Russia And Ukraine Are Still At War

Clashes with pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk

New fighting is underway in Eastern Ukraine, breaking a months-long ceasefire. Alexander Motyl assesses the scene:

The war in eastern Ukraine will go on, despite the best efforts of the West and Kyiv to reach a negotiated settlement. For one thing, Putin’s proxies in eastern Ukraine are out-of-control warlords for whom war has become their only raison d’être. For another, Putin will want no permanent peace, as that would only stabilize Ukraine. A large-scale military assault aimed at capturing all of Ukraine, or even establishing a corridor from Russia to the Crimea, is probably out of the question, as the Ukrainian armed forces are strong enough to deter it. But low-level fighting of the kind that has characterized the Donbas for the last few months seems a sure bet. Equally likely is a continuation of terrorist attacks within Ukraine, which Ukraine will survive while Putin’s reputation as an exporter of terrorism will only grow.

Ukraine will continue to insist that the Russian-occupied territories are occupied only “temporarily,” and Russia will continue to insist that its war against Ukraine is really only an internal Ukrainian squabble, but the end result of Russia’s continued occupation of both the Donbas enclave and the Crimea will be the continued, if uneven, consolidation of Russian rule. Faced with tough economic circumstances at home, Kyiv will continue to reduce its economic relations with, and financial subsidy of, the occupied territories. The burden of supporting the increasingly desperate inhabitants will fall on Russia, which will have to decide whether it prefers to make hay from a humanitarian catastrophe of its own making or actually to help save the victims of its imperialist policies. My guess is that Putin the great humanitarian will opt for catastrophe.

Leonid Bershidsky sees no end in sight:

Regardless of the international reaction, Russia will crush Ukraine’s military hopes every time they arise, simply because it has a stronger, better-trained army. It is wishful thinking to believe the balance of forces has changed since September, when Ukrainians crumbled in the face of what were, by all accounts, just a few thousand crack Russian troops. …

[If Poroshenko] is counting on Russia to succumb to Western pressure and low oil prices and give up, he has to intensify fighting in a war he cannot win. That is an extremely risky bet, since Russia can take an inordinate amount of pain as long as its people continue to believe Putin’s cause is just. Poroshenko’s success is also predicated on Western nations’ acquiescence in being dragged deeper into the conflict, because for Ukraine to hold out even a few months, it needs better weaponry. Yet, like Putin, the Ukrainian president can’t afford to give in: He would be swept away in a tide of protest, led by fighters returning from the front lines.

In the meantime, Ukraine is teetering on the economic edge:

Ukraine faces an acute economic crisis that represents no less a threat to its survival than Russia does. Kyiv has come to rely on assistance from the International Monetary Fund and Western donors to survive; yet the Western commitment to support Ukraine financially is limited. Indeed, Moody’s has recently warned that Ukrainian default is very likely, pointing out that the country’s current bailout package provided by the IMF, EU and other donors is not sufficient to cover $10bln external debt repayments that come due this year. The Economist suggests that Ukraine needs an additional bailout of $20bln, noting that despite chatter about a “donors conference,” no government seems willing to put up the money.

Larison isn’t surprised:

All of the obstacles to bailing out Ukraine remain. Western institutions won’t lend Ukraine the money it needs without imposing strict conditions, and the Ukrainian government cannot meet those conditions without wrecking itself politically. If the money were “found” to give to Ukraine in the absence of significant reforms, most of it would likely be lost to corruption or sent on to Russia to pay Ukraine’s debts. That would be a waste of funds, and even when there are strings attached there is not much interest in Western capitals to provide a lot of aid. Western governments decided over the last year that Ukraine wasn’t worth very much to them, and under the circumstances it’s hard to fault them for reaching that decision.

Regardless, the Bloomberg Editors insist that the West keep the sanctions going:

On at least two occasions, [the sanctions] have caused Putin to scale back aggression in Ukraine — in May, when a threat to broaden sanctions pressured Russia to drop opposition to Ukraine’s presidential election, and again last fall, when a Russian military buildup and rebel plans to take three Ukrainian cities evaporated.

Just as important is that exacting a price from Russia for its military aggression unites the EU behind the vital security interests of at least four members — Poland and the three Baltic states. The measures also serve as a financial disincentive for Putin to embark on military adventures beyond Ukraine, and they erode support for him among neighbors such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, now alarmed about what Putin may intend for them.

(Photo: Buildings are destroyed during the clashes between Ukrainian security forces and pro-Russian separatists on January 20, 2015 near the airport in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. By Alexander Ermochenko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Congress Doubles Down On Ukraine

by Dish Staff

The “Ukraine Freedom Support Act”, authorizing both lethal and non-lethal aid to Kiev in its ongoing conflict with pro-Russian separatists, passed both houses of Congress late last week to little fanfare:

The current legislation authorizes $350 million worth of weapons, defense equipment and training for Ukraine over three years. Lawmakers dropped a key provision in the original bill that would have taken the rare step of giving major non-NATO ally status to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Senate aides said the provision was removed at the 11th hour in order to ensure final passage.

