In the last few days, the Russo-Ukrainian crisis has been tense, but stable. But incidents of shooting have grown. Russian soldiers have repeatedly used warning shots when invading Ukrainian military bases on Crimea. Allegedly, Ukrainian activists trying to enter Crimea from the north came under fire from pro-Russian militias, who shot one of the Ukrainians in the chest with rubber bullets.
So far, there appears to have been no casualties from these Russo-Ukrainian military confrontations. Yet unless such confrontation quickly subside, a real possibility exists that people might die - either soldiers deliberately killed by their opponents or, perhaps more likely, bystanders hit by stray bullets. And such deaths could lead to unforeseen calamity - but not for the reasons generally mentioned these days in media and academic debate. Any individual deaths could swiftly turn into widespread Russo-Ukrainian fighting. And this would not be fighting between states, or fighting between ethnicities, but fighting between groups the distinctions between which could be very difficult to understand for everyone concerned.
It's not about states
The Russian Federation and the Republic of Ukraine have only existed as sovereign entities for the last twenty-two years. The borders of the two states correspond almost precisely to two of the republics in the Soviet Union: the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkSSR). However, the Soviet republics were wholly different creations. They existed within a Soviet framework in which all directions came from Moscow, and within a Communist framework in which politics were enmeshed in Marxist-Leninist dogma. Membership in the Soviet Union and in the Communist movement consolidated a joint identity for Russians and Ukrainians; an identity also supported by centuries of imperial heritage, as formulated in 1832 by Sergei Uvarov as the slogan of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality." Benefiting from such a joint identity, Russians had no reason for concern when the notorious transfer of Crimea from the RSFSR to the UkSSR took place in 1954. So what if the peninsula was formally part of another republic? Everything remained in the Union. Yet after 1991 such certainties had gone. Russia and Ukraine were now different states, but largely in name only. Gradually, a post-Soviet national identity was assembled, but it has yet to really challenge the much longer duration of the pre-Soviet and Soviet identities.
It's not about ethnicities
Still, if Russian and Ukrainian statehood might be a relatively new phenomenon surely Russian and Ukrainian ethnicities are age-old? No doubt, writings about Russians and Ukrainians go back centuries. No doubt, people still easily identify themselves as Russians or Ukrainians. Yet when asked to define precisely what being Russian or Ukrainian means, things get much more tricky. Language is not necessarily a factor; while few Russians speak Ukrainian, almost every Ukrainian can speak Russian to a considerable extent. Religion is not necessarily a factor; apart from the considerable proportion of atheists among the two ethnicities, most religious Ukrainians are Orthodox, just as their Russian counterparts. History is not necessarily a factor; while some Ukrainians would highlight the importance of the Cossacks and Taras Shevchenko for their self-understanding, the joint Russo-Ukrainian origins in the millennium-old Kievan Rus is central to the identity of the clear majority of Russians and Ukrainians alike. Given the significant amount of intermarriage between Russians and Ukrainians it becomes quite difficult to distinguish the two peoples
It's about Russia
What is Russia? I keep coming back to this question? If Russia is not the Russian Federation, a post-Soviet state within post-Soviet borders, what is it? If being Russian cannot be understood as an ethnicity separate from being Ukrainian, then what happens if Russians and Ukrainians start to fight? What happens if Russia and Russians have no identity on which to fall back? Being different from Central Asia and from the Caucasus - sure! Being different from the West - no problem! Russian self-understanding is used to these opposites from the times of the Empire and the Union. But how can you be different from yourself? How can a Russian military force, with a disproportionate number of Ukrainians in its officer corps, battle against Ukrainians? Around which ideological banner will Russians gather? Of course, they can fight against the so-called "fascists" from Galicia but against the many people in central, eastern and southern Ukraine, who want to be Ukrainian?
I genuinely have no answer for this - and, much worse, I do not think anyone else has an answer, either. And that makes for some very frightening times to come, if shots ring out on Crimea.