After six months of a rolling crisis that has brought mass street protests, the fall of the Yanukovych government, the annexation of Crimea and pro-Russian rebellions in the east and south of the country, Ukraine seemed by mid-May to be poised on the brink of a far deeper disaster. With fulsome backing from the West, soldiers loyal to the interim government in Kiev were engaged in what it called an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ against pro-Russian militias in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces, where referendums were held on 11 May laying claim to virtual independence, as a first step towards secession or even union with Russia. But having encouraged pro-Russian sentiment in the east, Putin then seemed to pull back, offering only lukewarm support for the outcome of the referendums – an overwhelming but dubious Yes vote. The immediate threat of a rerun of the Crimean annexation has receded; but Russian troops are still massed near the Ukrainian border, keeping alive the possibility of a Kremlin-sponsored ‘humanitarian intervention’, in ‘defence’ of its co-ethnics. The tense situation in the east, and disturbances elsewhere – Odessa, Mariupol, Kharkiv – have stoked antagonisms of a previously unsuspected intensity, lending substance to the spectre of civil war.
For now, that catastrophe has yet to arrive. The probable outcome of the presidential elections of 25 May is a victory for Petro Poroshenko, a confectionery magnate and former cabinet minister; Western diplomats are hoping the vote will give the new government much needed legitimacy. But it is unlikely to unfold smoothly, if at all, in many parts of the east: only a few days before the vote, the national electoral commission admitted it had no access to more than half the polling stations in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces. The de facto partition of the country remains in place. It is unclear how readily it can be welded back together, and what the ultimate costs of Ukraine’s territorial integrity – or its division – will be.
How did it come to this? There are many longstanding sources of discord within Ukraine, offering plentiful fuel for fierce ideological battles when a crisis hits. But the country’s pivotal strategic position has also been a major reason for the rapid escalation of conflict over the past few months: tragically for its inhabitants, Ukraine has become the centre of an intensifying contest between Russia and the West. What do the outside powers want? For the US and Europe, the aim has all along been relatively straightforward: to wrest the country from Russia’s sphere of influence and continue the joint eastward expansion of Nato and the EU. The push for Ukrainian membership in Nato was suspended after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, and officially blocked by a 2010 law passed by the Yanukovych government; but a degree of integration with the EU remained the goal for a significant portion of the Ukrainian elite, hence the Association Agreement Yanukovych was due to sign late last year.
For Russia, the basic goal has until recently been a symmetrical pushback: to keep Ukraine out of Western security and economic structures, leaving it as at the very least a neutral state, if not an active member of a ‘Eurasian Union’ dominated by Russia. Yanukovych’s decision last November not to sign the Association Agreement was made partly under Russian pressure, but mainly because the terms were so starkly unfavourable to an economy already suffering a serious downturn. His about-face seemed to have tipped the balance Moscow’s way; but the Maidan protests that culminated in Yanukovych’s removal in February sent it lurching back in the other direction. The US moved aggressively to ‘glue together’, as its ambassador put it, a new pro-Western government under Oleksandr Turchynov and Arseniy Yatseniuk, while the EU basked smugly in the country’s enthusiastic embrace of European ‘values’ and ‘civilisation’.
The annexation of Crimea, after a hasty referendum carried out under the guns of 20,000 Russian troops, clearly served Putin’s domestic purposes, giving him a patriotic ratings boost that took his approval figures from a sluggish 45 per cent in February to 66 per cent in mid-April. But it was mainly a response to the altered balance of power in Kiev. In previous years, Moscow had sought to retain an effective veto over the political set-up in Ukraine, either by installing its preferred candidate as president, or by using a broadly pro-Russian electoral bloc as a check on central governments it didn’t like. This was one reason Putin backed the 21 February deal brokered by EU mediators between Yanukovych and the opposition: it would have given him time to put together a viable post-Yanukovych option for elections in December. The rapid unravelling of this deal – a matter of hours passed between its signing and Yanukovych’s flight – partly explains the fury behind Russian rhetoric since then: what is the point of negotiating an agreement, they might object, if the West’s allies won’t stick to it even for a day? The reality, of course, is that the deal was dead before it was signed: the police had already begun to desert their posts, unwilling to shoot their countrymen to save Yanukovych’s skin. The Maidan booed the politicians who tried to present them with a fait accompli that left the president in office, and soon the protesters had the run of the capital.
