Peace, Victory, or Doomsday? Ukraine’s prospects for 2015
The current intra-Ukrainian battle lines are drawn something like this.
There is a faction which desires a negotiated settlement with Novorossia in order to stop the bloodshed and return to normal, peaceful existence and economic activity. This faction arguably includes Poroshenko himself, as well as pretty much most of the Ukrainian business elite. If people like Kolomoysky and Baloga are now suddenly, and in unison, calling for a referendum on the future of the Donbass, this clearly puts them into the peace camp.
Then there is the pro-war faction, which wants to continue fighting until victory or doomsday, whichever comes first. They are centered around the Yatsenyuk/Turchinov/Avakov triad, though it’s far from clear which of the two, Yatsenyuk or Turchinov, is the more influential of the two. It is not clear why they are so adamant about the continuation of the war. It is quite possible that they are self-destructive personalities, the so-called “firefighter arsonists” who want to be in the spotlight, want attention, want to be heroes, but they can only accomplish that by promoting death and destruction around them, until that death and destruction catches up with them personally.
Each of these factions enjoys the armed support of a segment of the highly balkanized Ukrainian armed forces and security services. Thus the party of peace can count on the National Guard (still headed by Poroshenko proteges) and…pretty much nobody else.
The party of war, on the other hand, has the backing of the volunteer battalions and the Right Sector, not to mention various and sundry paramilitaries of similar ilk. Yarosh, Beletsky (of Azov Regiment infamy), Semenchenko, there is no place for them in anything resembling a normal, peaceful Ukraine. They need war to legitimize their own existence and, possibly, as a springboard to an eventual take-over of power. Given Kolomoysky’s recent pro-peace statements, it’s entirely possible his funding of the Right Sector was, in effect, a protection payment to the militants in order so that his businesses are left alone.
The armed forces proper are a wild card. On the one hand they are headed by Poltorak and Muzhenko, who are known for two things: loyalty toward Poroshenko and incompetence. Both of of these factors undermine their authority among the more junior officers who naturally chafe under such leadership and which makes them open to Yarosh’s recruitment. Therefore one cannot even predict what would happen should a junior officer receive one order from Muzhenko, and another, contradictory one, from Yarosh.
Each of these factions also has an international dimension. The party of peace enjoys the backing of Russia, whose objective is a peaceful and friendly Ukraine. It also enjoys the backing of Europe which needs a peaceful Ukraine as part of its economic space. It’s not clear to what extent the Russia-EU sphere of influence clash trumps the shared interest in not having a Syria-style war right in the middle of the European continent. Would Putin prefer a Ukrainian civil war to a pro-EU Ukraine? Would Merkel prefer a Ukrainian civil war to a Ukraine in the Eurasian Union? These questions deserve separate analysis.
The party of war, on the other hand, enjoys the support of the United States of America. The US has no economic interest in Ukraine, only geopolitical. It is, as has been pointed out many times, a hegemonic power on the decline, and it is attempting to thwart the rise of, well, rising powers, including the EU, Russia, China, India, Brazil, anyone who might challenge its hegemony even on a regional scale. At the same time, the US is sensitive to EU’s opposition to a major shooting war in Ukraine and likewise seems to have very limited resources at its disposal (all of America’s proxy wars in recent years, from Libya to Syria and Afghanistan, have been fought on a shoestring budget), hence the absence of billions of dollars of US assistance to Ukraine. Moreover, within the US establishment there is a party of peace and a party of war, which are struggling to gain the control of the US foreign policy.
So who’s winning?
At the moment, the party of war, and not because of US support or any other external factor, but simply because that’s where the bulk of the bayonets is. Every time Poroshenko makes any movement toward a compromise, there are cries of “treason” and grave warnings that “the people” will have to take matters into their own hands and overthrown the president. It does seem like the party of war can count on more bayonets than the party of peace. Witness, for example, the widespread criticism of the National Guard, including the prosecution of some of its members for alleged cowardice under fire in the Debaltsevo Salient, as compared to no effort to punish the likes of Semenchenko whose own behavior on the battlefield was, shall we say, less than honorable. The Poroshenko-loyal forces do not seem to be in any position to carry out a “night of the long knives” to purge the country of the neo-Nazis.
Poroshenko invariably gets the message and hurries to reassure the True Believers that Ukraine shall remain one and indivisible, only the Ukrainian language shall be spoken there, and there will be no negotiations with the “terrorists” who are expected to return to the Minsk format which was not being fulfilled anyway for months by the Ukrainian side–where in the Minsk Agreement does it say that Ukraine gets to shell Novorossia cities whenever and wherever it pleases? And as soon as Poroshenko “gets religion”, the threat of a Maidan 3.0 subsides…
The other factor that pushes Poroshenko in the direction of the party of war is, ironically, the fact that both Novorossia and Russia view him as a partner for peace, which gives him a certain measure of indispensability. That is a perfectly rational calculation for him. Motorola and Givi pose a far lesser threat to him than Yarosh and Beletsky. For Poroshenko to come to the negotiating table, he would have to actually start to fear Novorossia’s army more than his “party of war” neo-Nazis. However, Novorossia’s army is kept in check not so much by the UAF as by Russia’s unwillingness to risk destabilizing the whole of Ukraine or to re-solidify the EU-NATO-US anti-Russian coalition.
Which means Ukraine is not likely to see peace any time soon. Victory over Novorossia likewise seems like a pretty implausible scenario. Ukrainian forces have a very limited ability to wage offensive operations, their main leverage over Novorossia is the bombardment of civilians, and it’s not clear for how much longer even that can be kept up, given the dire state of the Ukrainian industry and the gradual deterioration of the Ukrainian economy. If even the likes of Baloga and Kolomoysky are starting to feel the pinch, things must not be going well. Therefore, given the current lay of the land, it looks like “doomsday” is the most likely scenario that Ukraine will experience, unless the peace party finds some dramatic way to neutralize the war party, and quickly.