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Ukraine's dilemma

Bernd Johann / smsApril 25, 2014

The Ukrainian government cannot accept armed troops on its territory and Russian meddling in its affairs. But Kyiv has to act carefully and push for dialogue, says DW's Bernd Johann.

Bernd Johann Photo: DW/Per Henriksen
Bernd Johann heads Deutsche Welle's Ukrainian departmentImage: DW/P. Henriksen

No one wants to admit it yet, but it looks like the Geneva agreement to de-escalate tension in eastern Ukraine has failed. The deal signed by Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union called for the disarming of militant separatists and their removal from occupied administrative buildings. But it has become clear that the masked men armed with Kalashnikovs and those carrying Russian flags who have taken an entire region hostage will not give up.

The Ukrainian government's scope to find a peaceful solution is getting smaller and smaller. More autonomy for the country's east or federalization, as proposed by acting President Oleksandr Turchinov, could be a way to end the standoff. But for that to happen there would have to be a dialogue, which the separatists are not ready to engage in. In the region between Donetsk and Luhansk they continue blocking streets and city halls. Their declared aim is to have the areas they control, what they call "people's republics," become part of Russia.

Dilemma for Kyiv government

That is unacceptable to the Ukrainian government. The majority of the population in the affected regions does not want to be part of Russia, according to recent polls. Though many people in the region sympathize with the separatists' cause, there are millions of people living in the area. Most of them aren't taking to the streets. Instead, they're waiting and hoping that the situation calms down.

Kyiv wants to get the situation under control with "anti-terrorism" measures, which include the army's participation. The Ukrainian government faces a dilemma. If it does not take steps against the armed separatists it could lose control over another part of its territory, witness Russia's annexation of Crimea. But the government's use of force could result in civilian casualties that would turn the population against the government. And Kyiv has to assume that Russia would become militarily involved in the conflict.

Moscow's unacceptable saber-rattling

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he is ready to deploy the Russian military in Ukraine at any time. He has called eastern Ukraine "new Russia," as if the region was not already part of a sovereign state. "New Russia" was the term used for the region surrounding Donetsk when it was settled by the czars. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow would regard it as an attack on Russia if "Russian citizens" in Ukraine were injured by action ordered by leaders in Kyiv.

Such statements amount to little more than thinly veiled threats of war, and they are directed at a country whose territorial integrity Russia guaranteed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Officially, the Kremlin said it hopes for dialogue and a peaceful solution to the conflict. But Moscow has so far only urged Kyiv to renounce violence. So far, Moscow has not called for the separatists to lay down their weapons. Russia is also not prepared to withdraw its tanks from its border with Ukraine. But that hasn't stopped Moscow from urging Kyiv to recall troops from eastern Ukraine and thus demanding Kyiv retreat from its own country. It is paradoxical and perfidious at the same time.

Leaders in Moscow have insisted that they have no control over the illegal groups on Ukrainian territory. But these units are well-organized, trained and armed. It would be naive to believe that they could have been trained on-the-spot. After its experience in Crimea, the government in Kyiv has to assume that Russian special forces are once again involved.

Effective protection from separatism

The government in Kyiv has allegedly ignored the interests of people - and even suppressed citizens - in the densely populated eastern Ukraine. At least those are the accusations made by the Kremlin and the masked men in Donetsk. In recent years, under former President Viktor Yanukovych it was mainly politicians from eastern Ukraine who led the country. The accusations that the current government in Kyiv is responsible for the situation in eastern Ukraine are, therefore, misconstrued.

Political conditions did not change until after the fall of the Yanukovych regime in February. There are no politicians from eastern Ukraine in the current government, and that needs to be corrected. But it is not only Kyiv that is responsible for this - the east also needs to contribute to a political solution to the conflict. Many of eastern Ukraine's established politicians are silent at the moment. They're waiting to see how the situation develops and are damaging their country by doing so. They have to take positions and accept responsibility. That would be an effective protection against separatists and against Russian infiltration - if it's not already too late.