The measure hits Russia’s defense and energy sectors, punishing companies like state defense import-export company Rosoboronexport. It requires Obama to impose conditional sanctions on the defense sector should Russian state-controlled firms sell or transfer military equipment to Syria, or to entities in Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova without the consent of the governments in those nations. The rule is aimed at helping stem the flow of weapons from Russia across the border into eastern Ukraine, where Washington and Kiev accuse Moscow of fomenting separatist unrest.

The bill does not require Obama to provide lethal aid, however, and the White House has no plans to do so – at least, not yet. Russia, predictably, lashed out in response to the bill, which it called “openly confrontational” and akin to blackmail. Emma Ashford calls it counterproductive:

Arming Ukraine will escalate tensions with Russia, but it will do little to help the Ukrainian army – which is corrupt and in dire need of reform – to combat the insurgency in its Eastern regions. The bill ties the hands of diplomats, requiring that Russia ceases “ordering, controlling… directing, supporting or financing” any acts or groups which undermine Ukrainian sovereignty before sanctions can be lifted. The INF treaty stipulation [directing the President to hold Russia accountable for its violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty] is also dangerous, raising tensions, and increasing the possibility that both Russia and the U.S. could withdraw from the treaty.

Unfortunately, the provisions in this bill will make it all the more difficult to find a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine crisis, or to find a way to salvage any form of productive U.S.-Russia relationship. No wonder congress didn’t want to debate it openly.

Larison agrees:

As it is, the passage of this legislation was the wrong thing for Congress to do. If Obama doesn’t want to contribute to making things worse in Ukraine, he should veto it. Signing such a bill into law will just goad Russia into more aggressive behavior and will set up the Ukrainian government for another fall. There is no American interest that justifies this contribution to the conflict in Ukraine. It is an unfortunate marriage of the desire to be seen as “doing something” and the knee-jerk impulse to throw weapons at every problem.

Doug Bandow fears that the bill “offers a belligerent foretaste of what to expect from the incoming Republican Senate”:

The legislation’s chief sponsor was Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), slated to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His earlier proposal, “The Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014,” was even more confrontational, providing for greater sanctions on Russia, more military aid for Ukraine, and intelligence sharing with Kiev; conferring “major non-NATO ally status” on Georgia and Moldova as well as Ukraine; expanding “training, assistance and defense cooperation” with Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, and Serbia, as well as Kiev; mandating non-recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea; and subsidizing energy development in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. As chairman he is likely to encourage equally misguided military meddling elsewhere.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, meanwhile, announced the first 24-hour period without a casualty since a ceasefire went into effect in early September. According to a new UN report, 4,707 people have been killed in the fighting, including 1,357 since the ceasefire was agreed.

Iced Out In Donetsk – And Brisbane


On Saturday, Ukrainian President Poroshenko ordered his government to withdraw all state services, including funding for hospitals and schools, from rebel-held provinces in the country’s east:

Poroshenko told his cabinet to take steps within a week “to terminate the activities of state enterprises, institutions and organisations in the various territories where anti-terrorist operations are being conducted,” a statement on his website said. “This is a decisive step, the games have stopped,” the security official added. “All the structures that the state finances will be withdrawn from there. Ukraine will no longer finance them.” The decree also proposed that Ukraine’s central bank take steps over the next month to withdraw all banking services for businesses and individuals in the regions.

But “if anyone thought this was an abdication and a letting go of the unruly region,” Jamie Dettmer underlines, “they need to think again”:

In the decree, he asked the country’s new parliament to revoke a law granting self-rule to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions—in effect rescinding September’s “special status” law granted under a ceasefire allowing the two mainly Russian speaking eastern region some autonomy.

The National Security Council recommended Poroshenko revoke the special status law following the November elections in the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic—polls that broke the conditions of the Sept. 5 Minsk ceasefire agreement. That ceasefire allowed for local elections in Donbas in December, but under Ukrainian supervision. The separatist polls amounted to a direct challenge to Kiev’s authority. But the decision now to sever economic ties with the eastern regions was a surprise—and a gamble.

Rebel leaders quickly decried the order as an act of “genocide”.  Poroshenko had already cut off the separatist regions from pensions and other state funds last week. Alexander J. Motyl supports putting economic pressure on the rebels and their backers in Moscow, but he acknowledges that there will be serious consequences:

The [Donbas] enclave is an economic mess, having experienced dramatic drops in GDP and employment and rises in business closures, food shortages, and inflation. And conditions will get much, much worse as subzero winter temperatures envelop the enclave. People will die not only from the fighting, but also from hunger and cold. Even Nikolai Levchenko, the young Regionnaire hotshot from Donetsk who distinguished himself a few years ago by insulting the Ukrainian language, brazenly flaunting his ill-gotten wealth in Jakob Preuss’s documentary film The Other Chelsea, and preposterously claiming to have read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace seven times, says he’s worried: “More than 3.5 million people who have remained in the zone of direct conflict will suffer from the cold and will be placed on the verge of survival under conditions of a wintry humanitarian collapse.”

