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The COVID-19 Challenge in Post-Soviet Breakaway Statelets
The COVID-19 Challenge in Post-Soviet Breakaway Statelets
Members of self-defence battalions take part in a rally to commemorate demonstrators who were killed during the 2014 Maidan protests in Kiev, Ukraine, 20 February 2016. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Briefing 85 / Europe & Central Asia

Ukraine: Military Deadlock, Political Crisis

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.

I. Overview

After almost three years and 10,000 deaths, Russia’s military intervention continues to define all aspects of Ukrainian political life. The conflict and the Minsk peace process are stalemated, but few days pass without deaths along the line of separation. The deadlock hurts Ukraine most. Indeed, Moscow is close to its main aim: destabilising Ukraine and influencing its policy choices. Russia’s victory, however, would be more than local. The trial of strength in the Donbas is also with the U.S. and European Union (EU). Success would reinforce a signal that Russia will defend its perceived national interests by any means necessary. Ukraine still has a good chance of prevailing in the long term, but only if it roots out the corruption that is eating away support for the Poroshenko government. The U.S. and EU must help on both fronts: pressing Kyiv harder for reforms while using strong diplomacy with Russia, including maintaining sanctions, so as to leave President Putin in no doubt he will face firm resistance until he withdraws completely from eastern Ukraine.

Kyiv’s main tactic in the confrontation with Russia has been procrastination: faced with a disadvantageous 2015 Minsk agreement imposed by Russian arms, President Petro Poroshenko has hunkered down, arguing plausibly that key terms are politically unpalatable to his country. This has worked well enough with regard to the Russian half of the crisis, but he has used the same delaying tactics toward another crucial problem, the struggle against corruption. That failure to act has alienated the public and alarmed Ukraine’s foreign backers. Moscow’s tone has hardened since the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. Kyiv’s allies are increasingly worried that the inaction on corruption is dangerous, and a senior Poroshenko administration figure warned Crisis Group recently that “time is on Putin’s side”.

More and more, Kyiv feels alone. Hopes for its EU perspective have not materialised. Top Ukrainian officials are dismissive of the EU and critical of what they say is grudging U.S. military assistance. Meanwhile, as more potentially damaging allegations of corruption in the military sector emerge, their inability or unwillingness to follow through on reforms and anti-corruption legislation is eating away at American and European patience and their own domestic support. Relations have evaporated with the Maidan activists, who essentially brought Poroshenko to power. The growing assumption in public discourse and in government offices is that the top leadership of the country is incorrigibly corrupt.

The deepening political disillusionment and malaise in Kyiv could soon produce major consequences. Russia has been pursuing a two-track policy in Ukraine, with the ultimate goal of rolling back Western influence in a country it considers a prime example of its “privileged interests”. If it succeeds in solidifying the two Donbas political entities, it will be able to tell its own people plausibly that NATO’s seemingly inexorable advance to Russia’s borders since the Soviet Union’s disintegration has finally been stopped. Moscow has also encouraged and assisted pro-Russian parties to drastically increase their influence throughout the country’s local and national legislatures. This scenario has not yet been successful, but with rising prices, continuing scandals and a steady collapse of the president and his allies in polls, it now has at least modest odds of being realised.

Politicians of all persuasions are convinced that Poroshenko’s majority in the Rada (parliament) will collapse, probably in the first part of 2017, and new elections will follow. The parties gaining ground are sympathetic to the Russian world view and in many cases keen to restore the pre-Maidan state of affairs. One emphasises, in private at least, its closeness to Moscow. The presence of a substantial group of pro-Russian politicians in the parliament would further weaken the reform faction and possibly result in politics overflowing onto the streets, as in 2004 and 2014.

To shore up the situation, the U.S., EU and other backers of Ukraine need to keep pressure on Moscow and intensify it on Kyiv. Russia should be reminded that sanctions will be maintained and its aspirations to regain acceptance as a responsible great power thwarted until it pulls out of eastern Ukraine. Washington and Brussels should keep the sovereignty question at the top of the agenda in all talks with Moscow on Ukraine and related European matters. Russia should also be reminded that an unequivocal, binding undertaking to dismantle the Donbas separatist entities and respect the sovereignty of all independent states in the region could open up a new period of mutually beneficial cooperation with the West as well as with Ukraine. This will be a hard sell: Moscow has shown no interest in compromise over the Donbas and appears to believe the situations in Europe and the U.S. are moving in its favour.

Ukraine’s allies will also have to take a much tougher line with the Kyiv leadership. A good start might be to present the president with any credible allegations of corruption implicating any close associates and business partners, insist he move swiftly in particular cases to remove individuals from office or deny them access to major government revenue streams, investigate and, where the evidence justifies, bring them to speedy trials. To retain credibility at home or abroad, the leadership must act dramatically on corruption.

II. Russia’s Strategies

A. In the East

Russia reacted to the 2014 overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych as a direct threat to its own security, another U.S.-instigated “coloured revolution” designed to encircle it and further proof that the West was determined to ignore its claim to an area of “privileged interests” within its neighbourhood.[fn]The term comes from an interview given by then President Dmitry Medvedev, Russian TV channels, 31 August 2008. The full text can be found at www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=205510.Hide Footnote The risk of Ukraine joining NATO, however remote, was considered unacceptable. “It was necessary to stop the extension of the West’s zone of military and political influence and control”, said Sergei Karaganov, a strong supporter of the Kremlin line. “This was done”.[fn]“Сергей Караганов: ‘Часть российских элит – в прострации, а часть хочет, чтобы все рухнуло’” [“One part of the Russian elite is in prostration, another part wants everything to fall apart”], Business Gazeta, February 2016. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO has grown from twelve to 28 members, all except one of the intake either a former Soviet republic or a Warsaw Pact member.Hide Footnote

Moscow quickly annexed Crimea and set up the two Donbas breakaway entities, the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Luhansk (LNR) and Donetsk (DNR), but soon abandoned more extensive plans. As a loyal Moscow think tank put it:

Calculations for the destabilisation of the situation proved to be inaccurate and the LNR and DNR failed to receive support in other regions of south-east Ukraine outside of Donbas. As a result, the initiative to create a large-scale protest movement throughout southern and eastern Ukraine that was about to take place in spring 2014 had to be dropped.[fn]“The Ukrainian Challenge for Russia”, Russian International Affairs Council, July 2015, at russiancouncil.ru/en/paper24.Hide Footnote

Russia is paying a high price for its intervention. Western sanctions have shaved off 1 per cent of annual growth, according to Russian estimates. Moscow pays salaries, pensions, social benefits in the two enclaves and trains, funds and supplies their militaries. It maintains an estimated 5,000-6,000 regular troops on the ground to guarantee security, with many more just over the border in Russia. The enclaves are poorly administered and corrupt, but this does not matter, a well-placed Russian observer remarked recently. Moscow has “found the way to keep a bleeding wound” in Ukraine’s body.[fn]Crisis Group interview, November 2016. The term “bleeding wound” (кровоточащая рана) was famously used by Mikhail Gorbachev to describe the impact of its Afghanistan war on the Soviet Union.Hide Footnote

1. Minsk

The instrument to achieve this is the Minsk process. The two agreements it has produced thus far, in October 2014 and February 2015, came at a grim cost for Ukraine. The first followed the loss of about 1,000 troops during Russia’s initial major offensive in summer 2014, when regular units crossed the border and repelled what had been a successful Ukrainian operation. The second, an extension of the first, was negotiated during another Russian military intervention, which again resulted in heavy Ukrainian military and civilian casualties.

The February 2015 document’s thirteen points gave Russia almost everything it wanted: an autonomous territory abutting the border with its own armed militia and administrative and justice system, guaranteed by permanent – a word Russian officials regularly stress – legislation and changes to Ukraine’s constitution.[fn]An English version of the text is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minsk_II. The document says that the appointment of judges etc. will be carried out with the participation of the local government. In fact, the DNR and LNR have both created supreme courts as well as appointed many judges.Hide Footnote Kyiv would not control the enclaves but would pay for their upkeep. Russia, their sole source of military, political and economic support, insists it recognises Ukraine’s sovereignty over them and regularly denies it has troops on the ground. It hopes that the elections in the enclaves Minsk stipulates will produce political groupings and local leaders who can eventually negotiate with Kyiv on an equal footing and sooner or later enter the Ukrainian parliament.

Though the agreement has stopped large-scale fighting and served as a basis for talks that have managed the conflict with fluctuating success, Western ambassadors were privately aghast at its terms. A “terrible document”, said one, “the euthanasia of a sovereign state”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, April 2015.Hide Footnote Asked why President Poroshenko had agreed to be bound by it, another answered simply, “his army was on its back”. Russia, whose troops were mopping up Ukrainian positions in Debaltseve during the negotiation, was allowed to publicly declare itself a guarantor of the agreement, not a conflict participant.[fn]“We simply physically cannot do this, because Russia is not a participant in this conflict”, Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, stated. “Песков: Россия – гарант урегулирования на Украине, но не исполнитель” [“Peskov: Russia acts as a guarantor of the regulation of the situation in Ukraine, but not as an executor”], RIA Novosti, 13 February 2015.Hide Footnote

Moscow consistently demands the “total and literal implementation of the Minsk agreement”. While many Western politicians and observers assume that the agreement is intended to return the situation to the status quo ante, Russian commentators explicitly deny this. The aim, a Russian think tank explained, is to create a situation in which “neither participant feels it has lost” and each “receives reliable guarantees regarding the maintenance of the status quo in the future”.[fn]“Ошибка Порошенко: Как Украина потеряла время” [“Poroshenko’s mistake: how Ukraine lost its time”], Centre for Current Policy, 11 November 2016.Hide Footnote Russian analysts working on Minsk have also stated that the separatist areas would not be dismantled, and Moscow rarely misses an opportunity to slap down anyone who suggests anything different. When in late 2016 Croatia announced the creation of a working group with Ukraine to share experiences of peaceful post-conflict reintegration, the Russian foreign ministry expressed “serious concern”, saying that would only distract Ukraine from its responsibilities to implement Minsk.[fn]“МИД России обеспокоен планами Хорватии передать Украине опыт реинтеграции территорий” [“Russian MFA is concerned about Croatia’s plans of transferring its experience of territorial reintegration to Ukraine”], Russia Today, 22 November 2016.Hide Footnote

While Russia has most of what it wanted for the separatist entities, the important missing ingredient is Ukrainian funding for the enclaves, foreseen in the agreement but as yet not forthcoming. The resulting financial burden for Moscow is heavy and worrying, but not enough to force concessions.

