Monday, April 7, 2014

Is Ukraine sliding to disintegration? Donetsk proclaims "independence".

Yesterday we knew that pro-Russian demonstrators stormed government buildings in three key Eastern oblasts: Donetsk, Kharkov and Lugansk. The three regions have witnessed large and persistent anti-putsch protests in the last months and these have become more and more openly pro-Russian since the Crimea referendum and subsequent effective annexation by Moscow.

Today we learn that the Donetsk protesters have proclaimed the independence of the oblast with the name of People’s Republic of Donetsk. They secessionist forces are in control of most power resorts in the region, it seems.
Today at 12:20 local time, a session of the People's Council of Donbass (Donetsk region) took place in the main hall of the Regional Council and unanimously voted on a declaration to form a new independent state: the People’s Republic of Donetsk. 
The Council proclaimed itself the only legitimate body in the region until the regions in southeast Ukraine conduct a general referendum, set to take place no later than May 11.  

It is unclear what representativity may have this People's Council of Donbass but it seems quite apparent that they do have a clear lead in the streets.

They also asked protection from Russia.

Session of the People's Council of Donbass

Kharkov (including the second largest Ukrainian city) and Lugansk may well follow suit.

Police headquarters' takeover in Lugansk
Kharkov City Hall under popular control

It is unclear what happens with Zaporizhia, a nearby region where the Communist Party and allies raised militias against the Maidan putsch very early on.

It is also unclear what may happen with most of Southern Ukraine, which was clearly supporter of the Party of Regions and has significant numbers of Russian speakers. Particularly conflictive is the situation of Odessa in the SW, where Russian is the dominant language but is separated from the other regions where Russian is dominant further East. We know that there have been protests against fascist repression and that the province is so strategical that both the pro-NATO de facto government of Kiev and Russia ambition it similarly.

Ukraine's conflict map:
· stars: (a) green: pro-Russian uprising, (b) red: communist militia
· oblasts in green: favored Party of Regions in 2012
· oblasts in blue: favored Maidan parties in 2012
Around Ukraine:
· green shades: Russia and allies
· blue: NATO/EU
Ideally Russia, provided it cannot anymore keep a friendly government in Kiev, would want to annex as much as possible. However, the more it annexes, the less internal support it will retain within the remnant Ukrainian population. This is clearly a dilemma for Russia. Also the path of annexation may lead to war with NATO (unlikely but not impossible). 

In the past and in a less strategically crucial region, what Russia did was to limit itself to support separatist forces that asked for its protection, particularly against pro-NATO Georgia. It did the same in Transistria, a separatist region of Moldova, where the ethnic composition is complex enough (roughly split in three ethnicities: Russians, Ukrainians and Moldovans). This Russia did with the support of Ukraine.

But the situation in Ukraine is much more complex and involving a much greater number of variables. Ideally Russia would be better off with a friendly government in Kiev, I presume. 

In any case it seems that Donetsk, the most populated oblast of Ukraine, including 10% of the country's population, is set on the road to independence (or change of master at the very least). Lugansk and Kharkov gather more than 10%, while Zaporizhia and the already annexed Crimean Republic add some other 5%. In total these restive regions gather almost 13 million people, about 30% of of Ukrainians (or should I say ex-Ukrainians?).

They are also the richest ones in mineral resources (gas and coal) and heavy industry and where salaries are higher. Even losing influence on the rest of Ukraine, they are very much worth on their own. 

But the rest of Ukraine is still way too close to Moscow. A future NATO deployment in that area, as happened in other nearby countries before, would be a direct threat to the heart of Russia. Can Moscow manage to prevent this direct threat? How?

I would say that the secession threat may be played, at least hypothetically, to realign the army: I won't annex Donetsk, etc. but only if you remove the putschist from government and restore legality, granting free elections without fascist death squads on the streets...

... or in the Supreme Court as it was the case today in fact. 

That would be a truly masterful move that would not only save Russia but also Ukraine. I don't know if it is realistic however.

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