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.
Years of conflict have exacerbated the economic woes of Donbas, once an industrial powerhouse. Authorities in Kyiv should take steps now to aid pensioners and encourage small trade while also planning ahead for the region’s eventual reintegration with the rest of the country.
Following late July ceasefire deal between Minsk accord parties, casualties decreased in Donbas conflict zone; Donetsk de facto leadership threatened new escalation. July ceasefire in Donbas conflict zone largely held throughout month: Ukrainian military confirmed no casualties or injuries in combat. Both sides continued to sustain non-combat casualties, however, particularly from landmines, including one Ukrainian serviceman killed 13 Aug, one Russian-backed fighter killed 15 Aug and two Russian-backed fighters killed 28 Aug. Sides accused each other of violating ceasefire rules with small arms, drones and fortification of positions. In move that could escalate conflict, Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) head Denis Pushilin 28 Aug threatened to order “destruction of trenches and shelters of the Ukrainian Armed Forces fortified or created after 22 July” if these were not removed by 3 Sept. Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) members held heated discussions throughout month on meaning of “special status” for territories currently under control of separatists; Ukrainian delegation head Leonid Kravchuk 4 Aug suggested replacing “special status” with “special system of administration”; in response, DPR de facto FM Natalia Nikonorova warned of Ukrainian attempts to “nullify the [Minsk] agreements”. Deputy head of presidential administration Andryi Yermak 7 Aug announced imminent exchange of 200 prisoners. Luhansk People’s Republic TCG representative Olga Kobtseva 20 Aug said, however, no progress made on swap due to Kyiv govt legislation passed in July stating that no elections would be held in Donetsk and Luhansk until govt takes control of state border, which Kobtseva said would negate “the whole point of the Minsk agreements”. Ukrainian govt said sides 20 Aug agreed to 20 new demining zones and four disengagement zones. Following Ukraine’s extradition request of Wagner military battalion members arrested in Minsk in July, Belarus authorities 14 Aug announced fighters had been handed over to Russia. As of 1 Sept, DPR de facto authorities reported steady rise of total COVID-19 cases to 2,560 while Luhansk People’s Republic registered total 692 cases.
Ceasefires in Ukraine's Donbas repeatedly fray because no side is fully invested in peace. Until the sides can agree on a long-term political solution, they should focus on protecting civilians through carefully targeted sectoral disengagements. If this facilitates peacemaking, so much the better.
The threat of coronavirus looms large in six self-declared republics that have broken away from post-Soviet states. War and isolation have corroded health care infrastructure, while obstructing the inflow of assistance. International actors should work with local and regional leaders to let life-saving aid through.
To help Ukraine find peace, the EU, NATO, and member states must seek new approaches to arms control discussions with Russia and European security as a whole. They should also consider a more flexible sanctions policy, such that progress in Ukraine may lead to incremental easing.
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.
Maybe there’s a shift in thinking about war [in Ukraine]. What is the point of fighting now? Maybe it’s better to self-isolate, rather than sit in trenches.
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.
Last May, President Volodymyr Zelensky took office promising to end the then-five-year old war with Russia. As his administration approaches its one-year anniversary, however, Zelensky’s peacebuilding efforts face backlash in Kyiv, skepticism in Moscow, and hostility in the Russian-backed breakaways in Donbass.
Originally published in ISPI
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has embarked on an uncertain path to end the war in the region of Donbas, but his efforts have revived a process that had seemed increasingly hopeless. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support Zelenskyy’s efforts to end the separatist conflict in the east.
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.
A long-awaited prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia marks a positive development in their bilateral relationship. Both countries should now build on their recent progress to implement the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements, the surest path to ending the war in eastern Ukraine.