IN ONE week Ukrainians are to vote in a presidential election schedule for May 25th. Developments on the ground have left people wondering if the past few days have been the calm before the storm—or whether both sides, uncertain about what to do and unable to muster enough force to prevail, have reached a stalemate. In one dramatic development the commander of rebel forces railed that he had less than 1,000 men to fight the entire Ukrainian army “while tens of thousands are watching calmly on TV, drinking beer.
On the outskirts of Sloviansk, a rebel-held city, there have days of sporadic fighting but no significant move by either side. On May 13th however, rebel forces ambushed a Ukrainian military convoy in a hit-and-run operation, killing seven soldiers. All the same it is becoming increasingly clear that both sides are bogged down. The rebels do not have enough men to defeat the Ukrainian forces deployed around town, while the army does not seem to know how to retake it without causing major civilian casualties.
In an extraordinary video released by Colonel Igor Strelkov, the military commander of the rebel forces, “Strelok” says that while he now has enough weapons to fight Ukrainian forces who are preparing a major onslaught, hardly anyone was volunteering to fight. He complained that many of those who did volunteer only wanted to defend the areas around their own homes. Many want to use the resistance, he says, as a cover for banditry. Strelok suggests that many believed that they need not actually fight themselves, thinking that Russia would intervene on their behalf.
If men are failing to flock to lay down their lives for the anti-Ukrainian cause, that counts as another indication that the eastern rebellion could be running out of steam. At a rally in Donetsk on May 18th, called to demand the withdrawal of the Ukrainian army from the region, barely 300 people turned up in a city of almost 1m people. Ilya, aged 25, who had come from Kramatorsk, where there has been fighting, put the tiny turn-out down to the fact that “it is hot” and “people are tired”.
But it is far too early to say that the tide has turned against the rebels. Next week’s election will not be held in much of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Election staff have been threatened, kidnapped and intimidated. In Lugansk the Ukrainian army has been building up forces in the north of the province; voting will probably take place there, but under forbidding circumstances. Soldiers now guard the regional election commission in the town of Bilovodsk, 20km from the Russian border (pictured above). Vladimir Nesmiyanov, the commission’s head, says he has been unable to deliver election materials to 86 out of 197 polling stations because a friend had warned him that “They are waiting for you…You had better not go.”
In Lugansk, 90 minutes’ drive to the south, Vyacheslav Bondarenko a pro-Ukrainian journalist and activist says that many of his colleagues have fled the city. People are beaten up or kidnapped for a few hours or held by the anti-Ukrainian rebels for as long as ten days—and that is enough to silence them. Meanwhile, according to one security source, the breakdown of law and order in the region is such that “criminal groups are treating the collapse of the police as Christmas.”
There is no political solution to the crisis on the horizon. Russia appears to be sending no significant help to the rebels, which in turn means that many of them are reluctant to fight for a cause where victory is not certain. Rebel groups are squabbling between themselves; terror is deployed against those who oppose them; and the Ukrainian security forces often look isolated, dug in to roadside positions as though in hostile territory. Something has to give.
(Picture credit: The Economist / T.J.)
18 May 2014 | 11:16 pm – Source: economist.com