Just 10 days before a key presidential election, Ukraine’s interim leaders were battling Thursday to keep the country together despite a European peace push, facing a bloody insurrection in the east and a tense standoff with Russia.
Kiev on Wednesday hosted the first round of so-called national unity talks under an OSCE initiative to try to resolve the deepening crisis on Europe’s eastern flank and allow the May 25 vote to go ahead.
But crucially, the pro-Moscow rebels fighting against Kiev’s rule in the industrial east of the country were not at the negotiating table, despite Western calls for the talks to be inclusive.
Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said his administration was ready to talk to pro-Russians in the east but that the separatists must first lay down their arms.
“We will not yield to blackmail,” he said at Wednesday’s talks. “We are ready to listen to the people of the east but they must not shoot, loot or occupy government buildings.”
Western leaders see the May 25 vote as crucial to finding a way out of the crisis and preventing the country from tearing apart further after Russia’s much criticized annexation of Crimea in March.
But in a stark assessment on Wednesday, Russia said Ukraine, part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991, was already on the brink of civil war.
And analysts say the election is still threatened by the uprising in the southeast, where dozens of people have been killed since mid-April as government troops battle the rebels now occupying over a dozen towns and cities.
The specter of partition looms large after rebels declared independence in the eastern industrial regions of Donetsk and Lugansk following weekend referendums branded illegitimate by Kiev and the West.
“The situation is explosive in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions,” Turchynov said.
The International Crisis Group think-tank said the provisional government, set up in February after months of pro-EU protests triggered the ouster of the Kremlin-backed administration, faced an “uphill struggle” to make it to the election.
It said the “weak” interim leadership — often depicted as fascists by Moscow — appeared incapable of keeping order in the southeast and called on it to urgently reach out to the people there to listen to their demands for minority rights and self-government.
“The US and EU should continue tough sanctions to show Russia it will pay an increasing cost for destabilizing or dismembering its neighbor while pursuing parallel vigorous diplomacy,” it added.
Despite the talks in Kiev, the east of Ukraine remains on edge, with fighting flaring almost every night around rebel flashpoints.
Seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a rebel ambush Tuesday, the biggest single loss of life for the military since the uprising erupted.
Kiev says almost 50 people have been killed in the east since mid-April, including 18 members of the security forces as well as civilians and separatists.
Another 42 perished in clashes and a building inferno in the southern port city of Odessa in early May.
“When Ukrainians kill Ukrainians I believe this is as close to a civil war as you can get,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday.
“In east and south of Ukraine there is a war, a real war,” he said, also voicing “strong suspicions” Western mercenaries were operating on Ukrainian soil.
But he said Moscow had no intention of sending in troops as it did while annexing Crimea, a move that exacerbated the worst crisis between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.
Putin said last week that Russia had withdrawn its estimated 40,000 troops from the border, but the West — fearing a possible invasion of Ukraine — says it has seen no sign of a major pullback.
The roadmap drawn up by Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe calls for “restraint from violence, disarmament, national dialogue, and elections”.
In the absence of the rebels, Wednesday’s so-called national dialogue made no breakthrough although Kiev said further talks were planned in the “regions”.
OSCE-appointed mediator Wolfgang Ischinger said the talks should contribute to an “electoral process that is inclusive, honest and transparent”.
In Vienna on Thursday, the head of the OSCE’s monitoring mission to Ukraine is due to give an update on the situation, while NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen meets leaders of Ukraine and other eastern members of the military alliance in Bratislava.
While voicing support for the OSCE plan, the Kremlin insists Kiev first halt so-called “reprisal raids” and hold negotiations over regional rights.
Moscow has however rolled back its vehement opposition to the election, with the speaker of the lower house State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin, describing it as “the lesser of two evils”.
Ukraine is also grappling with deep economic woes despite a massive IMF aid package.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development — which was founded to help ex-Soviet bloc countries make the transition to free-market economies — forecast its economy would shrink a massive seven percent this year while Russian growth would be stagnant.
Europe is also worried about the vital supply of Russian gas, much of which flows through Ukraine, after Moscow threatened to turn off the taps if Kiev does not pay a bill by June 3.