Since 2014, a war with Russia-backed separatists has killed 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine, Russia has annexed Crimea and Ukraine’s relationship with the European Union has suffered due to corruption and failed political reform. Crisis Group supports and reports on implementation of the 2015 Minsk Agreement to turn a ceasefire between the warring parties into a peace deal. Through a network of contacts on both sides of the conflict divide, we assess the dire humanitarian situation and engage local and foreign actors to prevent clashes from escalating, facilitate conflict settlement and strengthen a reintegrated Ukrainian state.
To help Ukraine find peace, the EU, NATO, and member states must seek new approaches to arms control discussions with Russia and European security as a whole. They should also consider a more flexible sanctions policy, such that progress in Ukraine may lead to incremental easing.
Originally published in ISPI
Amid ongoing violence in east, high-level debates continued on how to implement the Minsk agreements’ political provisions. Violence along Donbas front lines remained concentrated around Svitlodarsk, Avdiivka-Yasynuvata, Donetsk city, and Shyrokyne on Azov Sea, according to Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Fighting in June killed four govt servicemen, according to military press service, and 21 Russian-backed fighters, according to pro-Ukrainian non-government source; one civilian injured in Avdiivka, east of Donetsk city in same period, according to OSCE. Russian-backed forces continued to limit access for OSCE ceasefire compliance monitors. Head of presidential office Andriy Yermak 17 June said that govt prepared new bill incorporating Steinmeier Formula which states that “special status” for de facto regions as provided for in 2015 Minsk agreements should be recognised simultaneously with Kyiv holding elections in these areas; govt discussed draft with Minsk political sub-group comprising civil society representatives from Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Following series of Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) virtual meetings 9, 11, 15 and 25 June attended by newly appointed representatives of Ukraine govt , OSCE’s top TCG envoy 25 June noted that sides were unable to agree on security modalities for opening of new civilian crossing points in Luhansk region; welcomed partial reopening of existing crossings. Govt 10 June partially reopened two civilian checkpoints at contact line; de facto authorities 18 June began allowing entry in Luhansk region; entry into Donestsk People’s Republic remains restricted. Sides 22 June opened Novotroitske/Olenivka checkpoint in Donetsk region for entry into govt-controlled areas; confusion over crossing procedures left dozens stranded at checkpoints. NATO 12 June granted Ukraine “enhanced opportunities partner” status, enabling “access to interoperability programs and exercises”. U.S. 17 June delivered $60mn in military equipment to govt. Govt 17 June extended COVID-19 quarantine measures until 31 July due to spike in infections.
The threat of coronavirus looms large in six self-declared republics that have broken away from post-Soviet states. War and isolation have corroded health care infrastructure, while obstructing the inflow of assistance. International actors should work with local and regional leaders to let life-saving aid through.
Russia and the separatists it backs in Ukraine’s east are no longer quite on the same page, especially since the Kremlin abandoned ideas of annexing the breakaway republics or recognising their independence. The rift gives the new Ukrainian president an opportunity for outreach to the east’s embattled population, including by relaxing the trade embargo.
With living conditions worsening, and crossfire still claiming casualties, people residing in eastern Ukraine’s conflict zone feel increasingly abandoned by the central government. Reintegrating the area requires Russian withdrawal, but in the meantime Kyiv can and should better protect civilians and meet humanitarian needs.
Rivalry persists between Russia and Turkey in their shared neighbourhood of the Black Sea and the South Caucasus. But Moscow-Ankara relations have warmed overall. Building on their wider rapprochement, the two powers can work together to tamp down flare-ups of regional conflicts.
Far from the deadly battle against Kremlin-backed separatists in its eastern provinces, Kyiv faces a groundswell of resentment and disenfranchisement among citizens in the country’s west. To restore faith in the state’s laws and institutions, the government must address endemic corruption to win back those in the state’s margins.
Maybe there’s a shift in thinking about war [in Ukraine]. What is the point of fighting now? Maybe it’s better to self-isolate, rather than sit in trenches.
Ukraine is really dependent on [U.S.] aid and support, and that makes it an easy country to influence, because of that, at least on paper.
Russia is intensely frustrated by the lack of movement on the February 2015 Minsk agreement, and has sought to put the onus for the lack of progress on Ukraine.
A long-awaited prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia marks a positive development in their bilateral relationship. Both countries should now build on their recent progress to implement the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements, the surest path to ending the war in eastern Ukraine.
Amid expectations that Russia will test Ukraine’s new president with escalatory actions, it appears that its calculus is to wait for Kyiv’s administration to make the first move – while quietly helping the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics entrench themselves economically.
The front lines in eastern Ukraine are slowly freezing in place, as is civilian deprivation in the conflict zone. An embargo, bureaucracy and distrust conspire to keep humanitarian aid out. Russia and Ukraine should find politically neutral ways to unblock the flow of assistance.