Commemorations of the first anniversary of Euromaidan and the fall of the Yanukovych presidency have been taking place in Ukraine. Conversely, the Russian government and media have indulged in denunciations of the same, including a march through Moscow on February 21 (https://meduza.io/feature/2015/02/21/rasserzhennye-patrioty). It is worthwhile to reflect on the current status of the country and offer an analysis of the conflict, which has taken thousands of lives among both military and the civilian population.
Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, declared on February 23 that Minsk-2 had become a legal document, and that if put into practice, one could envisage stability in Eastern Ukraine. He also believes that war between Russia and Ukraine is “unlikely” and continues to maintain that the Russian army has not taken part in the Donbas conflict (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31596634). It was his first public statement since the agreement reached in Minsk some ten days ago, which was followed by the rebels’ capture of Debaltseve.
Likely both sides need a respite at this point. It is a good option for Russia as well as Ukraine. Russia needs to keep communication lines open to Germany, its most important ally in Europe and cannot simply ride roughshod over this agreement. Though it has options elsewhere, its European links remain valuable and are a critical connection to its former republics and satellite states as well as prime purchasers of Russian oil and gas. Putin has never made a secret of his plans for influence over the ‘Near Abroad’ or the fact that he considers Ukraine part of Russia’s past, present, and future.
His comments today appear a fairly accurate reflection of where he stands. Putin postures and derides the government in Kyiv. He is especially dismissive of Euromaidan and the changes that resulted from it and his main goal is to facilitate the fall of the new government of Ukraine or ensure that it is so weak as to be incapable of taking any decisive actions. Both goals do not include a full-scale military invasion, which Russia can neither afford nor accomplish without major losses.
The rebels are in a weaker position than in the summer of 2014 when they held nost of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, but stronger than at any time since that time. They have gained control over the two major cities, and defeated Ukrainian forces with the aid of Russian arms and so-called volunteers in two major battles at Donetsk airport and Debaltseve. The latter one gives them control over an important rail link connecting the two towns. It also provides them with a firmer base for future expansion when the possibility arises.
But the rebel governments are dependent on outside help for basic necessities—in no sense do they constitute stable regimes that could prepare, for example for statehood, or even full autonomy. The area they control is a devastated warzone, a situation they as well as the Ukrainian government have brought about, from which it will take years to recover. Neither the DNR nor the LNR has taken the shape of a full-fledged government or indicated any desire to rule rather than fight.
Nevertheless, the rebel leaders, Aleksandr Zaharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, have achieved at least partial recognition from Ukraine through Minsk 1 and Minsk 2 and signed both agreements. They have received a promise of special status for their territories that will require Kyiv to amend the Ukrainian constitution and ratify it through Parliament. Therefore they can claim a modicum of success. They have come a long way from the time when Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko announced his refusal to deal with terrorist leaders and initiated the Anti-Terrorist Operation.
By contrast, Poroshenko’s position has weakened since his election last June and he is being forced to make unpopular adjustments that seem to contravene the spirit of Euromaidan. And Putin is right in one respect, Ukraine does need to focus on the economy and corruption. Though it has Western support generally, especially from North America, thus far (the IMF loan aside) such aid is largely confined to rhetoric rather than the requested commitment of lethal weapons. At the time Minsk-2 was signed, the United States did seem close such a move, but the question is shelved for as long as the amended peace agreement endures.
The performance of the Ukrainian army is a source of concern not only to the more moderate elements but also to some leaders of the more radical volunteer formations, which believe the the country was deceived about the situation in Debaltseve, and that the High Command is in need of overhaul (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ukrainian/politics/2015/02/150220_genshtab_criric_criticism_vs). One can anticipate more demands in the future to strengthen the army and change its leadership. Talk of another Euromaidan is not entirely idle; it could take place without much warning.
The question for Poroshenko as well as for Prime Minister Arsenyi Yatsenyuk is one of timing. Which should be the first priorities: the return of lost territories, reviving the economy, or dealing with corruption? And how can an overhaul of the leadership of the army take place without addressing first the latter two issues? The first in any case is not on the table unless there is a significant strengthening and arming of the military, thus again a breathing space is vital.
Another question is what exactly is happening in the eastern regions? The Ukrainian leadership has constantly spoken of terrorism but not of civil war. It asserts that Russia has invaded Ukraine, but the reality is that Russia has intervened in support of the two rebel republics, the troops of which have become more professional, ruthless, and brutal with the aid of hardened regular Russian units and some advanced Russian weapons. But even if one takes the much bandied figure of 9,000 Russian soldiers in Ukraine (http://il24.ru/ussr/328-poroshenko-2000-rossiyskih-soldat-voshli-v-ukrainu.html), that figure does not represent an invasion force. Putin’s role is critical but the rebel armies have gained in status over the past six months.
Putin has achieved his current goal–to weaken and divide Ukraine, ensure it doesn’t join EU structures, and to ensure above all there is no chance of it joining NATO. The anti-Euromaidan forces have benefited from a number of factors other than Russian aid, however: divisions within the EU, more manifest now than a year ago; the EU’s lack of any kind of military power outside NATO; and Ukraine’s weakness as a military power, facilitated ironically by treaties signed after the end of the Soviet Union and guaranteed by the major powers, including Russia but also because of longstanding deficiencies in the higher officer caste.
While the OSCE is the body monitoring the ceasefire and its provisions—to the extent that this is possible—it is the UN that is critical. The UN remains the only organization recognized worldwide as a legal voice in resolving international conflicts, and Russia, like the United States, has always been a permanent member of its Security Council. Only once did Russia relinquish that right, when its delegates walked out in protest at the lack of recognition of Communist China and were powerless to prevent the decision to go to war against North Korea in 1950. It is unlikely to make that mistake again. The UN is in this respect an important tool and ally for Russia.
For the Ukrainian government the consolation is that its statehood has been consolidated by the events of the past year. As Yaroslav Hrytsak remarked, the consensus on and faith in an independent Ukraine has moved further to the east (https://ukr.media/politics/225671/), rendering the Donbas the last, and possibly only irreconcilable, outpost of separatism. Without doubt it has been mistreated, neglected, and ultimately attacked by the Ukrainian government that purports to control it. Just as many Ukrainians now believe that Russia is a hostile state, similarly many of those who remain in the Donbas have lost hope of sympathy and aid from Kyiv.
And while the rest of Ukraine remains firmly in the government camp, loyal residents will demand improvements of living standards, working conditions, and the reduction of corruption in all walks of life. Euromaidan removed a corrupt regime and attained a ‘revolution of dignity’, but it has engendered new dilemmas and a dangerous and crippling war that constitute much greater problems than faced hitherto in its 24th year of existence.