Ukraine Politics: The Hawk, the Dove, and a Fragile Ceasefire

Living in a new post-NATO Summit reality with no prospect for military action from the West on the horizon, Ukraine is preparing for the October parliamentary elections and aiming to maintain the ceasefire struck last week. To that end, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk's hawkish stance stands in contrast to President Poroshenko's willingness to temporarily accept the territorial losses, and that theme looks likely to be an important one as the country heads to the polls next month. While the general unease that has settled on Ukraine seems to be foreshadowing a re-escalation of hostilities, joint Ukraine-US-NATO military exercises in western Ukraine will likely deter significant flare-ups over the next 10 days.

Domestically, preparations for the October 26 parliamentary vote ramped up last week. All of the main political parties moved to secure prominent individuals for their party lists and majoritarian districts, perhaps none more prominent than POW Nadiya Savchenko. Savchenko, who is on the prisoner swap list and is due to return home from Russia soon, is running on the ticket of Batkivshchyna, former PM and political prisoner Yulia Tymoshenko's party.

The main political forces have all sought to put forward candidates that represent two key themes of today's Ukraine: military heroism and the people power of the Maidan. Colonel Yuli Mamchur, who defiantly marched his squad of aviators towards Russian soldiers in Crimea back in March, is No5 in the pro-presidential party list, investigative journalists Serhiy Leshchenko and Mustafa Nayem are No19 and No20, respectively. The other main parties have all put forth commanders of military units and/or prominent social activists, hoping to prove to the people their openness, progress in de-Sovietization, and general adherence to the values of the Maidan.

Meanwhile, one of two parties that has little hope in delivering that very message to the voters, the Party of Regions, has officially backed out of the election, citing the disenfranchisement of 7mn voters due to the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in the east. It was also a recognition of a harsh reality – the Party of Regions was polling a dismal 2.2% (below the 5% threshold to enter parliament) partly owing to the loss of its voter base, but mainly as the electorate abandoned the party on the back of its involvement in the attempted crushing of Maidan, the Crimean annexation, and the entrenchment of the terrorist DNR and LNR forces in the east.

And so marks the official end of the Party of Regions as a political formation of any merit. That said, the process of reforming the business interests of the Party of Regions into new and existing political forces, which began back in February with the ousting of ex-President Yanukovych, continues. Notably, Serhiy Lyovochkin, the former head of the Presidential Administration under Yanukovych, has brought together 6 parties into a so-called Opposition Bloc, who will likely vie for the remnants of the south-eastern vote along with former central banker Serhiy Tihipko's Strong Ukraine party.

The results of a new poll released last week show the pro-presidential bloc making significant inroads in the past month, largely at the expense of Oleh Lyashko's Radical Party.

The ability of the president's party to maintain that strength in the polls will hinge on attacks from key political opponents on the subject of the ceasefire. Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has come out as a military hawk to Poroshenko the dove, and in doing so has confirmed one of the key themes of the October vote: peace at all costs vs. the continued defence of Ukraine's territorial sovereignty.

The pragmatic Poroshenko has and will continue to point to the NATO Summit in Wales and the alliance's clear message to Ukraine: NATO will not become involved as a combatant unless a member state is threatened. Ukraine and its Armed Forces are in poor shape to handle overt and wide-scale aggression from Russia; better to temporarily accept the territorial losses and a frozen conflict while refocusing on rebuilding the economy and the Armed Forces, the Poroshenko line reads. Yatsenyuk has taken a more idealistic high line by questioning the president's willingness to negotiate with terrorists and to accept a clear violation of Ukraine's sovereignty.

Commander-in-Chief Poroshenko has thus emerged as the main proponent of the ceasefire and has the largest incentive to see it succeed. And although the ceasefire can be considered a success when looking at the decreased number of casualties, the active exchange of prisoners, and the de-escalation of hostilities, the general feeling of unease that hangs over Ukraine foreshadows a ramping up of hostilities.

That ramp-up may just come in the form of the second "humanitarian aid convoy" from Russia, part of which has reportedly crossed illegally into Ukraine in recent days. The first aid convoy in late August came alongside a mass, if somewhat covert, incursion of Russian military forces, which then halted and reversed the Ukrainian military's territorial gains of the summer months. The need for another "aid convoy" is somewhat puzzling, however, given that one of the first convoy's purposes was to test the West's mettle and gauge its reaction to an invasion. With no retort then and NATO's red carpet for Russia now rolled out in Ukraine, the real purpose of the second convoy remains to be seen, likely in the coming days.

And while Ukraine knows not to expect NATO intervention, NATO member states have reportedly started selling Ukraine weapons on the basis of agreements made at the Wales Summit a week ago. Barring a drastic escalation with Europe, arms sales and technical support will be the extent of Western military engagement in the conflict. As several commentators noted this week, the talk of Ukraine being granted US non-NATO major ally status seems to be nothing more than rumour, as that would require the US to engage Russia directly. Moreover, Russia has reacted with vitriol at a bill registered in Ukraine's parliament to revoke its non-military-bloc status, presumably to seek closer ties with NATO.

For the time being, then, Ukraine will depend on the ceasefire holding, on continued military-technical support, and on EU and US sanctions starting to bite. On the heels of this week's sanctions round by the EU, the US is said to be preparing its own package of sanctions. And while pacifists and realists alike demand deeper, broader, and harsher sanctions, the truth is that the sanctions to date have been ineffective. The largely tepid reaction (the MICEX closed Friday barely 30pts below its pre-Crimea level of 1489) to the significant capital flight and the looming recession seems to highlight the uncomfortable reality of Putin's Russia – geopolitical might is right.

That said, on the heels of Russia's warning to Poland and Slovakia to stop reversing pipeline flows and supplying Ukraine, the EU's newest sanctions have shifted the battlefield to the energy sphere, with Ukraine now finding itself between a rock and a hard place. Russia cut Ukraine off from gas supplies back in June and has now moved to strongly discourage EU states from re-exporting gas to Ukraine. Europe now faces the prospect of its third gas war in 8 years and Ukrainians face a chilly winter. Further developments in the energy sphere will be worth following closely; as noted in a Bloomberg View op-ed this week, "Putin may have himself to blame for tipping the EU's internal debate against him. By reducing natural gas deliveries to Poland and Slovakia this week, Russia made it clear that it still plans to escalate its effort to turn Ukraine into a failed state."

And so with 6 weeks left until the parliamentary elections Ukraine finds itself in an unenviable position. Abandoned by NATO, watching a large and growing troop build-up on the Russian border, facing a looming winter energy crisis and a crippled economy, and awaiting further moves from the Russian and pro-Russian forces already in Ukraine, all while trying to organize parliamentary elections. On the upside, Ukraine is hosting joint military exercises (an annual event held since 1995 called Rapid Trident) with the US and NATO members states from September 15 to 26 in western Ukraine. The conflict may shift into the diplomatic arena over those 11 days as President Poroshenko seeks to solidify his peace plan and strengthen the still-weak ceasefire.

Click here for the full document