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.
New ceasefire between Kyiv and Russian-backed separatists went into effect 1 April resulting in reduced fighting; over a dozen Ukrainian soldiers reported killed during month including two killed in clashes with separatists near Avdiivka 21 April; separatists reported two fighters killed during previous week. OSCE launched investigation after one of its monitors, a U.S. national, was killed and two wounded when their car drove over landmine in separatist-controlled Luhansk region 23 April; Kyiv and Russian-backed separatists blamed each other. Ukraine 25 April cut electricity supply to separatist-controlled parts of Luhansk region citing non-payment; Russia said move politically motivated and violated Minsk peace accord, said it would help provide electricity. President Poroshenko 18 April held phone call with German, French and Russian leaders; sides confirmed commitment to implementation of Minsk agreements, urged intensification of efforts to liberate prisoners. International Criminal Court 19 April refused request by Ukraine as part of its case against Russia to impose provisional measures to stop Russia funding and equipping separatists; issued provisional ruling calling for stop to racial discrimination against Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians in Crimea. Kyiv called court’s ruling and recognition of its jurisdiction “very promising”. PM Hroysman 11 April reiterated govt’s commitment to reforms; central bank Governor Valeria Hontareva resigned previous day citing political pressure. IMF 3 April approved disbursement of $1bn loan tranche to Ukraine, previously postponed due to trade embargo on separatist-controlled areas, citing signs of economic improvement. EU parliament and EU ambassadors gave approval for EU visa liberalisation, expected to enter into force in June. Kyiv court 7 April convicted twelve former members of Tornado battalion of committing crimes against civilians in Luhansk region in early 2015.
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.
Ukraine needs a government of national unity that reaches out to its own people and tackles the country’s long overdue reforms; both Russia and Western powers should back a vision for the country as a bridge between East and West, not a geopolitical battleground.
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.
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
Originally published in Política Exterior