Has Vladimir Putin blinked? When Russia’s president said on May 7th that rebels in Ukraine’s east should postpone a referendum on independence that they have planned for May 11th his remarks were met with a mixture of confusion and anger in rebel strongholds. In Donetsk and Luhansk, rebel leaders today rejected his call and said they would push ahead with the ballot.
In his remarks Mr Putin also gave qualified support for Ukraine’s presidential election on May 25th and said that troops on the Ukrainian border, which many believe had been mobilized for an invasion were being stood down. NATO has not observed any such movements though.
In Kiev Arseniy Yatseniuk, the Ukrainian prime minster, reacted with scepticism saying that Mr Putin’s words were just “hot air”. But there may be plenty of good reasons why Mr Putin and the Russian authorities (which sofar had dismissed the authorities in Kiev as an illegal “junta” under the control of neo-Nazis), may want to rein in Ukraine’s eastern separatists or distance themselves from them.
For several weeks anti-Ukraine rebels were able to do as they pleased. They began seizing government buildings in the regional capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk and in small towns around them. Kiev’s authority evaporated and in many places police failed to resist the rebels. Initial attempts by the security forces to send in troops to Sloviansk, which has become a rebel stronghold, were rapidly defeated, with locals stopping the army’s cars, several of which were captured.
A simple look at the map offers a possible explanation to why Mr Putin may be dropping support for the rebels, at least for now. In Crimea there was much popular support for joining Russia. The territory is compact and large numbers of Russian troops were already stationed there. The move to annex Crimea in March was executed professionally and rapidly, and perhaps encouraged a belief that the same scenario could be repeated in the three eastern provinces of Kharkiv, Luhansk and Dontesk, and then the south including Odessa.
If that was the plan it has sofar failed. Parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are under rebel control but far from all. In Kharkiv, it was feared (or hoped) that an assassination attempt on the mayor on April 28th would lead to instability, seizing of buildings and then a rapid and progressive insurrection throughout the province. None of that has happened. Opinion polls have consistently showed that the majority of people in the east and south of Ukraine do not want to join Russia.
As the chaotic situation has played out, and in the wake of the failure to spark widespread support for anti-government rebels beyond a few strongholds, pro-Ukrainian forces have begun to regroup and mobilise. The army has now encircled Sloviansk. Ukrainian volunteers in Kharkiv and other places, frustrated by their government’s inability to defend the country, have begun training for street fighting and partisan warfare.
Their message to Russia has been clear. Mr Putin’s army could invade under the guise of a peacekeeping force, but as a former military officer now training volunteers in Kharkiv put it, partisan warfare “is in our blood.” He claimed that his group was already burying supplies for a conflict to come.
The bloody events in Odessa, where some 40 pro-Russians were killed in a fire last week, may have also marked a turning point. On social media many pro-Ukrainians have been gloating, rejoicing that the deaths showed pro-Russians they could not simply continue to push forward without paying a high and bloody price.
While there are good reasons for Ukrainians to discuss a decentralization of powers, which they are proposing, and many rebels talk of a federal state, the actual referendum question for May 11th asks voters to support independence. Leaflets in Sloviansk explain that this is a necessary step because the region cannot be incorporated into Russia if it is still part of another country.
If Mr Putin is backing away from the rebels, and they in turn don’t follow his advice, then eastern Ukraine could be on the brink of a new and even bloodier chapter than the last.
8 May 2014 | 2:23 pm – Source: economist.com