Promising peace, the Ukrainian plutocrat, Petro Poroshenko was elected president. He restated these assurances at his inauguration although he had already reneged on his commitments, undertaking military operations against separatists in the east within hours of his election although close to half his country refused to vote. His actions led to coal miners’ anti-Kiev strikes, intensifying the social base of the regional divide. Washington predictably stood by him while Brussels seems destined to pay the price of a potential Ukraine-Russia gas war. Both the United States and the European Union portray the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, as the villain because of his support to militant regionalism in eastern Ukraine.
After the Crimean annexation, the restive east increasingly displayed non-compliance with the pro-EU political process in Kiev. Presidential elections were held with thin polling in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, where the minimum environment for the ballot was absent. Militants had a free run, voting papers were not delivered to polling stations, and turn-out was almost non-existent. In the neighbouring provinces also, where there was no militant activity, turnout was well under one half.
Until recently, the anti-Kiev movement in the east comprised militant groups centred on youth associations, the Communist Party and entities like the Don Cossacks who straddle the Russia-Ukraine border. Russian veterans smuggled light artillery across the border and organized skirmishes, occupations of government premises and demonstrations. Other civil resistance was sporadic and unplanned, and marches never drew more than a few thousand people. There was no mass action similar to Kiev’s Maidan movement last winter, and the leading political force, the Party of the Regions, disintegrated after the February coup. Pro-Russian slogans were intended to encourage help from Russia for autonomy, but not annexation.
Russophilia and the desire for secession are not the main issues in the east, assertions of support for Russian intervention notwithstanding. Unlike Crimea with 80 per cent Russian speakers and living off the Russian fleet, where the local parliament took the secessionist initiative, the Ukraine east is majority Ukrainian with a 35 per cent Russian-speaking minority, most of whom desire a united Ukraine. Putin is fully aware of the mixed feelings of Ukraine’s Russian minority, and has no wish to take charge of east Ukraine’s complex finances, coal mines and steel factories. Only with a popularly backed rebellious regional government could there be a threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but armed formations in Luhansk, Donetsk, Slaviansk and Mariupol do not constitute any such government. This is why Moscow supported the presidential election outcome, helped by Poroshenko’s pre-poll statements about delaying any rush towards the EU and declaring readiness for dialogue with Moscow.
Poroshenko’s volte face to mop up the dissidents in the east “in hours, not weeks” has driven his opponents to a different position, sensing that support for Kiev could produce total dislocation under a chauvinist regime. Large-scale strikes, for the first time demanding troop withdrawals, began in the coal pits, with sympathetic response in the factories. The president achieved what secessionists failed to do; he united miners and workers against him and laid the foundations for mass opposition to Kiev. In territory that has a long history of regionalism, this opens up new dangers for Ukraine’s future.
Manifest in the east is sullen opposition to Kiev and refusal to confront local militants. The Donetsk ‘referendum’ of May 11 voted for autonomy with a large turnout, unlike the May 25 election. Kiev’s acceptance of partnership with the EU without safeguards and its conflict with Russia over gas prices will never be popular. East Ukraine now has all the ingredients of a civil war; well-armed rivals, opposing views of history and destiny, and external instigators and sponsors. Most of the population, however, lacks the appetite for a fight — a situation that might be changing.
Poroshenko ascribes Kiev’s woes to Moscow rather than his failure to evolve any nuanced policy. While professing desire for friendship with Russia, he has decided to pull out of the Commonwealth of Independent States at a time when Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan have proceeded to economic and legal integration, to be followed later by Tajikistan and Armenia. The Eurasian Union projects economic alternatives to a failing Europe, but Poroshenko is set to conclude the economic aspect of the EU’s association agreement, the political side of which was already signed by the interim government last March in an action as legal as Russia’s Crimea annexation. Poroshenko has stated that Ukraine will not make advance payments for Russian gas or handle bad debts as demanded by the Russian supplier, Gazprom, tying payments to settlement of the Crimea annexation. But Ukraine has a weak hand; it has paid up $786 million for February and March, and still owes $2.5 billion in arrears.
The EU will have to underwrite Poroshenko’s policies and his inability to deliver economically. The closure of Ukraine’s gas tap will imperil Russian supplies to Europe, stored in transit in Ukraine. The North Stream network and diversification of sourcing may balance some of this, but these are partial solutions, and Ukraine sequestration of Russian gas reserves will only be a short-term answer to its own needs.
The EU and Russia must work together to provide Ukraine with a long-term solution, Ukraine being bankrupt and Russia wishing to minimize debt losses while it reorients gas supply arrangements. The EU must bear the costs of Ukraine rather than Russia, for the EU’s assurances are the basis for Kiev’s current policies. Illegal migration from Ukraine’s chaotic eastern provinces will burden a Europe coping with recession and problems with ‘associates’ such as Georgia and Moldova who suffer from rebellions of their own and depressed economies.
Obstructing possible cooperation is the West’s obsessive fear of Russian expansion. In this paranoia, which ignores what Russia considers its vital interests, Putin poses a challenge to Western values and political systems. Western leaders are unable to grasp that their fears are mirrored by the Russians. The EU erred in making Ukraine choose between the West and Russia; the US does likewise in seeking to embrace Ukraine in Nato. Russia sees its national interest as preventing Nato presence and US missile interceptor deployment in Ukraine. American actions are considered transgressions of the Russia-Nato Mutual Relations Act of 1997, as well as the assurance of the state secretary, Baker, to Gorbachev in 1990 that Nato would move “not one inch” to the East if Russia pulled its divisions out of East Germany — a promise broken by President Clinton. In 2008, Nato welcomed Ukraine and Georgia’s “aspirations for membership” in its fold.
Putin resents the EU’s snub to his wish for contacts between it and the Eurasian Union on the grounds that Belarus and Kazakhstan are not members of the WTO, as well as the EU’s lack of interest in his proposal for a free trade area from Vladivostok to Lisbon. Moscow’s mistrust of the West lies deep, and Putin has settled on a unifying narrative for Russia, which is to revive the anti- fascist fight of World War II; Russia is under siege, and has to unite under Putin.
Russia is essential to any Ukraine settlement and its objectives need to be understood. The ouster of the former president, Yanukovych, reopened the question of Ukraine’s strategic orientation, and Russia will react to any threat of Ukraine joining Nato. The proximate concern was Ukraine’s accession to the EU, but in Russian minds the two alliances are linked together as rungs on the same ladder. Russia’s ultimate goals are to turn Ukraine into a federation with wide-ranging powers for the regions to preserve Russian cultural identity, to establish institutional guarantees against any Nato accession, and to initiate trilateral Ukraine-EU-Russia negotiations to resolve the gas debt and transit issues.
Obama has promised American troop deployments in Poland and the Baltic States, but his urging for collective efforts by Nato to reassure alliance partners are likely to fall on deaf ears in a debellicized Europe. Given the sour relationship with Russia, the US will be one ally short in dealing with the Taliban after the Afghan pullout. This will bring the problems of Eastern Europe to India’s backyard. New Delhi will have to consider whom to support in conflicts in an area from Kiev to Kandahar as these will affect South Asian security arrangements directly or indirectly.