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 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.
Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky’s decisive victory in presidential run-off election prompted speculation over implications for conflict with Russia and prospects for reintegration of Donbas conflict zone in east, while Russia’s announcement of simplified passport procedures for residents of separatist-controlled areas, and parliament’s passing of Ukrainian language law, signalled immediate challenges facing president-elect. Zelensky won 73% of vote in 21 April presidential election run-off, following campaign characterised by absence of information on his policies beyond desire to resolve Donbas conflict but continue to move country toward West; and allegations by incumbent President Poroshenko that Zelensky is Russia appeaser and tool of oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. Immediately ramping up pressure on president-elect, Moscow 24 April announced it would simplify Russian citizenship applications for residents of non govt-controlled areas, prompting condemnation from Kyiv and international partners including U.S., Canada and EU member states. Poroshenko called move preparation “to annex Ukrainian Donbas or create a Russian enclave” and said he had appealed to UN Security Council to discuss issue; Security and Defence Council Secretary Oleksandr Turchynov said Russia was preparing “legal conditions” to openly use force against Ukraine with pretext of protecting Russian citizens. Parliament 25 April passed controversial law on quotas for use of Ukrainian language in news, media and print publications, and stating that “attempts to establish multilingualism on an official level” will be considered unconstitutional. Move seen partially as response to election of Russian-speaker Zelensky, who previously voiced opposition to promoting Ukrainian using “the stick method”; Zelensky promised to “review” law. Violence continued in conflict zone; casualties in period 1-29 April included: ten Ukrainian Army soldiers, some twenty separatist fighters, and one civilian. Several civilians reported wounded by shelling and explosives; one state demining worker killed and two injured near Maiorsk 9 April. Amid continued concern over govt’s flagging battle against corruption, Poroshenko 11 April appointed 38 judges to newly-established High Anti-Corruption Court, including eight whom independent experts assessed as unqualified.
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.
Implementation of the Minsk ceasefire agreement remains deadlocked. Russia’s first proposal of a UN peacekeeping force in Ukraine’s breakaway eastern regions cannot work, but it opens a much-needed window for diplomacy.
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.
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.
Crisis Group’s third update to our Watch List 2018 includes entries on economic reforms in Libya, preserving the fragile quiet in Syria’s Idlib province, addressing the plight of civilians in eastern Ukraine, supporting Colombia's uneasy peace process and averting violence in Nigeria's upcoming elections. This annual early-warning report identifies conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace.
While Ukraine’s territorial integrity remains compromised, every effort must be made to improve the plight of residents in the eastern Donbas region. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018 annual early-warning update for European policy makers, Crisis Group advises the EU and its member states to provide these citizens with funds for compensation and encourage Kyiv to pass legislation that restores residents’ pension payments.
Four years after Russia’s invasion, psychological barriers are compounding the physical divisions of Ukraine. While many Ukrainians have turned to the West, millions of conflict-affected citizens are being excluded, creating new obstacles to any eventual reintegration of the country.