Ukraine: war, peace and the return of the king

Ukraine: war, peace and the return of the king
Pro-Russian rebels shoot in the air at a funeral.
By Sergei Kuznetsov in Kyiv May 2, 2016

“A group of G7 ambassadors recently refused to visit Donbas for security reasons,” says Alexei Ryabchyn, a 33-year-old lawmaker, during an interview with bne IntelliNews in Kyiv. “Their countries can’t send them to non-occupied parts of the region – yet they tell us to held local elections there?!”

Donetsk-born Ryabchyn represents a new generation of Ukrainian politicians who emerged after the Euromaidan protests that ousted the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014. Since the start of the Moscow-backed military rebellion in Donbas two years ago, this politician has not set foot in Donetsk, the heart of the country’s industrial region, believing that his status as a Ukrainian lawmaker would lend some legitimacy to the Russian-backed authorities there. “Security issues are also very important. However, of course, I’d like to visit Donetsk – my home and my friends are there,” Ryabchyn says.

The guns fell largely silent in Donbas following peace agreements secured in Minsk last year, at negotiations mediated by French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But the situation on the ground makes it difficult to implement the political part of the agreements, which includes holding local elections in the separatist-held territories and providing the region with some level of self-governance.

Since March, observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have registered the highest level of ceasefire violations in Donbas since the Minsk peace accords were signed; the European External Action Service described an “unprecedented level” of hostility. The EU states that a sustainable ceasefire is urgently needed, not least to finally ensure progress in implementing the political obligations of the Minsk agreements.

The Ukrainian leadership emphasises that any moves towards local elections are impossible for as long as ceasefire violations continue, Kyiv has no control over the Ukrainian-Russian border in Donbas, and Moscow supplies weapons and military personnel to the region. Russia, in turn, insists that the elections are a pre-condition for taking any other steps towards the fulfilment of Kyiv’s demands.

“We cannot allow the legitimisation of Russian occupation through the mechanism of pseudo-elections similar to the Crimean pseudo-referendum [on merging with Russia],” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said emotionally during his television interview with Ukrainian channels on April 24.

However, Western mediators seem to be approaching the limits of their patience. “We stand by the agreement of Minsk and put a lot of importance on its implementation as soon as possible,” Merkel said on April 24 after meeting with US President Barack Obama. “We still have no stable ceasefire and we must advance on the political process.”

After a meeting in March between the diplomatic heads of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in desperation that he had the impression Moscow and Kyiv were forgetting “how serious the situation is” and how much pressure the participants of the negotiations are under to implement the peace agreements as quickly as possible.

Balazs Jarabik, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment, explains Germany and France’s strong interest in securing local elections in Donbas by the fact that the region “lacks legitimate representation”, as the current leaders are unconvincing to everyone, even perhaps to Russia. “That, among other factors, is blocking the implementation of the Minsk accords,” Jarabik tells bne IntelliNews

Since mid-February, the Ukrainian leadership has been able to justify its inability to move towards elections in the breakaway territories by pointing to the snowballing political crisis over the ruling coalition and the government in Kyiv. However, with the establishment of a new cabinet on April 14, the authorities no longer have this excuse.

However, the end of the political crisis in Ukraine might not guarantee Kyiv can hammer out election legislation as required by the Western nations and conduct a timely vote in the breakaway territories. The main hurdle is a shortage of votes in parliament. The new cabinet, headed by Volodymyr Groysman, was supported by only 206 lawmakers from the factions of Poroshenko and previous prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, which formed a new coalition, instead of the minimum 226 votes. The shortfall was compensated through the behind-the-scenes recruitment of additional lawmakers from other parliamentary groups, specifically a group controlled by the controversial oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky.

Jarabik believes that, “Ukraine’s leadership – under pressure at home and internationally – is fragmented and not in a coherent and strong enough position to deliver such a controversial step [as the local elections in Donbas]”.

The expert adds that if Germany wants to overcome or at least weaken the Ukrainian resistance, much more work needs to be done with opinion-makers in Ukraine, not only with the politicians, as public support for the Minsk agreements have essentially collapsed to around 14% from 35% last year.

Meanwhile, Russia, which refuses to admit that it is a participant in the military conflict, is trying to use the impatience of Berlin and Paris in order to crank up the political pressure on Kyiv. Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes that with a new Ukrainian government in place, the authorities in Kyiv will finally start taking “concrete steps” towards implementing the Minsk agreements, as he said during a phone conversation with his US counterpart Barack Obama on April 18.

