Poroshenko's Dilemma: Total War Or Cede Donbas?
The new Ukrainian president's attempt at peace has failed. What now?
MUNICH — The intense pressure that Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko faces is visible in his body language. After the May election, he projected outward optimism, teddy bear charm — and he had a peace plan. Now he looks very tense during public appearances, grinding his teeth and balling his hands into fists.
The president’s peace plan hasn't worked (he announced late Monday that he would not extend a unilateral ceasefire.) The fighting — and dying — continue in eastern Ukraine, where the separatists show no willingness to compromise, apart from the release of the two teams from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). But even that was simply symbolic and had nothing to do with the war.
Gestures from Moscow are mostly symbolic as well. The concrete demands outlined in Poroshenko’s peace plan — the freeing of checkpoints and border crossings and turning in arms and stopping weapons deliveries — have so far fallen flat.
All other issues have been relegated to the back burner: conversations about protecting the Russian language; about more power for the regions; about local elections; about more financial autonomy; and about the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
For the separatists and their puppeteers, it’s no longer about political reform, about compromises in the interest of the Ukrainians they claim to represent. It’s about amassing territory.
Uptake on the one-sided ceasefire called 10 days ago was thus modest in Ukraine, but it was accepted as the political price for the promises made before the election and as a gesture towards Brussels and Moscow based on the thinking that it might work — even though hardly anyone could really believe that after the annexation of Crimea and the military infiltration in eastern Ukraine.
With the temporary ceasefire expired, Poroshenko had to make a decision: Should he give in to the army hawks and the Ministry of the Interior, who want to declare war against Russians and pro-Russians? Then there are the voices that say: “We are Ukrainian patriots. We must rescue our country. We can’t wait for Brussels to do something because it’s too caught up in itself.”
Those voices are getting louder every day, and this segment of the political elite argues that the Russians already have a firm grip on the Donbas region and that it’s probably too late to win it back unless Ukraine gets in there and fights for it. There is a lot of support for this position among regular Ukrainians who increasingly see Poroshenko as a lame duck — someone who talks too much and gives too much, not a leader but a ruler without a country.
But there’s another, fast-growing, point of view in Ukraine popular with both intellectuals and politicians. They are asking themselves if it might not be best to simply let the Donbas region go? Anybody who’s still there would prefer Russian ties anyway. Give Moscow that piece of land so the rest of Ukraine can live in peace. Poroshenko is going to have to come up with an answer for that too.