Who’s in charge in Eastern Ukraine? That question became even more complicated this week, after Vladimir Putin announced (to general surprise) that he’d prefer pro-Russian separatists to postpone their planned independence referendum, which is scheduled for May 11. Just as surprising was the separatists’ response: No dice. Is this all some elaborate misdirection, or are events in Ukraine’s East slipping out of Putin’s control?
Over the last few weeks, the position of pro-Russian separatists in the East has weakened noticeably. For a time after their emergence in regions on the country’s Russian border, The Economist notes, “anti-Ukraine rebels were able to do as they pleased.” They seized government buildings in Eastern cities and even proved capable of repulsing the country’s security forces. But now, “pro-Ukrainian forces have begun to regroup,” the army has surrounded a key rebel stronghold, and volunteers have “begun training for street fighting and partisan warfare.”
That’s an unsettling sign, to put it lightly—but some observers think events could slide even further into chaos. As Julia Ioffe notes, recent violence in Odessa suggests that the conflict could be growing more complex than Russia had anticipated. Putin, Ioffe argues, “likely didn’t count on” street war among rival Ukrainian groups, “and it’s even likelier that the last thing he wants next door is a civil war.” But the escalating violence suggests “that facts on the ground have taken on a momentum of their own, one that even Putin can’t harness, let alone control.”
In the meantime, Max Fisher points out, public opinion in the East is stubbornly against Russia. It’s likely that Putin simply hoped to replicate his success in Crimea—annexing the supposedly pro-Russian East with minimal resistance. But opinion polling shows that “despite weeks of agitation by pro-Russia separatists widely thought to be backed by Moscow,” 70 percent of Eastern Ukrainians want to keep their country unified. Fisher argues that this is “great news,” because it indicates that most Ukrainians in that region are cool to the idea of joining Russia, and the faction inclined to continue with pro-Russian agitation is “a pretty small minority.”
Still, at least two major questions remain. First, is this faction taking orders from Putin? They’re currently defying his (apparent) wish to delay the independence referendum—a wish that, if genuine, might well stem from the Kremlin’s concerns about those unfavorable opinion numbers. But as Ioffe asks, if the separatists want to join up with Russia, “can they really ignore Putin’s request to hold off?”
The second question concerns Putin’s endgame. Tim Judah thinks that by continuing to stoke rebellion in the East, Russia could provoke Ukraine into declaring martial law in advance of the upcoming presidential election. Judah predicts that if that happens, “Putin will then continue to argue that the authorities in Kiev are illegitimate”—which, though not a prelude to occupation, could be the first step towards “trying to force the federalization of Ukraine.” Federalizing Ukraine would make it easier, over the long term, for Russia to exert influence in the country’s East—while avoiding the more severe international backlash that would accompany any attempt at outright annexation.
Finally, it remains to be seen if Putin can maintain just the right amount of chaos in Ukraine’s East long enough to achieve that goal. If he reduces the pressure, Ukraine’s tottering government might just be able to reassert control and quash the unrest once and for all. But if Putin sows too much trouble, events could well spiral out of Russia’s control, leading to a brutal, unwanted civil war on the border—and the possibility of serious international escalation. If pro-Russian separatists are now comfortable defying the Kremlin, Russia’s influence over the situation might already be slipping. We learned this week that these separatists are probably too few in number to spark a widespread independence movement. But we also learned that they’re apparently comfortable ignoring the pleas of their putative patrons. If the former is cause for relief, the latter is a reason to remain wary—especially if next week’s referendum moves forward.