Looming civil war

Print edition : June 27, 2014

Ukrainian Army paratroopers prepare to move to position in Slovyansk on May 31. Photo: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

A rally in support of the Donetsk People's Republic in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on May 31. Photo: MAXIM ZMEYEV/REUTERS

(From right) Presidents Vladimir Putin (Russia), Nursultan Nazarbayev (Kazhakhstan) and Alexander Lukashenko (Belarus) at a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Astana on May 29. Photo: Michael Klimentyev/AFP

President Petro Poroshenko at a press conference in Kiev on May 25. Photo: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP

Russia withdraws its troops from the border with Ukraine, but the latter rejects dialogue with the Russian-speaking people in the eastern region, claiming that military action is the only way to put down their revolt.

THERE were some positive signals emerging from Ukraine in April. But things seem to have gone from bad to worse since then. By the end of May, the Ukrainian army had launched a series of attacks on towns controlled by separatists in the east. The residents of Slavyansk, a town in the east, are leaving in droves, fearful of a full-scale assault. The escalation in the conflict has taken place despite the moves in Moscow and some European capitals to get the warring sides to the negotiating table.

In order to facilitate an early solution to the crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops from the regions along the country’s border with Ukraine in the third week of May. Unlike on previous occasions, when Russia did not carry out its pledges of troop withdrawals as the situation was steadily deteriorating in the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, this time there was a visible movement of heavy artillery and tanks away from the border. Putin specifically said that he was ordering the withdrawal at this juncture to facilitate the orderly conduct of the presidential election in Ukraine, which was held on May 25. Earlier in the month, Putin had requested the separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone the referendum on independence. The pro-Russian leaders in the east did not heed the Kremlin’s advice and the referendum was held as scheduled on May 11.

The Russian army pullout, Putin said in Shanghai, China, was meant “to create favourable conditions for Ukraine’s presidential vote and end speculations”. Putin was in Shanghai to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) security summit. He had earlier rebuffed appeals by the separatists in eastern Ukraine for a merger with Russia. Right from the beginning of the crisis, the Kremlin had said that there was no question of incorporating the eastern part of Ukraine into the Russian Federation, despite the fervent wishes of the majority of the Russian-speaking people there. There is an effort by the West to cast wool over the eyes of the international community by glossing over the fact that the present crisis in Ukraine was precipitated by the overthrow of the legally elected government in Kiev. Crimea seceded only after the events relating to that in February and the people in the east took up arms fearing that the government in Kiev, under the influence of right-wing nationalists and the West, would rush to exert military and political control over the Russian-speaking region.

United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) officials had validated the Russian claim of troops being withdrawn from the Ukrainian border. Russia had expected a reciprocal gesture from the Ukrainian government. Instead, the Ukrainian Army seems to have intensified its offensive against the separatist forces, which have captured several key towns in the industrialised east. Three days before the presidential election, Ukrainian forces clashed with the separatists near the main industrial city of Donetsk and fought battles with separatists in the neighbouring region of Luhansk. Casualties on both sides have been rising at an alarming rate.

Russia has asked the Ukrainian authorities to withdraw the troops and “end the punitive operations and violent actions” against fellow Ukrainians. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen indicated that withdrawal of Russian troops would be the first important step towards de-escalating the crisis. Russia has taken this step and has also importantly given its stamp of approval to the election organised by the central government in Kiev. The earlier Russian position was that any election in the country would be a meaningless exercise as the authorities in Kiev lacked political legitimacy.

Russia continues to hold that the ouster of the democratically elected government of President Viktor Yanukovich in March was a coup conducted under the supervision of the U.S. and the European Union. But the Kremlin has indicated that it is willing to do business with Petro Poroshenko, the newly elected President of Ukraine. Poroshenko is an oligarch with extensive business interests in Russia. He had held senior ministerial positions under Yanukovich but shifted his political allegiance to the West earlier in the year. Poroshenko had initially made some conciliatory statements but chose to take a hawkish stance after winning the presidential election in the first round itself. Soon after the result was announced, Ukrainian forces used heavy weaponry along with air power to recapture the main airport in Donetsk after it was briefly taken over by the separatist forces. The Donbass region, consisting of more than a dozen cities and towns that constitute the country’s industrial heartland, has become the epicentre of the separatist movement.

