BERLIN – The rebel-held eastern regions of Ukraine held peculiar elections Sunday — not because a cow, literally, could have voted it in, or because it was observed by an illegitimate clone of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The most striking feature is that nobody really cared who would win: The fundamental question is whether Russia would help the region’s two self-proclaimed people’s republics to expand beyond the ragged bit of territory they now hold.
Technically Sunday’s elections were not supposed to take place. Last month, the separatist rebels, the Ukrainian government, Russia and OSCE mediators signed a cease-fire protocol in Minsk, Belarus. It stipulated that elections to the local governments in rebel-held areas were to be held under a Ukrainian law that would grant the lands a special status. Ukraine promptly passed the law, setting the elections for Dec. 7. The rebels, however, ignored it and decided on Nov. 2 as their date.
That, naturally, made officials in Kiev unhappy. “Phoney elections on occupied territories have nothing to do with expression of people’s will and violate Minsk accords,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweeted. On the other hand, Ukraine itself has no intention of following its special status law. It mentions Ukrainian financial support for the regions’ “social and economic development,” but the bureaucrats and politicians I talked to in Kiev last week told me the government would not spend a cent on the rebel-held areas: It has plenty of problems in the part of Ukraine it controls. Kiev has not paid out pensions and public sector salaries in the separatist regions since the summer.
It is de-facto recognized in Kiev that maintaining a minimal living standard in Donetsk, Luhansk and the eponymous “people’s republics” is now Moscow’s responsibility. Moscow is already sending “humanitarian convoys” that sometimes look suspiciously military, but it’s clear that there’s also a lot of Russian money in the areas being channeled through their unreliable, mercurial leadership. There is no doubt that the elections were sanctioned by the Kremlin, which recognized their results, while making a nod to the need for a “sustainable dialogue between the central Ukrainian authorities and representatives of the Donbass in line with agreements reached in Minsk.”
Therein lies an enigma: If Russia wants the Minsk agreements to succeed, why would it back such obviously farcical votes?
In Donetsk and Luhansk, people bring submachine guns to restaurants and polling stations alike. Since the rebels did not have access to electoral rolls, it was laughably easy to register as a voter. One woman apparently filled in the requisite questionnaires for a cow, putting down “Ear Tag MOO-123321, issued on 01.01.1998 by shepherd Semyon Ivanovich,” as identifying document, and received a number allowing her to cast a vote online.
When the OSCE refused to observe the elections, a group calling itself the Association (or Agency, to hear its different members talk) for Security and Cooperation in Europe popped up conveniently and gave a press conference in Donetsk, praising the votes. The delegation consisted of far-right politicians from Austria, Belgium, Italy, France and several eastern European nations, as well as two Greek Stalinists.
Despite long lines at the sparse polling stations, no one but a frequent spectator of Russian state television could accept the elections as legitimate. Though anti-Kiev sentiment is as strong as ever in eastern Ukraine — both its rebel-held parts and the ones controlled by the central government — the elections were not necessary to vent it. Russia could have told the rebels to stick with the Dec. 7 date, but it didn’t.
Perhaps the answer to the riddle is that the sides in the conflict do not yet consider it as frozen. On Sunday, the Ukrainian military reported Russian troop movements into Eastern Ukraine, and Western reporters saw convoys of unmarked military trucks move toward Donetsk. Ukrainians suspect Moscow of still planning to cut a land corridor to Mariupol on the Sea of Azov so it can improve supply lines to annexed, almost-isolated Crimea. Also, in the real Ukrainian parliamentary election eight days ago, a number of eastern and southern regions voted heavily for the moderately pro-Russian opposition bloc, giving rise to fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin might see that as a sign that a Russian invasion might meet with support there.
The separatists make no secret of wanting to consolidate the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk regions under their authority. In an interview with Moscow-based Expert magazine, Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, boasted that in a month since the Minsk cease-fire, his people had seized control over 38 towns and villages.
Ukrainians, for their part, plan to win back the land. Andrei Teteruk, a volunteer battalion commander elected to the Ukrainian parliament, told the Meduza.io news site that the country should “increase its military potential and grow its economy to be prepared to return our territories by force of arms.”
Though freezing the fighting and using the people’s republics as a buffer between Russia and Europe appears to be Putin’s immediate goal, he is doing nothing to force it. After all, given Ukraine’s precarious economic situation and the apparent lack of political will for quick change, the country may soon be a failed state that will allow him — or, as he might see it, force him — to make another land grab.
“Putin will never betray us, that’s my gut feeling,” Zakharchenko said in his Expert interview. Russia’s support of the votes — in which the republics’ incumbent leaders won overwhelmingly, in case you wondered — must be meant to reinforce that intuition. The spring is still tightly coiled, even if for now neither Ukraine nor Russia sees a full-scale war as the most probable outcome.
Berlin-based Leonid Bershidsky writes for Bloomberg View and is the author of three novels and two nonfiction books.
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