2. Minsk in broader Russian strategy

The Donbas and its other major external projection of power, Syria, are part of Russia’s struggle to push back against perceived Western domination and reassert itself as a world power, not just a regional one, as President Obama once described it, to Moscow’s irritation. Government and presidential administration analysts are already reassessing their strategic scenarios after the election of Donald Trump. They caution against euphoria but make clear they believe the gains of “détente”, as they term it, with the Trump administration could be enormous.

A long article published by an authoritative analytical centre connected to the presidential administration laid out an optimistic best-case scenario in discussing the “American factor” in Russia’s 2018 presidential elections. Détente, it said, would include Russia and the U.S. jointly destroying the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Washington publicly dropping the idea of regime change in Damascus. The two countries would work together to combat terrorism elsewhere, and Western sanctions would be cancelled by the end of 2017 – “without any serious concessions on the Donbas”. This would ensure Vladimir Putin’s re-election and be depicted to the public as “revenge for the loss of the Cold War” and proof that Russia’s line had been correct from the start. Russia meanwhile would return to the world stage as “a global power”. The worst-case scenario, on the other hand, it noted, could possibly trigger resumption of hostilities in Ukraine or unspecified “non-standard moves in Central Asia or the Near East”.[fn]“Американский фактор в президентской гонке в России” [“American factor in presidential race in Russia”], Actual Comments, 6 December 2016.Hide Footnote

3. Minsk implementation

None of the thirteen points in the Minsk agreement have been implemented in full. The Minsk process was to have been completed by the end of 2015, but officials are now loath to predict a date. “We continue to meet solely to keep the channels open in case one day we will have something to discuss”, said a senior European participant in the process. In the latest effort to show a modicum of forward movement, the presidents of the four countries that make up the Normandy Group that oversees and tries to nudge the process along (France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine) announced in October that a “roadmap” was to be prepared. It is to be quite modest, not changing the agreement, but only indicating dates for each key step. And it would not be new: the original February 2015 document already had clear timeframes for implementing the main steps. The road map was to have been ready by the beginning of December. It is now expected no earlier than the first quarter of 2017.

4. Minsk and Kyiv

It was clear from the start in Kyiv that the core of the agreement – an undertaking to pass a new constitution by the end of 2015 and to draw up permanent legislation on the special status of the two enclaves – would never get through parliament, though Ukraine’s Western partners have sought compromise options. What would almost inevitably be seen as an effort by a Ukrainian leader to change the constitution on Russia’s instructions would likely trigger a legislative revolt and massive street unrest. A new Maidan or uprisings by the poorly organised but militant and volatile volunteer units could not be ruled out. Poroshenko accordingly has opted to play for time.

III. In Domestic Politics – the Second Front?

When the government of Arseniy Yatsenyuk collapsed in March 2016, Vladimir Groysman, a long-time associate of the president, became prime minister.[fn]Sources for this section include numerous meetings with an Opposition Bloc (OB) strategist and others close to party leaders over the past year. Though Ukraine and Russia are essentially at war, there are no prohibitions against travel to Moscow, and visas are not required. Putin’s main Ukraine point person,Vladislav Surkov, is plausibly reported to have visited Kyiv several times during the Donbas crisis. Aides to former Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin have had informal talks with Ukrainian parliamentarians; senior Russian officials have joined “track two” talks; and a close friend of the Russian president, Ukrainian businessman Viktor Medvedchuk, acts as a trouble shooter for Minsk-related humanitarian and other issues. Medvedchuk, who is based in Kyiv, is also said to provide an important backchannel for communications between Putin and Poroshenko.Hide Footnote The new government was given a year to push through reforms. It has had mixed results, and most politicians and observers expect he will lose a confidence vote in the spring – “unless there is violence in the streets first”, a senior Rada deputy said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, 11 November 2016.Hide Footnote

The steady decline in the opinion poll ratings of both President Poroshenko and his supporters in the Rada has galvanised the opposition, in particular two parties: former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna and what is essentially the new incarnation of Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, Opposition Bloc (OB).

OB says it has a “discreet” electoral alliance with Batkivshchyna, close relations with Kremlin officials and that at least one of its leaders has discussed the Ukrainian situation recently with President Putin. It asserts that Tymoshenko’s party is also talking at a high level to Moscow but complains it is not kept informed. Batkivshchyna is reticent about its relationship with OB, and a leader protested that its representatives did not travel to Moscow “that often”. Government officials and other parliamentarians believe the two parties are working together. Batkivshchyna as a party and Tymoshenko as a possible president usually come out at the top of opinion polls, with Poroshenko’s Block “Solidarity” and OB battling for the second position.

With the addition of one of the parties that usually support either OB or Batkivshchyna, the putative alliance would likely substantially outnumber the president’s supporters in any new parliament and probably be able to increase that margin by winning over additional groups with promises of government positions or other blandishments. An OB strategist said his party could add considerably to its own core vote if its overly comfortable leaders stirred themselves to work harder.

Tymoshenko is one of Ukraine’s most formidable campaigners, with a serious nationwide structure and a history of working well with Russia. Like most senior politicians, she is also widely viewed as corrupt.[fn]A poll commissioned in July 2016 for by Novoe Vremya, an influential news magazine, ranked Tymoshenko as the fourth most corrupt person in Ukraine, some way behind the the president and two others.Hide Footnote And, like the president, she firmly dismisses such allegations.[fn]President Poroshenko, for example, dismissed as “lies” the latest such allegations against him, by Alexander Onishchenko, one of the country’s richest businessmen, who is currently under investigation for financial machinations and treason. Onishchenko claimed to have taped business conversations with the president and supposed representatives. For more details see “СМИ опубликовали первую запись так называемых ‘пленок Онищенко’” [“Media has published the so-called ‘Onishenko’s tapes’”], Zerkalo Nedeli, 6 December 2016. The presidential administration described the allegations as “absolute lies” and politically motivated, while the president’s office surmised that Onishchenko was “an agent of the Kremlin” in “Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine”. “В АП прокомментировали заявления А.Онищенко о политкорупции” [“Presidential Administration of Russia commented on A. Onishchenko's statements about political corruption”], UNN News Service, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote Her party cooperated with OB in November 2016 in demonstrations against rising food prices; Ukrainian security officials, without offering evidence, suggested the Kremlin might have had a hand in the protests. OB’s leaders include Ukraine’s richest oligarchs, but it targets pensioners and low income voters with promises of a better life, more law and order and an end to social turmoil. Another aim, less often voiced in public, is return to the Yanukovych-era big business friendly climate: “a normal Ukraine, but without Yanukovych”, as one of its strategists put it.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Leadership is also shared between several major oligarchs, who do not always see eye to eye.

A number of key OB figures have extensive holdings in the separatist-controlled areas, and regional government officials say the party is the dominant political machine in large parts of the south east, including the government-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. Members are also believed to be still functioning in the occupied east. But OB has problems: its top leadership will not, according to a senior party operative, throw themselves or their money wholeheartedly into the campaign. Leadership is also shared between several major oligarchs, who do not always see eye to eye. Russia is deeply suspicious of the motives of one whom it views as pro-European.

Most OB leaders made massive fortunes at spectacular speed, largely during the Yanukovych era, and some fear the government could open legal cases against them or their property should they be too politically active. Both parties speak generally of a new start with Russia, a less hostile atmosphere in discussions on Donbas’s future and a greater willingness to listen to Kremlin ideas. Moscow’s track record shows little inclination to make concessions, but, a Russian official commented, the Kremlin has had plenty of experience in dealing with them, and friendly faces in the Rada would be welcome.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Russian government official, 4 December 2016.Hide Footnote

IV. Playing for Time

Poroshenko is, an admirer says, “the master of procrastination”, and has used that quality brilliantly to minimise the damage Russia can inflict on Ukraine under the Minsk agreement. He has put his head down, said little and explained when challenged that he can do nothing. On at least one occasion, he has telephoned Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to explain that he did not have the parliamentary votes to pass the key laws on the status of the enclaves and ask Nazarbayev to pass the word to Putin. Nazarbayev did so, receiving no public response from Moscow.[fn]Komsomolskaya Pravda, 24 August 2016.Hide Footnote

Many of Poroshenko’s supporters in Ukraine and abroad wish he would do more. To their repeated dismay, he has done nothing, diplomats working on the subject say, “to put Russia on the back foot” by forcing Moscow to explain its position rather than allowing it a free hand to criticise Kyiv for not implementing Minsk. Aides have long suggested he declare the eastern enclaves occupied zones, and parliamentarians have prepared legislation on this. He has neither done this, nor explained his reasoning. Neither has he reached out to the population of the enclaves to express solidarity or concern for their difficult situation.[fn]The subject has been a frequent element in Crisis Group interviews since early 2015 with presidential administration staff, senior members of the legislature and senior Kyiv-based diplomats.Hide Footnote

Kyiv has its own complaints. U.S. military aid is far below needs, officials say, while Washington demands much and provides little. At one point in mid-2016, a senior U.S. official came to Kyiv to urge agreement to speedy elections in the enclaves. Kyiv rejects this for a number of reasons, the most practical of which is that the elections would essentially be organised by the two Russian-installed separatist leaders, and senior officials were incensed. “Like hell we’ll agree to that”, said the security adviser to a senior member of the administration. They also complain that, to the chagrin of many U.S. officials and members of Congress, President Obama has consistently refused to provide lethal weapons. A top official succinctly laid out Kyiv’s grievances:

