What Comes Next in Ukraine?

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Hope that the crisis in Ukraine might be resolved through talks was quashed when Ukrainian forces launched major offensives in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk on Tuesday.

The move came after President Petro Poroshenko announced the expiration of a unilateral ceasefire on Monday. “We will attack and free our lands,” he said.

“The decision not to continue the ceasefire is our answer to terrorists, militants and marauders,” Poroshenko added, referring to the armed pro-Russian separatists who took over many regional administration buildings in Ukraine’s east in April.

Russian President Vladimir Putin responded in a televised speech in Moscow on Tuesday, saying Poroshenko holds “full responsibility for the continuation of this military campaign,” and pledging to “continue to defend the rights of Russians, our compatriots, abroad.”

What options do Poroshenko and Putin have left? What are their next moves? And how much influence do they really have over the fighters on the ground? FRONTLINE asked Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs who specializes in security affairs and modern Russia, about where the situation in Ukraine is headed.

With the ceasefire expired, what comes next for Ukraine?

What needs to come next is meaningful negotiation between Kiev and Moscow, which might be going on. One way to interpret the military operation that followed the end of the ceasefire is that it was the on-the-ground counterpart to behind-the-scenes negotiations. In other words, Poroshenko is trying to strengthen his position to ensure that he can get the best deal from Moscow. That’s the most encouraging way of looking at it.

The other way of looking at it is that Poroshenko is going to try and win a military victory over the insurgents, which to be honest is not going to happen. Moscow cannot allow it to happen. If it means increasing the support it provides to the rebels or even potentially deploying military forces in Ukraine — one way or the other, Moscow cannot afford to appear beaten in eastern Ukraine.

The answer depends on whether or not there are behind-the-scenes negotiations. If there aren’t, what happens next gets uglier and uglier.

During the ceasefire, Russia’s upper parliament revoked the resolution that would have allowed Putin to send troops into Ukraine, which seemed like a gesture of good will. How sincere do you think Putin was about engaging with Poroshenko during the ceasefire?

… From Russia’s point of view, invasion has always been a distant Plan B. It’s on the table to put pressure on Kiev, but not to be adopted. The Russians are very keen for negotiation. The problem is whether or not Poroshenko can go far enough to satisfy the Russians, and whether the Russians are willing to reduce their demands enough to accept Poroshenko’s offer. The risk is that they cannot find common ground.

I have no doubt that the Russians would like to reach a negotiated deal that would keep Ukraine whole, and within Russia’s sphere of influence.

At this point if there were negotiations, what would the Russians be pushing for? What would be on their list of demands?

At this stage, the Russians are looking for enough that Putin can spin this as a win. Politically, he cannot afford for it to look like anything other than that.

What the Russians really want is to keep Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence. Putin would want to see Ukraine renounce any possibility of membership in NATO, which they have in the past. He would want to see the relationship with the European Union explicitly kept at arms length — maybe some commitment that no further moves toward accession would be made in the next 10 years. Ukraine’s nowhere near being a member of the EU, and the EU doesn’t want Ukraine. And thirdly, Russia would want the decentralization of Ukraine, a more federal approach. That way Moscow knows its allies in eastern Ukraine would remain a powerful bloc and foil any subsequent attempts to revisit this deal.

That’s basically what they want — repudiation of NATO, making sure that Ukraine doesn’t slip further towards the EU, and a change in the political system so that Russia feels like its political interests are protected in the long run.

What options does Poroshenko have left? If this crisis is the first test of Poroshenko’s presidency, how is he performing?

He seems to be performing quite well. Poroshenko’s role is to reassure the nationalists that there will be no sell out, while on the other hand making a deal with Russia, which at least to a certain extent will be a sell out. It’s a difficult political balance to keep. Poroshenko also has to be a bullish negotiator with Moscow and know that Moscow does not treat weak positions with respect.

Poroshenko’s done well. He’s kept the Russians guessing. He’s managed to shift the realities on the ground in terms of a much more effective military response than we’ve seen in the past. He’s gone ahead and signed the agreement with the EU that shores up his nationalist credentials. That also ironically leaves him in a stronger position now to cut a deal with Moscow. These are all just the preliminaries.

Ukraine does need to have a deal with Moscow. Ukraine cannot cope without having a relationship with Moscow.

Even if the political leaders in this conflict reach an agreement, how much control do they have over the fighters on the ground? Would they even be able to stop the violence?

They could not turn the violence off like a faucet, certainly. Kiev has much more authority over the forces involved, but unfortunately we’ve seen a warlordization even on the government side.

With the insurgents there’s clearly an awareness that the insurgency is not unified, and it is not directly controlled from Moscow. It is supported, it is armed, it is facilitated, but it is not controlled.

Moscow is aware of that and part of its campaign is to try and strengthen its authority in eastern Ukraine. We’ve seen the rise of figures like the so-called defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic [Igor] Strelkov, who is in my mind undoubtedly either active or connected to Russian intelligence services.

We’ve also seen this mysterious unit that appeared over a month ago, the Vostok battalion. Coincidentally, it’s the same name as a Chechen military unit that was run by the GRU, which is Russian military intelligence, until it was disbanded in 2008. Suddenly we have this unit cropping up, very disciplined, all equipped the same and outfitted with armored vehicles, including a strange and mysteriously large proportion of Chechens in their number. It was fairly clear that this was a GRU outfit created from veterans, mercenaries and adventurers.

When Vostok went in, its first action was not to go and fight Ukrainians, it was to take over the militia headquarters in Donetsk and kick out the rag-tag local thugs who had occupied it. It was a real gesture that said: “Look, we’re here. We’re the biggest dog in the pack and we want to bring some discipline to what’s been going on in east Ukraine.”

The Vostok battalion has changed since. Most of the Chechens have headed home and Ukrainians have been recruited to fill their spots, but it seems clear that the command structure is still ultimately dominated by the Russians. Its role there is to be Moscow’s enforcer. So if for example, some peace deal was achieved, they’d have the Vostok battalion in place to make sure that as many locals as possible observed the terms of that deal.

In this photo taken on Friday, June 20, 2014 in Izyum close to Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, left, visits troops. (AP Photo/Mykhailo Markiv)
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