This weekend was also an eventful one for Putin, who got such a chilly reception at the G20 summit in Australia that he ducked out early:

Western leaders piled huge pressure on the Russian president at the Group of 20 meeting in Brisbane, with host Tony Abbott calling on Putin to “atone” for the shooting down of Flight MH17 over rebel-held eastern Ukraine and Britain’s David Cameron branding him a “bully”. Analysts said Putin’s apparent anger at his treatment by his fellow leaders could worsen the crisis in Ukraine. “If he is leaving irritated, just wait for the fighting in Ukraine to intensify,” independent analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told AFP. Putin, who prides himself on his stamina, cited the “need to sleep” and a long flight home as his reasons for leaving the summit before the final communique was issued.

Leonid Bershidsky criticizes the G20 leaders who gave Putin the cold shoulder, arguing that such passive-aggressive behavior serves no purpose:

What were the Western leaders trying to achieve? Putin already knows they resent his meddling in Ukraine. Not inviting him at all would have sent a clearer signal that the West is prepared to isolate Russia from international decision-making, as it once did the Soviet Union. That message would have been misleading, however, because, despite Putin’s stubborn and increasingly ridiculous denials that Russia is taking action in Ukraine, the West still wants to talk with him: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker, not to mention the leaders of BRICS countries, all held meetings with him in Brisbane. Taunts and angry looks only make such conversations more difficult.

But Doug Mataconis wonders whether “Putin showing up at the summit wasn’t some kind of stunt for domestic consumption to begin with”:

With reports of Russian troops and equipment pouring across the border with Ukraine that seem hard to deny, and the whole idea of showing up with a fleet of Russian destroyers in international waters off the Australian coast, much further from Russian waters than the Russian Navy tends to travel these days, certainly seems like more Putin-esque showmanship and provocation. It’s almost as if Putin went to Australia with the specific intention of creating a scene like this for propaganda purposes back home.

The Russian and Ukrainian leaders continued their war of words in interviews published yesterday and today. While both leaders claim to want a peaceful resolution to the conflict, Poroshenko now says Ukraine is “prepared for a scenario of total war” while Putin drops hints that he is fully prepared to continue propping up the rebels:

In response to a question about whether Russia was arming the rebels, as contended by both Kyiv and the West, Putin said merely that “anyone waging a fight that they believe fair will find weapons.” He stressed that without such arms the rebels would be quickly destroyed by the Ukrainian forces – something Russia “does not want, and will not allow.” While Putin stopped short of acknowledging Russia’s material role in the conflict, his comments went further in emphasizing Moscow’s willingness to support the separatists than ever before.

(Photo: People shop at the market in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on November 17, 2014 as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebel bastion. Fresh bloodshed between pro-Kremlin rebels and Kiev’s forces added to the tensions after Russian President Vladimir Putin left a G20 summit in Brisbane early amid criticism from fellow leaders. By Menahem/AFP/Getty Images)

Is Russia Invading Ukraine… Again? Ctd


Last week, Ukraine’s military claimed that Russian tanks, artillery, and soldiers were pouring across the border between the two countries yet again. Today, NATO and the OSCE confirmed that they had seen the same thing:

Speaking in Sofia on November 12, the alliance’s top commander, U.S. General Philip Breedlove, said the columns included Russian tanks, artillery, air-defense systems, and combat troops. “We do not have a good picture at this time of how many. We agree that there are multiple columns that we have seen,” Breedlove said. Breedlove made the comments after a report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said its monitors had seen a convoy of unmarked military trucks — some towing howitzer artillery pieces and multilaunch rocket systems — travelling into the rebel stronghold of Donetsk on November 11.

Shane Harris passes along an assessment from another analyst, who believes “there are as many as 7,000 Russian troops inside Ukraine now, and between 40,000 and 50,000 amassing on the country’s eastern border”:

Phillip Karber, a former Pentagon strategy adviser who has worked closely with the Ukrainian government, said in an interview that he had just returned from Ukraine, where he spoke with commanders at the front. Karber said that in addition to the thousands of ground troops, as many as 100 tanks are inside Ukraine now, more than 400 armored vehicles, and more than 150 self-propelled artillery and multiple rocket launchers. Another 350 to 400 tanks are poised along the border, along with more than 1,000 armored vehicles and 800 self-propelled artillery, Karber said. …

“Clearly something is up. The question is what,” Karber said. He speculated that Russia could be envisioning a number of scenarios, including pushing further into Eastern Ukraine; attempting to create a land bridge to the Crimea peninsula in order to resupply force there; or making a large land grab further into the country.

Anna Nemtsova suspects that the Russians are there to back up eastern Ukrainian separatists in a push to regain territory from which Kiev had driven them out. Accordingly, she fears that Ukraine is on the verge of all-out war again,

“I admit that without Russian multi-layered support, Donbass [the eastern Ukraine region] would have never handled aggression by the Ukrainian army,” says Sergei Markov at a pro-Kremlin think tank close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Markov tells The Daily Beast he expects the situation in eastern Ukraine to explode in the coming two days. He blames Ukrainian officials for violating the ceasefire agreement and shelling the outskirts of Donetsk city.

“Novorossia soldiers would not initiate the battle,” says Markov, “but I believe their plan is to gradually take control over Piski, Avdiivka, and Schastye, a town with a central heating station.” Markov also added that rebels might make an attempt to take back control of their former strongholds in Sloviansk and Kramotorsk, “symbolically and strategically important towns for them.”

