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Kiev’s Political Elite Battle for Votes as Violence Continues in the East Despite Ceasefire Deal

As reports of truce violations come in but the president's appetite for conflict wanes, leadership infighting poses yet another challenge for Ukraine.

by Harriet Salem
Sep 15 2014, 12:50pm

Image via Getty

The soothing tinkle of background music, cappuccinos and croissants on tap. The atmosphere at the annual Yalta European Strategy conference, attended by senior European officials and Ukrainian politicians, could not be in starker contrast to the issue topping the agenda: the country's war torn east, where a fragile peace plan is under threat from heavy fighting ten days into a supposed ceasefire.

After taking the reins of power in mid-April as Ukraine's first elected post-Maidan president, the so-called "Chocolate King" Petro Poroshenko promised to crush the rebel uprising as he launched an new "active phase" in the Kiev-backed anti-terror operation.           

But now, nearly four months on, with a death toll standing at more than 3,000 and parliamentary elections looming large, the president's appetite for what could be a protracted conflict has severely diminished.

There can be "no military solution to this conflict," Poroshenko told an audience of political experts and journalists at the opening of the YES meeting in the Ukrainian capital.

In a seemingly conciliatory gesture, the president reiterated an amnesty offer to those who had not committed serious crimes in the east and emphasized that he believed that a diplomatic solution to the conflict could be found.

"Crimea will be with us again and not necessarily by military means. I am certain that we will win the economic, democratic and liberal competition for the minds and attitudes of Crimean residents," Poroshenko said.

Ukraine's troops have been pushed back on multiple fronts in the last two weeks, losing a whole summer of advances in a matter of days.

Kiev and its western allies have blamed Moscow for the sudden and heavy defeats, saying that Russian troops poured over the border in a covert operation that enabled the rebels to take back substantial ground and push a new front in the country's southeast near the port city of Mariupol.

The offensive left Ukraine with little option other than to agree to a ceasefire, a top security official told VICE News. But, despite the president's publically conciliatory stance, the halt in fire is may in practice prove to just be a half time pause. "Both sides are re-grouping, there is a lot of military movement. This isn't done yet," the official added.

There have been multiple reports of ceasefire violations on both sides since it came into effect last Friday, including a heavy assault on Ukrainian troops holed up in Donetsk airport on Sunday. At least 6 civilians were killed in the crossfire after artillery hit a nearby market and residential blocks. Yet, despite the continuing violence, the official consensus is that the ceasefire agreed ten days ago in Minsk is holding for now.

Regardless of whether there is a behind the scenes plan to resume hostilities after re-positioning and re-supplying troops, the president's diplomatic stance is bringing him under fire from opposition leaders eager to win votes in the upcoming election - scheduled for October 26th.

In a speech Saturday Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said that Ukraine was "in a state of war with Russia".

"He [Putin] cannot cope with the idea that Ukraine would be part of a big EU family," Yatsenyuk said. "He wants to take the entire Ukraine."

The rift in the Ukrainian leadership has grown since Yatsenyuk handed in his resignation in July, a move that was then rejected by parliament.

The prime minister has also said that his People's Front will stand separately from the president's self-named party. "We were to go to the polls together with the president, but I am not satisfied with the Block of Petro Poroshenko." Yatsenyuk announced over the weekend.

In another challenge to the president, opposition politicians including the far-right ideologue and alleged neo-Nazi Oleh Lyashko, leader of the Ukrainian Radical Party, have accused Poroshenko of betraying the country after elements of a trade deal between Ukraine and the European Union were put on ice.

The announcement that parts of the deal would be delayed for a year, including a freeze in current trade tariffs, was made in Brussels late on Friday after Russia claimed that the agreement would "hurt" its industry.

It was the prospect of tightened economic ties between Ukraine and Europe that sparked the crisis, after pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych backed away from a trade deal with the EU last November, sparking the months of protests that eventually toppled his government in February.

"The delay in the EU trade deal and the ceasefire were made under the pressure of Russia," said Lyashko at the conference on Saturday. "We should not thank these terrorists [for signing the deal], we should use a firing squad," the far-right leader.