The U.S. smiles sympathetically at us, but that’s about it. Rusty Humvees are not aid. We need advanced weapons or the credits to produce them. We need a clear signal from Washington that they are committed to our survival.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, 26 November 2016. The White House has argued that such weapons would not deter Russia and could well provoke it to escalate in Donbas. Supporters of more weapons in the administration and Congress argue that advanced weapons would inflict more casualties on Russian regular troops, thus increasing domestic pressure on Putin.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, he and others say, Russia is testing new military equipment and weaponry in the east – “experimenting on Ukrainian troops” – from armour to weapons location systems, and improved versions of its already effective technology for disrupting battlefield communications.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior official, Kyiv, 26 November; Professor Vladimir Gorbulin, presidential adviser, director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies, Kyiv, 25 October, 2016.Hide Footnote A number of military commanders say they need battlefield intelligence rather than sophisticated weaponry. Better weapons would be politically useful, as a clear signal to Moscow of the West’s determination. On the battlefield, however, Russia would probably respond with a further escalation of its own weapons, a combat commander consistently says.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kyiv and eastern Ukraine, August, October 2015.Hide Footnote Residual Western concern about Russian penetration of the Ukrainian military and security structures still limits the amount of intelligence support provided to troops. The harshest criticism is often reserved for the EU. “Europe is shaky”, the senior official said. “It is afraid to fight, so will never be a major international force”. Another said the EU’s focus on long-term resilience was good, but woefully insufficient in the short term.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, October 2016.Hide Footnote

The president has adopted the same procrastination tactics with regard to corruption, Western officials and domestic critics say. The impression is growing among foreign observers and many Ukrainians, including officials active in the war effort, that he presides over a system he cannot reform.[fn]Some steps have been taken, such as disclosure in October of assets by officials and parliamentarians who displayed vast wealth; this also indicated some of the difficulties in tackling a legacy of two decades of high-level corruption.Hide Footnote An increasing number of critics say he may not want to. He has resisted removal, let alone investigation of close associates and aides suspected of corruption. He resisted for months, for example, before removing a particularly controversial figure, Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin.[fn]For criticism of Shokin and his denials of wrong doing, see, inter alia, “Ukraine’s unyielding corruption”, The New York Times, 31 March 2016. “Шокин опровергает информацию о гражданской жене с имуществом и обещает судиться с журналистами” [“Shokin denied information about his civil marriage and promised to take legal action against journalists''], 112.ua, 29 July 2016.Hide Footnote Poroshenko “played deaf for weeks, months”, said an ambassador. “It was quite amazing”. When the head of state of one of Ukraine’s strongest supporters raised Shokin with him, another diplomat recalled, “President Poroshenko said it was hard to find qualified candidates for such positions”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior diplomat covering Ukraine, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Corruption and incompetence within the highest echelons of the armed forces have since the beginning been viewed as one as the most important threats to the Ukrainian effort.

International backers are increasingly impatient. An influential European ambassador regularly called for dramatic measures, saying bodies of corrupt officials needed, figuratively, to be seen hanging from lamp posts. Even the usually cautious International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently signalled deep unhappiness. In November 2016, a mission visited without approving another tranche of a four-year loan. This was an embarrassment and disappointment for the government, which had publicly predicted the tranche. After polite words about the economy, the IMF’s final press statement was blunt: “Decisive steps particularly need to be taken to fight corruption, which remains the most frequently mentioned obstacle to doing business in Ukraine”. New institutions, including the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), have been created, but, the statement continued, “tangible results in prosecuting and convicting corrupt high-level officials and recovering proceeds from corruption have yet to be achieved”.[fn]“Statement at the conclusion of the IMF Mission to Ukraine”, IMF, 18 November 2016. Senior Ukrainian officials say that the top leadership is becoming increasingly critical of NABU. One described it as a Western-backed effort to undermine the country’s leadership. Crisis Group interview, senior official, Kyiv, 14 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Other international supporters of the Poroshenko administration have been somewhat more encouraging. A recent EU press release stated that “Ukraine is carrying out unprecedented reforms” and quoted EU High Representative Federica Mogherini as praising the work done by the authorities. “It is now crucial to move from passing legislation and setting up institutions to full implementation of these reforms so that Ukrainian citizens can reap the benefits”, she added. “Ukraine can count on the European Union’s support moving forward”.[fn]“EU report: Ukraine carrying out unprecedented reforms”, press release, European Commission, 13 December 2016.Hide Footnote

The main reform-oriented NGO coalition, “Reanimation Package of Reforms”, continues to push a thoroughgoing agenda, with determination but limited success. Its roadmap for 2017 calls, inter alia, for full implementation of constitutional amendments on the judiciary and establishment of a new Supreme Court and anti-corruption courts “to make the punishment for high-profile corruption inevitable”.[fn]Reanimation Package of Reforms, http://rpr.org.ua/en.Hide Footnote

In Kyiv, however, discussion has shifted to corruption in a particularly sensitive area, the war effort. Corruption and incompetence within the highest echelons of the armed forces have since the beginning been viewed as one as the most important threats to the Ukrainian effort. Once again, little has been done to address this. Eighteen months ago, a government security adviser described the high command as “75 per cent of the problem”. The situation is unchanged. A top security official, challenged in December about regular complaints, particularly from front-line officers, of high level incompetence and corruption, acknowledged the grievance. But, he noted, any changes in the high command are “a prerogative of the president”. Asked why the president did nothing, he referred tersely to Poroshenko’s well-known reluctance to replace officials he has worked with for years.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, 28 October 2016.Hide Footnote

More recently, indications surfaced that corruption had extended to the defence industries. In February 2016, the economic development and trade minister, Aivaras Abromavicius, a Lithuanian investment banker, resigned and accused senior members of the ruling Bloc Petro Poroshenko party of trying to impose on him unqualified deputies, in circumvention of official channels. One was to be a new deputy minister overseeing the defence industries. In a highly unusual gesture, ten ambassadors issued a joint letter expressing their disappointment at the resignation.[fn]Novoe Vremya, 3 February 2016. The ambassadors’ statement read in part: “It is important that Ukraine’s leaders set aside their parochial differences, put the vested interests that have hindered the country’s progress for decades squarely in the past, and press forward on vital reforms”.Hide Footnote

The issue continues to attract attention and could inflict further serious damage on the president’s domestic and international reputation. The investigative newspaper Ukrainian Pravda claimed in December 2016 that the abuses were continuing, and politician-business people close to the president were still appointing their own people to key positions.[fn]“Война и бизнес. Как друзья Порошенко контролируют миллиардные заказы Укроборонпрома. Часть 1” [“War and Business, how friends of Poroshenko control billions worth of Ukrainian defense industry orders, Part 1”], Ukrayinska Pravda, 1 December 2016.Hide Footnote More striking is that the problem is now raised by senior officials in government offices and conversations with outsiders. “The issue has been around for months”, one said. “They claim that the president has sold the country to the Russians and is even benefiting from the military budget. I don’t believe it, but as for those around him …”[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, 4 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Poroshenko supporters, in both the Rada and the presidential administration, explained in interviews the president’s refusal to move against close associates by his conviction that in difficult times he needs to stick with the few tried and trusted associates on whom he has relied for years. He is very much a loner and a micro-manager, they say – foreign policy is made in the president’s office, for example, not the foreign ministry. Such loyalty, however, is seriously damaging his reputation and undermining trust in his leadership.

Close observers tend to feel that Poroshenko’s gambit of playing for time may no longer serve him well. ‘The president has never understood that time is a commodity in desperately short supply in Ukraine’, a Western ambassador said.

At the moment, the general mood seems to be resignation and depression rather than violent anger. “I was planning to go into politics last year”, said the head of a military veterans organisation. “Then I realised the illness has metastasised throughout the [political] system and I gave up”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, 30 November 2016.Hide Footnote It has, however, become more common to encounter discussion among analysts and activists of the theoretical need for a “military interval” in Ukraine’s political development, a way to break the system of corruption that has taken root.

Meanwhile, Russia is ratcheting up pressure. Three days after the Trump election, a biting Russian analysis of the Ukrainian situation zeroed in on Poroshenko’s main tactic. Instead of buying time, it warned, he had lost it. The article poured scorn on the “illusion” of a return to the pre-February 2014 situation, rejecting the Ukrainian position that “an end to the Donbas conflict is possible only through the total liquidation of one side in the conflict – the DNR-LNR”. “In the future”, it concluded, “he or his successor will have either to accept the loss of sovereignty over a part of the Donbas, or accept a peace agreement on disadvantageous conditions”.[fn]Centre for Current Policy, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Close observers tend to feel that Poroshenko’s gambit of playing for time may no longer serve him well. “The president has never understood that time is a commodity in desperately short supply in Ukraine”, a Western ambassador said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, April 2016.Hide Footnote

V. Conclusion

Ukraine is reaping the bitter fruit of the last twenty years of its development, which has led to the formation of an oligarchic societal system that has parasitised on its Soviet inheritance, imitated market and democratic processes and institutions, polarised Ukrainian society, put the brakes on the development of the middle class, deformed political culture, created a dependent foreign policy totally lacking in initiative and undermined the potential of the armed forces.[fn]Vladimir Gorbulin, “Есть ли жизнь после Минска?” [“Is there life after Minsk?”], Zerkalo Nedeli, 12 February 2016.Hide Footnote

This withering diagnosis, by a defence and military adviser to the president, succinctly summarises the crisis. None of the problems he outlines have been addressed. The key scourge of the past generation, corruption that spreads into every interstice of government, diverting massive sums from the budget, is largely untouched. Concern is growing. The number of Poroshenko supporters who argue that any criticism of the president advances the Russian cause is declining. Even government advisers feel the leadership either cannot or will not change the system.

Kyiv’s supporters in Europe and the U.S. continue to push diligently on the corruption issue but do not seem to have gained any purchase. The risk is that they will be tempted to use presidential inaction as an excuse to quietly walk away from Ukraine in the next year or two. There would be serious consequences if that happened: for Ukraine surely, but potentially also for other countries in the region, including EU and NATO members, who are deeply concerned by Moscow’s increasingly assertive policy.

An approach to consider would be a joint démarche to the president from Ukraine’s main supporters, including the handover of a list of the most egregious suspects of high-level corruption that involves billions, not millions of dollars. Poroshenko would be advised that outside support – political and diplomatic, economic and military – risks being seriously curtailed unless he immediately takes energetic, public and unambiguous action to address the widespread allegations of corruption within his entourage. He would be pressed to institute a transparent investigation, followed, in all cases where results justify, by speedy trials, and to ensure that the legal process proceeds without interference.

The rationale for this is clear: corruption is now as great a threat to the Ukrainian state as Russian intervention in the east. Its leader should, therefore, move and be seen to move aggressively. Even if he responds as he has to other calls for action on corruption – with silence or inaction – the U.S. and EU should simultaneously stress to Moscow on all possible occasions that they will accept neither the violation that is occurring of Ukrainian sovereignty nor any further effort by Russia to infringe on neighbours’ sovereignty. The potential impact of the message to Moscow, however, will depend to a large degree on the political courage and commitment shown by the Ukrainian leadership.

