By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
Once again, attention is fixed on Ukraine, for both domestic and international reasons. On 29 January, heavy fighting broke out in Eastern Ukraine, around the government-controlled industrial town of Avdiivka and separatist-controlled railway hub of Yasynuvata. The rupture of the December ceasefire, which killed more than 30 people, can reignite the whole Donetsk region. But this time, the international dimension is paramount, thanks to the election in America of president Donald Trump – as well as uncertainty about impending elections in countries of the European Union and the course of the Brexit negotiations.
Ukrainian president Poroshenko is specially worried because, since early 2014, his capacity to pose as the best intermediary for gaining international support for Kiev has been key to his domestic status.
He cannot be satisfied with the first comments of the US State Department regarding the renewal of fighting, which, while continuing support for Ukraine’s ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity’, fell short of blaming Russia’s lack of efforts to rein separatist forces. Of course there was an address at the UN by the new American representative, in which she called Crimea ‘a part of Ukraine’ and vowed to keep sanctions in place until the peninsula is returned to ‘its rightful sovereign’. But such contradictions simply reflect the confusion in the Trump administration, and are no guarantee against Crimea becoming a bargaining chip in a Washington-Moscow ‘big deal’.
Not surprisingly, Poroshenko rushed to Berlin to meet Angela Merkel who is projecting herself (momentarily, and perhaps for electoral reasons) as the bulwark for Western liberal values which Washington is deserting.
Interestingly enough, he did not come to Brussels – where EU Commission officials have become impatient with Council president Donald Tusk’s habit of inviting Poroshenko to EU summits, giving him the feeling of unconditional support.
Questions of timing
Indeed, during Poroshenko’s visit to Berlin on 1 February, Merkel promised that the EU would not lift sanctions against Russia and called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to fully respect the Minsk Agreement by evacuating Russian forces from Crimea (a strange formulation, considering that it left open the question of the Russian Black Sea fleet base at Sevastopol). But then Poroshenko took NATO by surprise, announcing his intention to organise a referendum on his country’s adhesion to the Alliance, arguing that , according to recent polls, it is now backed by 54% of Ukrainians. Of course, the general secretary of NATO had accused the Russians of starting the Avdiivka shelling, but the Alliance has been only too happy to use the opposition to adhesion by most Ukrainians as a reason to postpone discussions of the matter. The adhesion of Ukraine is not seen as worth the opening of a new front with Russia, and there is no reason to tie one’s hands by a ‘popular vote’ which cannot be organised on the entirety of Ukrainian territory – unless Kiev wants to demonstrate its does not control all its territory.
On top of that, the timing could hardly have been worse at the moment, when NATO is engaged in smoothing the consequences of a deployment of its controversial anti-missile shield in Poland and Romania – and even Alliance hawks want to use present circumstances to develop a new dialogue with Moscow.
The first consequences of Poroshenko’s surprise declaration has been cancellation of a NATO-Ukraine meeting due to discuss technicalities concerning the functioning of the installations in Romania such as the eventual fall of debris on Ukrainian territory after a launch.
There is also a second element to the poor timing. The West continues to support Ukraine, in general. But a mixture of fear and impatience is growing. Fear that the regime could risk a military operation in order to gain unconditional support (the armed forces being the best functioning state structure). And impatience at the lack of reform and persistent corruption in Ukraine.
At the same time, rumours speak again of Poroshenko’s intention to organise snap parliamentary elections in an attempt to reassert his support in parliament. For months, his support has been dwindling, and there are more and more open questions about his personality, including his inclination for alcohol. Up to now, the Western support, and good connections within the Obama administration, have been a continuous big asset. But with the election of Donald Trump, Ukraine has been cut from its backers having gambled on a Hillary Clinton victory and totally neglected Trump’s camp. In any case, nobody knows how the White House will develop relations with Russia, and consequently with Ukraine. What Poroshenko can do is to remember the past. He does not need to look further than Tbilisi to be reminded how Washington can drop its allies (successively Edward Shevarnadze and Mikheil Saakashvili) when they turn out to be unpopular or embarrassing, and when it has found an acceptable replacement.
While Kiev made much of the 4 February telephone conversation between Presidents Poroshenko and Trump, it had not been lost on observers that two days earlier Trump and Vice-President Pence received former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko for a private meeting. Afterwards Tymoshenko separately briefed the think-tanks Heritage Foundation and Hudson Institute, saying she had received assurances that Washington would not abandon Ukraine and would not lift sanctions on Russia until it pulled out of Ukraine. The same message that the one to Poroshenko.
Tymoshenko is now a deputy, heading the party with the highest support according to the polls, and again making efforts regarding a presidential campaign.