which has owned Ukraine outright for large chunks of the recent past. The types of things that happened there could never happen in the United States.
The fact that such behavior in the U.S. is unthinkable made it so interesting to see what amounted to reactionary paramilitary groups organizing in Oregon, and setting up checkpoints to detain ANTIFA and BLM arsonists. Rumors, quickly (and unsurprisingly) determined to be unsubstantiated, started by far-right provocateurs and spread by credulous and alarmed citizens, indicated that ANTIFA and BLM demonstrators had infiltrated the suburbs and were setting fires so they could loot homes. Social media facilitated the spread of these rumors, especially Facebook. A certain type of social media consumer and gun owner, who as a rule hates ANTIFA and BLM and respects the thin blue line, took matters into their own hands.
In Ukraine it took a few weeks to get groups of separatists organized. They had to be recruited—taken off the street and sobered up, released from prison, and then bullied or intimidated into holding guns to point at surprised Ukrainian families. It takes time to organize an insurrection in a place that is not prepared to rebel. Bribes need to be paid, examples need to be made.
It took a couple days for the men holding shotguns and rifles to set up checkpoints in the U.S., no organized leadership beyond motivated “patriots” at the local level, and a single flimsy rumor.
There are a few reasons why it was so easy, in the U.S., to turn vigilantes (if you want to be generous) or reactionary paramilitaries (if you want to be honest) out onto the streets to take the law into their own hands. The first is that in America, there is a proud culture of gun ownership, that exists mostly on the right, so if one is interested in starting a right-wing insurrection, one doesn’t need to “arm” anyone. Second, in America, there has been a decades-long effort on the right to undermine government and seed the idea that “leftists” are conspiring to infiltrate and seize power in the government, and that loyal American patriots will therefore be needed to stand up as individual citizens to resist illegal and unlawful orders, according to their assessment of whether a thing is illegal or unlawful. Ukrainians, by contrast, had almost no warning from Russia that they would be invaded and annexed or “liberated” as the case was in Ukraine’s east, it took time to adjust to their new reality. Third, the current president, Donald Trump, and those associated with him, have been doing their utmost to frame that decades-long animus in specific terms, tied to the demonstrations and protests that have unfolded since the summer of 2020. ANTIFA and BLM are the chosen targets—whether Trump or any of his associates actually believe what they say is a different question entirely (surely if they actually believed the groups posed a real threat, nobody affiliated with them would be permitted to roam free). It is indisputable that “leftism”—Marxism, ANTIFA, BLM, socialism, communism, The Democratic Party—have been fused into one amorphous and objectionable mass, for political purposes.
Insurrection, counter-revolution, an uprising of loyal citizens pushed too far—whatever one’s political persuasion, whatever one’s perspective, whatever one wants to call the thing that could happen, what’s indisputable at this moment in history is that a large, heavily-armed group of people in rural and suburban America have been primed to detonate in mostly the same way that groups were compelled to detonate in Ukraine. They are waiting for the order—any order, any pretext—and keeping their eyes peeled for the signal. When they receive it, they will issue out from their suburban homes and mansions, pulling balaclavas over their faces or wearing COVID masks as a subversive gesture of compliance with rules they see as illegitimate, and carrying rifles, shotguns, and pistols. Many will be wearing body armor and helmets. They will establish checkpoints, looking out for BLM subversives and ANTIFA infiltrators. They will occupy town halls and city halls to defend the rights of—whom or whatever, the president, their congressman, a charismatic local grifter, the constitution. Hostile politicians and individuals, as well as their families, will be intimidated into compliance or driven away if they’re lucky, and worse if they’re not. Law and order will be imposed with extreme violence, and at the expense of America’s democracy.
That is a likely outcome to Trump losing the presidential election in 2020 and refusing to leave office, or contesting the result of a “close” election. Of course, it could never happen here.
Okay I’m scared. Now what
All is not lost. The case of Ukraine’s east is significant both because it shows what is possible when a nation fails to respond swiftly and decisively to destabilizing acts, and also because there were days and weeks when Ukraine’s local, regional, and national government agencies could have responded and did not.
What needs to happen, in the U.S., is that elected representatives of both political parties—Republican and Democrat—must make it clear through statements and personal posts on social media that groups establishing checkpoints or attempting to seize power will be imprisoned and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law by local or state police, or, if it comes to it, national guard units activated for the purpose. Under no circumstances will armed groups be permitted to selectively enforce laws according to their discretion.
This does not mean that people will not be permitted to own or carry firearms, according to local or state ordinances. There is a clear and obvious difference between 4-6 men wearing armor and balaclavas, carrying firearms, manning blockades on the road or securing government offices on their own initiative, and someone walking down the street, face naked to the world, with an AR-15 strapped to their back in a state that permits such things. The latter says “I am a citizen and neighbor who has a right to carry a weapon, and that right is protected by law” (and presumably a permit where necessary). The former says “I am functionally equivalent to the police or national guard.” The former poses an existential threat to the state and must be dealt with quickly. The latter is making a tedious point about the second amendment.
Dealing with the threat of paramilitaries in November requires action and planning now, in the present. It requires, most importantly, that people and leadership take this threat seriously, as Ukraine’s leadership failed to do until it was too late and the situation was already out of control. The advantage that the U.S. has over Ukraine is that no hostile national neighbor is capable of biting off a chunk of territory without reprisal. The disadvantage is that actual neighbors—friends, relatives, you know them, you see their posts on Facebook and Twitter, they’re talking about what they want to do—will, left to their own devices, go down this dark, destructive path themselves.