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Ukraine’s Meat Grinder Is Back in Business
Ukraine’s Meat Grinder Is Back in Business

Ukraine: Running out of Time

Ukraine needs a government of national unity that reaches out to its own people and tackles the country’s long overdue reforms; both Russia and Western powers should back a vision for the country as a bridge between East and West, not a geopolitical battleground.

Executive Summary

Ukraine’s provisional government faces an uphill struggle to make it to the 25 May presidential election. Shaken by separatist agitation and distracted by Russian troops on its borders, it has not asserted itself coherently and has lost control of the eastern oblasts (regions) of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have voted for independence in contentious referendums. It appears incapable of keeping order in much of the south east, where separatists, supported and encouraged by Moscow, threaten the state’s viability and unity. Kyiv and the presidential candidates should reach out to the south east, explaining plans for local self-government and minority rights, and for Ukraine to be a bridge between Russia and Europe, not a geopolitical battleground. With relations between Moscow and the West deeply chilled, the U.S. and EU should continue tough sanctions to show Russia it will pay an increasing cost for destabilising or dismembering its neighbour, while pursuing parallel, vigorous diplomacy to reach understandings that avoid the worst and respect mutual interest.

The situation has consistently worsened since late February, as much of the optimism from the Maidan protests that brought down the Yanukovych government has faded. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, “volunteers” and quite possibly special forces (Spetsnaz) dispatched by the Kremlin have seized the initiative in the south east. The separatists’ objective seems to be to provoke sufficient disruption and bloodshed so that President Vladimir Putin can assert, if he chooses, what he says is Moscow’s right to protect Russian speakers anywhere – in the worst case scenario by carving off what would in effect be a new autonomous entity embracing almost a third of the country and many of its most viable economic resources, which might eventually be absorbed into the Russian Federation. All this deepens the crisis between the West and Russia, making the rapproche­ment necessary to resolve it much more difficult.

The chaos in the south east seriously threatens the presidential election. The govern­­ment formed in February after months of street demonstrations and fighting barely functions, consists mostly of veterans of a discredited political system and new faces with little or no government experience. Communication within government institutions seems weak, with the public as a whole almost non-existent. Moscow’s depiction of a country in the thrall of a fascist coup, dominated by ultra-right militias, has persuaded the Russian public and for lack of alternatives has taken root in parts of Ukraine.

Kyiv must urgently talk to its own people, especially in the south east, where, unlike Crimea, ethnic Russians are not a majority, and even some leading members of the Yanukovych-era ruling party denounce calls to break up the country. Language, self-government and corruption – the latter of immense public concern – should be high on the government agenda and publicised as such. So too should preparing the population for the inevitable pain of deep reforms required to save an economy wrecked by two decades of endemic corruption and incompetence.

Military efforts to restore order in the south east have underlined both the government’s weakness and the pressing need for a solution through dialogue, not force. Such a solution is made more difficult by the competing prisms through which the crisis is viewed. For much of Ukraine and the West, a popular uprising in support of a more European-oriented Ukraine is being stymied by Russian revanchism; for Russia, the Maidan revolution was another calculated move, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, to surround and threaten Russia with enemies and humiliate it.

President Putin appears to consider that a West-leaning Ukraine government born of mass protests would set a dangerous example at home and thwart his ambition of establishing dominant Russian influence over as much of the former Soviet republics as possible. Russia is changing fast, and buoyed by overwhelming public support after the annexation of Crimea, Putin is rapidly creating an avowedly conservative ideology that consciously rejects many of the principles and concepts of Western democracy. In bringing Ukraine to its knees, however, Russia may also have lost its neighbour as a cultural and political ally in the long term.

A mid-April four-party – Russia, Kyiv, U.S., EU – Geneva agreement to calm the situation was ignored by the separatist forces, so is a dead letter. Nevertheless, the effort should be renewed as soon as possible. Ukrainian leaders – particularly presidential candidates – should commit to forming a post-election government of national unity with important representation from the south east and emphasise, as the guiding principle for rapprochement, that they want their country to link, not divide, Russia and Europe. They should also say forthrightly that they do not desire NATO membership and will guarantee continuation of Russia’s important defence industry and other ties to the south east, indeed to all Ukraine.

The dysfunction within the provisional government has complicated a slow and often fragmented Western response. The U.S. and EU need now to convey a consistent, firm, united and measured message, recognising – even if not accepting – Moscow’s take on the crisis’s origins. Its components should be political support for Kyiv to conduct elections, and political, financial and expert support for a national unity government to carry through the necessary stabilisation measures; measures to make Ukraine viable for foreign investment; further sanctions, to bite deeper into Russia’s economy if it does not change course; and quiet high-level talks with Moscow and facilitation of Kyiv-Moscow talks with a view to calming the situation and allowing Ukraine’s future to resolve itself organically over a period of years.

It is important to recognise that the new Russian readiness to use force to change borders, first evident a half-dozen years ago in Georgia, now clearly requires a firm deterrent response including sanctions and reassuring NATO members of the commitment to fulfil collective security obligations. Those actions must, however, be paralleled by diplomatic steps to lessen the confrontation. On the ground in Ukraine today, Russia has immediate advantages of escalation; over time, the West likely has the economic and soft-power edge. A successful, democratic Ukraine, substantially integrated economically in the West, but outside military alliances and a close cultural, linguistic and trading partner mindful of Russian interests would benefit all. Finally, as Kyiv and its international supporters look to the future, all should keep in the centre of their attention that Ukraine is a profoundly damaged country. This damage goes far beyond separatism and is the fruit of the poor governance and massive corruption that, over the past two decades, has all but destroyed it.

Ukraine’s Meat Grinder Is Back in Business

Originally published in Foreign Policy

The one bright spot in the otherwise largely unimplemented February 2015 Minsk peace agreement was a ceasefire that ended full-scale fighting between Ukrainian forces and Moscow-backed, pro-Russian rebels who seized parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on the Ukrainian-Russian border almost two years ago.

The ceasefire took over six months to gain traction, but eventually sharply reduced the casualty rate of a war that has so far killed about 10,000 people, both soldiers and civilians. Exchanges of fire, usually small arms, have never completely ceased, of course.

But heavy fighting has broken out, and continues today, in one small but important segment of the 500 km line of separation between the two sides. There is no clear indication of how the fighting started — whether one of the sides is trying to send a warning to the other, or test their response. It is just as likely as that local sniping gradually and imperceptibly turned into a local battle.

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