LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — Tuesday's announcement that Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko are to meet next week for the first time in two months comes at a crucial point in the Ukrainian crisis, with the country's eastern provinces still mired in a cycle of destruction and no obvious end in sight.
At least 15 civilians trying to escape the war-ravaged city of Lugansk were killed in an inadvertent rocket attack on Monday, according to the Ukrainian military, adding to a death toll that has doubled to well over 2,000 in the last two weeks. Ukraine says the victims of the latest attack were in the "dozens," but was unable to find all the bodies before fighting forced investigators to flee.
Yet though a diplomatic settlement seems more urgent than ever, realities on the ground mean the prospect of one is slim at best. Neither side appears to have any incentive to end the conflict on anything but its own terms. Moscow must somehow avoid a humiliating climb-down without going so far as a ground invasion, while anything less than total victory for Ukraine will look like capitulation. "I don't think there's any point to what we're trying to do now," said Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov after five hours of talks with Ukraine, France, and Germany on Sunday produced no progress.
Time, however, is running out. Combat operations will become much more difficult to sustain come fall, when the weather worsens, the school year begins, and locals who had hoped to escape the crisis on holiday run out of money. If the pro-Russia rebels hold out that long, the Ukrainian government in Kiev could be forced to approach them as a force with which not just to be reckoned, but also negotiated. This would strengthen Moscow's hand in any future settlement.
Ukrainian security officials, in keeping with post-Soviet propagandistic tradition, are keen to deliver a major victory for the independence celebrations on Sunday. They seem closer than ever. Fighting is spilling into the center of the rebels' two remaining strongholds, Donetsk and Lugansk, both of which are all but surrounded. The self-proclaimed "people's republics" there, and the hundreds of thousands of people trapped in them, are largely cut off from electricity, water mains, and the outside world — specifically, Russia, to where the civilians attacked by rocket fire were fleeing, and which Ukraine claims provides the bulk of the rebels' supplies.
Rebels have vowed to fight to the last man, but readily admit that they are doomed unless Moscow intervenes on their side. This again seems unlikely. Fears of invasion provoked by Moscow's "humanitarian convoy" of 280 trucks, which Kiev suspected was a Trojan horse carrying a "peacekeeping" force, have subsided since the trucks were revealed not to be carrying much at all. Though Moscow awkwardly claimed the mostly empty containers were left under-loaded to stop the trucks breaking down, it now appears their real aim was to stall the conflict by forcing a cease-fire. That would have allowed the rebels to regroup, reinforcing the nascent pseudo-states — indeed, on Monday, the Donetsk People's Republic published a criminal code legalizing the summary executions that have become its hallmark.
Murky changes in the separatist leadership appear to be counting on that. Several of the best-known commanders have mysteriously resigned or disappeared without explanation, even including Igor Strelkov, the former Russian intelligence operative whose likeness stares down from posters across the region. His allies claim he has gone on a one-month holiday in their hour of need and refuse to discuss the matter further; his former deputy recently suggested that Strelkov may never have existed and that we are all computer programs living inside the Matrix. ("The Donetsk People's Republic will exist," though, he clarified.)
Conventional wisdom has it that the sudden removal of several leaders at once is to replace Russians, with whom Kiev cannot be seen to negotiate, with local Ukrainian commanders, making a deal more tenable. But as Russians still take up senior positions — the DPR's head of security and newly installed foreign minister both came from Moscow — and rebels claim to have received significant reinforcements from over the border, it looks more like a simple shuffling of the deck. Partly, this seems to be because Strelkov in particular had become too much of a loose cannon, if leaked phone conversations between rebels and their Russian handlers are to be believed.
Equally, however, there is a tacit understanding on both sides that any settlement would be untenable to both, and unplayable at home. With key parliamentary elections set for October, the war has turned Ukraine's famously divided public firmly against the Kremlin. De-escalation for Moscow, meanwhile, would mean a personal defeat for Vladimir Putin, who all but endorsed the separatists in April when he claimed the provinces were a historical part of Novorossiya, or "New Russia." Ukraine would then be free to pursue the course of heading towards the West and shaking off its role in Putin's vision of a greater Eurasia. But it was, after all, this very division over Ukraine's destiny that caused the crisis late last year.
Needless to say, the losers in all this are the largely poor and elderly civilians who remain trapped in the conflict zone. Ukraine's security council said most of the victims in Monday's rocket attack were found burned alive in buses, unable to get out in time. Rebels claimed the attack never happened. And so it goes on.