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
Moscow and Kyiv made shaky progress advancing long-stuck conflict resolution process: Moscow and Kyiv freed 35 prisoners each in an exchange heralded as a step forward; Ukrainian returnees included filmmaker Oleh Sentsov and sailors captured near Kerch Strait in Nov 2018. Those whom Kyiv freed include journalist Kirill Vyshinsky and Vladimir Tsemakh, a key witness in trial over 2014 downing of flight MH-17 over eastern Ukraine. July ceasefire, hailed as unprecedentedly wide-ranging, frayed as violations roughly doubled over August levels. At least twelve Ukrainian soldiers and fourteen members of armed groups killed; five civilians injured from shelling and small arms fire, two civilians dead at entry-exit points along the Line of Contact, and one killed and two injured by explosives, according to reports from Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) and de facto leaders. Minsk Trilateral Contact Group considered so-called Steinmeier formula, which foresees simultaneous holding of local elections in areas currently controlled by Russia-backed separatists, and granting of special status to these areas. Minsk envoys also discussed plans for trial disengagement of forces along front line. Failure to agree on these issues, however, cast doubt on hopes for new Normandy summit in Oct, while SMM reports showed new military activity in would-be disengagement zones. U.S. govt unblocked $391mn of military aid to Ukraine; President Zelenskyy stated during 25 Sept press conference with President Trump that he had no intent to interfere in U.S. elections after scandal erupted in U.S. Congress over Trump’s allegedly pressuring Ukraine to investigate business dealings of Democratic rival Joe Biden’s son during July phone call, and possibly conditioning aid on said investigation. After transcript of call released 25 Sept showed Zelenskyy assuring Trump that Ukraine’s new Prosecutor General would be “100% my person” and would “look into the company that you mentioned”, European Commission emphasised that financial support to Ukraine was premised on conditions such as independence of the judiciary. U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker resigned 27 Sept, as did Ukrainian defence council head Oleksandr Daniliuk.
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.