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.
The front lines between the Ukrainian army and Moscow-backed forces in eastern Ukraine may be static but see frequent and violent firefights. Diplomatic manoeuvering over new U.S. lethal weapons for Kyiv risks aggravating the conflict and Russia’s UN peacekeeping proposal could prove a distraction from a genuine solution.
Significant reduction in ceasefire violations since Aug agreement, though increasing through Sept; 220 violations reported 21 Sept, days after OSCE deputy Alexander Hug warned of likely uptick. Ukraine reported four soldiers, two border guards and several Donetsk People’s Republic fighters killed during month; six civilians on both sides of line of separation injured. OSCE reported 68 civilians killed in 2017, 315 wounded. Senior officials described large 27 Sept military depot explosion as major blow to Ukraine’s fighting capacity. Putin proposed UN peacekeeping mission for Donbas 5 Sept, in shift from previous opposition to idea; proposal initially specified forces only along front line to protect OSCE monitoring mission (SMM), however Putin told German Chancellor Merkel 11 Sept that he would consider it in all areas where SMM operates. Western observers, including U.S. envoy Volker, expressed cautious optimism, others described it as “a distraction”. Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin 19 Sept said that any peacekeepers should cover all Donbas including Russia’s border, and be accompanied by withdrawal of Russian regular and irregular troops and weapons; Poroshenko repeated this at UN General Assembly. Klimkin 26 Sept said draft peacekeeping force resolution ready for UN submission once Russia indicates willingness to accept Kyiv’s terms. U.S. Senate 18 Sept approved defence budget with $500mn in Ukraine security assistance, including controversial defensive lethal assistance. EU-Ukraine Association Agreement entered into force 1 Sept; EU official 20 Sept said Kyiv needs to implement more reforms in coming months including on corruption as condition for further financial aid. EU also extended for six months asset freezes and travel bans on Russian officials and Donbas separatists. Standoff between Poroshenko and erstwhile Georgian president, ex-Odessa governor Mikheil Saakashvili, now a vocal govt critic, escalated after Saakashvili illegally entered Ukraine from Poland 10 Sept, swearing to help solve country’s political crisis. UN human rights office 25 Sept reported Russian state agents in Crimea have committed grave human rights violations since Russian annexation of region in 2014, including torture, arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances and at least one extrajudicial execution.
After three years of conflict and 10,000 deaths, Russia has shown it can destabilise and dominate Ukraine. The Kyiv government may still prevail, but only if it uproots corruption and if the U.S. and EU maintain sanctions until Russia’s complete withdrawal from the country’s east.
The 500km line of separation between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatist rebels suffers heavy daily violations of the ceasefire agreed in Minsk in 2015. Escalation is possible, and the status quo risks a political backlash against the Kyiv government and no way out of sanctions for Moscow. All sides should pull back heavy weapons from front lines, take responsibility for civilians trapped there, and return to other steps toward peace set out in Minsk.
A 2015 ceasefire signed in Minsk is largely holding in eastern Ukraine, while the most likely outcome is a brittle, long-term frozen conflict. Nevertheless, Russia is juggling many options, and Minsk remains a vital possible path to resolution. The deal deserves steadfast, sanctions-backed support from the U.S. and European Union.
Danger of renewed fighting in Ukraine’s east is mounting. Crisis Group’s new briefing shows that neither side is looking to compromise or able to win outright. Our accompanying statement sets out a new Western strategy with Russia to defuse one of the greatest post-Cold War threats to European stability and global order.
Winter in Ukraine is injecting further uncertainty into an already volatile conflict. After well over 5,000 deaths and eight months of war, eastern Ukraine – particularly the separatist-held parts of Donetsk and Luhansk – now runs the risk of a humanitarian crisis. All parties involved in the conflict should refrain from offensive operations, concentrating instead on helping the population survive the winter, and laying the groundwork for a political settlement.
Ukraine needs a government of national unity that reaches out to its own people and tackles the country’s long overdue reforms; both Russia and Western powers should back a vision for the country as a bridge between East and West, not a geopolitical battleground.
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.
Unresolved conflicts and breakaway territories divide five out of six of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership countries, most of them directly backed by the Russian Federation. But a policy of isolating the people living in these conflict regions narrows the road to peace.
Moscow’s current outburst, a combination of verbal aggression and military caution, may indicate that it is unsure what to do.
Originally published in Foreign Policy