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Ukraine's Government Gains the Advantage Over the Separatists

Pro-Russian militants and activists demonstrate in Lenin Square on May 18, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine.
Pro-Russian militants and activists demonstrate in Lenin Square on May 18, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine. Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images

With the notion of invasion or annexation by Russia apparently off the table for now, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has settled into a slow, grinding stalemate, and the next phase will probably be more political than military. The battleground is already clear: nationwide presidential elections scheduled for May 25. The interim government in Kiev will hold elections for a new leader, and aims to begin moving the country out of its post-Maidan crisis period. The pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, however, say there will be no voting in the territory they control. Whether the election occurs in Donetsk and Luhansk—two regions that declared independence after hastily prepared referendums earlier this month—will be a test of the strength and durability of eastern Ukraine’s separatists, and give a good sense of whether Kiev is recapturing momentum in the region.

In Donetsk, the would-be capital of the pro-Russian separatist forces, both sides act as if they’re in control, with each probably more confident than reality warrants. The Kiev-appointed governor of Donetsk, Serhiy Taruta, claims that voting on May 25 will proceed normally—even though he was forced to make the announcement from a hotel ballroom rather from than his official office in the regional administration building, long overrun by anti-Kiev fighters. The nominal head of the Donetsk separatists, Denis Pushilin, has said there will be no elections at all. Following the legally dubious referendum overseen by his supporters, Pushilin calls the Ukrainian military forces in the east are “occupiers” and says the election will select a president of a “neighboring state.” That is surely braggadocio, but Kiev’s writ is indeed weak over much of the Donbass, the eastern region heavy with industrial plants and coal mines where the separatists claim the most support.