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.
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.
Hostilities in eastern conflict zone worsened as back-to-school ceasefire deteriorated, while tensions increased with Russia over Azov Sea and proposed establishment of a self-governing Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Violence rose in east mid-Oct: reported casualties highest among separatist fighters, however several Ukrainian soldiers also killed, and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission reported several civilian deaths, including of minors. OSCE mission reported more convoys appearing to cross Ukraine-Russia border by night 9-12 Oct, 16 Oct and 27 Oct, when the mission’s drone went missing after spotting convoy. Vladislav Surkov, personal adviser to Russian President Putin, reportedly endorsed separatist “elections” on 11 Nov; pledged financial support to separatist entities. Russian parliament 18 Oct adopted resolution warning of “growing military threat from the Kyiv authorities in Donbas”. Ukrainian concerns about Russian activities in Azov Sea persisted; govt 12 Oct published decree on “Immediate measures for the protection of national interests in southern and eastern Ukraine, the Black and Azov Seas and the Kerch Strait”, including steps to demarcate Ukrainian waters, and deploy military and law enforcement divisions to monitor sea borders. European Parliament passed nonbinding resolution 25 Oct reiterating opposition to Russia’s construction of Kerch bridge and burdensome inspection regime for ships entering and exiting Ukraine’s Azov Sea ports; warned of “reinforced” sanctions on Russia “if the conflict in the Azov Sea escalates further”. Kyiv parliament prolonged special status law for separatist-controlled entities until 31 Dec 2019. Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate announced break with Ecumenical Patriarchate following latter’s 11 Oct move to bring Ukrainian clergy previously excommunicated by Moscow Patriarchate into communion, and its intention to grant autocephaly (self-government) to Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Moscow said move could lead to seizure of worship facilities, Russian parliament statement 18 Oct warned of possible attacks on adherents of Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine; in Kyiv, interior minister said police will curtail any illegal attempts to seize worship sites. Diplomatic row with Hungary intensified over latter’s granting of citizenship to Ukrainian nationals in violation of Ukrainian law; Kyiv expelled Hungarian consul 4 Oct; Budapest expelled top Ukrainian diplomat and pledged to continue opposing Kyiv’s EU and NATO integration efforts.
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.
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.
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.