Ukraine’s Fragile Ceasefire By Andrew Wilson

In the lead up to the October elections in Ukraine our author and Ukraine-expert, Andrew Wilson, will give us all we need to understand about the upcoming election with four informative posts. The first one examines the ceasefire taking place in Ukraine at the moment.

Ukraine’s Fragile Ceasefire By Andrew Wilson

Welcome to the first of four blogs in the run-up to the Ukrainian elections on 26 October. The vote comes in the middle of a precarious cease-fire, with nothing less than the size, shape, strength and viability of the Ukrainian state itself at stake. Optimists hope that the elections will reboot the political system; and the long-delayed reforms to Ukraine’s dysfunctional post-Soviet society and economy that demonstrators were demanding and dying for in February will finally begin. Pessimists assume that that such hope has already been lost under the pressure of Russian intervention and a collapsing economy.

Future blogs will look at the participants, poll predictions and prospects for change after the elections. But the most pressing issue is whether the cease-fire agreed on 5 September can hold. My new book Ukraine Crisis: What the West Needs to Know also covers the period up to 5 September. So it is good to start with an update.

There is still a lot of actual fighting on the ground. In the first month of ‘cease-fire’, 93 Ukrainian servicemen and women were killed, with casualties on almost every day. Information on Russian casualties is not so readily available. On 3 October President Poroshenko said there were ‘400’ unidentified bodies, presumed to be Russians and separatists.

One reason for the continued fighting is that, unlike Crimea, where Russia had proper puppets to control, there are so many disparate forces on the ground in the Donbas, with divergent aims. One Ukrainian source counted divisions between the various local militias, between ‘politicals’ and fighters’, various brands of idealists, the ‘betrayed’ (former Yanukovych elites), ‘parachutists’ (from Russia) and the plain ‘crazies’. The locals have ignored the Ukrainian law on a ‘Special Procedure of Local Self-Administration’ for the Donbas passed on 16 September, which was supposed to complement the cease-fire. In particular, they are pushing ahead with holding their own unilateral ‘elections’ on 2 November.

More fundamentally, however, the amoeba-like strip of land controlled by the two Donbas ‘Republics’ makes no long-term historical, economic or strategic sense; which is a more fundamental reason for worrying that the fighting will flare up again sooner or later. The Russian counter-offensive in August and early September clearly had economic as well as military objectives, and was designed to increase the viability of any new separatist entity. It has not done so yet. A broader swathe of the border is now open, transport links were targeted – Ilovaisk, the site of some of the bloodiest fighting, is a major railway junction back east. Fighting continues over Donetsk airport, which could both supply the ‘Republics’ and act as a forward base for future Russian attacks.

But the port of Mariupol is the traditional economic key to the region. Its railways and port bring in the supplies and imports that processing industry in Donetsk and Luhansk relies on, especially chemicals and metallic ores, and then export the end-products. The local Azovmash factory keeps the mines and metallurgical companies further north supplied with equipment.

At the moment, Mariupol is under Ukrainian rule but is cut off from its traditional trading partners further north. This is a major headache for Rinat Akhmetov and his Metinvest holding company, which is the main shareholder of Mariupol’s two massive metals plants, Azovstal and Ilyich, and of several factories in the areas under rebel control. The other mines and factories in the rebel areas are no longer under siege, but are also cut off from many of their traditional supply routes. They could go east to Rostov, or they could go for broke by pushing for more conquests. Any operation around Mariupol could easily lead to ‘mission creep’; namely the temptation to open a land corridor to Crimea, especially as there is not much immediately west of Mariupol.

Ukraine also has temptations. Coincidentally or not, the mainly nationalist volunteer battalions were hit hardest during the climax of the fighting in late August and early September, with at least 300 dead during the rout at Ilovaisk. Their leaders have accused the government and regular army of, at best, neglect, and, at worst, of wanting them out of the way; and have threatened to start a ‘new Maidan’ in Kiev or new war in the east.

On the other hand, Kiev may be tempted to bank the gains it made before the recent reversals. There are maps circulating in Kiev which envisage dividing up the Donbas. The loyal parts would be added to neighbouring oblasts: the agricultural north of Luhansk to Kharkiv, and the western parts of Donetsk to Dnipropetrovsk. Most of the large local shale gas field is in these regions, north by northwest from Donetsk and back towards Kharkiv, though some is in rebel hands. The southern areas around Mariupol on the Sea of Azov could be detached to form a new oblast called ‘Pryazovia’. This may be a tempting isolation option, but it is basically the opposite of what the UK did for Northern Ireland in the 1920s, which was to incorporate broader territory around a loyalist core. In this case, the most radical parts of the current micro-region (loyal to Russia) would be a law onto themselves, with no need to compromise even with the rest of the Donbas. Here is one such map from Ukrainian Week:

The politics of reconstruction will also be a nightmare. Local oligarchs have lined their pockets and funded the separatists in the past. Kiev is loath to acquiesce in the separatist entities having any administrative functions, and will want aid to be confined to areas that it controls. Both sides will accuse the other of using ‘humanitarian aid’ for military purposes.

The cease-fire does not suit all sides equally. At the moment, Russia is the more satisfied party, having made broad gains in August-September. Both sides are exhausted, for different reasons; but neither is yet spent. A possible re-start to hostilities in the spring could follow an economically difficult winter. Or it could happen earlier, if there is an excess of provocation on the ground.

– Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson’s latest book, Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for the West, will be published 14 October 2014.


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