Far from bringing more clarity to the situation in Eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian presidential election and Russia’s recent moves seem to have brought about more instability and unpredictability.
Fighters of the Vostok Battalion at the battalion's training camp in the Donetsk region. Photo: RIA Novosti
While Russian President Putin has taken a more conciliatory stance toward Ukraine's government and agreed to abide by the results of the most recent presidential election, the crisis in Ukraine is far from over. While the West and the EU may feel that they have won the standoff over Ukraine with Russia, the fact is that there is still very much to resolve.
Most importantly, there’s still the issue of whether or not there are Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. While Russia has said that the troops were there for military readiness, Ukraine's government and the United States have claimed that a Russian invasion into Eastern Ukraine was imminent. Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that he has given orders for Russian troops to return to their bases, and has de-escalated the border region.
Then there’s the matter of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko promising to continue the "anti-terrorist" campaign in Eastern Ukraine. He has stated that those groups who are pushing for secession should be destroyed in a period of hours, not days or weeks. As a further act of defiance over this region, Ukraine has not invited Russian President Putin to the inauguration of Poroshenko.
Remember, too, that the European Union (EU) is still trying to mediate an agreement between Ukraine and Russia on the amount that Ukraine will have to pay to import natural gas from Russia. Russia has currently set the price at an amount that is much higher than Ukraine can afford to spend, and the EU has been urging Russia to lower its price for gas exports.
Against this backdrop, Ukraine still has to determine whether or not to further antagonize Russia by demanding that Russia return Crimea to Ukraine as a precondition to a larger peace. In reality, Russia is entrenched in Crimea with no intentions of leaving. Putin's popularity is soaring, and short of invading Crimea, there is little chance of getting Russia to agree to cede it back to Ukraine.
On the gas matter, Russia doesn't have to set prices for gas according to what the EU deems acceptable, because Ukraine really needs the gas. There is really no other option. Even more significant is the fact that Western Europe needs Russian gas as well. It is unlikely to force Russia to take decisive action on either front. During the summer, the gas issue doesn't seem as pressing, however, as winter approaches, both Western Europe and Ukraine will be forced to negotiate with Russia to prevent an even more severe crisis.
While Russia seemed ready to invade Ukraine a few weeks ago, now it does not need to. First of all, time is on Russia's side, and Putin holds most of the cards. Further, Russians are eagerly volunteering to defend Eastern Ukraine from what they claim to be the "fascist oppression of Western Ukraine." Individual Russians are already crossing the border to help fight the Ukrainian army, and many more volunteers are poised to do so if the conflict continues.
Ultimately, Putin realizes that, the more time passes, the more difficulty the West will have in changing the status quo. The sanctions that the West has imposed up to the present time has not had much effect on Russian policy, and were Putin to give up Crimea, he would face domestic instability as the support that he earned would evaporate and cause a lot of dissension.
The problem for Putin is that while he may get what he wants for Eastern Ukraine, he has been set back in terms of relations with Ukraine in general as well as with the Eastern European countries. Russia's actions have worried many of those states, and they are certain to request further NATO support. Russia will be looked at as the neighborhood bully, and will be relatively isolated from regional cooperation.
Further, long-term investments by Western companies will be slow to develop. This would further isolate Putin and make cooperation with China and the rest of Asia more likely. Chinese companies will invest in Russia, and may well lead to a deepening Chinese-Russian alliance. Such an alliance should worry the West.
The isolation of Russia is clearly not an ideal solution to the dilemma. Ukraine has promised to continue to pressure Russia to return Crimea through international courts. The West will have to support Ukraine, and this will further serve to isolate both sides. Further, if the separatists gain the upper hand in the current civil war in Ukraine, they will ask to join Russia, and Russia may indeed feel forced to grant their request. This action would further infuriate Ukraine and the West, and would lead to another round of cyclical violence, which could lead to either an international war or create another Iron Curtain between East and West, which would be very reminiscent of the Cold War era.
Ultimately, there are no good solutions to this conflict. Policymakers in Kiev must agree to grant more regional autonomy to Eastern Ukraine and hope that the separatists won't gain the hearts and minds of the people as a whole. They must do this very carefully. By using violence, they are inflaming the citizens, and urging them to turn to the separatists. Poroshenko would be served better by calling a constitutional convention and quelling the violence through constitutional change and not violence. Putin would agree to help, as it is in Russia's interests that a new constitution be developed and stability return to Ukraine.
The silver lining in this crisis appears to be that the Ukrainian presidential election occurred without provoking widespread violence and chaos. Even though the separatist regions did not participate, they didn't provoke violence either. There may yet be room for a negotiated agreement and a peaceful solution to the violence. However, it must be done soon.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.