Will the Nov. 2 parliamentary elections in Ukraine’s rebellious republics undermine the Minsk agreements and lead to a new escalation in Russia-West relations?
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, right, talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, as French President Francois Hollande watches during a meeting in Milan, Italy, Friday, Oct. 17, 2014. Photo: AP
When asked who should be held responsible for the Ukrainian crisis, most Russian and foreign students who attended an Oct. 30 panel discussion on the implications of the Ukrainian crisis on Russia-EU relations at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University) raised their hands in agreement that both sides should be accountable for the current turbulence. This discussion, which was organized by Youth Association for a Greater Europe, brought together European diplomats and Russian experts. While the event showed that dialogue on the Ukrainian issue is still possible - it also highlighted the challenges of finding common ground on a very contentious issue.
However, the desire of the younger generation of experts and diplomats to find compromise instead of pointing fingers at either the West or Russia seems to be irrelevant for now. This is especially noticeable ahead of the Nov. 2 elections in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Hosting elections in these separatist-held regions will once again test the capability of Russia and the West to resolve problems diplomatically.
While the EU and the U.S. made it clear that recognizing the controversial elections in Eastern Ukraine may undermine the region’s current relative stability and, particularly, seriously hamper the effectiveness of the Minsk agreements, Russia’s authorities appear to be looking forward to the elections in the DPR and LPR. For example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the elections in Ukraine’s rebellious republics won’t contradict the Minsk agreement and reiterated that, “Moscow, of course, will recognize their results.”
In response, both the European Union and the United States argue that conducting local parliamentary elections in the DPR and LPR contradicts Ukraine’s legislation. According to a new law adopted by the Ukrainian parliament on Sept. 16, the local elections in Donbas should take place on Dec. 7, yet the leaders of the republics in Eastern Ukraine scheduled elections for early November.
Likewise, Pavel Verkhniatskyi, the director of the Kiev-based Center for Operational Strategic Analysis (COSA), explains that the elections cannot take place because there hasn’t been proper demarcation of the territory where rebels are going to conduct the elections. In addition, they didn’t discuss it with Kiev, which contradicts the Ukrainian legislature, according to the expert.
“Moreover, foreign military units have not fully been withdrawn from Ukraine’s territory and the ceasefire regime is not observed to a full extent,” Verkhniatskyi added. “In such conditions early elections might be accompanied by provocations that could hamper the people’s capability to express their free will… and lead to conflict escalation.”
Verkhniatskyi doesn’t rule out that premature elections in Donbas might bring about a new military operation by Kiev against the rebels, given the fact that more “hawks” and advocates of a tougher policy toward Russia and Donbas now play a greater role after elections in Ukraine’s parliament. This might entrap Poroshenko, who is inclined to resolve the conflict peacefully.
At the same time, the EU and the U.S. express their concerns that the premature elections and Russia’s recognition of their results might exacerbate the conflict, putting it into a frozen state. It is not a solution, but a dangerous portent, said some European diplomats during the Oct. 30 panel discussion with the MGIMO students. The diplomats made it clear that Europe wants Russia to respect the Ukrainian legislature, its integrity and international agreements. According to them, by standing ready to recognize the elections, Russia seems not to send any signals to resolve the conflict politically.
Likewise, some U.S. experts argue that the Nov. 2 elections in Eastern Ukraine contradict the terms of the Sept. 5 agreement reached in Minsk, which provides that the parties would “ensure early local elections in accordance with the law of Ukraine.”
“Russia’s intention to recognize the results of the Nov. 2 elections is unfortunate, as it will further undermine the Sept. 5 Minsk agreement, which is already shaky at best,” Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Brookings Senior Fellow at Center on the United States and Europe, told Russia Direct. “This comes on top of Russia’s decision last week to veto the expansion of the OSCE monitoring mission along the Ukraine-Russia border, which was also part of the Sept. 5 agreement.”
According to Pifer, such Russian moves “fuel the impression in the West that the Kremlin is not interested in finding a settlement to the conflict in eastern Ukraine but instead seeks to create another frozen conflict as a means of pressuring the government in Kiev.”
Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov says that “there are no reasons for Russia not to recognize the election” in Donbas. At the same time, Russia’s Foreign Minister argues that the DPR and LPR elections are “important from the point of view of the legitimization of power.” In contrast to the EU, Russia believes that these elections are “one of the most important directions of the Minsk agreements” and expect that the will of the people will be taken into account, Lavrov told Izvestia, a pro-Kremlin newspaper.
Such intransigence between the two sides may have serious implication for Russia-West dialogue. As Kommersant reported, citing an EU indentified source, Brussels threatens to toughen sanctions if Russia recognizes the election.
Although there is a great deal of uncertainty if the EU will respond with sanctions to Russia’s policy, Pifer argues that “Russia’s apparent disregard for the Sept. 5 agreement, on top of other actions such as the provocatively large number of Russian military flights near NATO and EU members in recent days, will strengthen the position of those EU states that argue for a stronger response.” Meanwhile, Verkhniatskyi is concerned that, in case of tougher sanctions against Russia, the Kremlin might increase its military support to rebels, which again will destabilize the situation in the region even further.
At the same time, Lavrov believes that Moscow’s current policy towards Ukraine stems from its disagreements over the roots of the crisis. According to him, Eastern Ukraine’s rebellious republics refused to recognize the military coup that took place during the Maidan protests, which resulted in ousting the legitimate president and exacerbating the crisis to its current level.
Likewise, Andrey Baykov, associate professor of international affairs at MGIMO-University, believes that if there hadn’t been a coup d’état in Ukraine, Crimea would be still a part of Ukraine and the crisis would not have spun out of control. According to him, both Russia and the West should share responsibility for the Ukrainian crisis, yet he also argues that one of the reasons of the problem and difficulties in resolving the crisis “is not distrust, but the lack of information” from both sides to understand each other’s intentions. This leads to incoherent strategies toward each other and prevents both sides from handling the problem effectively.