Kyiv/Brussels, 19 December 2016

A woman wearing a protective face mask in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. The de facto government of this entity introduced quarantine measures from March 28, 2020 due to the global coronavirus pandemic.  Tomas Tkhaitsuk / Sputnik / Sputnik via AFP

The COVID-19 Challenge in Post-Soviet Breakaway Statelets

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.

What’s new? Isolated and scarred by war, six de facto statelets that claim independence from successor states to the Soviet Union are acutely vulnerable to the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why does it matter? Immediate and long-term suffering will not only cost lives but could also harden divides between these entities and the states that claim them, posing further obstacles to eventual normalisation and peace.

What should be done? All parties and stakeholders should cooperate across front lines to ensure international humanitarian access, the only way to stave off suffering in the near and longer term.

I. Overview

Scarred by wars, some present and others long past, populations in these grey zones live in physical, economic and diplomatic isolation.

While COVID-19 threatens people and economies around the world, it creates unique challenges for Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria and the portions of Ukraine’s Donbas now controlled by Russian-backed separatists. All these entities declared independence from successor states of the Soviet Union; all are unrecognised by most states around the world; and all are deeply dependent on foreign patrons. Scarred by wars, some present and others long past, populations in these grey zones live in physical, economic and diplomatic isolation. But if closed crossing points and borders make it difficult for assistance to reach these areas, the virus appears to be spreading. To prevent humanitarian disaster, the de facto leaders of these statelets, their patron states, the countries from which they have sought to secede and the international community should cooperate in unprecedented ways to cease fighting where it continues and break the seclusion in which these people have come to exist. Doing so will enable aid, equipment and know-how to get through, at least for the duration of the health crisis.

To date, all six statelets have reported comparatively few COVID-19 infections, although these numbers probably reflect limited testing and tightly controlled information. While it remains to be seen whether, or for how long, the statelets dodge the brunt of the disease, to the extent that they do, it will not be the result of a disciplined response. They have been slow to take measures to prevent the virus’ spread, despite the risks they face with ageing populations that are particularly vulnerable, as well as outdated, often Soviet-era infrastructure and weak health systems. Their contested status complicates or blocks international aid. Moreover, traditional lifelines from foreign benefactors and diaspora communities are strained as many are contending with their own hardships.

Although the resulting suffering could harden the divide between these entities and the states that claim them, a coordinated and thoughtful response could have the opposite effect: help build bridges, save lives and mitigate longer-term dangers, laying the groundwork for engagement and greater understanding between warring parties that could one day help facilitate a more sustainable peace.

II. Donbas

The self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk – in the midst of a war with Ukraine, unrecognised by any UN member state and dependent on Russia – had 272 confirmed cases of COVID-19, as of 4 May, and four deaths.[fn]“По состоянию на 10:00 4 мая всего 128 зарегистрированных и подтвержденных случаев инфекции COVID-19 на территории Донецкой Народной Республики” [As of 10:00 AM 4 May there are 128 registered and confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection on the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic], official website of the de facto Health Ministry of the Donetsk People’s Republic, 4 May 2020; “Медики зарегистрировали 144 случая заболевания COVID-19 – Минздрав” [Medical staff have registered 144 cases of COVID-19 illness – Health Ministry], Luganskiy Informatsionniy Tsentr, 4 May 2020.Hide Footnote  But with limited testing to date, the real numbers could be much higher. Hundreds of individuals not included in those statistics are under observation. Despite support voiced by both de facto and Ukrainian government authorities for UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ ceasefire call, shooting and shelling continue along the line of contact, with thirteen Russian-backed fighters, four Ukrainian government troops and two civilians reported killed since his 23 March appeal.[fn]“У 2020 році на Донбасі загинули 45 військових: поіменний список” [45 troops have died in Donbas in 2020: list of names], 24 TV, 13 April 2020; Груз 200 [Cargo 200], online database; “On the increase of civilian casualties in the conflict zone of eastern Ukraine”, UN Ukraine, 11 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Moreover, since 21 March, de facto authorities have denied entry to OSCE Special Monitoring Mission staff, whose role is to assess the situation in the conflict area.[fn]See Daily and Spot Reports from the SMM Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, including Spot Report 9/2020.Hide Footnote

But years of war and a dearth of funding have taken their toll, and any COVID-19 spread would stretch those depleted resources further.

Prior to the war, the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, capitals of the two regions, were well known in the area for the high quality of their medical services. But years of war and a dearth of funding have taken their toll, and any COVID-19 spread would stretch those depleted resources further. Even optimistic interlocutors in the de facto republics (hereafter, the statelets or “the de factos”) are concerned that they lack sufficient protective equipment for health care workers.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, medical worker, April 2020; expert resident in area controlled by de facto regimes, April 2020.Hide Footnote  Within the Donetsk statelet, shortages may be worst at the smaller hospitals of Anthracite, Debaltseve and Vuhle­hirsk, which Pavlo Lysyanskyy, Ukraine’s parliamentary human rights ombudsman for Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, said lack even basic medicines.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, April 2020.Hide Footnote  A Luhansk-based researcher said contacts in the medical field complained that personal protective equipment was hard to find.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, dialogue practitioner, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Kyiv, 10 April 2020.Hide Footnote

That said, while some Ukrainian sources suggested that testing in the statelets was almost non-existent, medical workers in Donetsk said they had limited but functional testing facilities.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Pavlo Lysyanskyy, 10 April 2020; Vera Iastrebova, 10 April 2020; medical worker, 8 April 2020; medical worker, 9 April 2020.Hide Footnote Likewise, a Luhansk contact claimed that although the statelet lacked dedicated laboratory space, testing for coronavirus was possible.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, dialogue practitioner, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Kyiv, 10 April 2020.Hide Footnote

A large proportion of the local population could well be at high risk.

A large proportion of the local population could well be at high risk. Roughly 40 per cent of those living in the statelets are of pension age, many of them grappling with chronic illnesses and struggling to meet their medical and dietary needs on meagre fixed incomes.[fn]“Ukraine 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan for the COVID-19 Pandemic”, Reliefweb, March 2020.Hide Footnote  Insofar as general poor health correlates with worse outcomes for those infected with COVID-19 and the virus response will strain a health care infrastructure that is already heavily burdened and fragile, younger people are also in danger. Ukraine’s overall rates of AIDS, drug-resistant tuberculosis and intravenous drug use are among the highest in Europe, with cases largely concentrated in the south-eastern regions of which the statelets are a part.[fn]See “HIV and AIDS in Ukraine”, Avert, 1 October 2019; and “An inside look at Ukraine’s terrifying TB outbreak”, TB Online, 3 January 2018.Hide Footnote  Health workers say rates of HIV infection and progression to AIDS have increased since the war began, due in part to the de facto authorities’ aversion to sex education and to harm reduction treatment for drug users.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, health worker, Donetsk oblast, November 2019.Hide Footnote

Despite these concerns, de facto authorities were slow to adopt restrictive measures. As of early May, schools throughout the two statelets were closed, while cafes and restaurants throughout much of the territory remained open on a limited regimen.[fn]“Обращение главы ДНР Дениса Пушилина в связи с ситуацией с коронавирусом” [Address by DNR head Denis Pushilin regarding the coronavirus situation], official website of the Head of DNR, 27 March 2020.Hide Footnote  Several cities are under strict quarantine, with residents needing permits to run errands. Those who have or are suspected of having pneumonia are told to self-isolate, as are all residents over the age of 65. In both entities, security personnel reportedly enforce self-isolation, but some complain that measures are overly lax.

Economic concerns are one reason for the relatively loose quarantine. Even prior to COVID-19, the coal mines and steel mills that were central to the region’s economy had largely ceased production, and much of the working-age population had left for Russia, government-controlled Ukraine or EU states. Insofar as the entities’ tax base now relies largely on small businesses, de facto authorities are extremely loath to close them.[fn]Brian Milakovsky, “The Wartime Donbas Economy: Can It Be Saved?”, Wilson Center, 9 March 2020.Hide Footnote  “Thank God, we’ve got food, but we are not implementing a lockdown like in Russia because our economy would collapse”, a DNR source said. “We have two-month reserves – if we implement quarantine, people will not have the means to live”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, expert resident in DNR areas, 9 April 2020. A medical worker at the same location expressed similar sentiments. Crisis Group telephone interview, 8 April 2020.Hide Footnote

In the past, reduced access to Ukrainian pensions has correlated with more households unable to afford adequate and healthy food, medicine or both.

Among restrictive measures that have been imposed, those affecting movement in and out of government-controlled Ukraine may deal the heaviest economic blow. On 16 March, Kyiv mostly closed its side of the five crossings linking the de factos to government-held areas, which serviced roughly 550,000 people per month before the outbreak. The de factos reciprocated on 21 March.[fn]“Ukraine 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan for the COVID-19 Pandemic”, Reliefweb, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Kyiv shut its crossings fully the next day.[fn]“За линией неизвестности. Что происходит во время пандемии в “Л/ДНР” и в ок­ку­пи­ро­ван­ном Крыму” [Beyond the line of the unknown: what’s happening in the LDNR and occupied Crimea during the pandemic], Hromadske, 26 March 2020.Hide Footnote  This step immediately cut off an income source for residents who habitually cross the line to buy cheap yet higher-quality Ukrainian goods to sell at a profit at home. It also cut off many pensioners from their main source of income. Under current Ukrainian legislation, about half of the statelets’ elderly remain eligible for state pensions.[fn]See Nikolaus von Twickel, “The State of the Donbass: A Study of Eastern Ukraine’s Separatist-held Areas”, 3 DCFTAs, 1 March 2019, p. 27.Hide Footnote  As pension payments doled out by the de facto authorities courtesy of Russia are below what many frugal residents describe as subsistence levels, recipients need Ukrainian pensions to make ends meet.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, including pensioners from LNR-controlled areas, Sievierodonetsk, February 2020; residents of Donetsk city, Svyatohirsk, November 2019.Hide Footnote  In the past, reduced access to Ukrainian pensions has correlated with more households unable to afford adequate and healthy food, medicine or both.[fn]Ukraine Food Security and Livelihoods Cluster, Joint Food Security Assessment, September 2017.Hide Footnote

