Welcome to the first of four posts 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. While optimists are hoping 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 are assuming that such hope has already been lost under the pressure of Russian intervention and an economy under threat of collapse.
Future posts 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—and it's always good to start with an update.
There is still a lot of actual fighting on the ground; just in the first month of ‘cease-fire’, 93 Ukrainian servicemen and women were killed, with casualties occuring almost every day. And while information on Russian casualties is not as readily available, on 3 October President Poroshenko stated that 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, all with divergent aims. In fact, one Ukrainian source counted the divisions between the various local militias, which included ‘politicals’ and 'fighters’, various brands of idealists, the ‘betrayed’ (former Yanukovych elites), ‘parachutists’ (from Russia), and the plain ‘crazies’. Furthermore, locals have ignored the new 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, and are instead 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, almost guaranteeing that the fighting will flare up again sooner or later.
More fundamentally, however, the amoeba-like strip of land controlled by the two Donbas ‘Republics’ makes no long-term historical, economic or strategic sense, almost guaranteeing that the fighting will flare up again sooner or later. The Russian counter-offensive in August and early September had clear economic as well as military objectives, and was designed to increase the viability of any new separatist entity, a mission that has been unsuccessful thus far. And while a broader swathe of the border is now open, major transport links are being predictably targeted, such as Ilovaisk, a major eastern railway junction that has been the site of some of the bloodiest fighting to date, as well as the 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 the processing industries in Donetsk and Luhansk rely on for chemicals and metallic ores which are then exported as the end-products and that the local Azovmash factory relies on to keeps the mines and metallurgical companies further north supplied with equipment. And while Mariupol still remains under Ukrainian rule, it has been cut off from its traditional trading partners further north, causing 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 same is true of other mines and factories in the rebel areas, which, though no longer under siege, are also cut off from many of their traditional supply routes. Instead, Russia's options are to go east to Rostov or to go for broke by pushing for more conquests. Any operation around Mariupol, however, could easily lead to ‘mission creep’, or the temptation to open a land corridor to Crimea, especially as there is not much immediately west of Mariupol.
Ukraine also has its 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 since accused the government and regular army of, at best, neglect, and, at worst, of wanting them out of the way, threatening to start a ‘new Maidan’ in Kyiv or new war in the east.
On the other hand, Kyiv may be tempted to bank the gains it made before the recent reversals. There are maps circulating in Kyiv which envisage dividing up the Donbas, with the 'loyal parts' 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 rests in these regions, north by northwest from Donetsk and back towards Kharkiv, though some has fallen into rebel hands, while 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, but Kyiv is loath to acquiesce in the separatist entities having any administrative functions, and will want aid to be confined to areas that it controls. And booth sides will, of course, accuse the other of using ‘humanitarian aid’ for military purposes.
But the cease-fire also 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.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.