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.
President Poroshenko 20 Feb signed controversial Reintegration Law, which declares Donbas Russian-occupied territory; gives president authority to impose martial law throughout country and use military to retake separatist-held areas. Poroshenko issued tweet saying “this is a signal for both Donbas and Crimea: you are an integral part of Ukraine”. Russia and Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) proxies criticised law: DNR leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko said Ukraine “doesn’t want a peaceful solution”; LNR official Pavel Deynevo called law “late attempt to legalise violence” against Donbas residents. Russian foreign minister said law “side lines implementation of the Minsk agreements”. Disagreements over potential peacekeeping mission remain entrenched. Foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine held closed-door meeting 16 Feb: Lavrov complained Kyiv and the West were pushing large-scale mission to reintegrate Donbas via international administration whereas Minsk agreement foresaw reintegration via direct dialogue between Kyiv and separatist leaders. Kyiv lawmakers accused Russia, U.S. of ignoring Ukrainian concerns in search for peacekeeping deal. Violence increased in Donbas after relative calm in Jan, with both sides using heavy weaponry. Daily ceasefire violations rose from average 190 explosions per day in Jan to 450 1-26 Feb. Ukraine’s defence ministry reported eleven soldiers, one medic killed 20 Jan-27 Feb; separatists say at least nine dead including two civilian medics. Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) reported one civilian killed, twelve injured 20 Jan-27 Feb. OSCE monitoring mission faced aggression by both sides. At 14 Feb Trilateral Contact Group meeting in Minsk, OSCE Special Representative Martin Sajdik said Ukraine and separatists should lift their mutual trade blockade. Authorities deported former Odesa oblast Governor and ex-Georgian President Saakashvili to Poland 12 Feb, after Ukrainian courts refused his request for asylum. Thousands marched in Kyiv 18 Feb to demand Poroshenko’s resignation. Police report fourteen officers injured in clashes with protesters outside parliament 27 Feb.
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.