The statelets also unilaterally closed their borders with Russia, despite their de facto leaders’ long-stated goal of uniting with it. On 27 March, the Donetsk People’s Republic barred non-residents from entry and began denying exit to Russia to anyone not permanently residing in that country, even to those holding a Russian passport (which many residents of the statelets do).[fn]“Сотрудники миграционной службы МВД ДНР отвечают на вопросы граждан” [Members of the migration services of the DNR Interior Ministry answer citizens’ questions], video, YouTube, 7 April 2020; “Донецк и Луганск во время пандемии: живой блог” [Donetsk and Luhansk during the pandemic: live blog], Radio Svoboda, 10 April 2020.Hide Footnote  On 8 April, the Luhansk People’s Republic followed suit.[fn]“Указ Главы Луганской Народной Республики об упорядочении действия об указе Главы Луганской Народной Республики от 13.03.20 No УГ 160/20 ‘О введении режима повышенной готовности’” [Decree of the Head of the Luhansk People’s Republic on implementation of the order of the Luhansk People’s Republic from 13.03.20 No 160/20 “On implementation of enhanced preparation regime”], 13 March 2020.Hide Footnote Travel between the two statelets was stopped on 2-3 April. Both, in a likely effort to demonstrate their continuing long-term aspirations to integration with Russia, made exceptions for entry and exit of persons making day trips to Russia by bus to receive passports.[fn]See de facto decrees cited in footnotes 22 and 23.Hide Footnote  But on 13 April, the de factos halted this program as well.[fn]“Власти ДНР временно приостановили выезд граждан в РФ для получения российских паспортов” [DNR authorities temporarily prevent citizens from leaving to RF to receive passports], DAN, 10 April 2020; Министерство Внутренных Дел Луганской Народной Республики, “Временно приостанавливается перевозка жителей ЛНР к пунктам получения паспортов Российской Федерации” [Transport of residents to centres for receipt of passports of the Russian Federation to be temporarily halted], 10 April 2020.
 Hide Footnote

Russia, thus far, has taken a restrained if not minimalist approach to aiding the de factos’ response to the epidemic, stirring resentment among the residents. “There have been shouts and scandals”, Lysyanskyy, the Ukrainian human rights ombudsman, said, citing what he said were numerous conversations with politically connected sources in his home region, now under Luhansk People’s Republic control. “[The Luhansk de facto leaders] turned against Ukraine and risked their own health and freedom – and in return, Russia cannot even deliver masks”. Although Russian officials and policy advisers insist that their country is sending ventilators, protective equipment and test kits, medical professionals in Donetsk acknowledged receiving the test kits alone.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, medical worker, 8 April 2020; expert residents in DNR-controlled area, 8 April 2020.Hide Footnote  As Moscow struggles with the epidemic within its own borders, that fight is, for now, its overwhelming priority; but, Russian policymakers claim, aid likely would increase if the situation in the de factos grew more dire.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, informal Kremlin adviser and Russian legislative aide, 8 April 2020. The informal adviser added that, once the situation in Russia was under control, it “won’t be hard to apply the same methods to the unrecognised republics”.Hide Footnote

Other outside actors have sent aid. The UN coordinated a humanitarian convoy carrying World Health Organisation (WHO) medical and hygiene supplies from a Czech NGO, People in Need, to Donetsk city.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, humanitarian worker, 9 April 2020.Hide Footnote  The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) later delivered medical supplies by foot, over the Stanytsia bridge, to Luhansk People’s Republic territory as the latter lacks functioning road links with mainland Ukraine and is now also cut off from the Donetsk self-proclaimed republic.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, humanitarian worker, 17 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Moreover, Ukrainian and de facto representatives are reportedly discussing opening a disused motor bridge near the front-line town of Shchastya to allow smoother aid shipments across into Luhansk People’s Republic territory.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, humanitarian workers, 9 April 2020.Hide Footnote

Moscow and the de facto authorities that it supports should explore additional steps to tackle the financial stress caused by the pandemic.

Moscow and the de facto authorities that it supports, along with Kyiv and international humanitarian organisations, should explore additional steps to tackle the financial stress caused by the pandemic. For example, the ICRC and OSCE have previously offered to deliver Ukrainian pension payments to residents of the de factos; in 2018, the ICRC reportedly had such a mechanism essentially ready, and would have enacted it, if not for Kyiv’s resistance.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, international aid worker, October 2018.Hide Footnote  If Kyiv were to agree now, the de factos would in turn need to overcome their past reluctance to provide free and safe access to the ICRC.

III. Nagorno-Karabakh

Nagorno-Karabakh, a self-proclaimed entity on territory internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but whose economy, society and polity are deeply tied to Armenia, had eight confirmed COVID-19 cases as of 4 May. Meanwhile, flareups between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces along the line of contact continue. Since mid-March, the OSCE Minsk Group, through which France, Russia, and the U.S. seek to mediate the conflict, has twice called on the sides to recommit to the ceasefire for the duration of the health crisis.[fn]“Press Statement by the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group”, OSCE, 19 March 2020; “Joint Statement by the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group”, OSCE, 21 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Since then, however, Yerevan and Stepanakert (the seat of the de facto entity) report that three Armenian soldiers and one teenage civilian have been injured by Azerbaijani forces.

Years of conflict have eroded Nagorno-Karabakh’s medical infrastructure.

Years of conflict have eroded Nagorno-Karabakh’s medical infrastructure. While Armenia and some ethnic Armenian diaspora organisations have provided basic medical supplies, medical staff often lack know-how.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, foreign diplomat, 6 April 2020. Also see “ARS delivers medical supplies to Artsakh for COVID-19 relief”, Asbarez, 31 March 2020.Hide Footnote  The knowledge gap exists in part because Nagorno-Karabakh’s unrecognised status precludes citizens from travelling abroad for training and professional conferences. The situation is particularly dire outside of Stepanakert, where even basic equipment and emergency vehicles are outdated and in short supply.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview and email correspondence, foreign diplomats, April 2020.Hide Footnote  Moreover, although Yerevan has provided COVID-19 test kits, the local laboratory is unable to assess the results, so samples must travel to Armenia.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, de facto official in Nagorno-Karabakh, foreign diplomat, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group telephone interviews, de facto official in Nagorno-Karabakh, foreign diplomat, 3 April 2020.

Hide Footnote

Beyond sealing crossings into Armenia in late March, the region adopted few preventative measures and went ahead with its presidential and parliamentary elections on 31 March and a runoff on 14 April. Ignoring widespread calls from civil society activists and local doctors to postpone the polls, some candidates held large rallies in stadiums and town squares. Turnout was high, and only a few wore masks or gloves while standing in long, closely packed lines to vote.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Stepanakert residents, March-April 2020. See videos of meetings of one of the candidates in late March. See also “Врачи Нагорного Карабаха призвали власти ввести ЧП из-за коронавируса” [Doctors of Nagorno-Karabakh called on authorities to introduce a state of emergency in face of coronavirus], Kavkazsky Uzel, 11 April 2020. More than 23,000 people living in the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh entity are over the age of 60, according to the local statistics department. See the more precise number at “ԱՐՑԱԽԻ ՀԱՆՐԱՊԵՏՈՒԹՅԱՆ ԲՆԱԿՉՈՒԹՅՈՒՆԸ” [Population of the Republic of Artsakh], official website of the National Statistical Service of the Republic of Artsakh, 2019, p. 12.Hide Footnote  Only after polling stations were closed on 14 April did real movement restrictions go into effect.[fn]“Արցախում տեղաշարժի ժամանակավոր սահմանափակումները տարածվում են Քաշաթաղի, Մարտակերտի և Շահումյանի շրջանների որոշ բնակավայրեի վրա” [Temporary restrictions on movement in Artsakh apply to some settlements in Kashatagh, Martakert and Shahumyan regions], Artsakh Press, 14 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Late that month, the local authorities established three checkpoints to restrict vehicular movement inside Nagorno-Karabakh.[fn]“В Мартакерте размещены четыре пропускных пункта” [Four crossing posts established in Martakert], Armen Press, 20 April 2020.Hide Footnote

As of now, the ICRC is the only international organisation providing support to the region. It is distributing cash grants to the elderly, tablets to local youth for on­line education, and masks, gloves, gowns and sanitisers to local hospitals, orphanages and detention centres, as well as the region’s lone nursing home.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview and email correspondence, foreign diplomats, April 2020; “ԿԽՄԿ-ն աջակցություն է տրամադրել Արցախում ապրող միայնակ 432 տարեցների” [The ICRC provided assistance to 432 elderly people living alone in Artsakh], Artsakh Press, 10 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Working with local health care workers, it has begun a needs assessment for hospitals throughout the territory.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, foreign diplomat, 6 April 2020.Hide Footnote  But “the ICRC is not the WHO”, as a foreign diplomat put it. “It does not have the capacity to replace those who are specialists and know how to face a pandemic”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, foreign diplomat, 6 April 2020.Hide Footnote  In addition, the ICRC’s geographical reach is limited; it can operate only in the territory demarcated by the Soviet-era boundaries of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast. It has no access to settlements in the adjacent territories, home to almost 17,000 people and where the region’s first seven COVID-19 cases were identified.[fn]Armenian settlements are situated in towns and villages previously populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis, who were forced to flee these areas during the 1992-1994 war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Most settlers are themselves displaced Armenians, having fled their homes in other Azerbaijani regions. The de facto authorities govern the settlements, which contribute significantly to the breakaway region’s economy, mostly through booming agriculture. According to international law, the settlements are illegal, which prevents international humanitarian organisations from working in these areas. For more on settlements in the region, see Crisis Group Europe Report N°255, Digging out of Deadlock in Nagorno-Karabakh, 20 December 2019, pp. 4-11. For information about COVID-19 cases in the settlements in Lachin and Kelbajar districts, see Ani Paitjan, “First Case of Coronavirus Confirmed in Nagorno Karabakh”, Civilnet, 7 April 2020; “Երեկ թեստավորված 9 քաղաքացիներից մեկի մոտ հաստատվել է կորոնավիրուսի վարակ” [One of nine tested positive for coronavirus yesterday], Artsakh Press, 12 April 2020.Hide Footnote

Because Nagorno-Karabakh is considered Azerbaijani territory under international law, international organisations require Baku’s permission to operate there.

