Putin the Unifier

There’s nothing like an invasion to bring a country together. Ask any Ukrainian on any street and they’ll tell you the same thing, almost thankfully: Vladimir Putin has united Ukraine like never before. His actions in eastern Ukraine have proven a kind of catalyst that have forged a nation out of a group of people that once squabbled incessantly about politics, language rights, and tax dollars.

Southern Ukrainians who once sighed in exasperation at the “nationalists from the west” of Ukraine (as the common saying went) are now excited about the election to Parliament of a new, youthful, pro-European party, Self-Reliance, which hails from that region. Perhaps, one woman told me, they can teach us how to begin to “live in the European way.” Some in customarily Russian-speaking areas have taken to purposefully speaking Ukrainian so as to not perpetuate Russian soft power.

Other signs of Ukraine’s newfound unity are more visible. On Kyiv’s Maidan (Independence Square) the Trade Union building that was burned out in February’s fighting is covered with a giant banner that reads “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!” Each of the country’s television channels keeps a small graphic in an upper corner of the screen—a Ukrainian flag with the words “A United Country” written below. The phrase changes every several seconds from Russian language to Ukrainian and back again.

But such hopeful signs belie the real and very violent rift that has cut across the eastern corner of the country. The Russian-supported separatist movement in the Donbas region, which began with building seizures in March and blossomed into a full-scale war by June, has now settled into an uneasy standoff that may soon solidify a frozen conflict.

The Minsk Protocol agreed upon in September called for a cease-fire between the two sides and a follow-on mandated that a 30-kilometer buffer zone be created between the section controlled by Russia-backed separatist fighters in Donbas and the area that remains under the control of the Ukrainian central government. Yet fighting continues in the region, albeit at a slower pace, and the rebels held their own elections instead of the Ukrainian-supervised elections that were agreed upon at Minsk.

The separatist-created Lugansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic, backed and supplied by a Russia that can only benefit from a frozen conflict in the region, show no desire to allow even the possibility of reconciliation with Ukraine. Many Ukrainians are fine with that possibility. One man in Kyiv told me that “if they [in Donbas] don’t want us, then we don’t want them.”

The residents of the region, save some of the poor and elderly, have been forced by the fighting to make a choice: to move to other regions of Ukraine, to stay in the war-torn region, or to seek asylum in Russia. Rightly or wrongly, those latter two groups are seen as having rejected Ukraine’s European choice. Donbas is the region from which the corrupt, venal, and now deposed President Viktor Yanukovych hailed. Ukraine has rid itself of Yanukovych and his gang of thieves; if Donbas goes off with him, so be it.

Ordinary Ukrainians are tired of sending their sons and daughters to fight and die for an area that, in their view, has only dragged Ukraine down with its Soviet nostalgia and ailing industry. Their disdain is only compounded by the fact that should Ukraine regain control of Donbas, it would need to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a region that has been completely destroyed by war. For a nation already in dire financial straits, the thought of sending precious dollars to revive a recalcitrant Donbas instead of building infrastructure, paying for gas, reforming the judiciary, or increasing pensions only adds insult to injury.

Of course, the expression of these bitter sentiments is followed immediately by an acknowledgement that the dispatch of Donbas is a political impossibility. Were Ukraine to renounce its claims to Donbas, it would acknowledge the destruction of its sovereignty. More importantly, it would remove the leverage that the Donbas conflict gives Putin over the Ukrainian government. He would feel forced to find more leverage, which may mean a renewed conflict should he move to take more Ukrainian land.

Ukrainians know that a house divided against itself cannot stand and are increasingly prepared to remove the garage to save the house from creeping wood rot. Already the government has formally instituted passport controls for those exiting or entering the separatist-controlled area. Should circumstances change and Donbas look to reunite with Ukraine, repairing the emotional and psychological rift would be just as difficult as the physical rebuilding of the region. For many Ukrainians, the split—the choice to follow two different political paths—is permanent. Its restoration is increasingly in question.

Hannah Thoburn is a Eurasia Analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative. During Ukraine’s parliamentary elections in October, she served as an election observer with the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.

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