If the Ukrainian government in Kiev thinks that the truce signed last week in Geneva will make pro-Russian rebels go away, it had better think again.
Developments before and since the Geneva agreement, signed on April 17, demonstrate that Ukraine is a genuinely divided nation, in which Russian interference is merely a catalyst of resentment. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, led by the pedantic German diplomat Klaus Zillikens, have reported that neither side is following the agreement. As of April 19, pro-Russian rebels were still holding on to buildings in Donetsk, Lugansk and surrounding small towns, and Ukrainian “self-defense” paramilitaries in Dnepropetrovsk and Kherson were refusing to give up weapons or “regularize.”
This should come as no surprise, given that no one in Geneva fully represented the sides in the actual conflict. The interim government is uneasy about the paramilitaries left over from the Maidan revolution that brought it to power. Russia has never admitted it had enough influence over the rebels in the east to make them lay down their arms. To Zillikens, a stickler for precision, Russian presence in eastern Ukraine is not even an established fact. “There are signs that foreign consultants worked in Ukrainian territory,” he told Echo Moskvy radio. “We do not, however, have any clear proof of that.”
The government in Kiev seems to be hoping that without Russian support, the rebels in eastern Ukraine will eventually get bored and disperse. The OSCE report notes that in Mariupol, near Donetsk, two of three groups that held the local government building left after the Geneva deal because they felt betrayed. “This is a truce that allows us to rest and replenish strength,” pro-government columnist Vitaly Portnikov wrote on liga.net. There is no talk in Kiev about negotiating a compromise – just more anti-Moscow rhetoric such as acting President Oleksandr Turchynov’s statement late on Sunday that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal was “to eliminate independent Ukraine.”
Even if Turchynov is right, Kiev is not helping things by harping on the Russian invasion theme. The Ukrainian weekly Zerkalo Nedeli recently published the results of a poll it commissioned with funding from billionaire Viktor Pinchuk to gauge the public mood in the eastern regions. Only 30 percent of those living in the southeastern regions consider Turchynov a legitimate government figure. In Donetsk, 74 percent consider him illegitimate. The numbers are similar for acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Most people in blue-collar cities such as Donetsk and Nikolayev are against wealthy individuals taking part in government, highlighting the Kiev government’s error in sending billionaire Sergei Taruta to Donetsk to serve as governor.
Only 7 percent of easterners would welcome a full-scale Russian invasion, including 12.6 percent in Donetsk and 11.7 percent in Lugansk. That is not enough for Putin to say, as he did during the Crimea annexation, that he would be following the people’s will by sending in the troops. The Ukrainian leadership, however, needs to realize that even though there will be no Russian blitzkrieg, it will still have to co-opt the eastern elites to keep the country together. According to the poll, the eastern regions expect Kiev to cooperate more closely with Russia, disarm “self-defense” paramilitaries and give up nationalist rhetoric. To pacify the east, steps in that direction need to be taken; otherwise, it will be easy for Russia to keep fomenting unrest.
Zillikens hopes the parties will eventually compromise. Their failure to abide by the Geneva agreement is “not a disappointment to me,” he said. “It means we need to work to bring the sides’ positions closer to each other.”
There are only two ways out of the stalemate: a bold Ukrainian move to appease the east without giving it up to Russia, or a new Russian-inspired outbreak of violence.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. He is a Moscow-based writer, author of three novels and two nonfiction books. Follow him on Twitter at @bershidsky.
© 2014, Bloomberg News