As the military conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas continues, the ultimate outcome remains far from certain. For weeks, the industrial region’s pro-Russian rebels appeared to be facing imminent defeat by Kiev. Recently, however, they have launched a counteroffensive, retaking cities that they lost earlier. Kiev immediately blamed the rebels’ success on direct intervention from Moscow, including troops and weapons. For its part, Moscow dismissed the charges, citing a lack of evidence and pointing to the rebels’ use of Soviet-era weapons, which are readily available in Ukraine. As of now, fierce fighting continues. Meanwhile, both in Moscow and in the West, there are differing views on what might happen if Kiev manages to defeat the rebels.
To some in Moscow, the defeat of the rebels means the defeat of Russia. They argue that if Kiev succeeds in taking the Donbas, it will be only a matter of time before the whole of Ukraine will be in NATO, with the prospect of a possible military campaign to seize Crimea, recently annexed by Russia. By contrast, many in Washington and in the European Union view a potential victory over the Donbas rebels as a “victory for democracy” and for Ukraine’s “European choice” and integration with the West.
Are these views accurate? Will Russia really lose out geopolitically if Kiev defeats the rebels? Would this really be a victory for Washington and the West? Would Ukraine become a stable, democratic, and economically flourishing part of the US-led Western community?
In reality, even if Kiev manages to defeat the rebels and re-establish its control over its rebellious southeastern regions, it will still face many more daunting challenges.
First and foremost, the vast majority of people living in Russian-speaking southeastern Ukraine (many of whom did not support the rebels) will still view Kiev with distrust and as a “coup government.” This includes the Black Sea port city of Odessa, a town renowned for its quick wit and humor, where the wounds of the May 2 massacre, which saw dozens of pro-Russian protesters burned to death, have not yet fully healed. Additionally, if the government persists in imposing painful IMF-sponsored economic austerity “reforms,” it will turn not only the entire southeast but also the linguistically mixed Central Ukraine against Kiev.
Yet the situation will likely be most challenging for Kiev in the Donbas itself where,for months, civilians have faced near-constant shellings, bombardments, deprivations and atrocities. Many of the region’s residents have fled, mostly to Russia but also to safer regions in Ukraine.
“Our proposal was to open passages and let people get out of all those entrapments,” stated former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, himself of partial Ukrainian descent, in a statement released Saturday. “But no, someone is sitting in warm offices and intellectualizing. And at the same time, look what is happening to the people, to children and women. Maternity homes and schools are being shelled, hospitals are being destroyed. Two thousand people have been killed even according to official reports, and how many have been injured?”