Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called a meeting of his top security chiefs for today (4 November) to discuss changing the strategy to handle the separatist challenge in the east, after a rebel vote at the weekend which he denounced as an “electoral farce”.
Poroshenko said he would meet with Ukraine’s security council on Tuesday as “adjustments” had to be made to the plan of action for dealing with the crisis in the east.
He repeated that Sunday’s election was a “flagrant violation” of a bedrock agreement reached in the Belarussian capital Minsk in early September intended to shape a settlement to the separatist problem.
Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine named a leader of a breakaway republic on Monday after weekend elections which was denounced by Kyiv and the West and further deepened a standoff with Russia over the future of the former Soviet state.
Kyiv and Western governments, including the United States, say the election violated a bedrock agreement reached on 5 September in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, which was also been signed by Russia.
Kyiv says this provided for elections to be held under Ukrainian law which would appoint purely local officials. The rebels’ vote to elect leaders and institutions in a breakaway territory violated the agreement, it says.
Speaking on Sunday, Poroshenko reiterated Kyiv’s view and denounced the ballot as a “farce (conducted) under the barrels of tanks and machine guns”.
Organisers of the vote said that Alexander Zakharchenko, a 38-year-old former mining electrician, had easily won election as head of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”, an entity proclaimed by armed rebels in the days after they seized key buildings in cities of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east last April.
A rebel representative said Igor Plotnisky had won a majority in a similar election in Luhansk, a smaller self-proclaimed pro-Russian entity further east.
The rogue votes, which Kyiv says Russia encouraged, could create a new “frozen conflict” in post-Soviet Europe and further threaten the territorial unity of Ukraine, which lost control of its Crimean peninsula in March when it was annexed by Russia.
Kyiv and the West will now be looking to see if Russian President Vladimir Putin will formally recognise the validity of the vote, despite their entreaties to him not to do so.
A Russian deputy foreign minister, Grigory Karasin, made no mention of formal recognition but said the newly elected leadership in eastern Ukraine now had a mandate to negotiate with Kyiv.
Up to now, Kyiv’s leaders have refused to hold direct talks with the separatists, whom they refer to as “terrorists” and “bandits”.
If Moscow were to recognise the votes, it would narrow options too for Poroshenko.
He has ruled out trying to take back the region by force after big battlefield losses in August. But after a parliamentary election on 26 October, he is now supported by a pro-Western power structure, determined to stop the break-up of Ukraine, and he could come under pressure to take a firmer line.
Putin’s first word?
Putin’s first word on the weekend election could come today when he is due to appear at a Red Square ceremony in Moscow marking National Unity day.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said on Monday Germany found it incomprehensible that “official Russian voices” were talking of recognising the election in eastern Ukraine.
Current developments in east Ukraine ruled out any premature lifting of EU economic sanctions against Russia and if the situation worsened, further sanctions may be necessary, spokesman Steffen Seibert said.
Italy does not recognise the voting, Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said, adding: “There is no alternative to a political solution to the crisis.”
A 5 September ceasefire has brought an end to full-scale clashes between government forces and the Russian-backed separatists, though sporadic shelling particularly in the airport area of Donetsk, continues to exert pressure on the truce.
Though the city was generally quiet early on Monday, artillery fire from the direction of the airport began to pick up later in the day.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that one of its four drones which are operating on observation missions in the south-east had been fired on by separatists using an anti-aircraft gun near the port of Mariupol on Sunday. It was not hit and returned to base intact.
The OSCE also said the GPS system of a second drone was electronically jammed by separatists operating from the ground in roughly the same area near Mariupol.
Russia’s border with eastern Ukraine has softened to the point of becoming completely porous, while an internal Ukrainian dividing line hardens, NATO’s top general said on Monday, cautioning about the risk of another “frozen conflict.”
U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander Europe, said he believed there were about 250 to 300 Russian troops inside eastern Ukraine helping train and equip Russian-backed forces.
Some seven Russian battalion task groups are across the international border in Russia, Breedlove said, adding that the composition of those forces made them difficult to quantify.
The international border had faded from view as attention shifts to the demarcation line separating pro-Russian militias and Ukrainian forces.
“We have an international border. That is the border between Russia and Ukraine. That should be the border that we’re trying to close, the border that we’re trying to enforce,” he said.
“The focus seems to be now on the control of this line of demarcation and patrolling the line of demarcation.”
Asked about his concerns, Breedlove said: “I’m concerned that the conditions are there that could create a frozen conflict.”
The elections were the latest twist in a geopolitical crisis that began with the popular overthrow of Ukraine's Moscow-backed leader, Viktor Yanukovich last February.
Russia denounced Yanukovich's ousting as a coup by a "fascist junta" and the following month annexed Crimea and subsequently backed the separatist rebellions that sprang up in the east.
Kyiv says that only direct intervention by Russian troops stopped Ukrainian government forces routing the separatists, though Russia, despite what the West says is incontrovertible proof, denies sending troops across the border.
More than 4,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which has led to U.S. and European Union sanctions against Russia.
- President of Ukraine: Address by the President, 3 November