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.
Several civilians killed and at least two dozen injured by fighting in conflict zone during month. Authorities reported four civilians killed, one seriously injured by shelling in govt-controlled town Avdiyivka 13 May, blamed on Russia-backed separatists; eight civilians injured by artillery fire in town of Krasnohorivka 28 May, also blamed on separatists. Several separatist fighters also reported killed during month. OSCE 25 May reported rate of violence so far in 2017 double that of same period in 2016. Leader of Crimean Tatars Mustafa Dzhemilev 20 May reported Russia had deployed six nuclear warheads on peninsula. Meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov 10 May, U.S. President Trump reportedly stressed Russia’s responsibility to fully implement Minsk agreements; Trump also met with Ukrainian FM Klimkin. President Poroshenko met with German Chancellor Merkel 20 May, agreed on need to improve implementation of Minsk deal. European Council President Tusk 26 May called on G7 countries to maintain sanctions on Russia. New French President Macron met with Russian President Putin 29 May, agreed on need for new round of peace talks. Meeting of deputy FMs of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia for talks in Normandy Format to discuss Minsk peace process 30 May. President Poroshenko 16 May issued controversial decree banning several popular Russian social networks and websites; imposed sanctions on several Russian IT companies and TV channels; 29 May raided Russian internet search firm Yandex, accusing it of sharing Ukrainian user data with Moscow; Yandex denied. Parliament 23 May approved bill requiring national TV and radio stations to broadcast at least 75% of programming in Ukrainian language. Police 24 May arrested 23 former high-ranking tax officials in corruption probe involving allegations of fraud under former President Yanukovych. European Parliament and European Council 17 May signed EU visa liberalisation into law, to enter into force 11 June; Poroshenko described deal as marking Ukraine’s “divorce from the Russian Empire”.
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