If this is indeed a Russian invasion – and it sure looks like one – James B. Barnes isn’t surprised at the timing. After all, winter is coming:

Winter has long been Russia’s ally, the siege of Leningrad for just one example, but using the modern economics of Winter as an offensive strategy strikes me as both new and absolutely old school. … Doing this now is also very calculated and smart on the part of Russia. Since Europe depends on Russian gas there’s literally nothing the Europeans can do to dissuade the Russian leadership from driving every tank they want straight into Donetsk for later deployment and the U.S. knows that action on their part could lead to action by Russia against Europe. It’s Machiavellian, and while I don’t approve of it (free nations should be free) I’m absolutely impressed by it.

News of these machinations in eastern Ukraine comes at the same time as Russian planes have been making threatening maneuvers in Northern Europe and the Arctic, including simulated attack runs on American and European targets. Now, Russia plans to step up patrol missions by its long-range strategic bombers:

Russian nuclear-capable strategic bombers were making regular patrols across the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans during Cold War times, but the post-Soviet money crunch forced the military to cut back. The bomber patrol flights have resumed under President Vladimir Putin’s rule and have become increasingly frequent in recent years. Earlier this year, Shoigu said Russia plans to expand its worldwide military presence by seeking permission for navy ships to use ports in Latin America, Asia and elsewhere for replenishing supplies and doing maintenance. He said the military was conducting talks with Algeria, Cyprus, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Seychelles, Vietnam and Singapore.

Developments such as these, coupled with increasingly bellicose rhetoric from the Kremlin, have led to chatter about a new Cold War. Brian Whitmore downplays that comparison, but adds a huge, frightening caveat:

No, this isn’t a Cold War. But guess what? It’s even scarier and more dangerous. During the Cold War the Kremlin had a stake in — and was interested in maintaining — the existing international system. Despite its ideology and rhetoric, the Soviet Union after Stalin wasn’t revolutionary at all. It was a classic status-quo power. But in the past 25 years, a new international order has taken shape to replace the bipolar superpower rivalry — and Moscow doesn’t like it. It wants the old 20th-century bipolar world back, or a 19th-century concert of great powers, each free to act in their own spheres of influence. And if it doesn’t get it, it is going to do its best to disrupt the existing order.

Bershidsky psychoanalyzes Putin and wonders if the Russian president might actually be sincere when he says he wants things to get back to normal:

Amid all the anti-American, anti-Western rhetoric, Putin always leaves the door open to a resumption of dialogue. … It’s even possible that Putin’s behavior is a mixture of intimidating swagger and a craving for the restoration of normal, pre-Crimea relations with his Western “friends and partners,” as he likes to call them. It’s only prudent to react to Putin’s threats by shoring up defenses, but it might be smart for the West to exploit his apparent desire to be given a place at the table again. He is only a human being, but Russia and its neighbors are disproportionately dependent on his psychological condition. Perhaps Western leaders ought to consult with psychologists and try to figure out how to handle him rather than continuing to demonstrate their angry rejection, as Obama does.

Regardless of these provocations, new sanctions on Russia don’t seem to be in the offing, at least not from the EU, which could really make them sting:

Speaking in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ruled out imposing new economic sanctions,  the European Union’s main source of leverage over Moscow now that gas supplies are in place for the winter. On Thursday, Russia signed a deal with Ukraine and Europe to resume gas shipments to Ukraine, which — if fully implemented — would remove the possibility that Moscow could cut off gas supplies mid-winter.

However, Merkel floated the possibility of issuing travel restrictions on pro-Russian politicians recently elected in the Crimean peninsula, which Russia has annexed. The West has refused to recognize the polls, and Merkel said that the EU could prevent Crimean politicians from attending a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels next week.

(Photo:A column of tanks drive from a rebel-territory to Donetsk near the town of Shakhtarsk, eastern Ukraine on November 10, 2014. By Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Is Russia Invading Ukraine… Again?

Ukraine’s military claims that a column of “32 tanks, 16 howitzer artillery systems and trucks carrying ammunition and fighters” crossed into the country from Russia yesterday:

“The deployment continues of military equipment and Russian mercenaries to the frontlines,” spokesman Andriy Lysenko said in a televised briefing referring to Thursday’s cross-border incursion.

Nato said it has seen an increase in Russian troops and equipment along the Ukraine border was looking into the reports. “We are aware of the reports of Russian troops and tanks crossing the border between Ukraine and Russia,” a Nato military officer told Reuters. “If this crossing into Ukraine is confirmed it would be further evidence of Russia’s aggression and direct involvement in destabilising Ukraine.” The report of a new Russian movement of armour across the border follows a charge on Thursday by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine that Kiev government forces had launched a new offensive – which Kiev immediately denied.

Morrissey calls this a move “directly out of the Crimea playbook”:

In that seizure, Russian troops infiltrated the peninsula in uniforms without insignia, seized control of the region, and then held a plebescite on annexation to the country that had occupied their land. Immediately afterward, Russia invaded Crimea militarily, this time openly, and secured its new possession. This is exactly what has unfolded in Donetsk and Luhansk, just over a longer period of time. …

It’s the classic fait accompli challenge: what is the world to do when an aggressor nation simply takes what it wants in defiance of the international community, especially on the arguable basis of self-determination with the phony plebescite? It’s always a bit dangerous to reference analogous actions from the 1930s, but this was also the way Adolf Hitler expanded German reach, with the Austrian Anschluss and the seizure of Czechoslovakia despite Western security assurances to both nations.