The military onslaught to recapture the Donetsk airport has led to many civilian casualties, including that of non-combatants, after the fighting spread to neighbourhoods near the airport. A spokesman for the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk said that the death toll could exceed 100. He also revealed that many of those killed fighting the Ukrainian army were Chechen fighters from Russia. The President of the autonomous republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, was quick to issue a statement that the fighters were there without government approval. More than 30 Russian-speaking Ukrainian protesters were killed in Odessa on May 2 when a trade union building they had sought refuge in was set on fire.

The President-elect said that the Ukrainians in the east, who were fighting against the government installed with the support of the West, were “terrorists” and rejected dialogue with them despite his earlier pronouncements about finding a peaceful way out of the impasse. Poroshenko instead claimed that a robust military action by the federal army was the only way to put down the revolt in the east within a “matter of hours”. On May 29, rebel fighters shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter killing 14 soldiers, including a general, near the city of Slavyansk. The city has witnessed heavy fighting with government forces using heavy artillery.

Washington and major E.U. countries such as Germany and France have backed the military action being taken in Kiev. U.S. President Barack Obama has assured Poroshenko of Washington’s continued support to “unify and move his country forward”. Poroshenko, who will be sworn in as President on June 7, has pledged to immediately sign the economic agreement with the E.U. It was Yanukovich’s refusal to sign the agreement and his decision to go in for closer economic cooperation with Russia that cost him his job. Russia had wanted Ukraine to be part of the Eurasian Union. Putin was in Astana, the Kazakh capital, on May 29 to sign the agreement establishing a “Eurasian Union”.

Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus are the three members of the economic union. Putin described the new grouping as a “powerful, attractive centre of gravity for economic development, a large regional market that unites more than 170 million people”.

The West had sought the moral high ground, claiming that Yanukovich had lost the right to govern as he used the riot police to get the protesters out of the government buildings they had occupied in Kiev. Now, the same Western governments are applauding the use of massive force against Ukrainians in the east. Units of the Ukrainian army, according to reports, had in earlier military operations refused to fire on their fellow citizens. Many, in fact, had abandoned their weapons and personnel carriers when ordered to take action against their compatriots. Now, the government in Kiev is reportedly raising new military units comprising recruits from neo-fascist and right-wing groups such as the Right Sector and Svoboda that were in the forefront of the violent protests in Kiev earlier in the year leading to the overthrow of the Yanukovich government.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow that the Kremlin insisted that Ukraine take the “unconditional step” of stopping its “so-called anti-terrorism operations”. He said that the action was “aimed at terrorising citizens of Ukraine just for their political convictions”. The Russian Foreign Ministry urged the government in Kiev to halt “military operations against its own people” in Donetsk and other cities in the east.

As it is, only Ukrainians unaffected by the conflict were able to vote in the presidential election. Putin had urged the Ukrainian government to postpone the election until a semblance of normalcy returned. Donetsk, Luhansk and other cities in the east had conducted their own referendums and opted for secession. The vote in the east, however, was not recognised by the international community though it has been quite clear for some time that the Russian-speaking Ukrainians are loath to recognise the interim government in Kiev, which they view as “illegitimate” and foisted on them by the West.

However, the attitude of the Kremlin towards the authorities in Kiev seems to have thawed considerably. Putin, according to reports, wants round-table talks between the elected government in Kiev and the separatist Donbass region on resolving the crisis, which has virtually paralysed the country since November last. The Ukrainian government is pushing for a decentralisation plan which would give more authority to municipal officials while installing governors who would be directly answerable to the central government. The separatists as well as Russia would prefer a federalisation plan that would give genuine autonomy to the Russian-speaking regions within the federal set-up in Ukraine.

Russia has reiterated its commitment to supply gas to Ukraine but with the rider that it should pay the prevailing global market price for the commodity. Ukraine insists on paying the concessional rates that prevailed before the overthrow of the Yanukovich government. Russia has pointed out that Ukraine owes it more than $3.5 billion in unpaid gas bills.

It is no secret that Ukraine is in dire economic straits. The country recently received billions of dollars in assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Recent developments have raised a glimmer of hope that a return to business as usual between Moscow and Kiev could still be a possibility. Russia and the E.U. had proposed that Ukraine make an initial payment of $2 billion by May 30 and another $500 million to Gazprom, the Russian energy company that supplies the gas. Russian gas reaches several European countries through Ukrainian pipelines. Gas supplies to the rest of Europe may be affected if a solution is not found soon.

In an opinion poll conducted in November last year, 39 per cent of Ukrainians had preferred closer integration with the E.U. while 37 per cent wanted the links with Russia to be strengthened. Ukraine remains a deeply polarised country. Sagacious political leadership is the urgent need of the day if the country is to be saved from an all-out civil war and increased bloodletting.