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Putin's New Russia: What the Future May Hold for Eastern Ukraine

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The fragile cease-fire in Ukraine appears to be holding, but President Vladimir Putin still has the upper hand. Increasingly, it looks like he intends to establish a Russian protectorate in eastern Ukraine.

In the morning, when he drives from his apartment across from the German Embassy to his office in the Kiev city hall, everything seems normal. Outdoor cafés are humming with activity and wind surfers make their way to the shores of the Dnieper River.

Kiev, these days, feels like a city enjoying an eternal summer, as long as one ignores the enormous poster hanging at Euromaidan square in the city center. "Pray for Ukraine," it reads. One also has to look away from the old buses used by the Ukrainian army to ferry its soldiers and reserves to the front. They are part of the last contingent Kiev has to offer.

Vitali Klitschko has to turn on his car's air conditioning. "It's 30 degrees here today," (86 degrees Fahrenheit) he says on the phone. "It's hard to believe that winter will be arriving soon."

The call took place last Friday, just as the NATO summit in Wales was drawing to a close. Once again, the West expressed its solidarity with Ukraine, but failed to agree on anything that would be of much help.

"The West has spent too much time thinking," Klitschko says. "The border should have been much more decisively demarcated from the beginning. It is no longer a secret that the Russian army is fighting in Ukraine. And that's not just a problem for Europe. The fact that Russia wants to redraw borders and expand its territory is a problem for the entire world."

Map: "Novorossiya" and Eastern Ukraine

Klitschko is the mayor of Kiev and is now focused on evaluating crisis scenarios to get the Ukrainian capital through the winter in the event Russia cuts off the natural gas supply. Already, hot water has been shut off throughout the city. Hope -- of the kind Vitali Klitschko embodied last winter when he became one of the symbols of the protests that led to the ousting of then-President Viktor Yanukovych -- is also in short supply.

'Back in the USSR'

 

Pessimism has become predominant instead. Klitschko doesn't believe in the peace plan Vladimir Putin unveiled last week. Indeed, he no longer believes much of anything the Russian president says. Putin, Klitschko says, is merely trying to distract attention from his true goals. "He wants to destabilize our country. His real aim is: Back to the USSR."

Ten months after the popular revolt and six months after the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula, Ukraine is facing the loss of its eastern provinces as well. The cease-fire agreed to last week between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's eastern Donbass region has done little to change that. Indeed, the truce was repeatedly breached over the weekend and there were more reports of gunfire and shelling near Donetsk and the coastal city of Mariupol on Monday morning. But even if the cease-fire does hold, a lasting peace agreement is not yet in sight.

Thirty minutes before the cease-fire was to go into effect last Friday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was standing on the golf course in front of the Celtic Manor Resort Hotel in Wales, where last week's NATO summit took place, to speak about the meeting's results. There was no talk of a breakthrough. Instead, he emphasized that the cease-fire was only valid so long as all 12 points of the deal agreed to by his troops and the rebels are upheld. One of those points is the inviolability of his country's borders. He knows that the deal is little more than a declaration of intent and not a solution.

He may now also be faced with resistance from Ukraine's volunteer battalions, which are not under his command. Many of them see Poroshenko as a traitor. Indeed, even before the cease-fire deal, the commander of the Dnipro Battalion threatened: "We will march on Kiev with our machine guns if we don't finally receive better equipment."

Just after the deal was inked, separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine declared that their aim of an independent state had not changed. "We will continue pursuing our goal of seceding from Ukraine," said Igor Plotnitsky leader of the Luhansk People's Republic.

A Blueprint for Capitulation

 

"Putin's goal is that of destroying Ukraine as a sovereign state and transforming it into a vassal of Moscow's, with or without Western approval," says Vladimir Frolov, a Moscow-based political consultant and former diplomat. Indeed, Putin's seven-point plan for Ukraine, delivered last Wednesday during his state visit to Mongolia, can be seen more as a blueprint for Kiev's capitulation than as a peace plan.

At the NATO summit last Thursday, Ukrainian President Poroshenko could hardly disguise his skepticism. Pale and perspiring and with deep rings under his eyes, Poroshenko stood with NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen in the press tent. He was asked if Putin should be believed when he says he is serious about a peace deal.

For the entire day, the expression on Poroshenko's face had been a serious one as he went from one meeting to the next. But now, he had to laugh, more resigned than amused. Finally, he managed to come up with a diplomatic answer. "I am happy for every occasion for optimism. But it is a very careful optimism," he said.

The Ukrainian president seems to be in a hopeless situation. If he were to accept the conditions laid down by Moscow, there is a danger that he could lose power in Kiev, particularly with parliamentary elections approaching at the end of October. But if he follows the hardliners, such as Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who proposed last week that a wall be built on the border between Russia and Ukraine, he risks the disintegration of his own country. Poroshenko is doing all he can to reach a compromise with Russia, even if he harbors doubts about Putin's trustworthiness.

The Russian president, for his part, can play for time if he so chooses. Thanks to Russian support, the eastern Ukraine separatists are a superior fighting force to the Ukrainian military. And the Kremlin knows that NATO is uninterested in fighting a war on Ukraine's behalf, despite all of the warnings that came out of the Wales summit. He can easily wait until wintertime, when Ukraine's economy, already suffering greatly, is likely to get even worse. Moscow is betting on the fact that neither the Americans nor the Europeans will be prepared to prop up Ukraine with billions in annual aid.