The situation on the Ukrainian border was already tense; Ukraine also claims to have killed around 200 rebel fighters with artillery shelling near the Donetsk airport yesterday. And that’s to say nothing of relations between Russia and the West in general. Even before the latest escalation, Dimitri Trenin sounded the alarm that these relations were in a state of permanent crisis:

In contrast to the Cold War with which the present Russian-Western confrontation is often compared, the current situation lacks agreed, if unwritten, rules, is characterized by gross asymmetry in power, and is utterly devoid of mutual respect. There is also a near-universal lack of strategic thinking. It is thus more prone than the US-Soviet conflict to lead to a collision in the style of 1914. The Cold War, after all, stayed largely cold. There is no such certainty about the present situation. Crisis management must ensure, at minimum, that there is no resumption of hostilities in eastern Ukraine. Should Kiev, with Washington’s blessing or its acquiescence, attempt to retake Donetsk and Lugansk, the Kremlin may not confine itself to restoring the status quo. It may be that the Russian military will then receive an order to go for Kiev.

The Other Ukraine Votes

Close on the heels of a parliamentary election that handed a decisive victory to pro-Europe parties, separatist rebels held elections of their own this weekend in the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk:

Election organizers declared that rebel leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky won sizable majorities in Donetsk and Luhansk respectively, reports Radio Free Europe. Both men have led rebel groups in the fight against the Ukrainian government in Kiev. But the elections have been controversial from the start, with Kiev and Western powers calling them a violation of a peace agreement drawn up in Minsk, Belarus, in early September. Under the Minsk agreement, Kiev would enact legislation that would grant Donetsk and Luhansk considerable autonomy, but under the auspices of Ukrainian law. Sunday’s elections do not comply with Ukrainian law, Kiev argues, and are therefore illegal.

Russia, predictably, endorsed the elections as legitimate today. Bershidsky notes just what a farce they were:

In Donetsk and Luhansk, people bring submachine guns to restaurants and polling stations alike. Since the rebels did not have access to electoral rolls, it was laughably easy to register as a voter. One woman apparently filled in the requisite questionnaires for a cow, putting down “Ear Tag MOO-123321, issued on 01.01.1998 by shepherd Semyon Ivanovich,” as identifying document, and received a number allowing her to cast a vote online. When the OSCE refused to observe the elections, a group calling itself the Association (or Agency, to hear its different members talk) for Security and Cooperation in Europe popped up conveniently and gave a press conference in Donetsk, praising the votes. The delegation consisted of far-right politicians from Austria, Belgium, Italy, France and several eastern European nations, as well as two Greek Stalinists.

But Linda Kinstler isn’t laughing:

The rebels, of course, claim that the elections were entirely legal under the provisions of the Minsk agreement. “It was said there [in the Minsk protocol] that we have the right to hold our own elections. The date was not specified,” Zakharchenko said on Sunday, RIA Novosti reports. It is abundantly evident that the Ukrainians had no plan for how exactly “early local elections in accordance with the Law of Ukraine” could possibly be held in rebel territory, just like it is also painfully clear that the government has no plan for how that territory will ever be re-integrated into the rest of the country.

Glenn Kates worries that the vote will embolden the separatists to escalate their conflict with Kiev:

Large swaths of separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine both blame Kyiv for the violence and hope their votes will bring stability to the region. But for the self-proclaimed separatist leadership and their backers in Moscow these two thoughts may paradoxically be a signal to continue fighting. Ukraine is unlikely to restore pension payments or energy provisions, which were cut off in the summer. Meanwhile, separatists will now have to back up the claims that they can govern without Kyiv by providing some of the resources that have been so sorely lacking. If claiming territories is seen as a way to do so and they believe any violence will be blamed on Kyiv, fighting, in a purely political sense, may not have a downside.

Sebastian Smith weighs Kiev’s options for dealing with the separatists at this point. As he sees it, the government can either choose to write off the breakaway regions and let them be Russia’s problem, or wage a costly war to restore control over them. Neither option is terribly palatable to Ukrainians:

Not many Ukrainians are ready for all-out war, says Glib Vyshlinsky, deputy director of GfK Ukraine marketing company in Kiev. “If you’re talking about fighting, with thousands of casualties being lost in order to win back these regions, then there is not support. Ukrainians are not such an imperial people as Russians and consensus will be against this,” he said. …

A GfK poll in September showed that 31 percent support a “bad peace,” including giving up some territory to Russia. Fifty four percent were for fighting on. One concrete sign that Ukraine’s government is preparing to sever at least some ties with the east is the suggestion from top ranking officials in recent days that gas supplies may be ended to rebel territories — which would turn to Russia for help. “Those announcements are trial balloons to test Russia,” said Taras Berezovets, head of Berta Communications in Kiev. “Russia doesn’t want to have to pay for Donbass.”

Ukraine Votes West, But What Next?

