When Ukraine's parliament, the Rada, overwhelmingly passed a bill 10 days ago that fundamentally redefines the country’s war against pro-Russian separatists in the restive East, it promised a much harder line out of Kiev regarding the conflict.
That drew immediate rebuke from Russia. Moscow cast the bill, which Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko supports and is expected to sign soon, as a declaration of war, noting that its passage coincides with a US decision to provide Kiev with lethal weapons.
But Ukrainian experts say the motives for the bill are rooted much closer to home: the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections, which must be held this year, and Ukrainian presidential polls slated for March 2019. Public opinion surveys suggest Mr. Poroshenko’s popularity is around 10 percent, on a par with his rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been holding a more militantly anti-Russian line. With the new bill, Poroshenko can leapfrog Ms. Tymoshenko in the polls by posing as a “war president” who refuses to compromise with the enemy.
But the cost, critics say, is that the bill completely sidelines the European and Russian-backed Minsk Agreements as a path to peace in the troubled region. By recasting the conflict, they say, Ukraine is apparently jettisoning outside mediation through the Minsk accords, which risks alienating already exasperated Europeans and closing off the only currently existent mechanism for peacefully ending the unrest in the East.
“Poroshenko's powers as chief commander are bolstered under the law, and all security forces are now to be subordinated directly to him,” says Vadim Karasyov, director of the Kiev-based Institute of Global Strategies, an independent think tank. “The top-down power vertical has been strengthened, and a clear political and diplomatic message has been sent: there is no conflict between Kiev and [the rebel region of] Donetsk, but there is one between Kiev and Moscow, even if there is no hope of resolving it.”
A plan for reintegration?
For almost four years, Ukrainian forces have made war against pro-Russian forces under the awkward rubric of an “anti-terrorist operation.” The new law would abolish any suggestion that the enemy might be anti-Kiev Ukrainians, and labels the rebel republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as “temporarily occupied territories” for which Russia is entirely responsible.
The Minsk accords outlined a detailed procedure through which Donetsk and Luhansk would receive “special status,” hold internationally-recognized elections, and then negotiate their reintegration into Ukraine directly with Kiev, including basic constitutional reforms to federalize the country. No substantive steps have ever been undertaken by either side to implement these terms, and the new “Donbass Integration Law” now makes clear that Kiev expects the country to be re-united on its terms alone, though probably not anytime soon.
Ukrainian lawmakers, who overwhelmingly passed the bill on Jan. 19, argue that it simply normalizes a situation that has long existed but was clouded by misleading jargon and official fealty to the non-functioning Minsk accords. For his part, Poroshenko denies that the bill contradicts the Minsk process at all.
“The way things have been done in the past now has a clear legal basis,” says pro-Poroshenko Rada deputy Olexander Chernenko. “It's a plan for reintegration, even if it can’t be done right now. The aggressor is finally named, and it is Russia.”
Though fighting has indeed intensified in one of the world’s most forgotten combat zones in recent days, few expect the spring to bring a return to the all-out warfare that has killed over 10,000 people in the past four years. Instead, Kiev’s apparent repudiation of the Minsk-mandated road to reintegration has many convinced that the bruising low-level trench warfare of the past years will just drag on, freezing the conflict indefinitely.
Kiev cut off pensions and other state payments to the rebel republics’ 3 million inhabitants years ago, and last year effectively ended all trade with the region. The bill states that Russia is entirely responsible for the population’s welfare and any reconstruction of the war-ravaged territories.
“It's pretty clear that they are not open to any kind of compromises in Kiev,” says Kirill Cherkashin, a political scientist with Donetsk National University, in the rebel republic. “They are not interested in the opinions of the people living here, nor in following the Minsk agreements. So, people here look forward to the situation deteriorating, with no improvement in sight.”
'No war, no peace'
For Russia, and its European partners in the Minsk process, the challenge will be to resuscitate the Minsk process, or find some new means of addressing the conflict. For Moscow, it will be much harder now that Kiev has officially named it as the enemy, while under the terms of Minsk it was treated as an outside power seeking to mediate.
“Everyone had agreed to follow the Minsk accords, including Kiev, Moscow, Western partners, and the uncontrolled territories in Donbass,” says Mykola Skorik, a Rada deputy with the minority Opposition Bloc, which voted against the bill. “This law contributes nothing to any conceivable peace process, but it creates huge obstacles for Minsk, as well as the US-Russia dialogue that has been going on. We didn’t need this law.”
Ukraine’s army has been transformed in the past four years from a rag-tag, underfunded post-Soviet rabble into one of Europe's strongest fighting forces. It had been receiving substantial NATO training and assistance even before the US decision to supply advanced weaponry.
But the Donbass rebels also reportedly have about 40,000 combat-hardened men under arms who, despite official denials, receive considerable support from Russia. Any attempt by Kiev to overrun the separatist regions would likely see the insertion of regular Russian forces to block it, as happened at least twice before – in the crucial fighting around Donetsk in the summer of 2014 and the battle of Debaltseve in early 2015 – leading to the defeat of Ukrainian forces.
“If Kiev attacks, Moscow would match the threat to whatever level that seemed necessary,” says Andrey Kortunov, director of Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank connected with the Russian Foreign Ministry. “Poroshenko prefers things as they are. No war, no peace. That allows him to capitalize on his role as a tough wartime leader, and defer any new peace initiatives until after the elections, if ever.”