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Refugee Summit Should Address Conflict Prevention
Refugee Summit Should Address Conflict Prevention
Report 235 / Europe & Central Asia

Eastern Ukraine: A Dangerous Winter

Winter in Ukraine is injecting further uncertainty into an already volatile conflict. After well over 5,000 deaths and eight months of war, eastern Ukraine – particularly the separatist-held parts of Donetsk and Luhansk – now runs the risk of a humanitarian crisis. All parties involved in the conflict should refrain from offensive operations, concentrating instead on helping the population survive the winter, and laying the groundwork for a political settlement.

Executive Summary

Winter in Ukraine is injecting further uncertainty into an already volatile conflict. Concerns are increasing about the strong risk of a humanitarian crisis in the south-eastern separatist-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. The separatists have a rudimentary administrative structure, few competent administrators, ill-trained militias and little in the way of a long-term strategy. They will be hard pressed to survive the winter without major Russian aid – financial, humanitarian or military. Ukraine, meanwhile, is dragging its feet on implementing reforms to address its manifold economic problems. Both Kyiv and the separatists are under pressure from their war lobbies. The near-term risk of further hostilities is high. There is an urgent need to halt the conflict, separate the troops, deploy substantially larger numbers of international monitors across the warzone and the Russian-Ukrainian border, as well as take immediate steps to assist civilians on both sides.

The separatists are clearly aware of their vulnerability, both in terms of security – their militias are a bewildering array of uncoordinated and poorly led military units – and in political terms – their inability to provide basic services for the population could seriously undermine their support base. They also admit an ambiguous relationship with Russia. They say that Moscow will intervene to avert major military or humanitarian catastrophes, but has no plans to recognise the separatist entities or provide major development or reconstruction aid. And they say that while Russia is playing a long game for the control of Ukraine, they are trying to stay alive for the next six months.

Renewed hostilities could take a number of forms. A Ukrainian offensive would almost certainly trigger a Russian military response, as Russian forces showed when in August 2014 they inflicted a devastating defeat on Ukrainian troops in Ilovaisk, near Donetsk city, stopping their hitherto successful offensive. The geographical status quo has prevailed since then. A ceasefire brokered in September has been largely ignored. A powerful group within the separatist leadership feels that they will not survive without more land, and clearly wants to resume offensive operations, in the belief that this would also bring in the Russians. Separatists are hoping for another “Russian Spring” – their term for Moscow-encouraged and fomented seizures of power in other south-eastern oblasts. And, should weather conditions impede resupply of Crimea by sea this winter, Moscow may intervene to open up a land route from the Russian border through Ukrainian territory. Either move would undoubtedly be viewed by the EU, U.S. and other supporters of Ukraine as a major escalation and lead to further sanctions.

EU and U.S. sanctions may well have deterred a further Russian advance along the Black Sea coast after Ilovaisk, and seem at the moment to be deterring any substantial separatist advance beyond the current frontline. They have also added to the pain of Russia’s economic downturn. The EU’s tough line on sanctions surprised Moscow, which assumed that consensus in Brussels would quickly disintegrate. But there is little sign that either the U.S. or the EU have thought about ways to de-escalate when the need finally arises. Russia is following a similar improvisatory path. It underestimated the implications of annexing Crimea or intervening in eastern Ukraine. It protects the entities from Ukrainian attack, but seems reluctant to do much more than that.

Improvisation needs to be replaced by communication between all sides. This would help defuse tensions, perhaps prepare the ground for consultations between the main warring parties, and allow all sides to concentrate on humanitarian assistance in the coming winter. Russia could confirm that it has no plans to recognise the separatists. It could reject the idea, often floated in Kyiv, of a major Russian offensive in the spring. Kyiv could similarly promise to refrain from offensive military operations during this period. It could spell out publicly and clearly to the people of the east what political solution it has in mind for their areas after the war, and offer a clear assurance that it will, with Western assistance, help rebuild the east. Such an approach by all sides would not only help Ukraine weather a dangerous winter, but also allow it to emerge in the spring with hope for the future.

This report concentrates largely on one of the lesser known aspects of the crisis – the thinking and capacity of the separatist leadership, their relationship with Moscow and their views of the future. It does not present an overall analysis of the U.S., European Union and member states’ policies on the crisis.

