Ukraine, Having Seized Rebel-Held Cities, Now Must Govern Them

Stabilizing a Recaptured Conflict Zone Will Test Kyiv’s Skills at Reconciliation

While Ukraine’s weekend victory in seizing back two cities in Donetsk province is its biggest in the three-month war with Russian proxy forces, it immediately poses some tough new tests for the government in Kyiv.

And, at a critical moment in Ukraine’s fight against separatist militias backed by the Russian government, it is unclear what real support is being offered to Ukraine by governments in the transatlantic community.

Ukraine’s Military Gains

The scope of the military gains is still emerging. Ukrainian troops dislodged perhaps the biggest military center of the Russian-backed rebellion, in the city of Slaviansk, where the rebellion’s overall commander, Russian Army Col. Igor Girkin, had maintained his headquarters. Girkin and many of his fighters escaped to Donetsk, the largest city in southeastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Photos posted by Ukraine’s Defense Ministry showed that the separatists’ retreat from Slaviansk was unplanned, disorganized and perhaps even a rout. The ministry displayed large stocks of captured weapons and ammunition, including shoulder-fired rockets or recoilless rifles, land mines, and machine guns. Mangled or burned armored vehicles littered local roads. Anti-aircraft weapons also were seized, noted Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Adrian Karatnycky.

While pockets of damage to roads and buildings are evident in photos and video shot throughout Slaviansk, the city appears to have survived widespread destruction, Karatnycky and other analysts say. While much of Slaviansk had been emptied as city residents fled the fighting and the rebel occupation of the past months, Ukrainian officials immediately began bringing essentials “to the local population, including medications, potable water and food” as well as delayed pension payments, according to the daily report issued by Ukraine’s National Security Council. Troops and engineers were working to restore television transmissions, rail lines and utilities in the area, the council said.

With its takeover of Slaviansk and Kramatorsk, the northernmost points of rebel control, Ukraine controls a strategic set of roads running both north-south and east-west in the densely populated Donbas, Karatnycky said in an e-mailed analysis. Also, “Ukraine appears to have sealed a far larger portion of its border with Russia. “A section of fifty to 100 kilometers (thirty to sixty miles) remains somewhat porous, but that is narrowing,” he said.

Still, the escape of Girkin with what were likely hundreds of fighters means the rebels at Slaviansk have been merely displaced, not defeated. Only hours after Girkin’s ouster from the city, a wave of sabotage attacks in eastern Ukraine (railroad bridges blown up and an unsuccessful attack on a gasoline tanker truck) underscored that Kyiv will continue to face an aggressive, guerrilla-style war.

The New Challenges: Governance and Reconciliation

The Ukrainian government, amid its fiscal crisis and the Donbas war, now will be called upon to stabilize and govern the newly re-captured locales, perhaps the toughest test so far of its ability to begin implementing political reconciliation with eastern Ukrainian communities that are (or have been) seeking greater autonomy from the central government. The weekend’s advances bring Kyiv responsibility for a further quarter-million people in Donbas, Karatnycky noted.

“The government is moving in quickly with social services, and rapid payment of pensions and wages as well as emergency supplies of food,” Karatnycky wrote. “So the hearts-and- dimension is being addressed.”

Senior Fellow Sabine Freizer added: “To ensure that battlefield victories turn into sustainable peace, Kyiv needs to keep humanitarian corridors open and avoid bombing of civilian infrastructure. … Dialogue will be needed at all levels, especially to rebuild trust between pro- and anti-Russian communities.”

The military progress “should give more confidence to Kyiv authorities to push ahead with constitutional reforms” that already have been subject to long public debate in Ukraine, Freizer wrote. These include “decentralization that aims to further citizens’ ability to affect decision-making on issues of daily concern, ensure more effective governance, and rid the system of the kleptocracy that is in part to blame for the crisis in the east.”  Decentralization of power has been a particular demand of residents in the east, where larger portions of the population speak primarily Russian and identify themselves as ethnic Russians.

“Full investigations should occur where there is evidence of violations of international humanitarian law as Human Rights Watch appears to have found in two villages it visited over the past two days,” Freizer wrote.

The Uncertain Support of the West

Ukraine’s military advance comes a week after the end-of-June deadline given by Western governments to Russian President Vladimir Putin to halt the proxy war or face economic sanctions. Those governments and independent news organizations have offered detailed accounts of Russian leadership, arms supply and recruitment for the separatist militias.

Still, the Western governments have hesitated to actually apply the sanctions, the Atlantic Council’s Damon Wilson notes in an essay today. French and German officials last week pressed Poroshenko not to launch his counter-offensive, and instead to prolong the truce – a stance that also was supported at first by US Secretary of State John Kerry, Karatnycky said. Kerry “relented when Poroshenko told him he would not/could not extend the cease fire as this could provoke an uprising in Kyiv,” Karatnycky wrote.

The “delays in implementing the sanctions, after the issuance of public declarations and deadlines, represent a green light for Putin to do as he wishes,” Karatnycky said. “And they increase the chances that Poroshenko may be required to make compromises to end the proxy occupation of the two largest cities in the Donbas,” Luhansk and Donetsk.

“There are, however, signs that Putin is preparing the Donbas forces for a sellout. That sellout may include a peace deal that gives the governorship of the Donbas to Viktor Medvedchuk, a [Ukrainian politician who is a] crony of Putin’s whose role in the process was lobbied for by German Chancellor Angela Merkel,” Karatnycky added.

James Rupert is an editor at the Atlantic Council.

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Image: Ukrainian soldiers in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk on July 5, 2014. Ukrainian forces recaptured towns in eastern Ukraine from pro-Russian rebels on Saturday and raised the country's blue and yellow flag again over what had been the separatist redoubt of Slaviansk. PHOTO: REUTERS/Maria Tsvetkova