Why a settlement in the Donbas is unlikely

Last Friday, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s then President-elect (now President) Petro Poroshenko met in Normandy during the 70th anniversary of D-Day celebrations. In an interview with a Russian television station afterward, Putin stated: “I can only welcome Mr. Poroshenko’s position that the bloodshed in eastern Ukraine must be stopped immediately. I cannot say for sure how that can be implemented in practical terms, but overall it seemed to me to be the right approach.” Putin later met briefly with U.S. President Obama, after which his spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, announced that they had discussed “the need to end violence and fighting as quickly as possible.”

Also last week, Western intelligence services confirmed that Russian forces had mostly pulled back from the border, Russian news agencies reported that the Kremlin was ordering Russian border guards to control the border more effectively, and Russia’s ambassador to Kyiv, who had earlier been recalled by Moscow, returned in time to attend Poroshenko’s inauguration. And yesterday a “trilateral contact group” consisting of representatives from Kyiv, Moscow, and the OCSE met in St. Petersburg and reached “mutual understanding” on a peace plan proposed by Poroshenko.

These developments are of course encouraging. But while it is better to talk than fight, I am skeptical that they mean a lasting end to hostilities is likely in the near term.

In the first place, it is not clear that many of the various separatist groups and combat units (see below) will agree to a ceasefire. The east is becoming steadily more violent, including major operations in and around Kramatorsk last night; the separatists claim that they control some 200 km of the border with Russia, and fighters and arms continue to cross over into Ukraine; and the Kremlin has at best limited control over the separatists. Nor is there any concrete evidence, so far at least, that the Kremlin is prepared to take the steps needed to stop militants and weapons from entering Ukraine or to tone down its propaganda campaign directed at mobilizing the east against Kyiv.

Separatists stand guard at a barricade in Mariupol, June 9, 2014. Source: Kyiv Post

That said, let us assume that Poroshenko is sincere about his commitment to a ceasefire and some kind of reconciliation with the separatists; that he announces a ceasefire by the end of the week; that the separatists accept the offer; and that a ceasefire comes into effect, is respected, and remains in force. The question would then become, will Kyiv be able to reach some kind of accommodation with the separatists that allows it to restore its writ in the east, or are we likely to see the consolidation of separatist power and the entrenchment of an unrecognized republic, or republics, in the east?

An initial point here is that Poroshenko is going to find it politically difficult if not impossible to agree to anything that fails to keep the Donbas in Ukraine and does not restore Kyiv’s de facto sovereignty in the region. Ukrainian voters are not going to accept a fig-leaf arrangement that keeps the Donbas de jure in Ukraine but in practice makes it fully autonomous, let alone independent or part of Russia. Given the extent of the violence so far, the converse is also true – the militants are not going to agree to Kyiv restoring its writ in the region if they can help it.

Moreover, I doubt that Moscow would allow a negotiated settlement that restores Kyiv’s sovereignty over the Donbas to take effect. Moscow is likely going to try to keep the region at least at a low boil for the foreseeable future and continue its covert efforts to spread the rebellion to other parts of the east and south, notably Mariupol and Kharkiv.

My reasoning here is the same as it was after the annexation of Crimea – the political stabilization of Ukraine would undermine Moscow’s principal strategic objective, which is to keep its neighbor out of the Western sphere of influence generally and out of NATO particularly (see my earlier posts). And the most effective weapon at Moscow’s disposal in pursuit of this objective is support for separatism in the east and south. The only development that might change that is an institutionalized commitment (e.g., a constitutional amendment for Ukraine, or a ratified treaty with NATO powers) that Ukraine will not join NATO for the foreseeable future.

There is yet another important reason why a ceasefire is unlikely to be followed by a negotiated solution to the crisis: the pro-Russian forces in the east are splintered, which means that there is no one for Kyiv to negotiate with.

These divisions are multiple. In the first place, there are political differences between the separatists in Donetsk and those in Luhansk, with separate “people’s republics” established in each. The Donetsk People’s Republic (CPR) came into existence through a declaration by a small number of non-elected separatists who had seized the Donetsk Regional State Administration Building in early April. The Luhansk People’s Republic was established in similar fashion several weeks later. After the procedurally dubious referendum on what amounted to “sovereignty” for Donetsk and Luhansk on March 11, both the DPR and LHR declared independence.

This was followed on May 22 by the establishment of yet another entity, The Federal State of Novorossiya (FSN), at a founding congress for a newly formed “Novorossiya Party.” The congress issued a proclamation uniting the DPR and the LPR into a single federation, and documents were signed formalizing the new entity on May 24. However, the congress was held in Donetsk, not Luhansk, and it is clear the leadership of the LPR is considerably less enthusiastic about the union than the DPR leadership, doubtless because it thinks the DPR intends to use the federation to extend its authority into Luhansk. Moreover, the congress was attended by some of Russia’s best know ideologues and activists of the far-right, including Aleksandr Prokhanov, Aleksandr Dugin, and Valery Korovin, and it was clearly influenced by Dugin’s and Prokhanov’s vision of “Eurasianism” and a Eurasian empire with Russia at its core. What is not clear is whether “Eurasianism” appeals to many of the separatists, let alone the public in Donetsk and Luhansk.

