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.
Kyiv has accepted the Steinmeier formula, a mechanism for jump-starting implementation of the peace deal for parts of eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists since 2014. This decision is welcome, but the Ukrainian government should step carefully to boost chances of a settlement.
Originally published in EUREN Brief
Sides progressed on withdrawal of troops from pilot zones along front line, while leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France geared up for early-Dec peace talks. Participants of so-called Normandy Format set to gather 9 Dec for first time since 2017 for summit to negotiate next steps on resolving Donbas conflict; expected to sign communiqué that may serve as starting point for more detailed and far-reaching measures. President Zelenskyy 20 Nov listed several desired outcomes from summit: concrete agreement on prisoner exchange, modalities for a sustainable ceasefire, strategy for Ukraine to regain control of its eastern border, and plans for elections under Ukrainian law on territories currently held by separatists. In conflict zone, Ukrainian military and Russia-backed separatists completed troop disengagement at two pilot zones along front line, Zolote (1 Nov) and Petrivske (12 Nov); Zolote withdrawal coincided with 75-80% drop in reported ceasefire violations, however ceasefire violations increased again by mid-month, recorded at same level as July before “unlimited ceasefire” agreement. Ukrainian govt forces lost three servicemen in combat 23 Oct-23 Nov, Russia-backed forces sixteen according to various reports; four civilians injured, all in separatist-controlled territories. Kyiv eased some restrictions on freedom of movement of civilians across contact line end-Nov, simplifying procedures for minors and transporting goods, and opened new bridge at pedestrian crossing point Stanytsia Luhanska. Zelenskyy continued apparent efforts to balance normalising relations with Russia and moving closer to West, including 15 Nov signing of law to unbundle natural gas supplier Naftogaz, condition of Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. International Court of Justice 8 Nov issued judgment recognising its own jurisdiction in suit Kyiv filed in 2017 accusing Moscow of violations of International Convention for the Suppression of Financing of Terrorism and International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Security services mid-Nov arrested Georgian citizen Al-Bara Shishani, alleged senior member of Islamic State (ISIS), in Kyiv. Moscow 18 Nov returned ships it seized in Azov Sea Nov 2018, in reportedly badly damaged state.
Russia and the separatists it backs in Ukraine’s east are no longer quite on the same page, especially since the Kremlin abandoned ideas of annexing the breakaway republics or recognising their independence. The rift gives the new Ukrainian president an opportunity for outreach to the east’s embattled population, including by relaxing the trade embargo.
With living conditions worsening, and crossfire still claiming casualties, people residing in eastern Ukraine’s conflict zone feel increasingly abandoned by the central government. Reintegrating the area requires Russian withdrawal, but in the meantime Kyiv can and should better protect civilians and meet humanitarian needs.
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.
Ukraine is really dependent on [U.S.] aid and support, and that makes it an easy country to influence, because of that, at least on paper.
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.
Amid expectations that Russia will test Ukraine’s new president with escalatory actions, it appears that its calculus is to wait for Kyiv’s administration to make the first move – while quietly helping the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics entrench themselves economically.
The front lines in eastern Ukraine are slowly freezing in place, as is civilian deprivation in the conflict zone. An embargo, bureaucracy and distrust conspire to keep humanitarian aid out. Russia and Ukraine should find politically neutral ways to unblock the flow of assistance.
With Ukraine’s establishment forecasting doom after the presidential runoff, the far right’s influence on politics is impossible to ignore. Its resurgence is both a symptom and a cause of the country’s ills: there is less daylight between it and the political mainstream than either admits.
A confrontation in the Azov Sea in November 2018 exacerbated hostilities between Russia and Ukraine and dashed hopes for an early resolution to the six-year war. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to continue its support for a negotiated settlement and pressure Kyiv to protect civilians.