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.
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.
Casualties in eastern Ukraine spiked in second half of July after several weeks of modest decline; nine soldiers reported killed in several incidents 20 July, deadliest day of conflict for months. Kyiv 10 July reported that work on draft law to change terms of engagement in Donbas from anti-terror to liberation operation, announced 13 June, is being put aside. Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) head Aleksandr Zakharchenko 18 July announced formation of new political entity, Malorossiya (“Little Russia”), uniting DNR and Luhansk People’s Republic; announcement criticised by Kyiv and West, dismissed by Russia. U.S. Sec State Rex Tillerson 7 July announced former ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker as new U.S. special representative for Ukraine; Volker visited Ukraine with Tillerson 9 July and again late month, said conflict not frozen but a “hot war”, important for U.S. to become more engaged; 25 July said U.S. is considering sending Kyiv lethal weapons to help fight separatists. Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine participated in phone call 24 July in Normandy format, called for immediate halt to ceasefire violations. U.S. Senate 27 July approved new sanctions on Moscow; Russia condemned sanctions, EU expressed concern over impact on European energy security. Poroshenko met NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels 10 July, said Ukraine and NATO had started discussing membership action plan; NATO spokesman stated NATO had taken Ukraine’s ambitions into consideration but did not confirm existence of a plan. Stoltenberg expressed NATO’s “unwavering support” for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, called on Russia to remove its “thousands of soldiers from Ukraine” and stop supporting militants with military equipment. Visiting Odessa during joint U.S.-Ukraine military exercises 17 July, Poroshenko reiterated intention to put action plan for NATO membership “back on the agenda”. Ukraine 26 July cut power supply to separatist-controlled areas of Donetsk. EU 11 July formally endorsed EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, to enter into force 1 Sept.
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