Donetsk (GPA) – After over a month of rail lines out of eastern Ukraine being blocked by right wing paramilitaries and pro-Kiev veterans, the Donbas rebels have issued an ultimatum to Ukraine’s government.
Tension has been ratcheting up in eastern Ukraine since late January when former members of ‘volunteer battalions,’ and backed by right wing members of the Ukrainian parliament, blocked the rail lines leading out of separatist controlled areas of the country. The blockade was established to ‘stop trade between Kiev and their enemies’ in the Donbas region.
Kiev and the Blockade
The authorities in Kiev are currently at an impasse, torn between their opposition to the blockade and unwillingness to use force against the ‘demonstrators’ who imposed it. Kiev has been trading with the Donbas since over the past 3 years since the conflict began. Businesses located within the Donetsk and Lugansk republics even registered with the separatist governments and were paying taxes to both them and the Ukrainian government.
While failing to act on removing the Blockade, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has warned that the government controlled areas of the country are on track to lose $2 billion in revenue if it continues. Ukrainian power production is already feeling the pressure from the reduction in the essential coal supply that comes out of Donbas and is warning that rolling blackouts may soon become a reality.
Trains full of coal are currently just sitting in the region where the front lines of Ukrainian army, their paramilitary allies and the separatists meet. This is an area where clashes have intensified over the past month, part of the factors leading to the movement of coal being stopped.
While the Ukrainian military has been involved in these escalating hostilities they still needed to keep the trains rolling but now the right wing paramilitaries and political opposition – which Kiev is unable to control – are trying to force a decision by the junta and oligarchs in the west. The opposition to Poroshenko is looking to make the President give up any hopes of maintaining a ceasefire or integrating the republics in the east back into Ukraine.
Donbas Forced to Respond
These conditions have of course put the eastern republics in a position where they’re being forced to make some moves regardless of whether they wanted to or not. As stated above, the Donbas republics took in large amounts of revenue from taxes on factories and coal mines in the territory they controlled and are also suffering as much, if not more, than the government in the west.
Forced to play their hand in this crippling situation, the republics announced yesterday that they had essentially been forced to retaliate. With limited options on how to go about this, Donetsk rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko announced that the two republics have taken control of 40 factories and mines in their territory as well as some other facilities belonging to western based businesses.
This includes businesses belonging to Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov. Besides his steel and coal facilities, the rebels in Donbas also took control of facilities that are part of the country’s largest telecom service, Ukrtelecom. The seizure of the company’s offices in Donetsk has led to them cutting off their services in the region, leaving around 200,000 people without access to telephone coverage.
This has sparked outrage in the east, though not at the rebels but instead at the western government for their inaction. This has led to pro-separatist rallies to spring up, demanding the same thing as the forces responsible for the Blockade: a possible end to the idea of uniting Ukraine.
With both the far right and the separatists issuing different ultimatums, yet with similar demands to break up the country, it’s unclear where the conflict in Ukraine will go next. Both Kiev and the supposed backers of the Donbas in Moscow don’t want to see Ukraine divided for different reasons. Moscow doesn’t want to give Ukraine over to the west and its’ large anti-Russian political bloc (vastly increasing the possibility of the country joining NATO) and Kiev doesn’t want to lose the industrial powerhouse that is located in the rebel controlled region.
Both forces are equally beyond the control of either of these opposing governments so the future of Ukraine may still reside on the battlefield unless something changes. Only time will tell if Kiev and Moscow will be able to come to some sort of agreement but it may be out of their control now.
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James Carey is an organizer based in Detroit, Michigan, founder of Geopolitics Alert, and an experienced analyst on Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Turkey. He also covers topics ranging from Latin America and Asia to Europe. You can also hear James in his weekly podcast; The Left is Dead which he co-hosts with investigative journalist Jake Anderson.