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Eastern Ukraine: International Confrontations through Local Proxies | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A woman waves a Russian flag as armed servicemen wait near Russian army vehicles outside a Ukrainian border guard post in the Crimean town of Balaclava March 1, 2014. Ukraine accused Russia on Saturday of sending thousands of extra troops to Crimea and placed its military in the area on high alert as the Black Sea peninsula appeared to slip beyond Kiev’s control. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (UKRAINE – Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)

Moscow- Efforts spent by international powers in the last three years have failed in putting an end to the raging armed conflict in Donbass, Eastern Ukraine, especially in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Tensions have escalated with the beginning of 2017 and clashes renewed in the first half of February between the Ukrainian National forces – trying to re-impose the government’s control over these two regions- and the Moscow-backed militias, insisting on a settlement that secures economic, national, cultural, and political rights of the region’s residents. Although all parties involved in this armed conflict are Ukrainians, the tension witnessed in the country since its independence in 1991falls under the headline: “the war between Russia and the West for power in Ukraine.”

The ongoing battles in Eastern Ukraine between government forces and militias have been the result of a political conflict, based on national and historical roots linked to the natural structure in the country.

On the political level, we can say that armed conflicts have kicked off with Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. During that stage, all the ruling elites in Ukraine and Russia assumed that the Cold War and the international confrontation ended, and that the world entered a phase of partnership.

As part of this vision, in 1993, the Central Council of Ukraine (the Central Rada) endorsed a bill featuring the “main directions of Ukrainian Foreign Policy”. It said that Ukraine’s claim for independence shall not keep it from contributing to the European security.

*Balance-based policy

Ukraine’s foreign policy reflected at that time the ruling elite’s tendency to adopt a balance-based policy concerning ties with Russia and the West. In line with maintaining historic ties with its neighbor Russia, Ukraine -like all the other previous Soviet republics- opened doors to cooperation with the military and political organisms in Europe; cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) didn’t represent a problem for Russia at that time.

Yet, the national factor arose and the country seemed divided between the west and east. Most of the west’s residents were Ukrainians, who spoke the Ukrainian language and felt enmity against Russia, while the majority of the east’s residents were Russians, with 31% among them speaking Russian. However, facts differed for Crimea, which remained till 1954 under the Russian control with a majority of Russian population.


This division was emphasized as a difference in political alignments; the west supported the alliance with Europe and opposed Russia, while the east aligned with Russia against the west. This confrontation among the ruling elites in Ukraine left a direct impact on relations between the west and the east in the country and deepened political division. Tension has grown yearly in correspondence with Ukrainian presidency approach towards the NATO forces.

The rule of President Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004) saw drastic shifts in the Ukrainian arena, as the country joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, expanded partnership with it, and announced its will to join the NATO forces in 2013. However, Kuchma, who was preparing to leave his position, realized that such a decision may lead to a national conflict, and therefore, he announced before the NATO Summit in Istanbul that his country is not ready yet to accept this membership.

*Between Russia and the West

However, Kuchma’s decision came late because Ukraine saw a significant debate concerning the country’s political alignment: Russia or NATO? This debate was translated in the presidential elections in 2004, which witnessed a severe competition between Viktor Yanukovych, a candidate who supported rapprochement to Russia and Viktor Yushchenko, who supported integration with the West.

After the elections’ central committee announced the winning of Yanukovych, a political confrontation ignited in the country, and Yushchenko rejected the results and accused his rival of cheating. Kiev saw massive protests, known as the Orange Revolution.

Consequently, elections were repeated and Yushchenko won, while Yanukovych led the parliamentary opposition represented by the Party of Regions and the Ukrainian Communist Party. Thus, Parties supporting plans to align with the West vainly sought to intensify their efforts towards NATO’s membership.

*Russian pressure

Over the years, Russia constantly sought to control the situation in Ukraine and tried to communicate with Yulia Tymoshenko and Yushchenko, targeting a wider cooperation between both countries without foreign interference. Russia stressed the importance of a mutual consideration of interests, given that Ukraine’s membership in NATO directly threatened Moscow’s security and interests. However, Russia’s efforts didn’t change anything.

In 2010’s elections, Yushchenko who supported the alignment with Russia won. He began his presidential term by endorsing a decision to suspend all government committees dedicated to prepare Ukraine to NATO’s membership. Later in 2013, he suspended the program preparing the country to NATO’s membership. But, the real crisis blew up in 2014, when he refused to ink the partnership agreement with the European Union, which paved the road for the Union’s membership.

Yushchenko took this decision after the EU refused to help Ukraine in its economic crisis, while Russia allocated USD15 billion for this purpose. This decision triggered protests across the country especially in Kiev. Unlike previous years, protests witnessed violence, shooting incidents and humanitarian losses.

Despite that the president succeeded in reaching an agreement with the opposition, yet the country didn’t regain its stability. After that, Yushchenko left Kiev to be succeeded by an acting president appointed by the opposition. Violence and protests erupted again and Donetsk and Luhansk announced their independence.

*Protests in Crimea

However, popular protests in Crimea, refusing the new authority in Kiev were the most important political development. Given that this region has been highly important for Russia, Putin requested the Federal Russian Council to approve the deployment of Russian Forces on the Ukrainian territories, at the request of the Crimean authority.

Then, with a Russian contribution, a referendum was organized in Crimea on March 16, when the majority of residents voted for separation from Ukraine and for joining the Russian Federation. On 18 March, Crimea and Sevastopol were annexed as two new entities in the Russian Federation amid a remarkable Russian expansion in Crimea.

At that time, confrontations in South Eastern Ukraine turned into an armed conflict, and Kiev’s authorities announced a special operation to recapture the Donbass regions. Armed forces were dispatched to participate in clashes of Donetsk and Luhansk. The region remained calm after leaders of Russia, Belorussia, Ukraine, France, and Germany reached an agreement known as “Minsk Protocol”.

However, the region has seen waves of violence. Armed clashes came along with political conflicts as the current Ukrainian President decided to conduct a referendum on his country’s membership in the NATO. For his part, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, president of the Donetsk Popular Republic considered that the referendum would mean that Kiev waived the Donbass regions, which have called for alliance with Russia far from any ties with NATO.