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LONDON — With all the electoral buzz in America, another vote a continent away has received less attention but could bear equally significant implications for the West and Europe.
This week in Donetsk — once a mixed Ukrainian city but now a pro-Russian rebel stronghold — a virtually unknown electrician named Alexander Zakharchenko walked onto a stage in an opera house, placed his hand on a Bible and was sworn in as a leader of the breakaway nation of Novorossiya, or "New Russia." In an election that had no voter lists, the former rebel leader had reportedly garnered 79 percent of the vote.
Much more than a local election has been won or lost in Eastern Ukraine. After six months of often-brutal fighting that saw at least 4,000 people killed, the civil war which sparked a war of words between Russia and the West has effectively ended. The pro-Russian rebels say they won and they now have what they’ve always wanted: a slice of Ukraine.
"Kiev has to come to terms with the idea that Donbass [Eastern Ukraine] is not part of Ukraine," Roman Kyagin, a local rebel official, told the Associated Press.
The Kremlin — while not officially recognizing Novorossiya as independent or part of Russia — said the vote "gave elected representatives the authority to restore stability." World leaders and the U.N. quickly rejected the so-called election as illegal.
And just like that, the death knell for a unified and democratic Ukraine was sounded.
The local winner Zakharchenko swore to "honestly service the interests of the people of the Donetsk People’s Republic and conscientiously fulfil my duties."
"Poroshenko — and Ukraine — are the big losers"
But the rebels' victory is fragile. Zakharchenko is, after all, the self-styled leader of a "frozen conflict" — a territory no country besides Russia recognizes, and no government besides the Kremlin will do business with. And with sporadic shells still falling near Donetsk’s airport, the risk of a new war remains high.
The bigger winner looks to be Russian President Vladimir Putin, who now has Ukraine where he wanted it: weak, divided and unstable. Better still, he didn’t need to launch a full-scale invasion to achieve his aims.
"Yes, Putin won," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. "Ukraine in its current state cannot be integrated into any Western-led institutions, neither NATO nor the European Union."
Marking "Unity Day" in Moscow on Tuesday, Putin made a veiled reference to events in Ukraine.
"This year we had to face complicated challenges," he said. "Like it has happened before in our history, our people answered with consolidation and high spirit."
Still, Putin's victory may yet prove to be Pyrrhic. Western sanctions — and low oil prices — are only starting to really bite in Russia, and Germany has threatened more sanctions — including a travel ban on separatist leader Zakharchenko. Turning Ukraine into Europe’s basket case may prove a costly strategy for Putin, in the end.
As Lukyanov sees it, there are no real winners in Ukraine.
"Losses are undoubtedly bigger than gains for all involved," Lukyanov said.
Europe and the U.S. are among the losers, according to many analysts and pundits, who note that it will be the West which must now bail out a troubled nation for years to come.
While Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the election "a farce conducted under the barrels of tanks and machine guns," his hands are tied.
"Poroshenko — and Ukraine — are the big losers," explained Lukyanov. "Ukraine has now lost a significant part of its territory, it faces a disastrous economic crisis and political turmoil is there to stay for a long time."