Tsarist Russia Redux

 

Ever since Putin elected to provide massive support to separatists in eastern Ukraine in the form of both munitions and soldiers -- a decision he likely made during a meeting of the Security Council of the Russian Federation in mid-August -- his strategy has been apparent. He wants to force the Ukrainian government to negotiate a peace deal directly with the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. Then, Moscow could create a Russian protectorate in rebel-controlled areas on the model of Transnistria, the pro-Russian territory in eastern Moldova. He could also be aspiring to establish a land corridor to the Crimea, or even the resurrection of so-called Novorossiya (New Russia), an area of eastern Ukraine that Catherine the Great once annexed.

Putin hinted toward the latter ambition at the end of August when he praised the rebels in eastern Ukraine as "defenders of Novorossiya." It was a reprise of a statement he made during a televised question-and-answer session on April 17, when he said: "To borrow a formulation used by the tsars, I would like to recall that the southeastern part of Ukraine is Novorossiya." Then, in addition to Donetsk and Luhansk, he began listing cities in eastern Ukraine that were not the focus of fighting but which he apparently saw as being Russian. Among them were Kharkiv, Kherson -- a city near the Crimean Peninsula -- and the port cities of Odessa and Mykolaiv. "During the tsarist times, they didn't belong to Ukraine. These territories were passed on to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government," Putin said. Could that, then, be Putin's long-term strategy? Geopolitical expansion justified by Russian holdings during the tsarist era?

Putin is prepared to do everything in his power to prevent Ukraine from creating stronger ties with the European Union and NATO. There are many reasons for his concern, including his desire to keep the trans-Atlantic alliance as far away as possible. But his own hold on power is also a worry. Two key constituencies upon whom his power largely depends would be loath to forgive him were he to suffer defeat in the geo-political struggle for Ukraine. The first is a conservative population that already feels humiliated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The second group is made up of the military, security personnel and intelligence agencies, the so-called Siloviki.

The instable political situation in Ukraine plays directly into Putin's hand. Not only are elections right around the corner, but there is little consensus in Kiev as to how to handle the eastern uprising and stable parliamentary majorities have been difficult to come by. The October vote could produce additional uncertainty: One of the front-runners is Oleg Lyashko, head of the right-wing nationalist Radical Party.

'We Need a Warrior'

 

Currently, surveys indicate that Lyashko's party is in second place behind the party alliance of President Poroshenko and Vitali Klitschko. Lyashko received 8 percent of the vote in May presidential elections and he could torpedo Poroshenko's efforts at peace should he land in the prime minister's office. "Who knows what will remain of this government after the election," Lyashko has said.

A hardliner, Lyashko is in favor or rearming Ukraine with nuclear weapons and he wants to get the wealthy Poroshenko out of office as soon as possible. "We don't need an oligarch as head of state, we need a warrior," he says.

For his interview with SPIEGEL, he came directly from the battlefront in Mariupol, the port city on the Sea of Asov that has been threatened by separatists and Russian troops since the end of last week. Wearing combat boots and a green bomber jacket, he says he is opposed to negotiating with Moscow. Lyashko has proven adept at using YouTube to publicize his visits to the front. One video shows him dressed all in black taking part in an interrogation of a rebel commander, who is half naked and is bleeding. Pro-Russian separatists have said they want to execute Lyashko without trial while Lyashko himself proclaims "Death to the Occupiers" on his black-and-white campaign posters.

"You don't talk to your enemies, you destroy them," he says. To help defeat Moscow, he hopes for support from American drones in addition to air-defense systems and high-precision rockets from NATO, which he would like to see Ukraine join in the near future. "We will give Moscow a second Afghanistan," he promises.

In eastern Ukraine, it is already possible to see the kind of future that radicals on both sides dream of. It may not look much like Afghanistan, but it does recall images of Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic, following the wars there in the 1990s.

Heading for Mariupol

 

Petrovsky, located about 70 kilometers east of the rebel-held city of Donetsk, was once a quiet, peaceful village. Now, it festers like an open wound on the late-summer landscape. Burned out tanks line the roads with overturned trucks and destroyed armored personnel vehicles in the front yards of badly damaged houses.

When the battle over the strategically important hill of Savur-Mohyla reached Petrovsky, Yekaterina Rudenko, her son Nikolai and their neighbor buried the remains of a Ukrainian soldier, torn apart by a mortar round, under a large pine tree. The grave also provided a final resting place for the severed hands and bloody legs of others killed in the battle. Rudenko, 83, lost her two-story home.

Petrovsky is one of the many settlements taken by the separatists after they received fresh soldiers and new weapons from the Russians. The offensive against Kiev's army began on August 24. Although the destruction of the village came largely at the hands of pro-Russian rebels seeking to dislodge Ukrainian troops, most residents support the separatists. "We don't want anything more to do with this Kiev mob," says one of Rudenko's neighbors. "We want our own state or to be part of Russia."

Last week's fighting also destroyed the monument to those who died in World War II. The rebels have now raised their flag over the ruins. Their leader, a miner with the nom-de-guerre Kolesso, toasted the victory with sparkling wine. "We aren't terrorists. We are fighting on our land for our land," he said. Then, he and his men headed out -- in the direction of Mariupol.

By Benjamin Bidder, Markus Feldenkirchen, Marc Hujer and Matthias Schepp

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