The election of Petro Poroshenko as the President of Ukraine was followed by warplanes carrying out strikes at Donetsk airport and the Kremlin declaring that it was ready to open talks with the new leader to try and find a solution to end the bitter strife in the east of the country.
It was a dramatic start to the confectionery billionaire taking over the helm, but what significance does it have for his divided land? After his overwhelming victory in the polls, at least in the parts of the country where voting could take place, Mr Poroshenko has spoken of amnesty, reconciliation and the need for reform after his victory.
But the new President is yet to take office and it is unclear how much say, if any, he had over this latest military action by the outgoing caretaker government in Kiev. The “chocolate king”, however, could hardly be seen to be wilting at this point before an electorate which has become anxious and angry at the dismemberment of their country. The most he could do was offer veiled criticism of the conduct of the mission launched by the administration’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov two months ago.
Speaking at a press conference in Kiev as the fighting got under way, Mr Poroshenko declared that the “anti-terrorist operation should not last two or three months; it should last a matter of hours”.
Those of us who have observed the current unfolding conflict can say with a degree of certainty that there is absolutely no chance of the current offensive finishing with the successful recapture of a dozen towns and cities across the region in days or weeks, let alone hours.
The Ukrainian forces do not have the numbers or the weaponry to do this, and many of the regular troops spoke of their unwillingness to take part in a bloody and internecine civil war with the inevitable loss of civilian lives.
The appetite for such a scenario may be there among the recently raised National Guard and oligarch-funded private armies, but these have tended to come off worse in the skirmishes so far when faced with well-armed militant fighters, many of them veterans of Ukrainian and Russian forces.
The Kiev administration has been carrying out its media offensive about the “anti-terrorist operation” largely through Facebook, with the acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov leading often with highly inaccurate postings. But today’s posting on Facebook by Vladislav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the “anti-terrorist” operation, appears to have reflected what happened on the ground. The military acted after separatist fighters took over the airport.
Denis Pushilin, a separatist leader, acknowledged fighters had been sent to confront the forces of the “Kiev junta”. The “chairman of the governing council” of the People’s Republic of Donetsk has, however, lost the power to order military action two weeks ago, in a putsch. Col Igor Strelkov, of Slovyansk, a militant stronghold, is now the commander of the People’s Militia and would have been in charge of the airport operation.
The bigger question is whether Mr Poroshenko is prepared to continue with a combat mission that may well take months, with all the attendant instability and rising casualties. Or will he, after a show of force, start negotiating with the separatists to arrive at a federal system which seems the only form in which Ukraine can survive as a state?
Mr Poroshenko, who does not like being called an oligarch and would rather be described as a successful businessman, needs to do business with the Kremlin. He is already committed to dialogue, stressing: “without Russia, it will be impossible to speak about the security of the whole region”.
Just before the election, Vladimir Putin, who had repeatedly accused the Kiev government of being illegal, stated that he would be prepared to work with the new President. Today Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister, reiterated: “We are ready for dialogue with Kiev’s representatives, with Petro Poroshenko”.
Moscow still complains that the presidential election should not have taken place until a new constitution, including the federal option it favours, had been discussed. But that apart, having accepted Mr Poroshenko as a legitimate leader, it has no excuse not to work towards a speedy solution in the east.
It can no longer charge the Ukrainian administration with being full of fascists.
The government which took power after the fall of Viktor Yanukovych indeed contained unsavoury extremists. But, in the week when the far right was gaining ground in elections across Europe, the electorate in Ukraine delivered them a firm rebuff. Oleh Tyahnybok, the candidate for Svoboda Party, polled just 1.3 per cent while Dmytro Yarosh, of the Right Sector, whose paramilitaries have been accused in the east of carrying out killings for the Kiev administration, received only 1.1 per cent, according to exit polls.
Just how much control does Moscow have over the separatists? Colonel Strelkov, who was born Igor Girkin, is a member of the GRU – Russian military intelligence – according to the Kiev administration and the EU. No conclusive proof, it must be said, has been provided for this. But there is evidence that he has been at least in liaison with members of the Kremlin’s security apparatus. Why, the question may be asked, did the commander of the People’s Militia order his fighters to seize Donetsk airport, starting a battle, just as news came through of Petro Poroshenko becoming President, with the chance it brought of a negotiated settlement?