Stepanakert is relying on continuing assistance from Yerevan, but it is keen to receive more international support.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews and email correspondence, de facto officials in Nagorno-Kara­bakh, April 2020.Hide Footnote  Armenia itself faces one of the worst infection rates among post-Soviet countries and already had to transform its largest concert hall into a COVID-19 ward.[fn]According to Yerevan, as of 4 May, Armenia, whose population numbers approximately three million, has had more than 2,500 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 39 deaths. Also see Ruzanna Stepanian and Narine Ghalechian, “More Armenian hospitals to treat coronavirus”, RFERL Armenian, 2 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Because Nagorno-Karabakh is considered Azerbaijani territory under international law, international organisations require Baku’s permission to operate there. Without Azerbaijan’s sanction, no UN agency, including the WHO, has access to the entity. Nor can foreign donors offer funds absent, in the words of one diplomat, “a clear political signal from the [OSCE Minsk Group] co-chairs and the consent of Armenia and Azerbaijan”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, foreign diplomat, 7 April 2020.Hide Footnote

That said, the co-chairs support the idea. Since the beginning of April, they have spoken frequently with officials in Yerevan and Baku about COVID-19 response plans for Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov telephoned his counterpart in Baku twice to discuss the issue.[fn]See press releases on Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s telephone conversations with Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan Elmar Mammadyarov, published on the official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation on 10 April and 13 April 2020.Hide Footnote  This quiet diplomacy culminated in a 21 April online meeting among the co-chairs and the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers. The group released a statement affirming all parties’ readiness to organise support for the entity “without regard to political boundaries” and with the hope that doing so “will bring a creative and constructive impetus to the peace process”.[fn]“Joint Statement by the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group”, OSCE, 21 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Al­though promising, this commitment has yet to turn into concrete action.

In the meantime, diplomats have developed several ideas focused on delivering aid. One option is to deliver it via Armenian authorities, though Baku would have to approve such an arrangement, and has yet to do so. The same would be true of anything done directly through the de facto authorities.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, foreign diplomat, 7 April 2020.Hide Footnote  As an alternative, a diplomat offered to arrange a telephone connection between the WHO and Stepanakert to track the situation and potentially provide online training for health care workers.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, foreign diplomat, 7 April 2020.Hide Footnote

Help will be needed, and not just in the short term.

Help will be needed, and not just in the short term. For the moment, the de facto leadership seems confident that it can fend off economic hardship. The region has a strong agricultural sector, and in early April, de facto authorities expanded their support programs to farmers.[fn]“Արցախը գյուղմթերքների խնդիր չի ունենալու” [Artsakh will not have problems with agricultural products], official website of Ministry of Agriculture of the Republic of Artsakh, 9 April 2020.Hide Footnote  But the future might not be so forgiving: Armenia provides almost half of the region’s funding, meaning that privation there would quickly spill over.[fn]For more on Armenia’s assistance to the de facto entity of Nagorno-Karabakh, see Crisis Group Report, Digging out of Deadlock in Nagorno-Karabakh, op. cit., pp. 35-36.Hide Footnote

IV. Transnistria

Transnistria, a territory internationally recognised as part of Moldova but that claims independence, with a de facto government based in Tiraspol, has the largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases (531) among the statelets, with 23 fatalities as of 3 May.[fn]“Ситуация с коронавирусом COVID-19 в Приднестровье” [Situation with the coronavirus COVID-19 in Transnistria], Novosti Pridniestrovia, 3 May 2020.Hide Footnote  Between 20-26 April, an average of fourteen new cases was being registered daily, down from twenty the week previous.[fn]“В Приднестровье COVID-19 уже подтверждён у 390 человек” [In Transnistria the COVID-19 has been confirmed in 390 people], Novosti Pridniestrovia, 26 April 2020; “43 из 63 проб прид­не­стровцев на COVID-19 оказались отрицательными” [43 of 63 Transnistrian samples on COVID-19 turned out to be negative], Novosti Pridniestrovia, 20 April 2020.Hide Footnote  The following week, 27 April-3 May, the average per day was seventeen.[fn]“Количество заболевших коронавирусом в ПМР увеличилось на 10 человек” [The number of patients with coronavirus in PMR increased by 10 people], Novosti Pridniestrovia, 27 April 2020; “В Приднестровье 2 новых случая COVID-19” [Two new cases of COVID-19 in Transnistria], Novosti Pridniestrovia, 3 May 2020.Hide Footnote  Unlike other breakaway regions, Transnistria has deep socio-economic ties with government-controlled Moldova and people and goods move fairly freely between the two. While Russian forces remain based in Transnistria, the region also enjoys tariff-free trade with the EU by virtue of Moldova’s Association Agreement.

Its health care system is weak, with a limited number of qualified staff as well as outdated, typically Soviet-era infrastructure and equipment.

A more serious outbreak in Transnistria would be hard to manage. Its health care system is weak, with a limited number of qualified staff as well as outdated, typically Soviet-era infrastructure and equipment.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, former Transnistrian political representative in the settlement process, 9 April 2020. See also “Состояние отечественной медицины. Большое интервью с министром здравоохранения Алексеем Цурканом” [The state of domestic medicine: major interview with Minister of Health Alexei Tsurkan], Novosti Pridniestrovia, 21 June 2019.Hide Footnote  Like many of the other statelets, Transnistria’s population is disproportionately elderly and thus at higher risk of contracting the illness.[fn]Vladimir Fomenko, “Extended Migration Profile of Transnistria, International Organization for Migration, December 2017.Hide Footnote

Despite Tiraspol’s close socio-economic ties with the Moldovan capital Chisinau, the day after declaring a state of emergency on 16 March, it unilaterally closed crossings and opened new checkpoints within Transnistria, imposing a fourteen-day quarantine upon locals returning from Moldova.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview and email correspondence, foreign diplomat, April 2020.Hide Footnote  The measure has affected thousands who travel, often daily, to areas controlled by Chisinau. These include almost 100 medical professionals now unable to reach their jobs in neighbouring Moldovan villages.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, former official in Moldova, foreign diplomat, April 2020.Hide Footnote  Tiraspol promised to offer them local jobs, but how it might do so is unclear.[fn]“Тирасполь игнорирует угрозу коронавируса”. Молдова созывает экстренное заседание в формате «5+2»” [“Tiraspol ignores the threat of coronavirus”: Moldova is convening an emergency meeting in the “5 + 2” format”], NewsMaker, 10 April 2020.Hide Footnote  After they registered the first coronavirus case on 21 March, de facto authorities adopted stricter quarantine measures, completely shutting down public transport and shops, excluding only grocery stores.[fn]“Хроника коронавируса COVID-19 в Приднестровье” [Chronicle of the coronavirus COVID-19 in Transnistria], Novosti Pridniestrovia, 22 April 2020.Hide Footnote

Tiraspol and Chisinau are cooperating in some areas. Moldovan laboratories have been testing samples delivered from Transnistria for COVID-19. Still, Moldovan capacity is insufficient to meet Tiraspol’s increasing need for tests. In response, Chisinau has trained seven specialists in the breakaway region. It also helped set up a testing laboratory there; on 21 April, Tiraspol reported that the facility was up and running, albeit only able to conduct some 60 tests per day.[fn]Ibid.; Crisis Group email correspondence, former senior de facto Transnistrian diplomat, 9 April 2020. On the new facility’s testing capacity, see “Chronicle of the coronavirus COVID-19 in Transnistria”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Moreover, Moldova’s health minister, Viorica Dumbraveanu, called on Transnistrian colleagues to transfer seriously ill patients to Moldovan medical facilities, although to date only a single patient from Transnistria reportedly has been hospitalised in Chisinau.[fn]“Больных коронавирусом приднестровцев предлагают лечить в Кишиневе” [Transnistrians are offered to treat patients with coronavirus in Chisinau], EADaily, 2 April 2020; “Прид­не­
стровские медики ожидают результаты 22 биопроб” [Transnistrian doctors expect results of 22 biosamples], Novosti Pridniestrovia, 2 April 2020.Hide Footnote

That said, relations soured as the crisis worsened. The parties have begun trading barbs. Moldovan authorities say they worry that Tiraspol will not share its testing data in order to hide the extent of the virus’ spread, limiting the ability of Chisinau and international organisations to provide appropriate relief.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, former official in Moldova, foreign diplomat, April 2020.Hide Footnote  Transnistrian de facto authorities, for their part, claim that Chisinau is delaying the provision of critical supplies and accuse it of using the crisis to push its reintegration agenda.[fn]“Пандемия цинизма или принуждение к «реинтеграции»” [Pandemic of cynicism or coercion to “reintegrate”], Novosti Pridniestrovia, 2 April 2020.Hide Footnote  De facto Foreign Minister Vitaly Ignatiev complained to Moscow that Chisinau was pressuring Tiraspol economically and politically.[fn]“Приднестровье пожаловалось России на давление Кишинева” [Transnistria complains to Russia about Chisinau pressure], EADaily, 22 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Although Tiraspol-based media emphasise Russian aid provided directly to Transnistria, in reality all international aid to the statelet must come through Moldova. As a result, diplomats had no answer when Tiraspol called for the direct delivery of aid from other states, as well. As one put it, “For years, we delivered support to Transnistria through Chisinau. This has been a long-time practice, and we cannot change it overnight”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, foreign diplomat, 14 April 2020.Hide Footnote

In turn, Chisinau blames any hindrance on restrictions put in place by Tiraspol, arguing that for its part it had simplified procedures to facilitate movement of goods, including medical supplies.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview and email correspondence, foreign diplomats, April 2020.Hide Footnote  “We are seeing an extreme politicisation of even the smallest detail and decision”, a Chisinau-based foreign diplomat said. “The most important thing now is to depoliticise medical issues”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, foreign diplomat, 14 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Some support has indeed gotten through: of 15,000 test kits Russia provided to Moldova, five thousand were allocated to Transnistria.[fn]One foreign diplomat suggested that the de facto authorities were unable to use the Russian tests because of either lack of local expertise or invalid tests. Accordingly, all samples are sent to Chisinau. Crisis Group telephone interview, foreign diplomat, 14 April 2020.Hide Footnote  France likewise has sent testing equipment and China a variety of medical supplies via Moldova intended for Tiraspol.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview and email correspondence, foreign diplomat, April 2020.Hide Footnote

In other ways, too, tensions have flared. Moldova’s top official dealing with Transnistria, Vice Prime Minister for Integration Cristina Lesnic, told reporters that the breakaway region had ignored her calls to bring WHO representatives together with doctors from both sides to combat COVID-19’s spread.[fn]“В Кишиневе не верят, что власти Приднестровье контролируют ситуацию с коронавирусом” [Chisinau does not believe that Transnistrian authorities control the situation with coronavirus], Interfax-Ukraina, 22 April 2020.Hide Footnote  She likewise said Tiraspol had not replied to her proposal to convene the Expert Working Group on Healthcare Issues, one of thirteen Working Groups set up as part of the Transnistrian settlement process. This group, which also brings international organisations to the table, last met on 6 March, with WHO participation. Lesnic appealed to the OSCE, which has also sought to facilitate a Working Group teleconference, thus far to no avail.

Lesnic has also urged a 5+2 format meeting, bringing together representatives from Moldova, Transnistria, the OSCE, the EU, Ukraine, Russia and the U.S. to discuss the spread of COVID-19 in Transnistria – a suggestion the de facto foreign minister rebuffed. Tiraspol also asked the WHO to send a mission to Transnistria to assess its COVID-19 response to date, saying Chisinau might otherwise mislead the agency.[fn]The foreign minister, Ignatiev, said “there are no organisational prerequisites for [a 5+2 format] meeting” at this time, adding that Transnistria is ready to continue work in the 5+2 format after the COVID-19 situation improves. “«Запредельный цинизм», «примитивные спекуляции», «инъекции политической лжи» – МИД ПМР охарактеризовал заявления политпредставителя РМ” [“Outrageous cynicism”, “primitive speculations”, “injections of political lies” – the PMR MFA characterised the statements of the political representative of the RM], Novosti Pridniestrovia, 23 April 2020. PMR refers to Transnistria (Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic) and RM refers to the Republic of Moldova.Hide Footnote  At the time of writing, WHO and OSCE representatives planned to visit Transnistria in the first week of May.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, foreign diplomat, 29 April 2020.Hide Footnote

In the longer term, Transnistria’s economy will be vulnerable to the effects of a lengthy shutdown.

In the longer term, Transnistria’s economy will be vulnerable to the effects of a lengthy shutdown. GDP is expected to fall by 16 per cent in 2020, according to the de facto government.[fn]“В Приднестровье ждут падения ВВП на 16% в 2020 году из-за эпидемии и засухи” [Transnistria expects GDP to fall by 16 per cent in 2020 due to epidemic and drought], Regnum, 29 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Still, Transnistria’s exports of electricity, metals and food products are at risk.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  The last prospect may be particularly worrying given that drought had already shrunk the region’s winter harvest by some 40 per cent.[fn]“Приднестровье потеряло 40% урожая” [Transnistria lost 40 per cent of harvest], TSV, 30 April 2020.Hide Footnote  The region also relies on remittances from residents working around the world, which are likely to shrink.[fn]Fomenko, “Extended Migration Profile of Transnistria”, op. cit. Partial data can be found on the website of the Bank of the Transnistrian Republic. The March 2020 data does not show a drop compared to March 2019. Bank of the Transnistrian Republic, “Информация об основных странах-контрагентах по денежным переводам физических лиц посредством электронных систем без открытия банковского счёта (март 2020 г.)” [Information about electronic financial transfers with principal counterparty countries not involving the opening of a bank account], March 2020.Hide Footnote

There are some potentially mitigating factors. Few residents are employed in the hardest-hit service sector; instead, many rely on pensions and public-sector jobs. Transnistria also retains the proceeds of Russian-supplied energy resources: Russia bills Moldova for natural gas provided to the statelet (Moldova does not pay these bills). Meanwhile, energy payments from end users go into Transnistria’s coffers.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, head of Southern Region Research Sector, Center for Regional Studies, National Institute for Strategic Studies, Odessa, 15 March 2020. See also Hannah Lucinda Smith, “The cryptocurrency boom on the post-Soviet frontier”, Wired, 29 October 2019; Brian Milakovsky, “Trade or Blockade? Economic Relations with Uncontrolled Territories in Moldova and Ukraine”, Kennan Cable no. 48 (Wilson Center), March 2020.Hide Footnote  Combined, these factors may provide some cushion.

Transnistrian and Moldovan officials ought to continue their direct medical cooperation, which has already borne fruit, while abstaining from political posturing that risks undermining cooperative response efforts. To ensure effective coordination, they should support regular meetings of the Expert Working Group on Health­care Issues. Continuing dialogue and transparency can not only prevent further tension, but also save lives.

V. South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which were recognised by Russia after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, have responded differently to the pandemic. Early in the crisis, several senior Georgian officials called on the WHO and other international organisations to provide support to people living in the two breakaways. Tbilisi said it would not block movement to and from the regions, with which it has not been engaged in open fighting since 2008.[fn]Ana Dumbadze, “Georgian president thanks WHO for assisting population in Abkhazia”, Georgia Today, 20 March 2020; “Georgia ready to treat residents of Abkhazia if coronavirus appears”, JAM News, 29 March 2020.Hide Footnote

In South Ossetia, where as of 6 May three cases have been reported so far, authorities prohibited movement from or to government-controlled Georgia in February 2020, arguing that this step was necessary to prevent the virus from spreading.[fn]Ana Dumbadze, “Georgian president thanks WHO for assisting population in Abkhazia”, Georgia Today, 20 March 2020; “Georgia ready to treat residents of Abkhazia if coronavirus appears”, JAM News, 29 March 2020.Hide Footnote  By contrast, Abkhazia, where three COVID-19 cases have been registered, has taken Tbilisi up on its promise to work together.[fn]“В Абхазии подтверждён первый случай заражения COVID 19” [First COVID-19 case confirmed in Abkhazia], Abkhazia-Inform, 7 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Although regular traffic has ceased across two crossing points between Georgia and this breakaway region, to date eleven people have been allowed to leave Abkhazia to visit Georgian hospitals. One of them later tested positive for COVID-19.[fn]“Woman transferred from Russian-occupied Abkhazia region tests positive for coronavirus”, Agenda.ge, 31 March 2020; Crisis Group telephone interview, de facto official in Abkhazia, April 2020. This person is not included in the count of positive cases in Abkhazia provided above.Hide Footnote

Abkhazia has taken a different approach, viewing its claims to independence as a separate matter from cooperation with international organisations.

South Ossetia has been reluctant to work with the WHO and other international organisations. Because these organisations deal with the Georgian government, the de facto leadership sees collaboration with them as undermining their own demand for international recognition of the region’s independent status. Abkhazia has taken a different approach, viewing its claims to independence as a separate matter from cooperation with international organisations. It has successfully worked with such groups in the past and mobilised foreign aid in recent months, as discussed below.

Of the self-proclaimed states reviewed here, South Ossetia arguably is at greatest risk. As elsewhere, a significant part of the population (17 per cent) is elderly.[fn]In 2019, the de facto authorities paid pensions to 4,540 people; see “Аза Тасоева о росте ко­ли­че­ства пенсионеров и бюджете Фонда на 2020 год” [Aza Tasoeva about growth in the numbers of pensioners and increase in the 2020 budget of the Fund], RES, 14 November 2019. Russia provides pensions to around 504 people; see “Численность получателей российских пенсий, проживающих за границей” [Numbers of recipients of the Russian pension living abroad], official website of the Pension Fund of the Russian Federation.Hide Footnote  Hospitals are severely underequipped. One of the few doctors in the region refused to work due to lack of basic protective gear at the hospital.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, residents of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia, April 2020. In addition, see this Instagram post with a photo of the letter from the doctor explaining why he refused to go to work.Hide Footnote  Russia, which provides a majority of the region’s needs, stopped most exports of medical supplies in early March.[fn]In early March Russia’s government banned exports of all medical supplies to foreign countries, excepting specific foreign aid shipments purchases by individuals. See “Russian government restricts exports of face masks, other medical goods till June 1”, TASS, 4 March 2020.Hide Footnote  A local official said disinfectant was in short supply, and de facto authorities have asked local clothing makers to sew masks and protective gowns for medics.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, de facto official in South Ossetia, 6 April 2020.Hide Footnote  More­over, many of the region’s medical professionals have had no training for years, lacking even the know-how to operate 26 ventilators delivered from Russia.[fn]Ventilators are not affected by the ban noted above. “Врач цхинвальской больницы рассказал, сколько на самом деле в Южной Осетии ИВЛ” [Doctor of Tskhinvali hospital told how many ventilators South Ossetia has], Sputnik-Ossetia, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  “We don’t dare to even go for blood tests with the local doctors”, a resident said.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, resident of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia, 4 April 2020.Hide Footnote

The Russian military base in the region swiftly imposed strict rules, including night-time curfews, to protect personnel. Russian soldiers now don masks and gloves.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, resident of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia, 4 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Elsewhere in South Ossetia, the response has been slow. De facto authorities allowed a youth wrestling tournament to go forward on 22-25 March.[fn]“В Южной Осетии стартовало первенство по вольной борьбе памяти братьев Тедеевых” [Wrestling championship in the name of Tedeev brothers started in South Ossetia], RES, 21 March 2020.Hide Footnote  On 25 March, the de facto president delivered a state address attended by hundreds of local officials.[fn]“Послание президента РЮО Анатолия Бибилова” [Address by President of the Republic of South Ossetia Anatoly Bibilov], RES, 25 March 2020.Hide Footnote  Schools and universities remained open later than anywhere else in the South Caucasus.

De facto authorities worry that cooperation with officials arriving from government-controlled Georgia would undermine their claim to independence.

The ICRC is the only international organisation operating in South Ossetia. It has provided supplies to the local jail and plans to deliver food to elderly residents, including in remote villages.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, foreign diplomat, April 2020. “Красный Крест оказал гу­ма­ни­тар­ную помощь заключенным в Южной Осетии” [Red Cross provided humanitarian aid to detainees in South Ossetia], Sputnik-Ossetia, 1 April 2020.Hide Footnote  While the organisation says it is prepared to step up operations, it lacks medical staff on the ground to assess local health needs.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, foreign diplomat, 6 April 2020.Hide Footnote  When the WHO sought to send an assessment team to the region in mid-March, de facto authorities refused to admit the specialists unless they entered through Russia rather than Georgia.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, de facto official in South Ossetia, 6 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Tskhinvali has since shut its border with Russia, but how WHO staff enter the breakaway region remains a sticking point. De facto authorities worry that cooperation with officials arriving from government-controlled Georgia would undermine their claim to independence.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview and email exchange, de facto official in Tskhinvali and foreign diplomats, April 2020.Hide Footnote  For now, de facto officials say they can cover local salaries and pensions, but these depend almost entirely on support from Russia, which faces its own considerable domestic demands.[fn]Crisis Group Europe Report N°249, Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Time to Talk Trade, 24 May 2018, p. 23.Hide Footnote

Given the scope of the crisis, the de facto authorities are taking a serious risk by issuing political demands and impeding active cooperation with the WHO and other UN agencies. If they cannot find an acceptable compromise on travel for WHO specialists, at a minimum they should communicate with them online or by telephone to provide the information necessary to support local efforts at preventing the spread of the virus and organising medical supply deliveries.

The situation in Abkhazia is better, although it still presents vulnerabilities. Like South Ossetia, Abkhazia suffers from weak infrastructure, lacks medical professionals and has an ageing population, with nearly 20 per cent of residents over 60 years of age.[fn]See “Абхазия в цифрах за 2018 год” [Abkhazia in numbers in 2018], State Division of Statistics in the Republic of Abkhazia], 2018, p. 17. See also Thomas Hammarberg and Magdalena Grono, “Human Rights in Abkhazia Today”, Palme Center, July 2017, pp. 43-44.Hide Footnote  Indeed, nearly 80 per cent of medical personnel are themselves at high risk, in their sixties or older.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, foreign diplomats, local NGO representative, April 2020.Hide Footnote  “If they get sick, the region will lose all its doctors within days”, said a foreign diplomat who regularly travels to Abkhazia.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, foreign diplomat, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote

The de facto authorities were slow to impose social distancing. As in Nagorno-Karabakh, the COVID-19 crisis coincided with elections for a new de facto president and, here as well, there was little evidence of masks or other preventive measures at campaign rallies or on election day.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sukhumi resident and Abkhaz journalist, March-April 2020.Hide Footnote Not until the vote was over did local authorities introduce a state of emergency.[fn]“Acting President of the Republic of Abkhazia Valeriy Bganba signed a Decree to introduce a state of emergency in the Republic of Abkhazia to protect the lives and health of citizens and stop the spread of COVID-19 in the Republic of Abkhazia”, official website of the President of the Republic of Abkhazia, 27 March 2020.Hide Footnote  At that point, however, health care workers flanked by police began taking commuters’ temperature.[fn]“Посты карантина” [Quarantine stations], Abaza TV, 1 April 2020.
 Hide Footnote
 Most shops remained closed and police vehicles mounted with loudspeakers called on residents to stay home.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sukhumi resident in Abkhazia, 2 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Local officials said their greatest challenge was discouraging locals from holding large funerals.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, de facto official in Abkhazia, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  After almost a month of curfew, the de facto authorities started easing movement restrictions and allowed reopening of markets in major towns as of 20 April.[fn]“Исполняющий обязанности Президента подписал Распоряжение об изменении ограничительных мер по защите населения Республики Абхазия от коронавирусной инфекции” [Acting president signed a decree to change restrictive measures to protect the lives and health of citizens and stop the spread of COVID-19 in the Republic of Abkhazia], official website of the President of the Republic of Abkhazia, 17 April 2020.Hide Footnote

Abkhazia’s de facto authorities reached out for outside help in early March.[fn]See “On the meeting with the representatives of the international non-governmental organizations”, official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia, 3 March 2020.Hide Footnote  In response, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) delivered over 12,000 packages of basic medical supplies and sanitisers purchased with U.S. and EU financial support; Russia supplied some 500 COVID-19 test kits and sent soldiers to support disinfection of public places; and international NGOs with local offices in Abkhazia offered vehicles for emergency care and pulverisers to disinfect public transport.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, de facto official in Abkhazia, 3 April 2020. Also see “ПРООН доставила в Абхазию груз защитного медицинского снаряжения и расходных материалов” [UNDP delivered to Abkhazia a cargo of medical supplies and other consumables], Apsny Press, 16 April 2020; “О встрече с представителями международных неправительственных ор­га­ни­за­ций” [About meeting with representatives of the international non-governmental organisations], official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia, 3 April 2020; “Россия перебросит военных из Крыма в Абхазию для помощи в борьбе с коронавирусом” [Russia deploys Crimea-based troops to help fight coronavirus], Interfax, 17 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Facilitated by the UNDP, WHO specialists carried out a needs assessment in Sukhumi.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, de facto official in Abkhazia, foreign diplomat, 3 April 2020. See also “Daur Kove met with the representatives of the World Health Organization”, official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia, 18 March 2020.Hide Footnote  Still, local authorities are nervous. “One doesn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but we really need much more help”, a local official said.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, de facto official in Abkhazia, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Abkhazia was able to purchase additional basic medical supplies from Russia, thanks to diaspora fundraising efforts.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, de facto official in Abkhazia, 3 April 2020. Also see “Мо­сковская диаспора закупила первую партию медпомощи для Абхазии” [Moscow-based diaspora purchased first lot of medical assistance for Abkhazia], Sputnik-Abkhazia, 31 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, local officials reported that their coffers, which depend on Moscow for some 60 per cent of the budget, were nearly empty.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, de facto officials in Abkhazia, March 2020. For more information about local budget expenditures, see Crisis Group Report, Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Time to Talk Trade, op. cit., p. 23.Hide Footnote  Trade and tourism are the other pillars of Abkhazia’s economy and both are seriously threatened by the pandemic. As part of a bailout plan for local business, authorities are foregoing taxes and customs duties.[fn]“И.О. Президента подписал декрет” [Acting president signed a decree], official website of the President of the Republic of Abkhazia, 2 April 2020.Hide Footnote  “We need a credit or direct humanitarian support of some $50-100 billion to survive the upcoming months”, a local official said.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, de facto official in Abkhazia, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  With Russia the only major power that recognises Abkhazia, international organisations or foreign banks need Georgia’s permission to offer aid – something Tbilisi should consider to ease the economic pain.[fn]See Article 6 in Georgia’s Law on Occupied Territories. In theory, this law allows for a limited amount of outside investment to jump-start economic activity in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A company or bank can apply for a special licence for a specific time period to start operations in the breakaway region. In reality, few have tried. According to the public defender of Georgia, in 2008-2016 the Georgian government issued 28 permits for economic activity in the breakaway regions. Most were tied to the Enguri hydropower plant, the only existing Georgian-Abkhaz joint enterprise. “Analyses of the Law of Georgia ‘on Occupied Territories’ and Recommendations”, Public Defender of Georgia, 9 February 2017, p. 29.Hide Footnote

VI. De-isolation

While underlying conflicts involving the statelets to date have proven intractable, they should not stand in the way of a collective response to COVID-19.

The situation in the post-Soviet de facto statelets is potentially dire but far from hopeless. While underlying conflicts involving the statelets to date have proven intractable, they should not stand in the way of a collective response to COVID-19. Paradoxically, at a time when most people are being urged to self-isolate, the most important first step is to de-isolate these regions. Beyond ensuring full respect for ceasefires, local stakeholders ought to actively cooperate so that a broad range of humanitarian workers and supplies can get into the breakaway regions unrestricted. Effective measures will require eschewing any attempt to use humanitarian aid as a vehicle to achieve recognition, non-recognition, or political or diplomatic gains of any sort. Optimally, such unconditional cooperation today could build trust and thus lay the groundwork for more meaningful negotiations later. Regardless, the priority now should be to save lives.

Where physical access proves impossible, whether for political or logistical reasons, donor countries, the WHO and other international organisations should continue to explore technological solutions, including remote advisory connections, to establish virtual reach. Support for medical personnel and other health care providers, even if only virtual, could make the difference between life and death for many.

States with an interest in mitigating the crisis in this region, as well as the European Commission, should consider stepping up their support.

Access mechanisms may vary. In some cases, physical and virtual access could require working directly with de facto authorities. In others, where the ICRC is present, that organisation can facilitate support from others as well. It already declared Donbas and Nagorno-Karabakh priority areas for its COVID-19 response, and plans to increase funding and activities in both; it may want to do the same in South Ossetia.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, foreign diplomat, 6 April 2020.Hide Footnote  If the ICRC is to substantially expand activity and fill gaps where others lack access, it will need the funding to do so. States with an interest in mitigating the crisis in this region, as well as the European Commission, should consider stepping up their support.

Beyond these measures, local and international stakeholders have their work cut out for them.

In Ukraine, Kyiv and the ICRC need first and foremost to work with the de facto authorities in Donbas and with Moscow to get pension payments to statelet pensioners. This step will likely be controversial in Kyiv, and may spark protests there; Ukrainian authorities should seek to minimise backlash by providing clear and exhaustive explanations of the legal basis for the move, how it will be financed and what measures they will take to prevent payments from falling into the wrong hands. Extraordinary measures to provide pensions to vulnerable citizens should be acceptable to the vast majority of Ukrainians, provided they are explained well to the public.

To provide support to Nagorno-Karabakh, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs should build on recent contacts between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the aim of facilitating access by UN agencies, including the WHO, and opening the door to their humanitarian aid.

Moldova should continue to work with de facto authorities in Transnistria, including by using the subgroup on health care issues to coordinate and ensure communication and transparency. The group should meet by video teleconference as soon as possible, with OSCE moderation, to ensure that aid reaches the vulnerable.

South Ossetia’s de facto authorities should facilitate efforts by others to help, physically or virtually. Most immediately, they should find a way to enable dispatch of a WHO assessment mission. For its part, Georgia should seek to engage with de facto leadership of Abkhazia to cooperate on ways to support economic recovery, including through trade across the line of separation.[fn]For more about opportunities for trade development, see Crisis Group Report, Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Time to Talk Trade, op. cit.Hide Footnote  It might also consider continuing to support the flow of aid even once the immediate crisis passes, as Abkhazia’s dependence on tourism bodes ill for a rapid recovery.

Years of conflict have left all these regions in rocky straits as they face the COVID-19 crisis. Broad, cooperative efforts could mitigate potential damage and save lives.

Kyiv/Tbilisi/Moscow/Baku/Brussels, 7 May 2020