With Yanukovych ousted and his Party of Regions crumbling – 77 of its 200-odd MPs deserted before February was out – Moscow no longer had any political leverage in Kiev. At this stage, its goals correspondingly shifted: to force the US and EU to take Russian interests into account, and ideally agree on a new government for Ukraine that it found more congenial. The consistent dismissal of the Turchynov regime as an illegitimate ‘junta’ was one component of this new approach, accompanied by a relentless emphasis in the Russian state media on the neo-Nazi character of some of the Maidan’s most prominent groups, especially Right Sector and Trident. But such rhetorical denunciations had little effect, and the Kremlin soon opted for more drastic measures. The decision to peel Crimea away from a weakened Ukraine has to be seen in this context, as an aggressive bid to shake the West’s tightening grip on the country. The crudity of the strategy was itself a measure of the asymmetry of power between Russia and the West – an imbalance that has only grown as Russia’s position has weakened further. Its attempt to make the US and EU think again proved effective only in consolidating support for a government that few in Ukraine would otherwise have cared for. Though the Crimean annexation met with howls of protest from the Western powers, there can be little doubt that it objectively served their interests, accelerating Ukraine’s flight out of Russia’s orbit.
The US and EU had in effect got what they wanted – an unequivocally pro-Western government in Kiev – and saw little reason to back down. The political provisions of the EU Association Agreement were signed in late March; by mid-April, the CIA chief John Brennan was visiting the Ukrainian capital to offer Turchynov’s security officials the benefit of his advice. Moscow was now left with a decidedly second-best option: give up the central government in Ukraine as lost to the West, and push instead for a federal state that would at least allow it to maintain its sway over the east. Hence its support for the pro-Russian protests that began to spread in March, as local administration buildings came under siege and anti-Kiev ‘self-defence militias’ began to form. Many of these protests were the continuation of an ‘anti-Maidan’ movement that emerged late last year – ostensibly in defence of the Yanukovych government, but reinforced by a more powerful rejection of the Maidan’s pro-Western turn. After the Crimean referendum, the character of these protests shifted, from disputing what kind of government Ukraine should have to debating whether the eastern regions should remain part of Ukraine at all. In early April, protesters who had seized the Donetsk regional council building declared a Donetsk People’s Republic, calling for a referendum on the region’s status; similar developments took place in Lugansk later that month.
Western governments decried these movements as mere puppets of the Kremlin, lacking any genuine popular support in the region – a mirror-image of the Kremlin’s own claims about the Maidan groups being Western stooges and neo-Nazis. It certainly seems likely that the forces who have taken control of parts of Donetsk and Lugansk provinces benefited from logistical support from members of the Russian security services, who presumably wouldn’t have been involved without the Kremlin’s say-so. But to assume from this that Moscow has a total grip on events there is to overlook the complex reality on the ground, where an often bizarre mix of personnel are involved – local citizens, many with Soviet army training; nationalist ‘volunteers’ from across the former USSR; taciturn, mysteriously well-equipped Russians. It’s also not at all obvious that the interests of eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russian groups align with those of Russia itself.
This is partly reflected in the confusion over the so-called separatists’ political aims. Russian state media have tended to portray the Donetsk People’s Republic as ‘supporters of federalisation’, but from the outset, several options seemed to be in play: independence, federalisation, union with Russia. It’s hard to gauge how much support these alternatives have in the east as compared to support for the status quo, and how opinions have evolved in recent weeks. But Donetsk and Lugansk – the core of the heavily industrial Donbass region – seem to stand out among the eight predominantly Russian-speaking provinces of the south-east, both in the depth of their hostility to the Turchynov government and in the strength of pro-Russian sentiment. A poll conducted in mid-April by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (and paid for by a pro-Kiev oligarch, it should probably be noted) found that 70 per cent of respondents in Donetsk and Lugansk consider the interim president ‘illegal’, compared to 50 per cent across the south-eastern provinces, while between a fifth and a quarter in these two provinces said they supported the actions of those seizing government buildings, compared to just 12 per cent in the region as a whole. According to the same poll, 28 per cent of respondents in Donetsk and 30 per cent in Lugansk were in favour of splitting from Ukraine and joining Russia, compared to an average figure of 15 per cent across the south-east. A large majority everywhere wished to remain in Ukraine. The same poll found 38 per cent in Donetsk and 42 per cent in Lugansk in favour of federalisation, with similar numbers supporting a centralised state with greater devolution of powers to the regions. But this was before Turchynov declared the Donetsk and Lugansk protesters ‘terrorists’ and sent in the army on 15 April. Escalating tensions and a steady rise in casualties in the east may have turned many against Kiev who would not previously have sided with the ‘self-defence’ militias. The dynamic of conflict itself can make opinions shift very quickly, pulling sympathies to opposite poles.
