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.
Kyiv has accepted the Steinmeier formula, a mechanism for jump-starting implementation of the peace deal for parts of eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists since 2014. This decision is welcome, but the Ukrainian government should step carefully to boost chances of a settlement.
Originally published in EUREN Brief
Kyiv’s efforts to unlock long-stuck negotiation process with Russia-backed separatists prompted significant public backlash, but yielded tentative progress toward new Normandy summit and bilateral troop disengagement along front line, where security situation remained precarious. President Zelenskyy 1 Oct announced Kyiv had agreed to withdraw some troops from front line and signed on to so-called Steinmeier Formula for implementing the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements, opening door to long-awaited Normandy summit with Russia, Germany and France. Steinmeier Formula seeks to elide Kyiv and Russia/separatists’ disagreement on when “self-governing status” element of Minsk should take effect – after Ukrainian govt resumes control of its eastern border with Russia and holds elections under Ukrainian law (Kyiv’s vision) or before elections (Moscow and the separatists’ vision); Steinmeier stipulates special status and local elections must happen simultaneously. Domestic political opposition claim Steinmeier legitimises separatist regimes and amounts to surrender. Protesters gathered periodically with some 13,000 marching “against capitulation” 14 Oct; Kyiv attributed protests to communication failures. Disengagement did not proceed as planned 7 Oct; Kyiv blamed other side for ceasefire violations, while Russia and separatists blamed Kyiv’s inability to control armed far right, some of whom had begun an ongoing protest at one of the slated withdrawal zones, Zolote. Kyiv 14 Oct announced disengagement “postponed”; next day, Trilateral Contact Group parties cut short scheduled meeting involving discussion of plans to exchange prisoners and renew social services in separatist-held areas. Following controversial 27 Oct argument between Zelenskyy and right-wing activists in Zolote, national police announced activists had removed weapons from their front-line HQ. Sides announced start of disengagement at Zolote 29 Oct. Meanwhile, number of ceasefire violations well above Sept average. Ukrainian govt forces lost eight servicemen and one servicewoman (mostly due to sniper fire), while LDNR forces lost at least ten fighters; fourteen civilians injured 28 Sept - 30 Oct, all on separatist-held territory, eleven due to unexploded ordinances and mines. In positive news, Ukrainian authorities opened temporary bypass bridge at Stanytsia Luhanska, used by 10,000-12,000 people crossing front line daily.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With Ukraine’s establishment forecasting doom after the presidential runoff, the far right’s influence on politics is impossible to ignore. Its resurgence is both a symptom and a cause of the country’s ills: there is less daylight between it and the political mainstream than either admits.
A confrontation in the Azov Sea in November 2018 exacerbated hostilities between Russia and Ukraine and dashed hopes for an early resolution to the six-year war. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to continue its support for a negotiated settlement and pressure Kyiv to protect civilians.