Is another Russian-backed rebel offensive in the offing? The OSCE reported last night that fighting outside Mariupol in eastern Ukraine had reached its highest intensity since conflict first broke out in the area in mid-February 2015. The report went on to note that its unarmed surveillance drones had seen rebel tanks, self-propelled howitzers, and as many as 60 APCs massing near Mariupol over the last three days.
Despite all this, an EU delegation led by Jean-Claude Juncker, which is meeting with its Ukrainian counterparts in Kyiv for its first summit since the signing of the Association Agreement, is putting pressure on the Poroshenko administration to implement all of the remaining clauses of the Minsk agreement. While acknowledging that the pro-Russian rebel side is in violation of the accords more often than Kyiv, the Europeans have been arguing that by not passing the agreed-upon laws on decentralization of authority, Kyiv is giving the Russians an excuse to escalate on the ground.
Furthermore, requests by Ukraine’s government for EU peacekeepers to supplement and replace OSCE observers appear unlikely to be met:
An unnamed EU official told the AFP news agency on April 27 that Brussels had received the peacekeeping request from Kyiv.
“We are studying these proposals in detail,” he said, but added that the EU saw “no reason” to replace observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) now monitoring the cease-fire.
And if pressures from abroad were not enough, the Poroshenko government is facing pressure from within. Throughout last week, armies of coal miners stormed Kyiv’s government district to protest unpaid wages and call for the sacking of Ukraine’s energy minister. Documents leaked by Mustafa Nayyem, one of the young organizers of the Maidan and now a member of Ukraine’s Rada (parliament), suggest that Ukraine’s richest man, the steel and coal magnate Rinat Akhmetov, is behind the protests. Petro Poroshenko, to his credit, wasted no time in signaling that this kind of behavior is unacceptable. “Those oligarchs who are preparing to put pressure on the authorities through pseudo-strikes will get their knuckles rapped,” he said on television, suggesting a second major standoff was in the offing.
Many doubts remain about whether the Ukrainian state can actually pull off its de-oligarchization push. After all, much of this was tried in the wake of the Orange Revolution, only for everything to fall apart when the oligarchs’ infighting undermined government efforts. Poroshenko himself, after all, is a successful oligarch who has yet to sell his stakes in his confection empire—as he promised to do during the election campaign. Perhaps the young generation of activists have studied recent history, and will be able to hold this and future governments accountable. But it’s a tall order, especially as the country simultaneously faces a Russian aggressor that will not hesitate to reignite a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine at any time of its choosing.
With all that said, the best chance the West has for building anything but a failed state in Ukraine is for real reform and real de-monopolization to succeed. Brussels in particular should get creative, and spend at least as much energy coming up with sweeteners—like political or military support—to help push reforms through as it does berating the Ukrainian government for not living up to its Minsk commitments.