On Friday I chaired a panel at the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Slavists on the subject of the war in Ukraine. One theme which repeatedly came up was the need for dialogue between Kiev and the inhabitants of Eastern Ukraine in order to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. That, however, raised the question ‘dialogue with whom?’, and that is where the difficulties begin.
Many critics of the Ukrainian government have complained that it has repeatedly refused to engage in dialogue with the people of Donbass. The government’s supporters, however, respond that doing so isn’t easy. The collapse in February 2014 of the Party of the Regions, which had previously dominated Eastern Ukrainian politics, meant that Eastern Ukraine was left without leadership. There was at that point, it is said, nobody with whom the new authorities in Kiev could have held meaningful negotiations. As for now, the leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR), Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, allegedly lack any legitimate claim to speak on behalf of the people of Donbass.
Against this, others complain that while it might have been difficult for Kiev to find credible interlocutors in Donbass in the early stages of the conflict, it never even tried to do so. Nor is it trying today. There are, for instance, civil society groups operating in Donbass, some of them pro-Ukrainian (in the sense of wanting to remain part of Ukraine), but the Ukrainian government refuses to talk even to them, because although they are pro-Ukrainian they also demand political autonomy for Donbass. Were the authorities in Kiev to reach out to such people and make suitable political concessions, they might, it is claimed, find a way of bypassing the DPR and LPR authorities to get the support of the people of Donbass for a political settlement.
This last idea is, in theory, a good one, but I fear that it comes a year too late. Thirteen or fourteen months ago, when the DPR and LPR consisted of nothing more than a handful of people sitting in buildings in Donetsk and Lugansk, it might have worked. At that point in time, a concerted effort to find influential interlocutors, along with some timely and substantial political concessions, could have isolated the more radical elements from the mass of the population. In the terminology of Maoist insurgency theory, the government could have drained the sea in which the fishes swam. Now, that is no longer possible. Day by day the DPR and LPR acquire more and more of the attributes of real states. They have also amassed large armies, with tens of thousands of troops, as well as hundreds of tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and artillery pieces. The rebel republics have power, and people and institutions which have acquired power through bitter struggle don’t just give it up without getting something in return.
In this sense, the issue of whether Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky can legitimately claim to represent the people of Donbass is beside the point. Whatever the right and wrong of the matter, they have the guns. The Ukrainian government is incapable of defeating them by force. The only way it can regain its lost territories is through negotiation, and the people it has to negotiate with are those who control the rebel states. In saying this, I am not trying to make a moral comment about the worthiness or otherwise of the rebel cause. This is a purely practical conclusion. If Kiev wants to reunite its country in a peaceful way, sooner or later it is going to have speak to its enemies.