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.
Violence increased in Donbas conflict zone, while Moscow and Kyiv remained split on measures to enable local elections there in Oct. Clashes between govt forces and Russia-backed fighters spiked at contact line near Zolote disengagement area in Luhansk region 18 Feb and clashes erupted periodically near Svitlodarsk city and Shyrokyne village in Donetsk region. According to govt and independent Ukrainian sources, Russia-backed fighters 18 Feb stormed army observation post set up in Jan in buffer zone between opposing positions. Citing attack, govt adviser Serhiy Sivokho postponed launch of National Platform for Dialogue and Unity scheduled for 19 Feb. Four govt soldiers and 16-38 Russian-backed troops killed during month according to various Ukrainian sources, and two civilians injured in non-govt-held territory according to Organization for the Security and Co-operation in Europe. FM Prystaiko 20 Feb told UN General Assembly that govt believed deployment of UN peacekeepers to uncontrolled part of border with Russia could enable local elections in Donbas in Oct. Russian FM Lavrov 26 Feb said that Kyiv had failed to fulfil 9 Dec Normandy Summit commitments, including those paving way to elections, precluding plans for next summit on conflict. Kremlin’s spokesman 11 Feb said Deputy Head of Presidential Administration Dmitry Kozak will take over responsibility for “Ukrainian affairs and integration issues” while in Ukraine Andriy Yermak, who is in bilateral talks with Kozak, replaced Andriy Bohdan as Head of Presidential Office 11 Feb. Three Western think tanks and one Russian group 14 Feb published “Twelve Steps” plan on de-escalation in Ukraine ahead of Munich Security Conference in Germany; FM Prystaiko assailed plan’s lack of reference to international law, Ukrainian opposition denounced plan as pro-Kremlin; Myrotvorets site, linked to prominent officials, added signatories to database of “pro-Russian terrorists”; sources close to Kremlin described plan as out of step with Moscow’s positions.
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.
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.
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.