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.
Late Jan escalation in clashes along front line around Avdiivka in east continued early Feb, with at least 35 soldiers and civilians reported killed and scores wounded in period 29 Jan-6 Feb. Fighting subsided somewhat 4 Feb, permitting repairs to power lines and restoration of water supplies in area. Efforts continued to restore ceasefire with limited success; Ukrainian military 17 Feb reported three soldiers killed, ten injured previous day. Ukrainian, Russian, German and French FMs 18 Feb agreed to renewed ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons in east taking effect 20 Feb, however OSCE 21 Feb reported continued ceasefire violations, 22 Feb said neither side honouring commitments to withdraw heavy weapons; Ukrainian military 25 Feb said sixteen soldiers wounded in clashes over previous 24 hours. President Poroshenko accused Moscow of violating Feb 2015 Minsk accord after Russia 18 Feb announced it would recognise identification documents issued by separatist entities; France, Germany and EU also criticised Russia. Moscow defended move on humanitarian grounds, said it complied with international law. Poroshenko expressed confidence in continued U.S. support following contacts and statements from senior U.S. officials including 4 Feb phone call with President Trump; 2 Feb statement by U.S. ambassador to UN who affirmed U.S. sanctions against Russia to remain in place until it returns Crimea; and White House spokesperson’s 14 Feb statement that Trump expects Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine. European Commission President Juncker 11 Feb said EU will give Ukraine €600mn to support govt finances; European Parliament 13 Feb approved new rules to waive visa regime for Ukrainians. Kyiv 15 Feb declared partial state of emergency due to nationalist blockade of rail lines delivering coal from separatist entities in east since 25 Jan; clashes broke out in Kyiv 19 Feb between ultra-nationalist demonstrators and police over blockade; separatists 27 Feb threatened to seize Ukrainian-run businesses if blockade not lifted. Several thousand joined protests in Kyiv organised by right-wing parties including far-right Right Sector 22 Feb demanding reform, change of govt. UNICEF 17 Feb reported 1 million children in east in urgent need of humanitarian aid, doubling over past year.
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