Time is Running Out to Keep Ukraine Together

May 31, 2014
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

As predicted, western governments lost no time in proclaiming billionaire Petro Poroshenko’s first-round election win as cementing his “legitimacy” as president of all of Ukraine. Buoyed with what was touted as a national “mandate,” the president-elect of some Ukrainians stated his determination to move forward on what already appears to be a contradictory and unobtainable set of priorities.

Poroshenko’s pre-election promises that he would be ready to negotiate with Ukraine’s east and south to stabilize the country under a decentralized structure appear to be rapidly abandoned after the vote. No step has been taken to broaden “roundtable” discussion by the interim Kiev administration by including representatives of the autonomous republics declared in Donetsk and Lugansk, while Poroshenko’s earlier conciliatory line has been replaced with condemnation of “terrorists,” “bandits,” and “pirates.” Indeed, he endorsed the offensive still being waged against the east by the interim administration, and called for it to be successfully concluded not in months but in hours.

While Poroshenko doesn’t take office until June 7, military actions in the east are consistent with his militant words. On Monday, May 26, the day after the presidential vote, forces controlled by Kiev used fighter jets and helicopter gunships to kill dozens of pro-autonomy fighters at Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport. Shelling has taken place in civilian areas of Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, and other towns with an unknown number of casualties. (Western governments that had threatened ousted president Viktor Yanukovych with sanctions for sending in riot police against armed and violent demonstrators on the streets of Kiev have raised no concerns about the use of air power and artillery in eastern Ukraine.)

The local Donetsk militia struck back fast and hard. On Thursday, May 29, militia used a portable air defense missile – presumably supplied by Russia – to shoot down a Mi-8 helicopter on the outskirts of Slavyansk. More than a dozen pro-Kiev servicemen were killed, including Serhiy Kulchytskiy, in charge of training the National Guard – a new force recruited largely from Praviy Sektor and other radical nationalist groups in light of Kiev’s inability to rely on the country’s regular armed forces in suppressing their eastern countrymen. (An interesting detail: pro-Kiev media report that six of those killed – almost half of the total number on the helicopter – were from Ivano-Frankivsk. This strongly suggests they were National Guard, not regular military. It also raises the question of whether they might have been members of Praviy Sektor or a similar group being integrated into the National Guard and sent out to subdue the easterners.)

“These criminal acts of the enemies of the Ukrainian people will not go unpunished,” Poroshenko was quoted as saying after the downing of the helicopter. “We are Russians, and we will take revenge for everything the Ukrainians have done to us. We will be here until the very end,” said “Chrome,” a 29-year-old native of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, referring to the deaths of his comrades at the airport.

Funerals and vows of revenge on both sides – we have seen this before. In Yugoslavia. In Syria. This is how civil wars start, and once started prove very difficult to stop as more and more people on both sides are pulled into the vortex of violence and vengeance.

Perhaps there is still time and opportunity to pull back from the brink and to put Ukraine back together. But some believe it already has gone too far, and that a “point of no return” has been reached:

Many here see no way for Ukraine to remain united. Only seven of 22 voting districts in the Donetsk region were active for Sunday’s polling, according to Ukraine’s central election commission.

“The point of no return has been crossed. We can’t live with them any longer,” said Pavel Petruk, a 56-year-old pensioner with a graying horseshoe mustache who stood by a statue of Lenin outside a polling site in Dobropolye but did not vote. “The only peaceful solution is for Ukraine to get out of the Donbas.”

The Donbas, which includes Donetsk and the neighboring Luhansk region, is a landscape by turns bucolic and distressed. Along the same roads, cows graze by riverbanks and chimneys spit black smoke from decaying factories. Since the revolution in Kiev drove President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February, the Donbas has also become a patchwork of conflicted loyalties.

“Many people are against the Kiev government, and they provoked that reaction against themselves with their actions, their laws and their military operations,” said Vladimir, a senior officer from the Ukrainian Interior Ministry who watched over a polling site in Krasnoarmeysk, one of the few eastern cities where voting occurred. He explained that a sense of duty kept him at his post, not allegiance to the country’s current leaders.

“If we don’t find a common language now, there will be a long partisan war,” he added.

It can only be guessed how much farther down this road Ukraine will have traveled by the time Poroshenko formally takes office. If he wants to keep the country together, there may be still be time to “find a common language” with the east. But if he hopes to do so, the violent offensive must stop immediately and real negotiations must begin.