A girl rests on a rock above a refugee camp in DR Congo’s Kivu province, in 2008. MAGNUM/Jim Goldberg

Refugee Summit Should Address Conflict Prevention

Immediate palliative care is a vital response to the world's record numbers of refugees and internally displaced. But any sustainable solution to this global crisis must go further, buttressing international law and ending the wars that drive so many from their homes.

For those millions of people whose lives have been uprooted, whether escaping conflict, unchecked violence, or political repression, next week’s summit meetings in New York on the refugee crisis might as well be taking place in a parallel universe.

The outcome of the UN summit has already been decided, and the commitments made by the world’s governments fall far short of what’s needed to address a crisis of this magnitude. The agreed outcome document does recognise the scale of the challenge and reaffirms the rights of all refugees and migrants, which is itself significant in a time of rising xenophobia and eroding international standards. It also acknowledges that the protection of refugees is a shared global responsibility and commits to working toward a strengthened regime by which to better address this phenomenon.

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However, member states have not even been able to agree to resettle a bare minimum of 10 per cent of refugees annually, or indeed to any concrete measures to improve an untenable situation. Most importantly, the agreement lacks detail on the most vital issues of all: how states will prevent or resolve those conflicts driving mass migration, and how they will reinforce their fraying commitment to uphold international law and standards.

The scale of the disaster is staggering. There are over 65 million forcibly displaced people in the world today, more than ever recorded. Overwhelmingly, this is a problem that affects the global south. Countries from Asia, the Middle East to Africa and Central America are both the primary sources and principal hosts of the displaced. Well over 80 per cent of the world’s refugees are located in the developing world.

Worsening conflicts are mostly to blame for the rise in displacement. The Syrian war alone is responsible for driving some 12 million people from their homes since 2011. But many of the world’s displaced have been stuck in limbo for years, even decades, like most of the 5.2 million Palestinians registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency or some of the 1.6 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Failure to adequately cope with the influx risks further instability, whether because of immense pressures placed on host countries or because of the lost opportunities incurred by those forced to flee, millions of whom are children denied schooling.

Immediate palliative care is vital, but any sustainable solution to the crisis must go further. The outcome document for the UN summit is vague in its commitment to preventing conflict and resolving those currently in progress. Its focus, overwhelmingly, is on how to better manage the situation of people only after they become refugees.

A continuation of the current strategy of short-term triage more or less guarantees that we will face even more conflict and humanitarian suffering in the future.

By many counts, the past five years have seen a rise in the frequency and intensity of deadly conflict. The increasing range of interests at play in these conflicts, both domestic and international, the weakening of the world’s security architecture, and rising geopolitical tensions have made resolving this violence much more challenging. Further, a sense of overwhelming crisis, financial pressures, domestic political constraints, and memories of recent failed interventions have, for many actors, encouraged a dangerous narrowing of foreign policy interests.

Globally, the top ten source countries for refugees account for 76 per cent of the total, and constitute in large part a list of those places where war prevails over peace; predatory state behaviour over benign. If past is prologue, this issue is not going to disappear any time soon. The overall problem of violence-triggered flight is longstanding in the cases of nearly all of those countries on the list. Indeed, it’s getting worse. Last year alone, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 12.4 million newly displaced; the last five years have seen a near 50 per cent increase in this phenomenon.

In this treacherous landscape, world leaders must address squarely the driving cause behind mass migration. And they must start by making better use of the global institutions they created and upholding the international legal framework they built. States must reassert the primacy of international humanitarian and human rights law, including by unequivocally calling out transgressors and mobilising action to halt – and if need be, to prosecute – violations.

The UN system must be made more functional. A Security Council in a state of near paralysis on too many issues will not make the world safer. As its members seek consensus on a new Secretary-General, they would do well to choose for that post an individual with the skills, energy and independence required. The next leader of the UN should be prepared to harness the organisation’s formidable mediation, peacekeeping, humanitarian and development capacities for the better management of conflict. Even if Council members find agreement on key issues elusive, they should at least give the next Secretary-General the space to bring them together.

The failure to get to grips with the fundamentals of the refugee crisis – including in concrete follow-up to the September summit in New York – risks a damning judgment on the many states with the capacity to effect positive change. A continuation of the current strategy of short-term triage more or less guarantees that we will face even more conflict and humanitarian suffering in the future. The human costs are already too high, and they are rising exponentially.