"After spending most of the day looking at military maps and studying the situation on the frontline, it's not easy to switch straight away to addressing the subject of promoting peace," said Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in a speech earlier this week. He was speaking to the National Council of Reforms, which was set up on his initiative. "But that," he said, "is what we must now do."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is losing control of the military situation in eastern Ukraine. This makes conducting peace negotiations even more difficult, especially as the West doesn't know what he wants.
This pretty much summarizes the dilemma faced by this Ukrainian leadership. Ukraine is at war – a war that's preventing the country's elite from doing what they were elected to do: reform Ukraine and make it a democratic, open, liberal, European community. The war in the east of the country is clearly consuming all the energy that could otherwise facilitate democratic development.
Debaltseve: a decisive location
Right now, all eyes in Kyiv are on a small town in the east of the country. Debaltseve had only about 23,000 inhabitants before this war, but the name is a familiar one for many people, Russians and Ukrainians alike. Anyone who's traveled by train from Rostov-on-Don in Russia to Kharkiv or from Kharkiv to Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine will have passed through Debaltseve. And it may well be here that the future of Ukraine over the coming months is being decided.
5,000 Ukrainian army soldiers are currently stationed in Debaltseve – encircled by well-armed rebels who have clearly been equipped by Russia. A victory in Debaltseve would solve a problem for the pro-Russian rebels in the east: Reinforcements could then flow in from Russia by rail. Which is where they've been coming from all this time, but the roads are so badly rutted in the rebel areas by the columns of tanks traveling over them that driving on them is a nightmare. Capturing Debaltseve would clear the path – to Mariupol, but above all to the west. A colonel in the Ukrainian army warns the way would be free to Dnipropetrovsk, even Zaporizhia – site of the biggest nuclear power station in Europe.
Constitutional police work?
It's not easy locating the truth in Kyiv at the moment amidst all the war propaganda. A conversation with a high-ranking presidential administration worker yielded this advice: Why don't you report that Ukraine is fighting Russia, not just some rebels?
The hope is that this might help in the run-up to Thursday, when US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in the Kyiv, and decision makers meet in Munich for the annual security conference. But it sounds helpless.
Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, has been more specific. He's called on the country's security companies to act as hidden reserves in a crisis. This doesn't sound like constitutional police work by European standards, more like Sarajevo at the start of the Bosnian war, when criminals were among those who assumed responsibility for the defense of the country. Ukraine's minister of culture has said that in times of war culture must submit to the primacy of the executive authority – i.e. the state of war takes precedence.
The well-respected Eastern Europe analyst Timothy Garton Ash is calling for Ukraine to be supplied with arms, with the aim of setting up the European ideal as opposition to the Russian military action. The problem is that without democratic reforms in Ukraine this undertaking would also effectively be war. What was it the Ukrainian president said at the start of the week? – It's difficult to switch to contemplating reforms when I've spent the whole day poring over maps of war.