Whatever their other consequences, the 11 May referendums won’t have helped to clarify what the democratic preferences of the inhabitants of Donetsk and Lugansk provinces actually are. According to the organisers, the results were a landslide 89 per cent Yes vote in Donetsk and 96 per cent in Lugansk, on turnouts they put at 75 per cent. But most of those inclined to vote against would have boycotted the poll as illegitimate, and there seemed to be no reliable voter lists, nor any particular desire to prevent people voting several times, so it’s not clear what relation the results bear to overall popular opinion. The whole process seems to have been much less slickly organised than in Crimea – the three million ballot papers in Donetsk were largely photocopies made by volunteers. The question itself was studiedly vague: ‘Do you support the act of independence/self-rule for the People’s Republic of Donetsk?’ The Russian word samostoyatelnost can mean ‘independence’ but also much less; it doesn’t necessarily imply a claim to full sovereignty. The organisers of the referendums, however, took the apparently thunderous Yes vote as grounds for a bid to join Russia – an aspiration rebuffed when Russia announced only that it ‘respected’ the results of the vote (as opposed to ‘recognising’ them).
For the moment the ‘People’s Republics’ of eastern Ukraine remain in limbo: neither the separatists nor forces loyal to Kiev have been able to secure effective control over the territory, with each making moves and countermoves that seem likely to expand the range of flashpoints. On 19 May, armed men seized the Donetsk railway administration building in the name of the People’s Republic, aiming to take hold of vital infrastructure beyond the few towns currently in their hands. The same day, the Ukrainian government announced that it would halt the payment of pensions to residents of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk; ostensibly this was for logistical reasons, but it’s hard not to see it as advance notice of collective monetary punishment for areas where separatist sympathies are strong and sources of income few. Meanwhile, some of the largest industrial concerns in the region set up pro-Kiev volunteer battalions to patrol the streets. Thousands of steelworkers from plants owned by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, deployed in Mariupol, Makeevka and other major towns; similar militias have been established in Dnipropetrovsk and Mykolayiv provinces, ostensibly subordinated to the Ministry of Defence in the capital, but bankrolled by the local oligarchs Kiev appointed to run the country’s regions in March. These semi-private armies, loosened from any effective central command structure – let alone formal accountability – have come to stand in for a divided and demoralised national police force. Add to this mix the volunteer detachments of nationalists, often from far-right groups, who have made their way east from Kiev and western Ukraine, and the potential for incendiary incidents or accidents is high.
The prospect of a conflagration running beyond anyone’s control may have influenced Putin’s decision to distance himself from the 11 May referendums, and spurred the more conciliatory tone taken by Russian officials since then. Moscow’s seeming U-turn has been interpreted in the West as cynical double-dealing, on the assumption that it could have stopped the referendums with a phone call, but instead allowed them to go ahead in order to keep fomenting disorder. This overstates the extent of the Russian government’s sway over events in Donetsk and Lugansk; it also underestimates the degree to which the uprisings there represent a serious strategic problem for Putin, on two fronts. One is geopolitical. By annexing Crimea, with its majority ethnic-Russian population, Putin clearly intended to stir pro-Russian sentiments elsewhere in Ukraine. In mid-April, he referred to a whole swathe of southern Ukraine as ‘New Russia’, its tsarist-era designation, saying ‘God knows’ why it was transferred to Kiev’s control during the Russian Civil War. But although it has suited Moscow to float the possibility of a territorial break-up of Ukraine, this isn’t an outcome it necessarily wants: carving up Ukraine would guarantee it a hostile pro-Western client state on its doorstep, when it’s much more in Russia’s interests to keep Ukraine fragmented and semi-sovereign within its present borders. This would, for example, allow the sizeable Russian-speaking population to inflect electoral outcomes in directions favourable to Moscow, whereas absorbing that part of the electorate into Russia would involve losing all say in Ukraine’s political set-up. Though the context – a speech to both houses of the Russian parliament triumphantly welcoming Crimea into the Russian Federation – makes it hard to credit, it’s possible that Putin was actually telling the truth on 18 March when he said: ‘We do not want a partition of Ukraine, we do not need this.’
