COMMENT: After referenda, a window of opportunity opens up in Ukraine

By bne IntelliNews May 13, 2014

Mark Galeotti of New York University -


Is there any prospect that Kyiv can "win" in eastern Ukraine? The recent referenda on secession suggest not, at least for the foreseeable future. But there may be a narrow window for, at the very least, minimizing the level of defeat.

After all, who is in charge in eastern Ukraine? The West sees little ambiguity. US representative to the UN Samantha Powers, looking at the seizures of administrative buildings, feels that, "the only entity in the area capable of these coordinated, professional military actions is Russia." UK Foreign Secretary William Hague sees a campaign of destabilization "planned and brought about by Russia."

The truth on the ground is more complex. Moscow is enthusiastically supporting the uprising and providing it a formidable krysha ("roof", or protection in criminal slang) through its forces on the border and the threats to intervene if Kyiv moves too forcefully against the rebels. (Not, judging by the indifferent success of the "anti-terrorist operations", that that is any great risk to the insurgents.)

It is not just backing it politically, there are government agents on the ground coordinating and supporting the local rebels. Meanwhile, a motley collection of Russian "war tourists" — Cossack nationalists, mercenaries, adventurers — is crossing into eastern Ukraine to join the rebels, with Moscow's blessing and, often, its guns as well.

But this is certainly not a campaign carefully planned in the bowels of the General Staff building on Znamenka Street in Moscow. We saw that with the kidnap of OSCE observers in Kramatorsk, south of Slovyansk, in April. Kremlin special envoy Vladimir Lukin was able to secure their release, but Moscow was taken aback and embarrassed by the incident — and it took over a week for them to be freed.

At the time, the Kremlin tried to play down its control over the rebels. Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, said that, "Russia essentially has lost its influence over these people" because he claimed they were fighting for their lives. However, a more dramatic example of this lack of traction came with Putin's unexpected call for the rebels to postpone their referenda on secession from Ukraine.

Local anti-Kyiv leaderships in Donetsk, Lugansk and Slovyansk rejected his appeal and went ahead with their shambolic and illegitimate polls on May 11. Needless to say, overwhelming support for secession was reported.

Where the truth lies

So what does this mean? The Machiavellian explanation is that this is the kind of shadow play so beloved of the Kremlin's once-and-maybe-future political technologist, Vladislav Surkov; a staged maneuver to support Moscow's claims not to be running the rebellion.

There is much to commend this line, but it does overlook one thing: it requires Putin to be willing to make himself look weak, even irrelevant. This is not something he is generally inclined to do, especially in recent times.

So should one accept the Kremlin's narrative at face value, that it is an honest broker trying to bring peace to Ukraine despite the actions of, in Putin's words, "the people who carried out an anti-constitutional seizure of power [in Kyiv], a coup d'état"? Of course not. The Kremlin annexed Crimea and has stirred up trouble from Odessa to Kharkiv.

The truth is, as ever, somewhere in between. Moscow has opted to pressurize Kyiv, encouraging and supporting local commanders — can't we just call them warlords? — and power brokers, willing to raise hell not for Moscow's benefit but for their own. They are eastern elites terrified of the consequences of a hostile new regime emerging in Kyiv; elements of the security forces associated with former president Yanukovych who likewise fear reprisals; gangsters and opportunists spying the chance to turn muscle and bravado into economic and political power.

Give peace a chance

There are two major implications to this. The first is that lasting peace in eastern Ukraine will require a settlement with many local interests, whose aims may well often run at cross-purposes. The militias of the east are rightly infamous. However, the ultra-nationalists who hijacked the protest movement in Kyiv's Independence Square, or Maidan, after Yanukovych's fall exercise a baleful influence on the new government's freedom of maneuver. Many have also joined the new National Guard, a hastily raised and trained force of volunteers, drawn disproportionately from nationalists from the west, which killed policemen in Mariupol on May 9 and an anti-government militant in Krasnoarmeysk.

As Igor Kolomoysky, oligarch and loyalist governor of Dnepropetrovsk, announces the creation of a special "Dneipr Battalion" and presidential contender Yulia Tymoshenko backs the creation of "territorial self-defense brigades", there does appear to be a serious risk that this conflict may devolve into a struggle between loyalist and secessionist militias and warlords.

The second is that it is dangerous not to take advantage of any opportunities for negotiation that Moscow offers.

To be sure, the Kremlin is often disingenuous, even downright mendacious. But as local leaders announce the creation of the "Donetsk People's Republic" and appeal to join Russia — contrary, according to most polls, to the general opinion of the region's population — there may actually be a window of opportunity.

Does Moscow, after all, want the Donbas? Had this been Putin's primary aim, it seems hard to understand why he waited so long, why he encouraged this rising anarchy that actually would make governing the area all the harder. Instead, he seems to be looking for a deal with Kyiv, and every escalation in the east is first and foremost to ratchet up the pressure.

Having unleashed chaos to force Ukraine back into Moscow's sphere of influence, though, Putin may be having second thoughts about its implications. Putin has put too much personal capital into the campaign to withdraw without some kind of agreement that acknowledges Russian interests. This will be a bitter pill for Kyiv to swallow, but it is unavoidable: Ukraine is not going to be joining the EU or Nato in the foreseeable future, and the West is not going to bail out its economy forever.

The trouble is that no one in Kyiv — one eye on future electoral prospects, the other on the muscular ultra-nationalists — seems willing or able to offer Moscow specific, detailed proposals.

This also reflects a lack of leadership in the West, though. If Ukraine is truly the front line of a new Cold War, then let Nato tanks dig in around Kyiv, and open-ended western credit keep the economy not just afloat but buoyant. But if the West is not willing to pay the price to save Ukraine on these terms, then the only other terms available are Moscow's, and it does no one any favours to encourage unrealistic hopes in Kyiv.

Either the West accepts Russia's challenge, and treats this as war to the knife, with a logical end-point of regime change in Moscow and a willingness to see Ukraine burn in the process, or else its best service to Kyiv is to encourage it to the negotiating table and help it secure the best surrender terms it can get. These are invidious choices, and in the long run Putin's regime will be the weaker for having forced the West to make them, but for now they are inescapable.

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SCPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University

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