Pro-Western parties prevailed in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections over the weekend, but the country’s armed forces continued to suffer casualties amid fighting with Russian-backed separatists in the east.
President Petro Poroshenko’s political group began talks with Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk’s People’s Front party on Monday to form a majority coalition in the parliament that would push democratic reforms. The Opposition Bloc, a pro-Russian party with allies of former leader Viktor Yanukovich, received slightly less than 10 percent of the vote.
The election results keep Ukraine on a path toward closer integration with the European Union following the ouster of Yanukovich, a Russian ally, in February. Russia responded aggressively to the toppling of Yanukovich earlier this year by invading and annexing the Crimean peninsula and funneling arms and troops into eastern Ukraine to support the rebels there.
Ongoing fighting between Ukrainian forces and the pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east—despite a ceasefire agreement reached in early September—remains a serious obstacle to closer Ukrainian ties with Europe. Two Ukrainian troops were reportedly killed in the region on Sunday.
James Kirchick, a journalist and fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative who observed the elections from Ukraine, said on a conference call that they were "free and fair" with "no irregularities." However, about 5 million Ukrainians were unable to vote because of their presence in the war-torn east or Russian-occupied Crimea—a situation that could create "a lingering concern about whether people in the east will be fully represented," Kirchick said.
He noted that approval of Poroshenko has waned in recent weeks as the pro-Russian rebels repeatedly violated the terms of the ceasefire. The strong showing by the more hawkish People’s Front party could bolster support for military actions to take back territories in the east.
Still, the relatively weak Ukrainian military has been beleaguered by a conflict that has claimed more than 3,700 lives. Ukrainian forces had been making gains against the separatists until Russia reportedly sent hundreds of troops into eastern Ukraine in August to hold the rebels’ position. Moscow denies that it offered direct support to the separatists.
"There seems to be no indication that the government in Washington or European governments are going to arm Ukraine, so it’s going to be difficult for them to put up a tough deterrent effect in preventing further incursions," Kirchick said.
While Kirchick said Ukrainians are generally pro-American, several "feel let down" by the lack of robust sanctions against Russia and the West’s reluctance to provide military supplies.
"They had hoped the United States would be more willing to help them in their time of need," he said. "I think most of them now feel they’re in this alone."
The White House press office released a statement from President Obama on Monday praising Ukrainians for holding the elections and pledging to "continue to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity" and "stand with its people as they seek to build a more secure, prosperous, and democratic future." Obama offered no indication that he would reverse his policy of not providing lethal aid to the Ukrainian military.
Poroshenko bluntly told U.S. lawmakers in September that "one cannot win the war with blankets," a reference to the limited supplies U.S. officials have contributed to the Ukrainian effort thus far.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that Moscow would recognize Ukraine’s elections in the hope that the country now has leaders who "do not drag Ukraine to the West or to the East" but "will deal with the real problems facing the country." Last Friday, President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukraine for the recent breakdown in the ceasefire.
NATO says Russia still has forces inside eastern Ukraine and more right across the border in Russia itself.
Poland announced on Monday that it would send thousands of troops to its eastern borders in another sign of heightened tensions between former Soviet Bloc countries in Europe and Russia.