By Arab News
By Maria Dubovikova*
The assassination of the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, on Friday did not come as a surprise taking into account the situation in Ukraine. Previously, Zakharchenko survived a car-bomb attack in August 2014, and he was also twice wounded on the battlefront, but the explosion in a cafe in the city of Donetsk finally inflicted a fatal wound.
Former coal mine electrician Zakharchenko had been prime minister of the DPR since November 2014, nine months after the crisis broke out in Ukraine following a violent coup d’etat. The coup brought about a split in the country and the uprisings in Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region, which saw the proclamation of two republics, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. They were expecting that Russia would recognize their independence following the model of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the conflict with Georgia, but this was not the case. The separatists, Zakharchenko in particular, were dreaming of building an independent state on the territory of Donbas.
The east of Ukraine, also called Malorossiya (Little Russia), is historically very close to Russia both ethnically and culturally, while the western part of Ukraine has closer ties to the West. The split was inevitable and a violent conflict that claimed more 10,000 lives ensued. Multiple cease-fires have been negotiated and quickly broken, with the most recent coming into effect on July 1, but the situation is stagnating and may deteriorate at any time.
The rising voices about Russia’s interference in the upcoming Ukrainian presidential elections were launched long ago, echoing the hysteria in Washington. Kiev’s maneuvers are not clear yet, though we can expect an attempt to sabotage the March 2019 elections for which the government will blame Russia and possibly declare a state of emergency that will postpone the election until further notice.
It is not clear who is behind the assassination of Zakharchenko. It is true that the rebels are involved in infighting; between those who are more radical, demanding full independence from Ukraine, and those who are more moderate, accepting autonomous status within the country. Zakharchenko, being a good warrior but unskilled in political games, was frequently a troublemaker for Russia. That was immediately picked up by Kiev following the news of the assassination. Ukrainian officials said they could not rule out the hand of Moscow, though this is nonsense as any complication of the situation in the area is not what the Kremlin wants.
Russian president Vladimir Putin expressed his “deep condolences” for the death of Zakharchenko, but did not mention Ukraine as a possible culprit. He did, however, state that “those who have chosen a path of terror, violence and fear do not want to search for a peaceful political solution to the conflict or have a real dialogue with the people in the southeast, but thrive on destabilization to bring the people of Donbas to their knees. This will not happen.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was tougher, saying that the assassination was a Ukrainian attempt to derail the implementation of the Minsk peace treaty. He added that it is currently impossible to plan any new rounds of international talks over the conflict. DPR officials have openly accused Kiev of the assassination and claim to have detained “Ukrainian agents.”
It is now clear that the situation might severely deteriorate in the upcoming months. Violence would play into the hands of Kiev’s leadership, which has little public support but enjoys Washington’s backing as it is an instrument of US policy in the region. Violence would also allow Ukraine and the US to accuse Russia of violating the cease-fire in order to impose a new wave of sanctions. The future development of this scenario is hard to predict, though the consequences might be catastrophic.
*Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme