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.
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.
Security deteriorated in conflict zone; ceasefire violations rose from daily average of almost 150 late Oct to over 430 mid-Nov. Military and civilian casualties increased: defence ministry reported ten killed and at least 45 injured 24 Oct-19 Nov, five killed 23 Nov; one killed, two injured when police car hit anti-tank mine 15 Nov; de facto Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) reported six dead and five wounded. OSCE monitors (SMM) reported three civilians killed and six wounded; one child killed playing with unexploded ordinance in Donetsk city school playground. Kremlin announced 15 Nov that Putin spoke to separatists and urged full prisoner exchange with Kyiv. De facto Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) security minister and former Ukrainian security service agent Leonid Pasichnyk replaced Igor Plotnitsky after what appears to have been a coup 21-24 Nov; reports suggested involvement of DNR military and Russian mercenaries. Third meeting 13 Nov between U.S. Special Representative Kurt Volker and Russian representative Vladislav Surkov to discuss UN peacekeeping in Donbas brought little progress; Surkov rejected majority of U.S. proposals. U.S. National Security Council 14 Nov approved $47mn grant to Kyiv for U.S. weapons. European Parliament 15 Nov passed resolution praising reforms in Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, and recognising future membership potential. EU Eastern Partnership Summit issued declaration saying summit participants “acknowledge the European aspirations” of partners concerned, as stated in Association Agreements. At 29 Nov Minsk Tripartite Contact Group meeting, Kyiv envoy announced plans to exchange 306 hostages by New Year. Continuing efforts to discredit National Anticorruption Bureau (NABU): prosecutor general 17 Nov opened criminal case against NABU Director Artem Sytnyk, accused of leaking evidence from ongoing case. Poroshenko 11 Nov approved 113 new Supreme Court judges, 25 previously denounced by anti-corruption NGO. Activists criticised new leadership of State Investigation Bureau as vulnerable to political influence. Erstwhile Georgian President and Odesa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili continues anti-Poroshenko protest outside parliament; 19 Nov told supporters he was ready to become PM. Masked people 17 Nov kidnapped four more Georgian associates of Saakashvili. Ukraine security service same day deported eight Georgians for “violating national security interests”.
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.
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.
As great powers debate Russia’s place in the world, its role in eastern Ukraine’s 2-1/2-year-old war, and the Minsk peace process to end it, ordinary people living along the front line in eastern Ukraine are just as worried about many of the local leaders’ Soviet-style habits of governance, corruption and patronage.
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