Signs of a détente in Ukraine

(Deutsche Version des Artikels: „Zeichen der Entspannung aus Kiew„)

The strategic situation in the country has fundamentally changed since two events in mid-July. Rather than the long-feared further escalation, mid-term prospects now signal easing tensions. The reasons for this détente are mostly exogenous.

On July 13th, after a shoot-out with police resulting in several deaths, president Poroshenko ordered the disarming of the militias of the “Right Sector”. The organization subsequently demonstrated in Kiev and called for an insurgency against the government to “finish the revolution”, but failed to mobilize more than a few hundred (or thousand, depending on source) supporters.

The political power struggle between oligarchs and ultra-nationalists was thus quickly decided. The split between them had been obvious at least since February’s second Minsk Agreement: By signing it, Poroshenko had basically accepted the autonomy of the Donbas and promised an end to fighting as well as reforming the constitution – much to the dismay of right-wing hard-liners in politics and militias like “Azov”. While the government in Kiev has since been very ambiguous about the agreement, it was clear that without much stronger NATO support sooner or later it would have no choice but to actually implement it. Due to the political and economic instability and strong nationalist criticism, doing so wouldn’t come without risk for Poroshenko, even though he seemed to have adopted a more pragmatic stance ever since Minsk I, if only to conserve his power and wealth. In March there had been a first showdown which resulted in Ihor Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine’s richest oligarchs, losing his post as governor of Dnepropetrovsk.

The second important decision was taken on July 16th, when parliament unexpectedly voted for a constitutional reform to decentralize the country, as provisioned in the Minsk Agreement. This meant that local elections in the Donbas region, autonomous yet recognized by Kiev, suddenly became conceivable – and it also shed a different light on the fact that the Donetsk governor had just been replaced in June. At the same time, Kiev politics also saw some new faces, possibly reflecting changing power relations. In June, the heads of the Kiev police and the country’s security service lost their jobs, followed in July by the health minister and the head of the air force. While unconfirmed, there are rumours about a possible major cabinet reshuffle in autumn.

Changing international background

The main obstacles on the road to a more permanent ceasefire have hence disappeared. Since it’s hardly plausible that the Kiev government would so suddenly change its mind, the explanation likely has to be sought in some change of the international situation. After all, it can’t be ignored that Poroshenko’s bankrupt Ukraine is completely dependent on Europe and the US – economically, and therefore also politically.

The western partners had in previous months grown increasingly impatient with Kiev’s incapability of pushing through reforms and fighting corruption. Now, it seems as though they have made Poroshenko understand there’s no more delaying the inevitable, no more excuses for not meeting his obligations under the February agreement. This would constitute a strategic realignment of utmost significance, and pave the way for improved NATO-Russia relations in the medium run.

It is safe to assume that Moscow has given something in return for having the risk of war on its southern flank greatly diminished. The “agreement” with Greece in its struggle with the creditors has been reached in the same week, as has the vital nuclear agreement with Iran – in both cases it can’t be ruled out that Russian influence played a key role in securing the deals. Or was it even some “grand bargain” involving various current conflicts?

Meanwhile on the front

After a renewed attempt at negotiating a withdrawal of heavy arms in late July had failed, mid-August saw what many called the fiercest fighting in months. The government army was said to have shelled the cities of Donetsk and Gorlovka especially heavily, while the separatists had supposedly started an offensive to gain territory north of Mariupol. Should this be the beginning of a renewed escalation, possibly full-scale war, that many had feared for months?

No. The aforementioned political changes imply that Kiev has nothing to win in Donbas any more and is tightening its control over the various fighting units to prevent them from „going rogue“. The rebels would very probably have the capability to gain ground, but certainly not Moscow’s consent. So quite contrary to these pessimistic first impressions, any dramatic deterioration of the situation has since July become highly improbable, even impossible.

The latest round of clashes may have signalled a certain correction of the front line, e.g. to avoid further shelling of Donbas cities. Another explanation might be that we witnessed a last-ditch effort of the nationalist militias, whose only hope of retaining their power position would now to initiate an immediate and drastic escalation of the civil war. Without much support in either the government, the population or abroad, they will quite certainly fail. Which would be good news for Ukraine, who’s been taken hostage by violent extremism for far too long already.

I wrote this article in mid-August (in German), when everyone was telling me that a return to all-out war was all but inevitable and imminent. As things stand, the ceasefire in place since September 1st seems to hold. While it’s certainly too early to say this proves my point, I’d like to point out that so far my predictions in this entire crisis have been fairly reliable. So maybe I do have a point.

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