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.
Four years after Russia’s invasion, psychological barriers are compounding the physical divisions of Ukraine. While many Ukrainians have turned to the West, millions of conflict-affected citizens are being excluded, creating new obstacles to any eventual reintegration of the country.
Security situation in east improved from 1 July “Harvest Ceasefire” between Ukrainian military and Russia-backed armed formations; Kyiv reported ceasefire violations dropped 80% 1-11 July; however Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) noted “sharp increase” in ceasefire violations in Donetsk region 29-30 July. Following 11 July Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) meeting, Kyiv reiterated calls for OSCE monitors’ full access up to Russian border; and for return to military positions established by Sept 2014 memorandum. Following 25 July TCG meeting, Kyiv envoy Iryna Herashchenko said Russia refused to consider new prisoner exchange and urged TCG resolution guaranteeing International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to Ukrainians in Russian and separatist detention. Ukrainian military casualties included four killed 1-30 July; OSCE reported eight civilians injured, two dead. Tensions rose around Azov Sea, amid reports of Russian searches of Ukrainian vessels and May opening of Kerch bridge linking Crimea to Russia’s Krasnodar region. President Poroshenko 17 July pledged military measures to stop “Russian provocations”; accused Moscow of hindering mining and metallurgical industries, cementing annexation of Crimea, and violating 2003 agreement guaranteeing free movement of vessels in area. Russia accused Ukraine and Western backers of provocations via military exercises in Black Sea, which were followed by Ukrainian aviation exercises on Azov Sea reported by military 30 July. Talks on potential UN mission in Donbas remained deadlocked. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov 16 July elaborated plan for reintegration of areas outside Kyiv’s control through security operations facilitated by a small peacekeeping force; said open questions include nature and duration of “special status” for reintegrated territories; status of Russian language. Following closed-door session at 16 July Helsinki summit between U.S. and Russian leaders, President Putin allegedly claimed he suggested to President Trump for his private consideration that Ukraine’s separatist-held territories conduct internationally recognised referendum on status; U.S. govt 20 July denied it would consider this. U.S. 20 July announced additional $200mn in security assistance for “training, equipment, and advisory efforts”. Parliament 12 July passed amendments to June anti-corruption court law as per calls from Western counterparts.
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.
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.
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.
Ongoing clashes with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine combined with rampant corruption mean Ukraine is at a crossroads. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group recommends the EU to condition further technical and financial assistance while pursuing diplomatic engagement in Donbas.
The front lines between the Ukrainian army and Moscow-backed forces in eastern Ukraine may be static but see frequent and violent firefights. Diplomatic manoeuvering over new U.S. lethal weapons for Kyiv risks aggravating the conflict and Russia’s UN peacekeeping proposal could prove a distraction from a genuine solution.
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.