Ukrainians fear years of frozen conflict

By bne IntelliNews September 12, 2014

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Ukrainian commentators are taking an increasingly sober view of the peace agreement signed in Minsk, which was initially viewed as a victory for Ukraine driven by the pressure of Western sanctions on Russia. This shift follows continued uncertainty over the “special status” to be awarded rebel-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, while the area under the control of the rebels silently expands.

Irina Geraschenko, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko's aide for “peaceful regulation of the conflict in the east”, provided some preliminary detail of what the special status for areas in Ukraine's Donbass region controlled by Russian-backed rebels might entail – but left nobody much the wiser.  Appearing on a talk show on TV channel 1+1 on September 11, Geraschenko said that the Minsk protocols, signed by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the OSCE and Donbas rebels September 5, would not contain any “federalisation”, which in Ukrainian political discourse is taboo word, but rather “decentralisation” – a term preferred by Poroshenko. 

According to Geraschenko, a law on the special status to be considered by Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada next week would provide greater “economic and humanitarian” rights to the districts, and she was sure there would be a difficult debate in parliament on the issue. However she again failed to provide any clarity about what such “greater freedom” could entail.

Alarm bells are ringing because it seems that the rebels are expanding the territory under their control during the ceasefire, in particular extending control over the border. According to a new map of what Ukraine calls its “anti-terrorist operation,” displayed by Ukrainian spokesman Andriy Lyshenko, rebels had consolidated their control of the border north of the Azov Sea coast border crossing of Novoazovsk, towards Donetsk, to include the settlements of Telemanove and Konsomolsk, as Ukrainian forces pulled back from the border out of range of shelling by Russian forces. Thus apparently rebels control the entire border in Donetsk region and a stretch of the border in Luhansk region, Ukrainian media concluded. One week after the peace agreement,  it is increasingly looking like the start of a new frozen conflict that could dog Ukraine for years. 

“Poroshenko needed the ceasefire like air to stop the economic collapse of the country, political scientist Taras Berezovets blogged on Facebook. “Putin is on the whole happy with creation of a terrorist enclave on the territory of Ukraine. The goal of the enclave is to destabilise the situation in Ukraine and not to allow her to become a member of the EU or NATO.” 

However, political scientist Vladimir Fesenko points out that the law on the special status will be passed by deputies of the Vekhovna Rada, not by the Kremlin or by rebels. “The special status will be what the deputies decide it will be. The question is – will the separatists in Donetks and Luhansk agree to the terms of the special status legislated by the deputies?” Fesenko said on TV channel 1+1.

Long-term approach

Former interior minister Yury Lutsenko, an adviser to Poroshenko, stated on September 9 that "we have to isolate that [rebel-controlled] special zone, take it under control, for instance, with the help of engineering structures, and offer them to compete not only in weapons but also in our lifestyles”, as quoted by Interfax. Lutsenko added that the situation could develop analogously to the post-war division of Germany into East and West. “We have to build a country as did the Federal Republic of Germany relative to East Germany, where the inhabitants of Donbass will themselves want to become part of Ukraine,” was Berezovets' gloss of Lutsenko's words. 

Poroshenko himself seemed to be backing the long-term approach in comments he made to the Yalta European Strategy conference on Ukraine's future, held in Kyiv this year. Poroshenko argued that reforms, European integration and improving living standards in Ukraine would cause the secessionist regions of Crimea and Donbass to gravitate peacefully back to Ukraine. "This is the only way we can win the battle for the attitude of Crimean residents. The way to resolve the conflict in the east in some districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions is the same," Poroshenko said, as quoted by Interfax.

According to Berezovets, however, Poroshenko may also just be playing for time to rebuild Ukraine's military and security apparatus, before moving forcefully against the rebel-held districts in one or two years' time to return them to Kyiv's control, as Croatia did to the secessionist Serb enclave Republic of Serb Krajina in 1995.

However, In comments made to Ukraine's 1+1 TV channel, political commentator Vitaly Bali took a dark view of the ceasefire terms. “We should never have held talks with the Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic," he said. “This is a time bomb. This special status will be another step that says there is an undefined territory to which Ukrainian state authority does not extend.”

"I doubt any such legislation will get backing in the Rada as, mindful of looming elections, few parties and deputies will be willing to be seen conceding ground to the rebels or separatists," Tim Ash of Standard Bank comments. "It will be very difficult for Poroshenko to command a majority for such legislation in the RADA - and remember therein he lacks his own political party in the Rada as yet."

"The question remains to whom exactly power will be devolved in these regions, as the LPR/DPR are pretty fluid structures, who have not been elected by anyone – seemingly just imposed from Moscow," Ash adds.

Economic analysts also believe that while the war was increasingly ruinous for Ukraine, the terms of the peace are not much less so. "We expect an 11% drop in GDP for the second half of the year," says Dragon Capital's Elena Belan. "But if the armed conflict drags out or transforms into a frozen conflict, where Ukraine will lose control of part of its territory, the drop in GDP this year could worsen and could extend into 2015," she said.

A cri-de-coeur editorial from local English paper Kyiv Post hit the nail on the head. "When does a ceasefire look like surrender? When practically all of the conditions of the enemy are met and their remaining ones are not precluded from happening. That is what Ukraine is living with today."

"Russia has gotten everything it wants at this stage," the Kyiv Post editorial continued, "military victory in the east, concessions from Poroshenko and the avoidance of crushing sanctions from the West for Vladimir Putin’s lawless behaviour… The Kremlin-backed insurgents have retaken ground and are now strutting as if they have nothing to fear, calling news conferences and promising a return of the Russian Empire. Putin has called the West’s bluff and won," the editorial concluded.

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