As for the leaders of the uprisings, the most authoritative political figure in the DPR appears to be Aleksandr Borodai, who has been named the DPR’s prime minister, is a Russian citizen from Moscow, and has a long record of far-right political activism in Russia. Another political leader, Pavel Gubarev, the DPR’s “People’s Governor,” was formerly a member of a neo-Nazi group, Russian National Unity. It is not clear that his position as “People’s Governor” is actually recognized by the remainder of the DPR leadership. Finally, the speaker of the DPR’s legislative body, the Supreme Soviet (one of many symbolic embraces of the Soviet past by the DPR), Denis Pushilin, is a political neophyte who failed in his only attempt to run for office, a 2012 bid for a seat in the Ukrainian parliament. He has also been implicated in a notorious Ponzi scheme. None of these people has ever been elected to public office; their relationships with each other, their respective duties, and their control, if any, over armed formations is unclear; and whatever evidence there is suggests that, as individuals, they have very limited popular support in Donetsk.

The same is largely true of Luhansk, although there seem to be fewer competitors to the political leadership of Valery Bolotov, who was elected “People’s Governor” of the LPR on April 21 by a group of separatists who had seized the Regional State Administration building. Bolotov is more of a military commander than Borodai, Gubarev, or Pushilin. He was a paratrooper in the Soviet military and later became leader of a Soviet airborne veterans’ organization. In mid-May, the LPR’s legislative body, the State Council, elected him president.

The only person who has tried to represent himself as a unifying political figure among the separatists in the east is Oleh Tsaryov, a former deputy in the Rada from the Party of Regions. Tsaryov entered the race for Ukrainian presidential elections of May 25, but he withdrew his candidacy in late April, several weeks after he was beaten by a mob of pro-Ukrainians in Kyiv. Polls at the time showed him with almost no electoral support even in the east. He was expelled by the Party of Regions in early April, and he was deprived of parliamentary immunity and a warrant was issued for his arrest last week. Tsaryov attended the founding congress of the Novorossiya Party on May 22, but he did not appear to have significant support from any of the other factions in attendance. Nor is there any reason to believe that the separatists would accept him as their representative in talks with Kyiv.

As for the military leadership, the best-known commander in the east is Igor Girkin (a.k.a. Strelkov), who heads something called the Donbas People’s Militia. Like Borodai, he is a Russian citizen, and he was (and Ukrainian sources claim still is, although that strikes me as unlikely) a member of Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU. Girkin is based in Slavyansk, and his fighters have taken the lead in most of the fighting there. He does not appear to have much authority elsewhere however. On May 12, the day after the referendum, Girkin proclaimed himself “supreme commander” of all military and security organs in the DPR and demanded that all those with arms pledge allegiance to him within 48 hours. The demand apparently went mostly unheeded. In Luhansk, the main fighting force is called the “Army of the Southeast.” There is also the now-famous “Vostok Battalion,” which is headquartered in Donetsk but whose provenance is unclear — what does seem clear is that initially at least it was made up primarily of Russian citizens, although it has reportedly been attracting local recruits since its appearance in the Donbas in early May. Its commander, Aleksandr Khodakovsky, was formerly the head of Ukraine’s elite Alfa force until Yanukovych’s ouster. Beyond that, there appear to be numerous villages, towns, and small cities with independent armed groups that operate autonomously, cooperating occasionally but not under a unified command.

In short, the political and military leadership of the separatists is splintered, which means that there is no clear authority to negotiate with, let alone one that is reasonably respectable and has obvious popular support. Given their backgrounds, lack of unity, and lack of evident authority, it is difficult to believe that Poroshenko would be willing to negotiate with any of them. Nor is it in the least clear who to invite to the negotiating table. Complicating the problem further, participants in the uprisings have different preferences, ranging from institutionalized protections for Russians and Russian speakers, administrative decentralization, full autonomy, independence or incorporation into Russia. And of course the preferences of the pro-Russian forces in the east do not necessarily reflect the preferences of the public as a whole.

As a result, I think it is unlikely that Kyiv will be able to reach an accommodation with the separatists – indeed even a lasting ceasefire seems unlikely under the circumstances. Even less likely is a general agreement on fundamental issues like Russian language protection, decentralization, or some kind of special status for Donetsk and Luhansk. What seems much more likely is continued fighting in the short term and the emergence of a Transnistria (or several Transnistrias) in the east in the longer term, a topic I will turn to in a future post.

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