Fred Weir sums up the preliminary results of yesterday’s parliamentary election in Ukraine, where “the respective parties of President Petro Poroshenko and his ambitious prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, were the big winners, taking roughly 21 percent each”:

The results were a modest setback for Mr. Poroshenko, whose bloc held a commanding lead ahead of polling. He lauded the vote, noting that three-quarters of Ukrainians had endorsed Ukraine’s shift away from the Russian orbit and into Europe‘s. Preliminary results suggest that six parties cleared the 5 percent threshold to take up seats in Ukraine’s unicameral parliament. The liberal Self-Help party, based in western Ukraine and solidly pro-European, took around 11 percent. The ultra-nationalist bloc of Oleh Lyashko came in with just over 7 percent, and the party of fiery populist Yulia Tymoshenko got around 6 percent. One result that polls failed to predict was the surprising success of the east Ukraine-based Opposition Bloc, which pledged to defend the interests of east Ukrainians against Kiev‘s dictates. It received almost 10 percent of votes cast.

While this result represents a victory for pro-Western parties overall, as Weir mentions, it wasn’t the slam-dunk Poroshenko had hoped for, and it will require him to form a coalition with smaller parties and share power with Yatsenyuk, who is as much a rival to the president as he is a partner. For this and other reasons, Bershidsky cautions against getting too excited:

Yatsenyuk did better than expected and power-hungry Poroshenko did worse. That means the president suddenly has a political rival with more popular support than that of his own bloc — setting the two of them up for the kind of infighting that ruined Ukraine’s previous chance at economic and political revival 10 years ago.

Besides, Yatsenyuk, who will probably stay on as prime minister, has done nothing to demonstrate that he might have the stomach for the major spending cuts Ukraine needs, now that it faces a deficit of 10 percent to 15 percent of gross domestic product. A group of Western economists has recently called on the Kiev government to eliminate energy subsidies and shake up the pension system to reduce spending by 10 percent of GDP. After the obvious erosion of his support in the past six months, Poroshenko will be hesitant to allow this, and Yatsenyuk will be wary of jeopardizing his seemingly brilliant political prospects.

Emma Ashford isn’t quite ready to celebrate yet, either:

Until we know the final makeup of the new Rada, as well as which parties ultimately will form the coalition government, it’s difficult to assess how the results will impact the ongoing crisis. Many citizens in Crimea and the Donbas were indeed unable to vote, disenfranchising as much as 19% of the population. The overwhelmingly pro-Western nature of the parties elected may be a double-edged sword: it will be popular with Western politicians, but it is in part a reflection of the disenfranchisement of Eastern Ukraine, and will not be truly representative. Despite this, Russian leaders appear to have accepted the results, signaling, hopefully, a willingness to work with Kiev in the future. Whether any government will be able to tackle Ukraine’s myriad problems is unclear.

“Given these results,” Linda Kinstler predicts, “it will be difficult, but by no means impossible, for Poroshenko to begin to enact the reforms the Ukrainian people have been demanding for so long”:

A cadre of young activists, including former journalists Mustafa Nayyem, Sergey Leshchenko, and Svitlana Zalishchuk, are part of a new generation of politicians likely to secure seats in parliament; they helped drive the Maidan Revolution, and now they hope to carry out its aims, including changing the parliamentary system and eliminating diplomatic immunity. They have already encountered the corruption and shadiness endemic to Ukrainian politics, and have the stubbornness necessary to change it. Maybe they actually will: Sadovyi has already said that in exchange for joining Poroshenko’s coalition and giving the president the majority he badly needs, Samopomich will demand that Poroshenko awards ministerial posts to “the best industry experts” instead of to his “friends, acquaintances, and colleagues.”

Steven Pifer looks to the tasks ahead for the new Rada:

Once the coalition, prime minister and new cabinet are in place, they need to work with Mr. Poroshenko to tackle a daunting agenda of needed political and economic reforms, anti-corruption measures, overhaul of the judicial system and urgent changes to the energy sector. The distraction of the conflict in eastern Ukraine has absorbed most of Kyiv’s attention the past six months. Mr. Poroshenko also said that Ukraine needed a new parliament before it could undertake serious reforms. The president now has his new Rada. It is time to move. Urgent reforms are needed in the economic and energy sectors if Ukraine is to avoid becoming—some would say remaining—an economic basket case.

Previous coverage here.

Will Ukraine Vote West?

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko is looking forward to a handy victory in Sunday’s elections, despite security concerns and the fact that most residents of separatist-held areas in the east will not be voting:

Poroshenko is seeking a mandate to press ahead with a plan for ending the conflict with separatists in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern regions and establishing an understanding with Moscow while pursuing a course of European integration. Interfax news agency quoted him as saying on Thursday that he expected to be able to begin forming a new coalition by early next week that would be “pro-European, anti-corruption, without liars and populists.”

Stephen Sestanovich also predicts that mainstream, pro-Europe parties allied with Poroshenko will take a plurality or even a majority of seats, while the Communists and right-wing nationalist parties will be marginalized:

Recent polls show President Petro Poroshenko’s bloc likely to get 30% or so of the vote for party lists. (Half of the new Rada, or parliament, will be elected proportionally; the rest will be chosen in single-member districts.) Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front may get around 11%, and it’s possible that together he and President Poroshenko will command a majority of seats.

On both the left and right, parties hoping to collect protest votes are being disappointed.

