Poroshenko’s On-Again, Off-Again Offensive Shows His Narrowing Options

July 3, 2014
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

As was expected, on June 27 Petro Poroshenko joined representatives of Moldova and Georgia in Brussels to sign an Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union.

But once the smiles and congratulatory handshakes over Ukraine’s “European choice” ended, Poroshenko had to return to Kiev to face the grim facts: fiscal insolvency heading for default, a plunging economy and national currency, a cutoff of gas supplies for non-payment, the continued presence of protesters occupying parts of the capital, and an unresolved security crisis in the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts.

Regarding the last, on the day he signed the AA Poroshenko extended the ceasefire he had originally declared unilaterally (which was later accepted by armed militias in the east, upon the opening of negotiations) for an additional 72 hours, until Monday, June 30. Hopes of sustainable peace were raised in quadripartite discussions between Poroshenko and other Kiev officials with leaders of France, Germany, and Russia, all of whom supported continued suspension of hostilities to allow talks on humanitarian relief and border security. While during the truce each side accused the other of violations, the level of fighting nonetheless had subsided, to the relief of the locals.

But at 10 PM Kiev time on June 30, Poroshenko abruptly declared the truce at an end, with the immediate start of a new offensive to rid the region of people he called “dirt and parasites.” The operation he earlier had ominously described only as “Plan B,” to “destroy” all those who refused to disarm and submit to Kiev’s authority, had begun.

In returning to the war option, and ignoring pleas from Paris, Berlin, and Moscow, Poroshenko seemed to be heeding two other constituencies.

First, his ceasefire had never been popular with more radical nationalist elements that formed the core of the movement that brought down the Yanukovych administration, and without which Poroshenko would not now be installed as president. During the extension, thousands gathered in the streets of Kiev to demand an “end to the ceasefire, introduction of martial law and provision of weapons to volunteer units” such as the “Donbas” battalion, whose commander, Semyon Semenchenko, addressed the pro-war crowd. Semenchenko – who reportedly is an ethnic Russian – later posted on Facebook what could be seen as an ultimatum to Poroshenko: “They say this was ‘the last peaceful demonstration’. It seems they’re right.”

Second, despite French, German, and Russian calls for peace, the voice of the United States in support of peace was conspicuously absent. Perhaps pending another leaked phone call, it is not knowable what U.S. officials might have told Kiev privately. However, from public comment made before Poroshenko’s announcement, Washington’s favorable view of renewed military action may be inferred:

The United States have made an early signal that they will support Poroshenko's decision. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said during her daily press briefing on June 30 that a ceasefire extension is up to Ukraine, and that the U.S. will support whatever decision the president makes.

Upon resumption of Kiev’s hostile actions, Psaki called them “moderate and measured.” This would come as news to civilians under Kiev forces’ shelling in Slavyansk (according to Reuters):

Mortars regularly hit apartment buildings, supermarkets, cars, hospitals and schools. Some people have been wounded inside their homes.

A 63-year-old man who gave his name only as Valery pointed to what used to be the brick wall of his apartment.

"A shell came in this morning and there's no more apartment", he says. "My wife and my granddaughter had just come into the room. They were covered in brick and plaster."

A callous attitude toward eastern civilians is hardly a surprise, given Kiev’s inability to rely on Ukraine’s regular army (according to TIME magazine):

Ukrainian conscripts serving in eastern Ukraine tend to be from the region, where the majority of the population is Russian-speaking. Many conscripts may have little loyalty to the Kiev government or openly support the separatists.

Accordingly, Kiev needs to rely on “National Guard” units, heavily manned by activists from western Ukraine, to spearhead the operation. Just as many members of the so-called “Azov” battalion are from Ivano-Frankivsk, many of the “Donbas” battalion fighters are from Lutsk, also in Ukraine’s far west. For them, residents of the easte are not fellow countrymen but treacherous aliens to be suppressed by force:

Ten of the soldiers killed [in May] were from Lutsk or nearby, including Maj. Leonid Polinkevych, a 30-year-old battalion commander from the village of Kolky.

His family complains that the army leadership and the government didn't give the men the right equipment or orders to protect themselves.

“They were told they were on a peaceful mission. They said they should smile at the locals like clowns in the circus,” said Maj. Polinkevych's father, Oleksandr, the head of the village council.

Local residents had hindered the unit’s attempts to erect a checkpoint between two villages south of Donetsk. In a video from the day before the attack, men harangue the soldiers, who sit on a grass verge on the side of the road.

Finally, in yet another indication the on-again offensive has not gone well in any case, Poroshenko today replaced his defense minister, appointing Colonel General Valeriy Heletey, who promptly vowed to recover Crimea: “There will be a victory parade – there will be for sure – in Ukraine's Sevastopol.” Also, yesterday in Berlin, a four-party foreign ministerial meeting (France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine) again sought to reinstate talks and “to pave the way for a new ceasefire, despite continued fighting that Kyiv says has now killed 200 of its troops.”

Today in Kiev, Poroshenko indicated, after talking on the phone with U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, that a renewed ceasefire may be possible.

Meanwhile, the walls will keep closing in: “Ukrainian inflation in 2014 could speed up to 17-19 percent due to the hryvnia devaluation and the rise in regulated tariffs, said Valeriya Gontareva, the head of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU).”