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Putin’s popularity peaks a year into Ukraine conflict

Maxim Malinovsky, AFP | France’s François Hollande (far left), Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko (left), Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko (right) and Russia’s Vladimir Putin (far right)

One year on and with no definitive end to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin continues to reign supreme at home where his popularity ratings have hit their highest since the conflict began.

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April 6, 2014, marked the start of what would become the long-drawn conflict that would literally tear Ukraine apart, effectively splitting it into a predominantly pro-Russian east and a pro-European west.

On this day, Russian separatists moved in on the eastern city of Donetsk, seizing several local government buildings in response to the installment of a new, pro-Western government in Kiev. Within days, they had proclaimed what they called the “people’s republics’ in both the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

Analysts say the rebels were mainly spurred on by Moscow’s willingness to, barely a month earlier, heed separatists’ calls to annex the Crimean Peninsula despite international protests branding it an illegal land grab.

"There was a set of tasks and Napoleon's famous maxim, 'On s'engage et puis on voit' (Let's commit and then figure out what to do next)," Konstantin Kalachev, head of the think tank, Political Expert Group, said of Putin’s attitude at the time.

The move has also proved popular on the home front, where Putin is increasingly being viewed by fellow Russians as a strongman with the ability to reclaim territory that once belonged to the former Soviet Union.

According to a February study from the Levada Centre independent polling group, the number of people who want Putin to seek a fourth term in 2018 has more than doubled to 57 percent since December 2013.

"What Putin wanted was clear a year ago – he wanted a blocking stake in Ukraine or – the next best option – a manageable conflict," Nikolai Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, said.

"To a large degree the Kremlin has achieved what it wanted."

Although Russia has categorically denied allegations from Kiev and the West that it is supporting and arming the rebels in the current conflict, it has acknowledged that there are Russian “volunteers” involved.

A tenuous truce

In a bid to end the fighting that to date has claimed around 6,000 lives and displaced some 1.6 million civilians, French President François Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and Putin in September gathered in Minsk, in Belarus, to try to hash out a peace deal for Ukraine. Although the terms and conditions for a ceasefire were agreed on, they were never respected and the conflict continued to rage on.

In February this year, a second meeting was called and the four leaders signed a deal that would become known as Minsk 2. For a few hours, the deal looked promising, but then shots began to ring out again as pro-Russian rebels launched an assault and seized the city of Debaltseve – strategically located between Donetsk and Luhansk. Since then, the front line of the conflict has not moved.

But as a tenuous truce appears to be taking hold in Ukraine, FRANCE 24’s James André notes that military observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are increasingly complaining that they have difficulty accessing areas to ensure that the ceasefire is in fact being respected.

André speculates that the southern city of Mariupol could become the next target for the rebels. Although still under Kiev’s control, he said the strategically located port city may come under a separatist attack “in the weeks to come”.

Less than two months after the signing of Minsk 2, such an attack would be seen as a major blow to an already shaky truce. Especially, André said, since the pro-Russian rebels have already benefitted a great deal from an agreement that has favoured them from the start.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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