May 1, 2014 | 13:12 GMT

6 mins read

Pro-Russian Separatism Remains a Threat in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian Separatism Poses a Threat in Eastern Ukraine
(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Pro-Russian separatism in eastern Ukraine remains the primary challenge for the Ukrainian government, with some regions moving further beyond Kiev's political and security control. Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov said April 30 during a meeting with regional governors that the country's security forces are unable to "take the situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions under control," adding that the Ukrainian army has been put on combat alert.

Despite the relatively small size of the pro-Russian armed groups in the east, Ukraine is not in a position to impose its will. The degree to which Kiev and its Western backers are willing to compromise on key political issues with Moscow will determine how aggressive Russia will be in its military posturing and future support of armed groups in eastern Ukraine. 

Following the Western-backed uprising in Ukraine that installed an EU-oriented administration in Kiev, the Ukrainian government has seen significant opposition to its rule in the eastern and southern parts of the country. This opposition was most pronounced in Crimea, where pro-Russian demonstrations and a subsequent Russian military intervention led to the peninsula formally breaking away from Ukraine.

After the annexation of Crimea, Moscow's focus shifted to eastern Ukraine as Russia sought to pressure and undermine the Ukrainian government's regional presence, much as it had in Crimea. Pro-Russian and anti-government demonstrations have intensified across eastern and southern Ukraine, in cities like Donetsk, Kharkiv and Odessa. Starting in early April, regional administration and security buildings were stormed and seized by armed groups in Ukraine's eastern reaches, following a pattern similar to that seen in Crimea. More than a dozen buildings in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are still controlled by such groups.

Eastern Ukrainian Cities Where Separatists Occupy Government Buildings As Of May 1

Eastern Ukrainian Cities Where Separatists Occupy Government Buildings As Of May 1

While it is difficult to specify the exact size of pro-Russian militant groups in the east, it is likely that no more than a couple of hundred well-armed men currently are occupying buildings and manning checkpoints throughout eastern Ukraine. These armed groups are concentrated in the two easternmost provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, where pro-Russian sentiment is highest in Ukraine. Within Donetsk, the largest and most professional armed groups are in Slovyansk; a key gateway city on the road from Donetsk to Kharkiv, the municipality is now regarded as a stronghold for separatist militants. Weapons used by armed groups in the region are mostly small arms, though there have been unconfirmed reports of the group in Slovyansk using rocket-propelled grenades.

There have been no indications that these armed groups have grown substantially in size since the initial storming of the buildings on April 6. However, these groups are supported by larger bodies of unarmed protesters, numbering in the hundreds or low thousands. For the most part, Ukrainian security forces' anti-terrorism operations have not supplanted the armed separatist groups from the buildings and areas they have seized. Security forces have been able to dismantle some checkpoints and wrested control of an airfield in Kramatorsk from separatists but have not been able to penetrate further into the city of Slovyansk. The Ukrainian military has sought to avoid civilian casualties out of fear of inciting anti-government and pro-Russian sentiment. Instead, Ukrainian forces have attempted to blockade the separatists within Slovyansk in an effort to constrict the group's supplies and potential reinforcements. A standoff has ensued between the separatists and Ukrainian security forces in the region, though the potential for further clashes and building seizures elsewhere in eastern and southern Ukraine remains during the upcoming May Day holidays, May 9-11 — a high point of Soviet nostalgia in the region.

Complications After the Geneva Talks

Meanwhile, Russia, Ukraine and Kiev's Western backers in the United States and the European Union have held negotiations over the embattled country's political future. The four sides reached a de-escalation agreement in Geneva on April 17, calling on armed groups to lay down their weapons and vacate occupied buildings while the Ukrainian government follows through with moves to change the constitution, granting greater autonomy to outlying regions. However, little has changed in eastern Ukraine as a result of the Geneva accord, with clashes continuing between armed groups and Ukrainian security forces. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of continuing to support armed groups in the east, though it is difficult to determine just how much control Russia has. In the meantime, Moscow has said that Ukraine's anti-terrorist operations in the east, as well as the alleged refusal of groups such as Right Sector to disarm, are not in keeping with the agreement.

While the Geneva agreement has not been implemented in practice, it has created a framework for reaching a potential settlement, or at least an understanding between the opposing sides. After all, Ukraine is most interested in maintaining territorial integrity in the face of Russian pressure — a goal that armed separatist groups undermine. Moscow's main imperative is to keep Ukraine neutralized and prevent the country from meaningfully integrating with the West. With a Western-oriented government currently in power in Kiev, Russia has been calling for a federalization of Ukraine that essentially would limit the central government's power and give Moscow greater influence in eastern regions. Failing this, Russia could use armed groups in the east to undermine the Ukrainian government and its ability to function coherently throughout the country.

Therefore, the lack of progress on the political side has exacerbated tensions on the ground, as seen by the continued occupation of buildings and the ongoing anti-terrorism operations by Ukrainian security forces. However, this does not mean that progress on the political front is impossible.

The Decentralization Issue

The Ukrainian parliament is currently deliberating a referendum on the decentralization of power, possibly to coincide with Ukraine's presidential elections set for May 25 (or the potential run-off in mid-June). Russia had previously said it would not recognize these elections, but in an April 29 interview with Russian daily, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow could recognize the elections "depending on how they are held" — a possible reference to the inclusion of the referendum.

The extent to which Ukraine follows through on the decentralization issue could be crucial in shaping Russia's response. Moscow has made no secret of the looming potential for a formal military intervention, with 40,000 Russian troops amassed along the Ukrainian border, mobilized under the pretense of military exercises. In reality, a military intervention is much more effective as a threat, therefore a source of leverage for Russia. The immense logistical and political constraints involved in actually invading Ukraine likely preclude direct Russian action. Russia increased its military exercises near the border after Ukrainian forces began their anti-terrorism activities, compelling Kiev to back down from carrying out such operations, even relinquishing certain checkpoints that the military had seized from separatists. Russian military proximity has served as an important deterrent, allowing pro-Russian forces room to maneuver.

It is notable in this context that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held a phone conversation with his U.S. counterpart Chuck Hagel on April 28 and said that Russia would not intervene in Ukraine militarily as long as Kiev does not use its own military against unarmed civilians. Shoigu also said that Russian troops had returned to their barracks from their standing positions on the border, though Ukraine and NATO have denied this so far.

Ultimately, Russia will use continue to use forceful pressure — whether in the form of ties to armed groups in the east or the threat of a military intervention — to try to prevent Kiev's further Western integration. With Ukraine unable to impose order in the east, Russia's posturing and support of the armed separatist groups will depend on how cooperative Ukraine and its Western allies are in talks on political issues. Moscow does not have overwhelming support or influence in the east, but at the very least the Russians can ensure that the eastern regions remain beyond Kiev's control for the foreseeable future: if the Kremlin deems such actions necessary.

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