This could be the first election anywhere in the former Soviet Union in which the Communist Party falls below the 5% minimum required to win a bloc of seats. Russian spokesmen have spent months screaming about the “fascist” nature of two Ukrainian parties, Freedom and Right Sector, that were prominent in last winter’s big demonstrations in Kiev. Both of these seem likely to get less than 5% too.

Robert Coalson expects the vote to “shatter the old paradigm of a country hopelessly divided between a pro-European west and a Russia-leaning east”:

It is not that the elections will produce a dominant party, but they will produce a solid bloc in favor of European integration and wary of Moscow’s intentions. And Moscow’s old appeals for ethnic solidarity with Ukraine’s Russophone population are increasingly ringing hollow. “The issue of language and identity has been used and misused and abused in Ukraine for many, many years,” says Natalya Churikova, senior editor of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. “Ukrainians are much more united in issues of security — and I think the security issue is No. 1 now.”

But Balázs Jarábik has a less sanguine take on the likely outcome:

The mixed electoral system – half of MPs will be elected from single-member district and half from party lists – and the fact that one major party (the Poroshenko bloc) is likely to control the new Rada means that the parliament will be more split than ever, as party blocs will be able to assert less “centralised” will.

It is becoming clear that radicals will hold a significant number of seats in the new Rada. Polls suggest six other parties may enter, including the Radical party, which is composed of celebrities, fighters, singers, civic activists, sportsmen, and lesser-known businessmen. Like [Oleh] Lyashko’s [Radical] party, Batkyvshchyna is highly populist and pro-war: captured Ukrainian female pilot Nadia Savchenko is number one on Batkivshchyna’s candidate list. Her sister is running, too, emphasising the lengths to which Tymoshenko will go to drum up popular support. The right wing Svoboda will also likely to get in as turnout in western Ukraine, where the party’s support is mainly based, is expected to be higher than elsewhere in the country.

And Lucian Kim stresses the risks of holding a vote in the midst of a civil conflict that remains unresolved:

While the elections should help Poroshenko’s ability to push his pro-Western agenda, they will also solidify the division between the regions under Kiev’s control and those now under Moscow’s. The elections won’t take place in Crimea, which Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed in March, as well as large parts of rebel-held areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The separatists have called their own elections for Nov. 2 to lend a whiff of legitimacy to their shadowy, self-proclaimed leaders.

The cease-fire hammered out between Poroshenko and Putin in early September exists in name only, as the rebels try to wrest strategic Ukrainian holdouts, such as the Donetsk Airport, before a more lasting peace takes hold. Civilians continue to get killed in the crossfire. Paradoxically, the more the cease-fire line is respected by the combatants and monitored by international observers, the greater the risk it will become the de facto border of a frozen conflict.

Ukraine Is Still A Mess

Adam Chandler highlights a UN report revealing that at least 331 people have been killed in the Ukrainian conflict since the signing of a ceasefire on September 5:

“There is a total breakdown of law and order,” said Gianni Magazzeni, the United Nations human rights official who announced the release of the report in Geneva. Over the past month, grim developments have included the shelling of schools and city buses, the gutting of villages, the fierce battles for control of Donetsk’s Sergei Prokofiev Airport, and startling lists of locals who are believed to either be missing or held captive by pro-Russian rebels. An early October report estimated that nearly 400,000 Ukrainians are internally displaced, part of a seven-figure estimate for the total number of Ukrainians who have been displaced.

While the latest violence has largely been limited to the exchange of small-arms fire—a shift from this summer’s large-scale military offensives, which drove up death tolls and ultimately forced the warring sides to negotiate—there’s been little letup in fighting over the past month.

With a battle raging between Ukrainian and rebel forces over the Donetsk airport, the ceasefire appears to be going off the rails entirely, threatening to take the upcoming parliamentary elections with it:

As the shaky cease-fire has failed to quell the most intensive fighting in and around Donetsk, government officials fear the separatists are regrouping for a fresh offensive to take Mariupol and the rest of the seaside corridor that would connect mainland Russia with the Crimean peninsula that the Kremlin seized and annexed seven months ago.

Ukraine has scheduled parliamentary elections for Oct. 26, and the Moscow-backed separatists are suspected of aiming to control enough Ukrainian territory by then to prevent voting in the areas they hold in order to undermine the legitimacy of the election. Although hundreds of thousands of eastern Ukraine residents have fled the fighting, the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk regions were home to 8.5 million before the conflict, representing about 18% of the country’s population.

The Interpreter underscores a series of unsettling surveys showing that 70 percent of Ukrainians believe they are at war with Russia, while nearly 50 percent want the country to become a nuclear power again. At the same time, western Ukrainians are getting tired of supporting the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the fighting:

Attitudes toward IDPs in Ukraine appear to have shifted since the onset of the conflict pitting government forces against pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east. As displaced families continue to stream westward, the initial outpouring of solidarity — which once saw residents extend free accommodation to IDPs — is slowly giving way to impatience and distrust. “You can often see ads that say ‘Flat for rent, people from Donetsk, Luhansk, and Africa please abstain,'” says Ivan Kudoyar, a real estate lawyer in Kyiv.

