Renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine is quickly turning into a litmus test of Russia’s intentions in backing Ukrainian separatist rebels, and the real willingness of the West, in particular the United States, to support Kyiv. Fears over Washington’s wavering may also cause positions to harden in the protracted conflicts in Europe’s East, most immediately in Georgia.
Clashes between military and separatists along front line in east escalated late Jan, with some twenty killed 29-31 Jan in fighting over govt-held Avdiivka, near Donetsk, involving artillery shelling. Ukrainian officials 31 Jan reported eight soldiers killed and 26 wounded since 29 Jan, ten Russian-backed separatists killed and 25 injured; at least two civilians reported killed. Sides blamed each other for escalation; President Poroshenko cut short trip to Germany. UN reported Avdiivka and Yasynuvata towns cut off from electricity supply, some 15,000 civilians left without water, many without heating. UNSC 31 Jan expressed “grave concern” over “dangerous deterioration”, noted severe impact on local civilians, called for immediate return to ceasefire regime. OSCE 19 Jan reported deteriorating security situation in east since New Year despite 23 Dec truce, with increase in ceasefire violations, including use of weapons banned under Minsk agreement; 27 Jan reported five civilians killed in increased fighting around Luganksk in previous two weeks. Ukrainian officials reported two soldiers killed in clashes 27 Jan. Kyiv, Germany, France and others expressed concern during month over whether new U.S. administration will maintain sanctions on Russia linked to its occupation of Crimea and role in separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. Outgoing U.S. administration made final show of support to Kyiv with visit by VP Biden mid-month, and extension of sanctions on Russia by President Obama until March 2018. New U.S. President Trump and Russian President Putin reportedly discussed “partnership” on issues including Ukraine during 28 Jan call, did not discuss sanctions. Chinese President Xi speaking with Poroshenko on sidelines of World Economic Forum 17 Jan said he would like to deepen cooperation with Kyiv and offered assistance in seeking resolution of crisis. Kyiv 16 Jan filed lawsuit against Russia at International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing it of acts of “terrorism” and “discrimination” in connection with annexation of Crimea and backing separatist fighters in east. Poroshenko 22 Jan said he would resist efforts by “some politicians in Kyiv and Moscow” to push for early parliamentary elections, which he said were calculated to “destabilise our country”. Poroshenko 16 Jan warned continued delay on part of EU in waiving visa requirement for Ukrainians causing disillusionment with EU.
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
Originally published in Política Exterior