Stuck in the Middle: Ukraine faces Separatist Elections


WASHINGTON — After polling stations closed on November 4th for the American mid-term elections, I expect the OSCE monitors (yes, they sent monitors to the U.S.) to accept the results in Oregon and Washington DC, where marijuana legalization narrowly passed, or in Tennessee, where abortion was hotly debated. However you voted Tuesday, rest assured that votes elsewhere are leading to more than a mere change in policy and politicians; on the other side of the world gunshots, perhaps even the redrawing of borders, await election outcomes.

Last Sunday, November 2nd, elections took place in Ukraine’s breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. Credible observers were not present, and the international community has largely ignored the elections that aim to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty. In the two separatist regions prime ministers were elected to lead the People’s Republics. Similar circumstances surrounded the events of other frozen conflicts ringing Russia’s periphery: Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.

The Minsk Protocol signed between Ukraine and the separatist leaders on September 5th was supposed to ensure a ceasefire in a conflict that has claimed 4,035 lives. While fighting continues (both sides having breached the agreement in the last two months) the elections on Sunday are certain to lead to further unraveling of the peace process.

In Donetsk, the separatist leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko received 75% of votes, while in neighboring Luhansk, Igor Plotnitsky made out with 63% according to the most recently available returns. While Russia “respected the will expressed by the population of the southeast,” Ukraine did not accept the validity of the elections, claiming they were carried out in violation of Ukrainian law and held prior to Kiev’s plan for December elections in those regions. Similarly, Western partners such as the U.S. and EU do not recognize the elections as legitimate.

Both Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky were signatories to the early September Minsk Protocol and its mid-September follow-up memorandum which also failed to significantly impact the situation. The Protocol makes no mention of the date upon which elections are to occur and the December 7th date set by Kiev aligns with the agreement made with the separatist representatives who won the recent November elections.

The rhetoric officially espoused by both the separatists and the Russian government repeatedly confirms a commitment to negotiating a peaceful settlement. Kiev similarly reiterated its commitment to a peaceful settlement on Tuesday despite the illegal elections. However, tactics delaying future negotiations with half-hearted pledges only widen the rift between the involved parties. Quickly, one year becomes ten. Ask Georgia or Moldova, or Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Coming out of early Ukrainian parliamentary elections at the end of last month, the composition of the incoming parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, will swing heavily toward the West and radical parties will push Poroshenko to take a tough line toward Moscow. Both sides are moving toward a high-threat situation along the parties’ frontiers. Poroshenko has ordered troops into key government-controlled eastern cities and requested the law granting special status for the separatist regions be nullified by the Rada. Meanwhile, NATO estimates that 300 Russian troops are serving in advisory and training capacities with the separatists. Russian troops across the border have inched closer to Ukraine since the elections, likely in an effort to pressure Kiev and provide additional assistance to the separatists should the need arise.  

For Ukraine, all moves forward look bad and the chance of a positive resolution in the near to medium term stands close to zero. Mutual accusations of Minsk Protocol violations amid mutual rearmament point toward renewed fighting. The only winner in the event of renewed open conflict remains Russia.

Having faced increasing sanctions throughout the crisis in response for its support for the separatists, and the threat of more sanctions since the elections, Russia’s goal may be muted but is certain to include a long-term Ukrainian reliance on Russian interests for security. The Russian economy may stall as a result of the sanctions and declining oil prices, but Putin consolidated his support following the 2011-2012 parliamentary and presidential elections protests and nationalist sentiment is at a high.

Conversely, Ukraine is militarily inferior to the separatist militants supported with Russian equipment, training, and personnel. Without significant external support and heavy losses, Ukraine will not achieve a decisive military victory, and the social fall-out will be massive.

With a frozen conflict likely even if open combat resumes in the short term, Ukraine will be in much the same position as Georgia after 2008: unable to turn fully to the West for a security guarantee and unable to reconcile with Russian interests. We need to remind ourselves that Europe’s borders are not set, not after 1945, not after 1991, not after Yugoslavia and Kosovo, and not now. The land Ukraine precipitously occupies isn’t going anywhere, but its voluntary, or forced, allegiances will most certainly move.

An accompanying analysis to this editorial is available at

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