With the notion of invasion or annexation by Russia apparently off the table for now, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has settled into a slow, grinding stalemate, and the next phase will probably be more political than military. The battleground is already clear: nationwide presidential elections scheduled for May 25. The interim government in Kiev will hold elections for a new leader, and aims to begin moving the country out of its post-Maidan crisis period. The pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, however, say there will be no voting in the territory they control. Whether the election occurs in Donetsk and Luhansk—two regions that declared independence after hastily prepared referendums earlier this month—will be a test of the strength and durability of eastern Ukraine’s separatists, and give a good sense of whether Kiev is recapturing momentum in the region.
In Donetsk, the would-be capital of the pro-Russian separatist forces, both sides act as if they’re in control, with each probably more confident than reality warrants. The Kiev-appointed governor of Donetsk, Serhiy Taruta, claims that voting on May 25 will proceed normally—even though he was forced to make the announcement from a hotel ballroom rather from than his official office in the regional administration building, long overrun by anti-Kiev fighters. The nominal head of the Donetsk separatists, Denis Pushilin, has said there will be no elections at all. Following the legally dubious referendum overseen by his supporters, Pushilin calls the Ukrainian military forces in the east are “occupiers” and says the election will select a president of a “neighboring state.” That is surely braggadocio, but Kiev’s writ is indeed weak over much of the Donbass, the eastern region heavy with industrial plants and coal mines where the separatists claim the most support.
Yet their reach may not be enough to cover the thousands of polling places that the Kiev government plans to operate across the region. The separatists have enough fighters to disrupt voting and keep some polling stations from opening, especially in areas where they’re strong such as the military stronghold of Slaviansk. But they lack the numbers to take over every school, cultural center, and administrative building where voting will occur. They will probably focus on preemptive intimidation, targeting electoral officials and other local administrators for threats and attacks. In Luhansk, for example, separatist fighters kidnapped an election commissioner. Voting day may be a flashpoint for violence, because pro-Kiev paramilitary groups are expected to deploy to ensure voting while anti-Kiev fighters may fan out to do the opposite. Civilians could be the ones who suffer, as they did on May 11 during the separatist referendum, when a pro-Kiev battalion of unclear authority fired into an angry crowd in Krasnoarmeysk, killing two people.
It appears for now the separatist movement may be losing strength in the wake of last week’s referendum. The Kremlin’s lukewarm reaction to its appeal to join Russia has left eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russian activists and fighters in an unclear position. What are the movement’s prospects if its benefactor and greatest hope is giving it the cold shoulder? A video appeal by a pro-Russian military commander asked for more volunteers, suggesting the military ranks of the separatists may be thinning. A demonstration in the center of Donetsk on May 18, where the crowd was smaller than in previous pro-Russian protests, called for opening the borders with Russia—another sign that the separatist cause is waning and in need of additional support.
Also working against the separatists is the opposition of Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and a longtime kingmaker in the Donetsk region, to the idea of eastern Ukraine becoming independent or joining Russia. “I strongly believe that the Donbass can be happy only in a unified Ukraine,” Akhmetov announced. His support may be enough to ensure that voting will be held in the many towns in the east that have factories and industrial plants under his control. And informal militias and neighborhood watch patrols made up of employees of Akhmetov’s companies are keeping an eye on cities such as Mariupol, on the Azov Sea.
After the May 25 election—or, if no candidate emerges with more than 50 percent support in the first round of voting, after a runoff in early June—the conflict in eastern Ukraine will inevitably move into a new phase. At a minimum, the vote will produce an interlocutor acceptable to Moscow in future negotiations. The Kremlin so far has refused to enter into talks with Kiev, saying Ukraine has had no legitimate leader since former president Victor Yanukovych fled office. But President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranking officials have given their measured support to the election, indicating that Russia will be ready to deal with the new president. The country needs someone to talk with if it wants to advance its notion of “federalization,” a proposal that would see far-ranging powers granted to Ukraine’s regions, neutering the country as a threat to Moscow and preserving a lever of influence for Russia.
Even if the election is held with relative success in the east, it will not resolve the anger, fear, and abandonment that underlie support for the anti-Kiev mood in the region. The pro-Russian camp has no candidate around which it can coalesce, and so may feel more alienated by the results of the vote. That will leave the Donetsk and Luhansk separatists further isolated. Every day that Russia neither invades in defense of their cause nor moves closer to annexing their territory as they have requested, their position becomes weaker.
The danger is that, once undermined politically, eastern Ukraine’s separatists could make up for their declining fortunes by stepping up military operations. They have a core of well-armed and motivated fighters who can inflict serious damage, as they did in a May 13 ambush of Ukrainian army forces that left seven dead. The past several weeks have seen the emergence of various paramilitary groups that operate on their own—both in support of Kiev and of the separatist cause—and don’t necessarily answer to their respective leaders. The upcoming election may push the political process forward, but it doesn’t mean the cycle of violence between militias will stop. Never before in its 23-year history has post-Soviet Ukraine had as important, or fraught, an election.