The Ukraine Crisis: Is the Worst Over?

While challenges certainly remain, there is reason to be hopeful in the long run.

Since November, when Ukraine’s political turmoil reached a critical point, we’ve seen a flood tide of punditry that can be described as follows: Lots of gloom, dollops of doom. It’s time for some (cautious) optimism. For internal and external reasons, Ukraine appears to have turned the corner.

Early in this crisis, I ventured the assessment that there was little chance of a full-blown Russian invasion of Ukraine. But after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, following a bogus referendum that contravened Ukraine’s constitution, there was much speculation that the Donbass could be next on Putin’s list. But the reality all along has been that he can’t pull off in eastern Ukraine what he did in Crimea. In fact, the Crimean model, if you will, is not what he has had in mind for the Donbass—and for good reasons.

The Crimea’s pro-Russian majority provided a hospitable setting and a social base for Russia’s landgrab. The Donbass lacks a Russian majority: in the two provinces that have witnessed the most upheaval, Donetsk and Luhansk, they constitute less than 40 percent of the population, in Kharkiv, about 26 percent. In Crimea, thousands of troops were already on the scene because Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is headquartered there on a long-term lease, and the infrastructure for accommodating more of them existed, enabling the rapid bulking up that occurred. In the Donbass, Russian forces would lack a similar support structure. The logistical systems for supplying and sustaining them would have to be created, probably amidst popular resistance. That’s not impossible to do, but it’s much harder.

Crimea is a small place; Russian troops swarmed it quickly. The Donbass is a big place; Putin would have to deploy many more troops to wrest control of it. He could do that, but it would be a provocative act. The EU and the United States are now in sanctions mode. So far, the punishment inflicted on Russia has been confined to a coterie of senior leaders and fat cats, but an invasion of Ukraine would end Europe’s divisions and hesitation about stiffening and expanding it. Russia would face sector-wide Western sanctions covering critical areas such as banking and energy. Putin understands this as well.

The idea of union with Russia had considerable support within Crimea’s ethnic Russian majority, though not among its Tatars and Ukrainians. Polls in the Donbass, by contrast, have shown consistently that only a small minority (a tad over 15 percent) favor secession in what is a Russified region. The same is true of popular enthusiasm for the armed bands that have commandeered key communication points and buildings in the Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk provinces, which explains their inability to mobilize mass support. Yes, they have a following, but nothing resembling a vast grassroots movement.

There were no massive rallies once the Ukrainian government started battling these groups in April. Even the May 2 clashes in Odessa, which killed some forty-two people, didn’t generate a tide of pro-independence rallies in Ukraine’s east and south; nor did the deaths of about twenty-five people in Mariupol, another Black Sea port city, on May 9. There’s plenty of suspicion in the Donbass about the Kyiv government, but there’s little longing for Yanukovych. Nor—as polls make clear—do most Donbass residents approve of Russia’s efforts to shape Ukraine’s politics.

Now the multibillionaire Donetsk oligarch Rinat Akhmetov has condemned secession, warning that it would create an economic calamity, and the sails of the separatists, whom he castigated, have lost even more wind. Akhmetov, who had been cagey about revealing his views on the future of the Donbass, has strong ties to Russia and may well have acted after consulting Moscow.

Putin, who has plenty of information about political trends in the Donbass, has shifted course. On May 7 he made two unexpected moves. First, he failed to back the looming referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk and asked that they be postponed. (Tellingly, the voters weren’t asked to say yea or nay on secession but rather on “self-determination.” The vagueness of the wording was not accidental: the architects of the referendums understood that support for fracturing Ukraine and attaching the Donbass to Russia was shallow.)

When the referendums were held anyway, the Kremlin’s endorsement was tepid at best. The separatist leaders had hoped that Putin would seek parliamentary approval for an annexation in the wake of the referendums, as he had in Crimea. He did not. Second, having repeatedly declared the interim Ukrainian government and its plan for a presidential elections on May 25 illegal, Putin surprised just about everyone by declaring that the elections were a “step in the right direction.” He did add that Ukrainians should be given an explanation, after the vote, of how their rights would be safeguarded. But who would quarrel with that?

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