Ukraine: Threatening the Elections

Published on April 30, 2014

Tensions continue to mount in the troubled eastern regions of Ukraine, even as the US and EU announced additional sanctions this week on Russian individuals and on certain limited institutions in response to accusations of Russian involvement in fostering unrest in the region.

Those include the takeover of administrative buildings by rebels in Luhansk, an assassination attempt on the mayor of Kharkiv, and the taking hostage of eight observers affiliated with the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) outside of Slovyansk, in the hotbed province of Donetsk (one was subsequently released for medical treatment).

*** Our understanding is that Moscow is pressing the local militia leaders in Slovyansk to release the remaining military observers being held as hostages, and may resort to forceful measures if needed to do so. As much as any signal of willingness to de-escalate, that pressure is also intended to assert control – Moscow would say order – in the region, including a tighter grip over the regional powerbroker and oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. The inclusion of four Germans in the group of hostages has apparently especially rankled Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, given his efforts to lean on German pacifist public opinion and business interests to counter more hawkish US and EU, including Polish, pressures. ***

*** In parallel to the Russian overtures with the hostages, the government of Arseniy Yatsenyuk and members of the parliament in Kiev, the Verkhovna Rada, have sent what can be construed as constructive signals toward constituents in the east on the possibility of a referendum and constitutional reform, ostensibly leading to a greater degree of regional representation. But even here a wide and very dangerous gulf remains between the various sides, including over the exact question, construction, and timing of any constitutional change. ***

*** That constitutional fight is over who drafts the rules of the road and ultimately, who holds the influence and power in a post-crisis Ukraine, and that is where Kiev’s drive to conduct the May 25 Presidential elections, under the auspices of the current interim government, is increasingly coming under threat. A slow but steady chorus of rebel eastern Ukrainian and Russian accusations is building that is questioning the legitimacy of what they see as a “coup-installed” government which is undermining and potentially derailing any future government “elected under the current shadow of instability and violence,” (see SGH 4/25/2014, “Ukraine: At the Edge of a Flash Point”). ***

*** If not pre-empted, these potentially self-fuelling suspicions in the east point to an ongoing and even more intractable instability that threatens to push the Ukraine that much closer to a state of civil war, the consequences of which seems underappreciated by both analysts and markets. The Europeans and the Americans have already talked about sending a group of 500 observers, mostly to allay Moscow’s accusations of possible election fraud. And today, Kiev vowed to send troops into the east if needed to ensure that the elections were in fact held on May 25, while the military was put on high alert for the upcoming May 1″May Day” and the May 9 victory over Nazi Germany commemorations. ***

Rumors abound already that the Party of Regions may decide to pull its Presidential candidate, Mikhailo Dobkin, who is far behind the pro-Western frontrunners, claiming nationalists are not letting him run a proper campaign. That would only serve to feed the narrative of a disenfranchised electorate. A staunchly pro-Russian candidate, Oleh Tsariov, with a small base in the southeast of the country, has already dropped out in protest.

Demands and Deals

Kiev, the US, and EU are calling for a pull-back of Russian troops from the eastern border of Kiev as a concrete gesture of de-escalation and goodwill. The initial response from Moscow to the somewhat measured step up in sanctions announced this week – which nevertheless still continues to feed into Moscow’s narrative of unilateral economic warfare against its economy (see SGH 4/23/2014, “Ukraine: Militias, Sanctions, and Oligarchs”) – has been to step up warnings aimed at Europe and the US’s interests in Russia’s economy and energy sector.

The Russian response is in some ways, and in some countries especially, tantamount to preaching to the choir. Austria’s OMV yesterday, astonishingly, signed an outstanding agreement with Gazprom over development of the South Stream Gas pipeline (a project that from what we understand will in fact be halted as a retaliatory measure by the European Commission) over the objections both of the US and EU, while the papers in Germany are buzzing over former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s backslapping birthday celebrations with Putin.

But neither the sanctions nor Moscow’s response indicate any sign of progress toward de-escalation on any front – at least not yet.

A Russian Roadmap for De-escalation

But there is, however, a very interesting four-point Russian “roadmap” circulating for moving the crisis in Ukraine to a sustainable solution.

While much of it, especially the last two points, is deemed to be largely unacceptable to the West, if not to Ukraine itself, we are including them here nevertheless to provide a unique template of some elements of what could be the basis for the start of negotiations over de-escalation between the two sides. They are, edited for brevity, but verbatim in translation:

1 – For US and European leaders to immediately and completely disassociate themselves from the ultra-right forces in the Ukraine that promote neo-Nazi and Bandera ideas.

2 – …an assurance of intent to enter into an agreement with any states concerned to establish a demilitarized zone in the country, as it de facto doesn’t possess any armed forces worth mentioning. This should be followed by a further pledge not establish any NATO presence on the territory of Ukraine.

3 – …a call for Ukrainian Constituent Assembly, with proportionate territorial as well as ethnical representation. Such an Assembly might prove to be capable of electing a Provisional Government, which would, in such case, have the support of the majority of the population and should get comprehensive support of the UN and international community.

4 – For effective law enforcement and complete disarmament operation of all illegal insurgent groups and forces throughout the country an International Provisional Police Force (IPPF) has to be created out of the remains of Ukrainian MVD with the help and assistance of foreign instructors and professionals directly and only reporting to a Coalition Law Enforcement HQ, staffed by the appointed officers from the US, EU and Russia under a mandate of the Security Council of the UN. It goes without saying that any person with proved links to the Right Sector and/or other ultra-right forces and groups in the Ukraine should be barred completely from any position within the IPPF.

One Potential Symbolic Gesture

One of the points of dispute leading to the immediate collapse of the April 17 Geneva agreement was in the differing definitions and interpretations of it calls for the immediate de-escalation of militias and tension. Specifically, the agreement stated:

All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.

This of course was followed by immediate accusations and recriminations from the West of continued clandestine Russian destabilization of the streets of Donetsk and the east, and calls for an immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine’s borders. That in turn was matched by accusations from Russia of continued tacit if not active support by Kiev and of the west of right-wing militia groups.

To Russia and in Russian media, one of the most egregious and symbolically visible of these “right-wing provocations” that has raised howls of protest is the movement of the Right Sector militia, led by Dmytro Yarosh, from Kiev to a camp in the outskirts of Dnepropetrovsk, which is (too) close to the protest-ravaged eastern region for comfort (see again 04/25/2014 SGH, “ Ukraine: At the Edge of a Flash Point”).

That this has not been addressed, much less reversed, by the government of Kiev is seen as a clear sign of either an inability or unwillingness, or both, of the interim government, and by extension its western supporters, to address the right-wing militia question.

Either way, a denunciation of or at least some distancing from this group, however awkward, by Kiev’s western supporters would be construed as a symbolic gesture and dissociation from these embarrassing and highly unsavory, not just to Russian but including especially to German, bedfellows.

And perhaps even far more to the point, it could help refute some of the dangerous narrative that is building of an active campaign by Kiev and the west to disenfranchise eastern voters in the May 25 Presidential elections.

Back to list