Putin’s recent coolness towards the Donetsk and Lugansk separatists may in part be designed to dissuade them from appealing directly for a protection that he would rather not provide. Having encouraged pro-Russian movements to rise up against Kiev, however (and having set a precedent for intervening militarily to ‘protect’ fellow Russians in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008), Putin might find it hard to resist wading into a Ukrainian civil war if Turchynov’s ‘anti-terrorist operation’ turns still more bloody, or if the tangle of militias in the east collapses into anarchy. Moscow’s confrontational strategy may in the end have helped create a trap for itself. The West, meanwhile, has nothing to lose but Ukrainian lives, and is unlikely to blink first.
The second dilemma the Kremlin faces is internal. Since the Orange Revolution of 2004-5, Russian officialdom has been intensely paranoid about popular unrest on its periphery spreading to Russia itself, in a post-Cold War inversion of the fabled domino effect. Moscow’s vehement reaction to the Maidan is rooted in a rejection of all unlicensed upheavals in the post-Soviet space, and it initially backed the Donetsk and Lugansk protesters as trusty counter-revolutionary forces. But it neglected the possibility that they too might take a populist turn, amid the corrosion of the Ukrainian oligarchic system that Yanukovych’s fall had laid bare. Those who seized the regional administration building in Donetsk did so in large part out of frustration with their elected officials’ inertia in the midst of crisis: the Party of Regions seems to be caught between ideological loyalty to Russia and attachment to its parliamentary seats in Kiev. Freed of the electoral imperative to support the president against the Ukrainian nationalists, the protesters in the east soon turned against the increasingly discredited Party of Regions as representative of a system that had fleeced them no less than it had their compatriots to the west. One result of this is that the party’s candidate in the presidential elections, Mykhailo Dobkin, was reportedly polling a measly 11 per cent in what used to be its eastern stronghold.
One of the most striking features of the pro-Russian movements in eastern Ukraine, in fact, has been the institutional vacuum in which they have operated. In the absence of recognisable political parties that might channel their demands – but also defang them – the rough-and-ready methods of popular assemblies have taken hold; hence, too, the improvised character of the 11 May referendums. Whatever their level of support in Ukraine, these movements, combining nationalist appeals to Russian ethnicity and tradition with rebellious impulses to self-organisation, set an example Putin has no more desire to see emulated in Russia than he did the Maidan. This is another reason why he sought to distance himself from the referendums, and why he might prefer to see Turchynov crush the ‘people’s militias’ than see them succeed: they are not the natural allies but the enemies of an oligarchic order whose local representatives are billionaire industrialists like Akhmetov and Serhiy Taruta, appointed governor of Donetsk by Kiev in early March, and whose Russian champion is Putin himself. It seems significant that, according to the mid-April poll by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, close to 40 per cent of respondents in Donetsk and a quarter of those in Lugansk favoured nationalisation of all property belonging to the country’s oligarchs. It’s striking, too, that while many other Ukrainian oligarchs sided with the new government in Kiev early on, Akhmetov, with business interests in Russia and export markets in the West, hedged his bets until mid-May, when he suddenly came out firmly against the separatists as ‘terrorists’ and ‘marauders’ and encouraged his employees to sign up for volunteer patrols. Looking at the barricades in Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and Donetsk, past the flags and symbols to the people manning them, he may quietly have made the same calculation as Putin, and realised which side he was ultimately on.
Russian nationalists have taken to calling the Donetsk and Lugansk revolts a ‘Russian Spring’. The analogy with the Arab uprisings is misplaced – the revolts have happened outside Russia and the regime equivalent to Mubarak’s or Ben Ali’s is still in power. But if what befell them were to be repeated in Moscow, Putin’s very success in monopolising the political system and stifling dissent would mean that he left behind him an institutional landscape as empty as that in eastern Ukraine. In that sense, the streets of Donetsk offer one vision of what a ‘Russia without Putin’ might look like. Perhaps the fear of falling into this abyss, felt by oligarchs on all sides, will be enough to stop Ukraine from going over the edge. But this close to the brink, not everyone can be relied on to keep their balance.