November 07, 2018

In the Europe and CIS region, WorldAware is closely monitoring events ahead of the Ukrainian presidential election, scheduled for March 31, 2019. Recent incidents suggest that Moscow could be attempting to pressurize Ukrainian voters to elect an administration more amenable to Russian interests.

On Oct. 9, four near-simultaneous explosions occurred at a large Ukrainian ammunition depot near Ichyna, around 100 miles northeast of Kyiv. The resulting blaze led to the evacuation of more than 12,000 people, the imposition of a no-fly-zone, and large-scale road closures within a 30-mile radius. While the cause of the blasts is unknown, senior Ukrainian officials have strongly implied that they were a result of deliberate sabotage by Moscow. Kyiv has made such allegations after similar previous incidents at depots at Kalynivka in September 2017 and at Balakliya in the previous March. It is a strong possibility that some, if not all, of these events were the work of Russian or Moscow-backed saboteurs, and aimed at keeping the conflict between Kyiv and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region active.

The Ukrainian electorate is weary of the four-year Donbas conflict, which Russia could use as leverage to influence the Presidential election. As the major power-broker in the Donbas, Russia’s willingness to bring the fighting to a halt is crucial, though it is likely that Moscow sees value in prolonging the fighting, albeit at a low intensity, until the presidential election. The Security Service of Ukraine implied that this might be the case when it alleged that the August bomb attack that killed Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, was likely carried out on Moscow’s orders, after he appeared more willing to adopt a moderate stance in negotiating with Kyiv.


Industrial unrest


The Donbas conflict features heavily on the minds of the Ukrainian electorate. More than 10,000 people, including thousands of civilians, have been killed since 2014, and the fighting is a running sore economically. The 2015 Minsk Agreement limits the combatants from using airpower or heavy artillery in the fighting, which has created the conditions for a stalemate involving persistent low-level violence – and a drip-feed of casualties - with no resolution in sight. The cost of indefinite conflict severely limits Kyiv’s ability to address the concerns of workers who complain of low salaries and high inflation. In recent weeks, miners have staged roadblocks on major routes connecting western Ukraine to the Donbas to demand the payment of wage arrears; in October, trade union demonstrations took place in cities across Ukraine to call for improved living standards.

While Ukrainian President Poroshenko has been very vocal to position himself as the champion of Ukraine against Russian aggression, this does not wash with the public, 45 percent of whom have entirely ruled out voting for him in the forthcoming election. A big vote winner would be a coherent strategy to end the bloodshed and halt the economic costs of the war, and thereby enable Ukraine to concentrate on meeting the economic needs of its workforce.

The Donbas conflict began after the 2014 Euromaidan protests overthrew pro-Russia-leaning President Yanukovych and led to the appointment of more EU-leaning Poroshenko. Moscow’s concern over Western – particularly EU and NATO – encroachment into what it considers its sphere of influence subsequently rose. Despite Yanukovych’s departure, significant pro-Russian sympathies remain, particularly in eastern regions. It is likely that the installation of a President who could placate the Kremlin’s concerns over Ukraine’s movement away from Russia toward the West would result in a de-escalation in the Donbas – an attractive prospect for the Ukrainian public.

In conclusion, Russia is highly likely to use all the means at its disposal to influence the election result, including diplomatic rhetoric, media manipulation, clandestine acts of sabotage, and direct support of candidates with Russian sympathies – both in the March Presidential election, and the Parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2019. Although pro-Russian candidates are extremely unlikely to win the presidency, any new administration could be more inclined to accommodate Russia’s concerns and be less amenable to increasing Western ties.

Above all, the Ukrainian population wants physical and economic security; eroding confidence in the administration’s ability to provide this, while at the same time having the means to de-escalate the Donbas conflict, is possibly the best chance Moscow has of encouraging a more accommodating government in Kyiv. Moscow could therefore play on the present war-weariness by encouraging an intensification of violent incidents in the Donbas, while at the same time possibly orchestrating further high-profile acts of sabotage in the coming months.

Businesses operating in Ukraine ahead of the March 31 election should therefore anticipate sporadic flare-ups of violence in the Donbas, as well as further high-profile disruptive events – such as military depot explosions, utility failures, cyberattacks – being blamed on Russia. Disaffected workers are also likely to stage further protests, including strikes and road blockades, in western and central areas with increasing frequency as polling day approaches.


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