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Ukraine separatists engaged in high-risk game as they press on with referendum plan

Vladimir Putin’s statements giving qualified support for presidential elections in Ukraine on May 25, calling on separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone their planned referendums and announcing a pull-back…

A World War II tank rumbles onto the streets in Lugansk, Ukraine in preparation for Victory Day. EPA/Igor Kovalenko

Vladimir Putin’s statements giving qualified support for presidential elections in Ukraine on May 25, calling on separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone their planned referendums and announcing a pull-back of troops from Ukraine’s border, has been greeted with scepticism in Kiev, Brussels, London and Washington.

In Ukraine, separatist leaders rejected the Russian president’s call for postponing the referendum. This is a high-risk game for them – not only if Putin’s call for a delay was genuine, but also in light of the most recent opinion polls from the Pew Research Centre that indicate overwhelming support for a unified, and better governed, Ukraine, including in the eastern regions.

Developments on the ground, at the same time, remain deeply worrying: Mariupol city hall was retaken by separatists, fighting intensified in Sloviansk, and tensions in Odessa remained high. Unsurprisingly, the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, warned that Ukraine was on the verge of all-out war. He urged a new round of talks in Geneva between Russia, Ukraine, the US and the EU, which Russia promptly rejected unless separatists were included.

Taken together, these developments indicate a number of trends, none of which is particularly promising for a swift resolution of the current crisis, let alone a sustainable long-term solution of Ukraine’s underlying problems.

Consolidating Russian gains

First, as far as Russia is concerned, the Kremlin appears to be disinterested for the time being in any further escalation of the situation in eastern Ukraine, but rather intent on consolidating its gains there. Local separatists, enjoying considerable public support, are more than a match for Ukrainian security forces. Any further military operations would be costly for Kiev, including in terms of inevitable civilian casualties. Any further escalation of the situation, such as the holding of the referendums planned for May 11, with or without Russia’s official support, however, may force Kiev’s hand and create a situation that is completely out of control.

Despite Putin’s call for a postponement, Pro-Russian separatists continue to prepare for Sunday’s referendum. EPA/MAXIM SHIPENKOV

That said, Russian attempts to de-escalate the situation are not equivalent to making any real concessions, but will rather strengthen Moscow’s position. If the situation in eastern Ukraine stabilises, Russia can claim that it is doing its part in implementing the Geneva Accords. This will further increase its relevance in any more concerted settlement efforts. If the situation does not stabilise, Russia can assert that this simply demonstrates that it does not really control events in eastern Ukraine. The decision by local separatists to go ahead with their referendum despite Putin’s call to postpone it, may thus well play into Russia’s hand.

Dubious as such claims by the Kremlin may nonetheless seem, they might not be complete fabrications either. Across eastern Ukraine, actors and agendas have proliferated. These are now driven by a range of local, national, and regional aspirations, some more opportunistic, some more strategic, but cumulatively more difficult to manage and control.

This trend of proliferation and the spread of the conflict now to strategically far more important cities such as Odessa, also constrains the options for the Ukrainian government. A military solution is clearly beyond Kiev’s capability at the moment, but any political solution is far from easily obtained either. Talks with the separatists have not yielded any progress so far, OSCE mediation has been limited and the track record of recent agreements and their implementation does not look promising.

With no formal ceasefire in place, the best Kiev can do is avoid any steps – rhetorical or otherwise – that would further inflame the situation during May 9 Victory Day celebrations (marking the end of World War II), the referendums in eastern Ukraine (if these go ahead) and the run-up to the presidential elections (again, if these go ahead).

Focus on containment

Containment, de-escalation and stabilisation need to be where all efforts in Kiev, Moscow, Washington and Brussels should be focused. This would certainly be more uselful than continuing the antagonistic rhetoric and posturing that has been going on for months and has contributed to the constantly deteriorating situation.

The danger of course is that stepping back from the brink may simply no longer be possible. Referendums and elections have a tendency to polarise and radicalise public opinion. Situations such as these – where the winner takes all – are hardly conducive to building the kind of political consensus that countries emerging from, or on the brink of, civil war need.

Putin’s seeming inability to have the referendums in eastern Ukraine postponed and his qualified endorsement of the presidential elections may thus yet create a situation in which a Russian military intervention appears as the only “stabilising” option left. And this is a scenario that Moscow has significant experience with going back to the early 1990s when Russia intervened militarily and/or diplomatically in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, brokering ceasefires and terminating violence without settling any of what came to be called “frozen conflicts”.

The coming days and weeks will tell how serious all the players in and around Ukraine are about contributing to resolving this ever-more dangerous crisis and whether Kiev, Moscow, Brussels and Washington can rise above their own short-term and increasingly narrow interests and agendas and prevent the unnecessary bloodshed that further escalation would inevitably bring with it.