Things like this aren’t just happening in Kyiv. Anastasia, a young woman who fled Donetsk two weeks ago, says she’s losing hope of finding a flat to rent in the western city of Lviv. “The main obstacle I’ve encountered during my search is my Donetsk registration,” she says. “I meet with the landlord, we agree on the rent, then he looks into my passport and says ‘Sorry, this is a matter of principle.”

Whither Now, Ukraine?

Michael Weiss’s overview of the situation in Ukraine today touches on several salient topics—corruption, nationalism, the economy, Russia—and is worth a full read. Here, he addresses the law the Ukrainian parliament passed this week granting a measure of autonomy to the country’s eastern regions:

There are already signs that Ukraine and Russia will interpret it differently. The Russian Foreign Ministry, for instance, said in a statement that the law grants the “development in certain regional districts of cross-border cooperation designed to deepen good-neighborly relations with the Russian Federation’s administrative and territorial units,” which is a pretty way of describing a breakaway autonomous zone removed in all but name from the central authority in Kiev. … For their part, the Ukrainians who elected Poroshenko largely on his campaign promise to ensure the territorial integrity of their country fear that this deal is another kind of sellout: the de facto ceding of the Donbass to Russia, or the perpetuation of an occupation in all but name. This is why protests objecting to the special status law have recently erupted outside the Rada.

“The mood at the ministry, specifically with the new foreign minister and his team, is to get it over with,” a Ukrainian diplomat told me, referring to a then-nascent cease-fire agreement. “There is one fear that we will have a new Transnistria. The other is that [the war] goes on indefinitely. The first is more awful.”

Alexander Motyl, however, argues that a frozen conflict “will actually be to Ukraine’s benefit”:

The [Donbas] enclave, which is where much of the region’s population and industry were concentrated, is in ruins. Hundreds of thousands of middle-class professionals have fled and will not return. Industry is shrinking. Infrastructure has collapsed. All these negative tendencies will accelerate, as Putin’s terrorist proxies, remnants of the (formerly ruling) Party of Regions and the Communist Party, the Kremlin, the Donbas oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, and the Russian Orthodox Church duke it out over influence. In a word, the Donbas enclave is finished, and, as deindustrialization continues, depopulation will proceed apace. Whoever inherits the mess caused by Putin and his proxies will have a ball and chain on his leg. Fortunately for Ukraine, it doesn’t—and in all likelihood will not anytime soon—control the enclave. Rightly or wrongly, justly or unjustly, legally or illegally, the burden of control, and the burden of governance, will fall on Putin. Bully for him. The day is not far off when the economic disaster that is the Crimea and the Donbas will burden Putin, and he will be hard-pressed to claim that his imperialism has served Russia well.

Chrystia Freedland warns against complacency now that the conflict has been, as it were, settled. After all, she writes, we still don’t know what Putin’s endgame is:

[W]e need to be careful not to confuse what we want with what we have. If Poroshenko’s wager pays out, we will be tempted to forget about Ukraine, as we forgot about Georgia after the hot summer of 2008. That would be a mistake. Putin won’t forget. And even if this compromise holds, his actions have shattered the European security order. With the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine, Putin has unilaterally declared himself to be above the rules of the post-1991 international system. He hasn’t yet told us what new rules he considers himself bound by. The post-Soviet peace is over: Whatever happens next week, next month or next year in the Donbass—the densely populated area of eastern Ukraine that Putin is seeking to dominate—this fundamental question will remain open.

Adrian Karatnycky argues that Mitt Romney was right in the 2012 presidential debate when he called Russia our greatest geopolitical threat:

A Russian occupation of large parts of Ukraine would clearly threaten the stability and security of our NATO allies on Ukraine’s western border. Further, Ukraine is home to three gigantic nuclear power plant complexes, which could become dangerous battlegrounds with unpredictable consequences for nuclear safety. War could disrupt or destroy Ukraine’s energy pipeline network, which is the central mechanism through which more than half of Russia’s exports of gas and oil to Europe travels. Successful Russian expansion into Ukraine would increase the chances of further adventurism in energy-rich Kazakhstan, where an elderly President will soon physically fade from power. And Russia would be emboldened to exert even stronger influence over the policies of energy-rich Turkmenistan. Would these developments not be as significant in impact as the fate of Saudi, Iraqi, and Qatari oil and gas reserves?

And what of recent, aggressive Russian canards about the alleged mistreatment of ethnic Russians in the Baltic NATO states? Would an aggressive and expansionist Russia not be more be willing to launch new efforts to threaten those states, engaging our Article 5 NATO treaty obligations to directly enter into military operations?

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko certainly encouraged that kind of thinking in his address to the US Congress this morning:

To roaring applause and whooping cheers, the Ukrainian candy mogul-turned politician likened Ukraine’s struggle against Moscow to a global battle for the preservation of the post-World War II international order. “Democracies must support each other,” he said. “Otherwise they will be eliminated, one by one.” … Poroshenko, clearly afraid that the Russian aid has already decisively turned the tide, implored politicians to stand up to Russia.

“Blankets and night-vision goggles are important. But one cannot win a war with blankets!” Poroshenko said, raising his voice for emphasis. “I understand that American citizens and taxpayers want peace, not war … However, there are moments in history, whose importance cannot be measured solely in percentages of GDP growth.”