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.
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.
Following escalation in fighting between govt forces and Russian-backed separatists in Donbas in east, parties renewed ceasefire 21 July, and President Zelensky’s party won snap parliamentary elections. In Donbas, fighting intensified in first half of July with both sides using heavy weapons along contact line; at least eight separatist fighters, twelve members of Ukrainian army and national guard, and five civilians killed. Talks made progress on several fronts. At 17 July Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) meeting in Minsk, capital of Belarus, parties agreed on how to rebuild pedestrian bridge at Stanytsia Luhanska checkpoint, critical for humanitarian access, and not to use it for military purposes. At 18 July TCG meeting, sides agreed to implement renewed ceasefire from 21 July in Donbas, for first time specifying “ban on any sort of fire”, and made progress toward “all-for-all” prisoner exchange. After military 19 July allegedly suggested it would reject TCG ban on defensive fire, Ukraine’s envoy to talks clarified ceasefire would not prohibit return fire in case of attack. Parliamentary elections held peacefully 21 July but turnout low at 49.8%; Zelensky’s Sluha Narodu party won with 42% of vote, pro-Russian Opozytsiyna Platforma-Za Zhyttya came second with 13%. Ukraine-Russia relations remained strained. Zelensky and Russian President Putin in phone call 11 July (their first direct interaction) reportedly discussed 24 Ukrainian sailors whom Russian security forces captured in Nov 2018. After Russian state investigators finalised charges against sailors of violating country’s borders, Moscow court 17 July approved investigators’ request to prolong their pre-trial detention for two additional months until late Oct. Putin 17 July signed order to expand eligibility for expedited Russian citizenship; in addition to those registered in areas controlled by Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, all residents and former residents of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts will be able to apply; Ukraine condemned move. During U.S. and Ukrainian-led multinational maritime exercise in north west Black Sea. Ukraine navy said Russian destroyer 10 July created “dangerous situation” by sailing into area restricted for live-fire drills, which Russia denied. Ukrainian authorities 24 July in Odessa region detained Russian tanker allegedly used to block Kerch Strait prior to Russian seizure of Ukrainian boats and their crews 25 Nov; Russian crew released that day.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.