Moscow is insisting on establishing direct dialogue between the Ukrainian authorities and the Donbas rebels, giving an amnesty forpro-Russian separatists, and implementing constitutional reform in Ukraine that would provide Donbas with the right to self-rule. “The conflict could easily be resolved; Russia’s political will is necessary,” Ryabchyn says.

Outline of compromise

A rough outline of the possible compromise over Donbas can be gathered from bits and pieces of information unveiled by Ukrainian politicians and international mediators.

The OSCE could deploy a special police mission in the breakaway Donbas territories, which would be tasked with maintaining security in Donbas and controlling the Ukrainian-Russian border in the region. The local elections would be held after that, whereby the current separatist leaders would be replaced by leaders acceptable to both Kyiv and Moscow. Rinat Akhmetov, the richest Ukrainian oligarch, is a leading candidate to head the Donbas area.

According to the German foreign ministry, the OSCE should develop a concept for the deployment of an international mission to help ensure the necessary security for the elections by the end of March. However, it is unclear whether this document has been drafted, or what stage discussions over the concept are currently at. Germany’s foreign ministry did not respond to a written request for comment from bne IntelliNews, while the OSCE media office forwarded a similar request to the German mission to the organisation, which also didn’t respond.

On April 27, German foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement that "without wishing to pre-empt any decision", Berlin finds it difficult at this time "to imagine what an armed OSCE mission might look like that had the objective of effectively ensuring the security of the elections in the separatist areas and enhancing the security of OSCE observers".

“We must introduce a new special police mission that will ensure security,” Poroshenko said in his interview on Ukrainian TV on April 24. “The OSCE mission should also deploy permanent armed checkpoints in the areas of withdrawal of heavy weaponry and in the uncontrolled area of the Ukrainian-Russia border, in order to prevent the supply of Russian weapons to the militants.”

The next day, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, described the possible police mission as “an intervention”, and promised to shoot any armed OSCE personnel who arrive in Donbas.

However, the resistance of the current Kremlin-controlled rebel leaders could easily be overcome if Kyiv and Moscow can agree on a political solution to the crisis, which would include replacing the heads of the breakaway territories with compromise figures.

‘King’ of Donbas

Donetsk-born Akhmetov, a former close associate of Ukraine’s ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, is the most suitable candidate for the role of a new governor of the Donetsk region, many experts believe. “If someone who has no blood on their hands, who has Ukraine in their heart, decides to take part in these elections and is elected by the people of Donbas, I, as president of Ukraine, will cooperate with them,” Poroshenko told journalists recently. He was commenting on unconfirmed reports that his administration was negotiating Akhmetov’s potential participation in the elections with the Russian authorities.

The billionaire, whose businesses are concentrated in the Donbas region, was one of the main losers from the turmoil there. Akhmetov apparently tried to manipulate the rebellion at the very first stage with the aim of securing business and political guarantees from the new Ukrainian government. However, the businessman, who was dubbed at the time a ‘king’ of Donbas, quickly lost the control over the situation.

As a result of the military conflict, Akhmetov’s mining, steelmaking, energy and heavy engineering subsidiaries have either been forced to halt operations or reduce output in areas that are controlled by separatists or located near the front line. Some assets, like the heavy engineering Corum Group, were nationalised by the separatists. Ukraine’s richest man lost around $4.6bn in 2015, and as much as $5.86bn over the previous year, according to Forbes magazine. “Neither the Americans nor Europeans have any problems with Akhmetov – that means he is considered by global players to be a part of the resolution to the crisis,” Ryabchyn believes.

The billionaire’s media office declined to comment on “rumours and speculation”, but said in a recent statement that the tycoon “is ready to do everything that might depend on him and even more” in order to end the conflict.

Meanwhile, oligarch Kolomoisky, who controls one of the most influential television networks in Ukraine, has made promises to Akhmetov that media support will be provided to promote the ideas of local elections in the separatist-held territories and the region’s devolution, a Kyiv-based source with knowledge of the matter tells bne IntelliNews.

Kolomoisky was appointed by Poroshenko as governor of Dnipropetrovsk region in 2014 with the aim of preventing pro-Russian separatists from advancing from Donbas to other parts of Ukraine. The oligarch played a crucial role in this process, but was sacked by the president in March 2015 amidst a conflict with the authorities in Kyiv over business and political interests.

So while local elections in the separatist-held territories and the region’s devolution might be slowly nearing reality, the oligarchal control of the constituent parts of Ukraine is no nearer resolution.