The armistice in eastern Ukraine came like clockwork with the end of the summer fighting season, and both the government forces and the separatist rebels have taken it as a chance to entrench, consolidate their gains and make up for their losses. Even the separatist forces, who with the aid of Russia were on the offensive before the ceasefire took hold on Sept. 5, are playing along with the truce for now. But their leaders warn that this is only a breather between bouts.
“The situation now can best be characterized as neither war nor peace,” says Oleg Tsarev, one of the leading figures in the separatist movement. “Still, I expect there to be major upheavals for Ukraine ahead. Most importantly, how will it handle the winter, the cold, and the [economic] crisis that is now arriving in Ukraine?”
The winter weather, though ill suited to the use of tanks and infantry, will give Russia a chance to try out another tactic in Ukraine. Its goals will be the same—to pry Ukraine apart, to erode the support of its allies in the West and, ultimately, to halt or reverse the westward drift of the new government in Kiev. But when the temperature falls, Russia can pursue these aims more effectively by shutting off supplies of fuel than it can with the use of force.
It has been doing both already. As the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine was heating up in June, Russia handed Ukraine an unpaid fuel bill worth around $5 billion, demanded pre-payment for any future supplies and unceremoniously shut the tap. At the end of August, President Vladimir Putin said that talks to resume these supplies had “reached a dead end.” During the summer season, Ukraine’s reserves of natural gas have been enough to meet demand. But that may change with the onset of winter, which could force Ukraine to seek more help from the West—in the form of loans, energy supplies or both—to prevent its citizens from freezing.
Slovakia became the first this month to set its natural gas pipelines to flow backwards into Ukraine, potentially covering about a fifth of its neighbor’s demand. But practically all of Slovakia’s gas comes from Russia in the first place; now part of it is simply being shipped back to Ukraine. If other neighbors are willing to share, this bizarre arrangement may be the only way Ukraine survives the winter. But it’s not clear how generous E.U. nations can afford to be.
Europe depends on Russia for a third of its energy supplies, and roughly 80% of that gas travels through Ukrainian pipelines before getting to its destination. So the last time Russia tried to cut off the flow to Ukraine in 2009—during an especially frigid winter—millions of Europeans came up short on fuel when they needed it most.
The separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk won’t have this problem. Russia has fuel pipelines running directly into these regions, and it has already begun negotiating supply deals with their separatist leaders on preferential terms. The goal, says Tsarev, is to demonstrate that an alliance with Russia is a lot cozier than one with the West, at least when it comes to surviving the winter. “Our goal is to rebuild our economy, to establish our statehood, and to show that our model is more successful than the one that exists in Ukraine,” he tells TIME in a phone interview.
The peace deal that Ukraine’s President defended on Wednesday will allow the separatists room to pursue these ends. In a speech to his cabinet of ministers, Petro Poroshenko said the breakaway regions would be able to hold elections to choose their own leaders and lawmakers. Ukraine’s parliament, he said, must also pass a law outlining “the temporary order of self-government for certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” namely those that are still under the control of the rebel militias. But the key provision of Poroshenko’s 12-point peace plan is the one that calls for the “decentralization of power.”
This phrase seems just vague enough to satisfy all sides. It falls short of Putin’s earlier calls for the “federalization” of Ukraine, which would grant broad rights of self-determination to the breakaway provinces. But it also allows Poroshenko to play up the promise that Ukraine will remain united, with no more regions splitting off. “The protocol does not mention any federalization, any secession,” he said. “That is not up for debate.”
The separatists would beg to differ. Andrei Purgin, one of the two rebel leaders who signed Poroshenko’s peace plan on Sept. 5, declared a few days later that the region of Donetsk is “standing firm on the condition of self-determination.” How the rebels will push this demand remains unclear. Tsarev says that the idea of full independence is still very much on the table, while another official in the rebel leadership, Sergei Kavtaradze (who unlike the other two is a Russian citizen) told TIME on Wednesday that, “we are not allowed to comment right now” on the question of independence. Considering his background as a Moscow public relations expert, Kavtaradze’s reticence suggests that Russia may be urging the separatists to hold off on making any more demands for now.
But that hardly means they will not arise in the future. If Ukraine moves ahead with its integration with the European Union, Russia could easily encourage the separatists to resume their rebellion. By spring, they will likely have elected a set of leaders who can push the cause of independence with more legitimacy than their movement can claim as of now. Though Poroshenko seems to realize this, he clearly sees it as the lesser evil.
Speaking to his cabinet on Wednesday, he said Kiev will probably not be thrilled with ranks of the local lawmakers that Donetsk and Luhansk will soon be allowed to elect. But then he asked, “isn’t it better to administer policy through ballots instead of automatic gunfire…?” Most of his war-weary constituents will likely agree that it is. But nothing in Poroshenko’s peace plan obliges the rebels to give up their arsenals, and weather permitting, they will still be able to use them again with the arrival of spring.