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.
Despite hopes for progress over resolution Donbas conflict during 9 Dec Normandy summit, month saw increase in military and civilian casualties in Donbas conflict zone. Although Kyiv and Moscow agreed to withdraw troops at three additional locations by March 2020, conflict parties have yet to formally agree on any locations after two meetings of Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) in Minsk. Kyiv insists on resuming control of border with Russia in uncontrolled territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions before holding elections there; Kyiv envoy and ex-president Kuchma 16 Jan asked for new TCG subgroup devoted to border issues, which would also address necessary border access for OSCE monitors; Moscow and de facto leaders have not responded; Kyiv’s TCG envoy for political affairs Reznikov 23 Jan said “Minsk agreements need to be re-examined” in reference to border handover. Russian President Putin 11 Jan reiterated calls for Ukraine to amend its constitution, in accordance with Minsk agreements, to recognise special status of areas currently under separatist control. Associate of Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov, who oversees Russian support and control of separatist-held Donbas, said 25 Jan that Surkov had resigned due to shift in Moscow’s Ukraine policy; Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied any such shift. Dmitry Kozak, newly-appointed head of Russia’s presidential administration, is expected to take on his responsibilities. Use of heavy weaponry increased mid-Jan, with fighting concentrated east of Zolote disengagement area, near Shyrokyne, Avdiivka, and Svitlodarsk. Per official and independent sources, govt forces 1-29 Jan lost eleven servicemen at contact line, thirty-three injured; Russian-backed fighters lost from three to at least nine; at least three civilians injured due to mines and explosive devices, one person injured by shelling.
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.