Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s declaration of a ceasefire June 20 upped expectations that a peace agreement with separatists in eastern Ukraine could soon be reached. Yet those hopes were dealt a blow just four days later when pro-Russian separatists shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter, killing nine.
Poroshenko proposed a peace plan under which separatist fighters would surrender arms and be granted amnesty. Yet in eastern Ukraine, many separatists view Poroshenko’s offer as a hoax.
“People don’t believe the government of Kiev,” says Maria Marikanova, a Russian journalist covering the conflict from the eastern city of Donetsk. “They don’t believe their words and they don’t feel like they are safe. Kiev can break their promises easily and they won’t be punished by anyone.”
Undermining peace efforts is pervasive mistrust on both sides, with Ukrainian and Russian media coverage of the conflict only fanning the flames. Many in eastern Ukraine view Poroshenko’s overtures of peace as a stalling tactic to gather arms and troops to take back rebel-held cities such as Donetsk and Slovyansk.
“Even though it’s quite calm in Donetsk, they are terrified of Kiev using chemical weapons or bombs,” says Max Avdeev, a Russian photojournalist who has covered the conflict for The New Republic, a U.S. magazine. “This paranoia comes from Russian state TV propaganda.
A recent broadcast from Rossiya 1, Russia’s main state-owned television channel, accused Kiev of “killing its own people” and claimed the conflict had forced 400,000 from their homes—a figure eight times higher than the latest United Nations’ estimates. Ukrainian media's coverage of the conflict has also faced criticism, most notably for it's branding of eastern separatists as "terrorists."
Though some fighting Kiev are Russians who have come across the border, Marikanova and Avdeev describe separatist fighters as including many ordinary people who have taken up arms to defend their families and property.
“I spoke to someone, age 32, with two kids, who had a travel agency,” Avdeev says. “He closed his business in early March, fired his eight or nine employees, and now he is a rebel.”
Even without the propaganda, some in eastern Ukraine are unlikely to support any peace effort that places them under Kiev’s control. Avdeev describes hundreds of “suicide fighters” in the town of Slovyansk, 300 miles (595 km) east of Kiev. The scene of much of the heaviest fighting between rebels and the Ukrainian military, Slovyansk rebels fear that they will face death or lengthy prison terms for killing Ukrainian soldiers—including those killed in the attack on the Ukrainian military helicopter June 24.
“They can’t accept the scenario where they are back under Kiev, they are just against the current government,” Marikanova says. “There are two scenarios: to join Russia or to be independent.”
The continuing diplomatic struggle between Russia and the U.S. and its European allies complicates reconciliation efforts. Poroshenko was expected to sign a wide-ranging free trade pact with the European Union June 27. The deal is similar to the one rejected last year by former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, a move that triggered protests that led to his ouster.
The EU-Ukraine agreement hurts the recently formed Eurasian Economic Union, a group created by Russian President Vladimir Putin that includes former Soviet republics Kazakhstan and Belarus. But as the largest and richest ex-Soviet state after Russia, the Ukraine’s absence from the group leaves it much weaker.
Some in western Ukraine see Putin playing the role of spoiler by continuing to arm the rebels and failing to condemn their violations of the ceasefire. The continuing instability caused by Putin’s support prevents Kiev from reviving its tattered economy.
“Nobody wants to invest in a country where there are wars in two regions,” says Olga Tokariuk, a Ukrainian journalist in Kiev who has covered the economic impact of the conflict. “In this way, Putin pulls Ukraine closer to Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union…It will be difficult to resist pressure for closer integration to and a closer relationship with Russia.”
Russian-born Serheii Plokhii, a Harvard University professor of Ukrainian history, says Russia is unlikely to attempt to annex eastern Ukraine as it did Crimea earlier this year—in large part because it is an economically struggling. Cities like Donetsk and Slovyansk have little to offer Russia other than Soviet-era mills and mines.
“To bring life back to that region, you would need billions and billions of dollars in investments,” Plokhii says.
That leaves Russia’s broader strategic goals as its motivation for its continuing support for Ukraine’s rebels.
“Russia is certainly trying to establish and reestablish its influence over the former Soviet Republic states,” Plokhii says. “This is in order to build a political and economic bloc that would compete with and, if necessary, withstand a conflict against the EU, NATO, or China.”
Only a year ago, armed conflict between NATO and Russia was nearly unthinkable. But as the U.S. and its allies warn of additional sanctions against Russia if it fails to persuade Ukrainian rebels to disarm—a return to cordial relations, both within Ukraine and between Russia and the West—seems ever more remote.
With Olga Khrustaleva