Ukraine’s Poroshenko Willing to Talk But with Whom?

The separatists are so divided, it is difficult to find anyone Ukraine’s president could negotiate with.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko takes the oath of office in parliament in Kiev, June 7
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko takes the oath of office in parliament in Kiev, June 7 (The Council of the European Union)

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said on Wednesday he was willing to talk with opponents in the east of the country, provided the pro-Russian separatists there agreed to lay down their weapons. But the rebels showed no sign of giving up and there is really no one Poroshenko can negotiate with.

Poroshenko, who was sworn in as president on Saturday after winning an election late last month, was quoted by his press office as telling the governor of the Donetsk region of east Ukraine that he would not rule out holding “roundtable” talks with “different parties.”

However, he cautioned, “We do not need negotiations for the sake of negotiations. Our peace plan must become the basis for further deescalation of the conflict.”

Donetsk is at the heart of a rebellion that opposes centralized rule from Kiev and wants Russia to annex parts of the predominantly Russian-speaking region.

The uprising lacks coherent leadership, however, blogs Edward W. Walker, a comparative political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley who specialized in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In Donetsk as well as nearby Luhansk, separatists have declared independent people’s republics yet an overarching Federal State of Novorossiya was established in May as well. Its founding congress was attended by Russian nationalist ideologues and presided over by separatists from Donetsk. Those from Luhansk, he notes, doubtless believe the Donetsk leadership “intends to use the federation to extend its authority into Luhansk.”

The Donetsk separatist “leadership,” moreover, is made up of political neophytes. “None of these people has ever been elected to public office,” according to Walker. “Their relationships with each other, their respective duties, and their control, if any, over armed formations is unclear; and whatever evidence there is suggests that, as individuals, they have very limited popular support in Donetsk.”

The same is largely true for Luhansk where the former Soviet paratrooper Valery Bolotov was elected president of the breakaway region last month.

Given the separatists’ lack of unity, Walker finds it difficult to believe that Poroshenko would be willing to negotiate with any of them. “Nor is it in the least clear who to invite to the negotiating table.”

Complicating the problem further, participants in the uprisings have different preferences, ranging from institutionalized protections for Russians and Russian speakers, administrative decentralization, full autonomy, independence or incorporation into Russia. And of course the preferences of the pro-Russian forces in the east do not necessarily reflect the preferences of the public as a whole.

Finally, there is Russia itself. Despite seizing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March and massing tens of thousands of troops on the eastern border of its former satellite state — which President Vladimir Putin claims have since been withdrawn — it has stopped short of endorsing the Ukrainian separatists’ calls for annexation. It proposes turning Ukraine into a federation instead to give especially ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the southeast more of a direct say in how they are governed. The authorities in Kiev see this as a ploy to divide the country.

Walker believes Russia won’t allow a negotiated settlement that restores the central government’s sovereignty over Donetsk and Luhansk. It is more likely “to try to keep the region at least at a low boil for the foreseeable future and continue its covert efforts to spread the rebellion to other parts of the east and south, notably Mariupol and Kharkiv,” the objective being to keep Ukraine divided and out of the Western sphere of influence generally and out of NATO in particular.

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