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.
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.
Increased violence coincided with start of Joint Forces Operation (JFO), amid speculation that Ukrainian forces are systematically retaking “grey zone” villages between the front lines delineated by Minsk II in February 2015, and reports separatists reinforcing positions and escalating shelling of govt-controlled areas near Troitske, Mariupol, Donetsk suburbs. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) 18 May voiced concern at skirmishes near Horlivka, where Ukrainian army retook Chihari village 14 May. Raids deep inside separatist territory fuelled rumours Kyiv is preparing to escalate: JFO press centre 20 May reported that troops carried out raid near Holmivskiy several km into separatist-held Donetsk; Luhansk separatists said unknown saboteurs 21 May detonated explosives at Shterovka bridge over 40km into their de facto territory. Senior SMM official 21 May described week as “in many ways the worst” this year with almost 7.7k ceasefire violations; expressed “particular concern” about Horlivka. International monitors recorded 31 civilian casualties 1-31 May including ten deaths. Ukrainian army received first tranche of advanced U.S. anti-tank Javelin missile systems; repeated public reassurances they would only be used defensively. Minsk Trilateral Contact Group 4 May announced resumption of mobile phone coverage in separatist-held areas. Poroshenko 10 May discussed roadmap for implementing Minsk through proposed peacekeeping mission at meeting with German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron. After meeting with Putin in Sochi 18 May, Merkel announced German foreign ministry was working with Russian counterparts to develop “joint mandate” for peacekeeping mission. Macron told press 25 May that EU will discuss sanctions renewal in July and France will support them until Moscow makes progress implementing Minsk. U.S. special envoy Kurt Volker visited govt-controlled areas in conflict zone 15 May. Putin same day opened bridge between Russian mainland and Crimea, Moscow’s only direct road link to annexed region. Dutch-led international criminal investigation into July 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 24 May announced that Russia’s 53rd Anti-aircraft Rocket Brigade fired the fatal shot.
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.
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.
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.
Ongoing clashes with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine combined with rampant corruption mean Ukraine is at a crossroads. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group recommends the EU to condition further technical and financial assistance while pursuing diplomatic engagement in Donbas.
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.
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.