Separatists in Ukraine’s restive east have rejected the government’s offer of a unilateral ceasefire, and angry citizens in the streets of Kyiv have also given the idea a thumbs down. Many in the capital say they didn’t stand for weeks in the bitter cold earlier this year to topple the former, Russia-friendly president – only for their new president to pander to Russian aggression.
While Petro Poroshenko’s peace plan has won the approval of France and Germany, it puts him in the dangerous position of alienating his support base not even two weeks after his inauguration – and this, in a nation with a history of ousting unpopular leaders.
No one was surprised when pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine, known for their brutal guerrilla tactics, immediately rejected the new president’s offer of a unilateral ceasefire in return for the rebels putting down their arms or leaving the country. Such a deal, President Poroshenko said, would bring an end to the conflict that has ravaged eastern Ukraine since the country’s pro-Russian president was toppled in February following mass anti-government protests during which more than a hundred demonstrators were killed by security forces.
But in Ukraine’s capital, which has seen peaceful demonstrations nearly every day for the past three months, some of protesters say they’re angry over what they see as a haphazard prosecution of the military campaign against the separatists and the new president’s willingness to lay down arms.
As Kyiv’s new city council prepared to hold its first session Thursday, a top city official was loudly harangued in the foyer by residents over the poor state of preparedness of Ukrainian troops. A group of wives and mothers in Kyiv say they want their men brought home immediately because they’re outgunned and unprepared.
One woman, clearly upset, said her son told her that he and his comrades had no ammunition and would not survive another night. He implored her to do something to help.
The official, Volodymyr Bondarenko, seen as the government’s representative on the city council, acknowledged that what the young men in uniform are being subjected to is a “crime.” As he said that he would demand changes, people surrounding him made him swear on his words. He did.
The woman, Irina Labun, said she also had another son deployed in eastern Ukraine.
“There is no ceasing fire,” she said. “We have only a ceasefire from one side – our side. Our boys don’t have the right to shoot. And the militants are shooting at them.”
Maidan rumbling again
Meanwhile, in the Maidan, Kyiv’s main square that was the epicenter of months of protests and where demonstrators continue to gather, the ceasefire was equally unpopular.
A man, who gave his name as Taras, said that stopping the “anti-terrorist” operation, as the government refers to its military campaign against separatists in the country’s east, was a bad idea. You don’t negotiate with terrorists, he said.
Another protester, who gave his name only as Ali, hinted at trouble for Poroshenko. With his camouflage uniform, bandit-style headscarf, full beard and guerrilla sunglasses, he was among the legions of Ukrainian “self-defense forces” in the capital who protected protesters against riot police.
If Poroshenko goes against us, he said, we will move against him.
Another Maidan protester, Vladimir, who said he served as a young Soviet soldier in Afghanistan, said that he was all too familiar with cycles of instability and conflict.
He said he understands the humanitarian reasons for declaring a ceasefire. But, he added that his military experience from more than a quarter century ago makes him cynical about the unilateral initiative.
In theory, he said, the president is doing the right thing by the international community and the people.
“But from a military perspective – we fought in Afghanistan, we know what war is and we know how it happens – this time will be used for regrouping, and it will be much harder to free this territory,” he said.
At his inauguration on June 7, Poroshenko promised he would end the conflict in the east within a week.
Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have come out in support of his ceasefire idea, and have urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to accept the offer.
But judging by the reactions of Poroshenko’s base in Kyiv, he is now fighting on more than one front, with a political fight brewing over his handling of the conflict.
And in a nation that has demonstrated more than once that, if united behind a common cause, it can bring more than a million people into the streets, this may prove a daunting challenge indeed.