While self-determination for Scotland or Catalonia has probably had more headlines recently, the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine seems to be continuing in the semi-frozen state that it’s been in since a ceasefire agreement reached in Minsk a month and a half ago.
On Friday in Milan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko came face to face for the first time since August, in a meeting with other European leaders to try to make progress on the issue. Signals were mixed; it looks as if there was no breakthrough, but at least some sort of mutual commitment to continue down the track of negotiating rather than fighting.
This is one of those conflicts that can look very different depending on what perspective you take. To some, including many headline writers, it looks like the unfolding of a master plan by Putin, who is slowing drawing Ukraine into his net. To others, Putin looks like someone whose plans are not so much unfolding as unravelling, as he flails about looking for a coherent policy to achieve fundamentally incompatible aims.
I confess that I lean more to the second view. If Putin was hoping to permanently detach Donetsk and Luhansk provinces from Ukraine, it is now clear that he has failed. His assistance to the separatists has enabled them to hold their own in the one-third or so of those provinces that they control, but that’s all. Nothing short of a full-scale Russian invasion – never really on the cards – is going to change that.
But if, as always seemed more likely, Putin’s sponsorship of the separatists was only designed to induce a more co-operative attitude in the Ukrainian government, he seems to have been equally unsuccessful. It’s true that Poroshenko has made some conciliatory gestures, but in the longer term neither he nor any other Ukrainian leader will dare to pursue a pro-Russian policy.
The Russian threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity has ensured that such a move would be electoral suicide.
Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny is one who appreciates this point. Interviewed by the Guardian, he argued that “one of [Putin’s] strategic goals in the coming years will be to do absolutely everything to undermine the Ukrainian state, to ensure that no reforms work, so that everything ends in failure.” But he also highlighted the inevitable consequence of this: “in Ukraine they simply hate us. … Being anti-Russian is the key to success now in Ukraine, and that’s our fault.”
Another suggestion is that Putin’s ambitions are best served by keeping the territorial conflict frozen in place. In other words, to make of southern Donetsk and Luhansk a larger version of Transnistria, the narrow strip of eastern Moldova that has enjoyed de facto independence since a Russian-brokered ceasefire ended fighting in 1992.
Putin has disclaimed any such intention; according to British prime minister David Cameron he “said very clearly that he doesn’t want a frozen conflict; he doesn’t want a divided Ukraine.” But of course it’s best to look at what world leaders actually do rather than at what they say.
Ukraine is a much bigger fish than Moldova, and it’s hard to see how a Transnistrian option could work beyond the short term. But that might be enough for Putin as a waiting measure until something better turns up.
The next milestone is the Ukrainian parliamentary election to be held next Sunday. Poroshenko’s allies are expected to perform well, reflecting the fact that so far he has managed the conflict in the east about as well as anyone could. But there will still be difficult times ahead.