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
Kyiv, Moscow, and de facto leaders moved tentatively to fulfil pledges of 9 Dec Normandy summit prompting celebration and controversy in Ukraine, while low-level fighting continued in Donbas. Leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany met 9 Dec at their first Normandy Format summit since Oct 2016 to discuss moves toward peace in Donbas. Kyiv and Moscow agreed to conclude new demining action plan, facilitate exchange of prisoners held by Kyiv and de facto authorities before end of 2019, withdraw troops at three locations by March 2020, plan for new civilian crossing points, and continue to discuss controversial elements of a political solution. The sides exchanged 200 prisoners 29 Dec, with de facto authorities receiving 124 detainees, while Kyiv welcomed 76. Those whom Kyiv handed over included five riot police suspected of killing unarmed protestors during the 2014 Maidan uprising, prompting fresh protests involving families of those killed. Kyiv authorities indicated investigations into the five former officers will continue, but UN warned this would be difficult and criticised govt for narrowing path to justice for 2014 killings. Others exchanged included two Ukrainian Radio Free Europe journalists held by de facto authorities, and people accused of conflict-related crimes by both sides with various degrees of evidence. Ukrainian pro-govt forces lost 10 soldiers 28 Nov-1 Jan per official reports; at least nine Russia-backed fighters were killed according to an anti-separatist non-govt source. Per official and independent sources, 111 Ukrainian government troops died in battle in 2019, nearly equal to 2018 levels but down from 198 in 2017. Independent experts estimate 250-300 Russian-backed fighters were killed in battle. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe stated that as of 25 Dec, 18 civilians had been killed in 2019 and 127 wounded, down from 43 killed and 179 wounded in 2018. Moscow and Kyiv agreed 21 Dec to prolong transfer of Russian gas through Ukraine for five years; Russia’s Gazprom will pay Kyiv $2.9 billion to settle past dispute.
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.