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To Reunite Ukraine, Kyiv Must Overcome Its Own Prejudices
To Reunite Ukraine, Kyiv Must Overcome Its Own Prejudices
Peacekeeping in Ukraine’s Donbas: Opportunities and Risks
Peacekeeping in Ukraine’s Donbas: Opportunities and Risks
People carry national flags on a bridge while forming a human chain across the Dnipro River during celebrations for Unity Day in Kyiv, Ukraine, on 22 January 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

To Reunite Ukraine, Kyiv Must Overcome Its Own Prejudices

Four years after Russia’s invasion, psychological barriers are compounding the physical divisions of Ukraine. While many Ukrainians have turned to the West, millions of conflict-affected citizens are being excluded, creating new obstacles to any eventual reintegration of the country.

It is common for Ukrainian officials and their international backers to say that Russia’s 2014 invasion, which was partly motivated by Moscow’s anger at Ukraine pivoting toward Europe and the U.S., has unified the country and turned it even more resolutely westward. In one sense, they are correct: Moscow’s aggression has consolidated support among many Ukrainians for membership in the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

But talk of unity among Ukraine’s 44 million people is misleading. It leaves out over two million inhabitants of Crimea, annexed by Russia, and up to three million residents of Donbas, the eastern region of Ukraine partly controlled by Moscow-backed rebels. Millions more are displaced within Kyiv-controlled areas or have left for Russia. A 450km frontline cuts across Donbas, separating its major cities – now under separatist rule – from suburbs, and neighbours and families from each other.

A darker theme often bleeds into remarks about unity. Many in Kyiv say Ukraine – at least for now – is better off without the people of Donbas, who they argue have been anti-democracy and pro-Russia at least since the Soviet Union’s downfall. According to this logic, the exclusion of Donbas residents from the political process underway since the start of the conflict has been key to Kyiv’s efforts to pass progressive reforms and draw closer to the Euro-Atlantic zone. But in reality, the reform agenda – particularly the battle against corruption – has bogged down, while Kyiv’s attitudes toward Donbas residents raise doubts about its commitment to the democratic, inclusive values that the EU espouses. They will also make reintegrating the war-torn region – something Kyiv has promised its own citizens and the international community that it will do – considerably more difficult.

[In eastern Ukraine] many people have historically felt kinship both with their neighbours in the Russian Federation and their fellow citizens to the west.

Dismissive attitudes toward Donbas citizens can be glimpsed in legislation like the December 2017 law on policy toward the territories Kyiv regards as Russian-occupied. Commonly known as the “reintegration law”, the document contains no concrete provisions for bringing the breakaway regions back into the fold. Another draft law, on “collaborators”, would potentially apply this term even to rank-and-file civil servants in the separatist administrations. These views are also evident in periodic calls in parliament to isolate the breakaway territories – that is, to close down the five checkpoints where people cross the front to visit family, buy goods and collect pensions – until separatist-held areas weaken to the point where “they either collapse”, as one Kyiv commentator put it, or the Ukrainian army can retake them.  

Supporters of these measures often couch their views in humanitarian terms. Yet they struggle to hide their hostility toward the people of Donbas. Last autumn, a parliamentary opposition leader declared that renouncing Kyiv’s responsibility for separatist-held areas would protect their inhabitants, as the international community would be obliged to defend them from rights abuses for which Moscow would have sole responsibility. But he also called the Western preoccupation with “saving the three million people of Donbas” misguided: the priority, he implied, should be European-minded Ukrainians – like the schoolchildren he had visited in the centre and west of the country, whose “shining eyes” showed no trace of what he called Soviet-style servility and suspicion. A top security official who was a driving force behind the reintegration bill has said isolating the self-proclaimed republics would hasten their demise – and their residents’ return to the Ukrainian family. Yet according to a close adviser, this senior security circle is ambivalent at best when it comes to the question of whether Donbas civilians are Ukrainians. “I keep asking [my colleagues]”, the adviser said, “‘do you want to liberate the land or the people?’”

Opinions polls suggest most Ukrainians harbour little animosity for the civilians of the conflict-torn region, whom they see largely as victims. Yet contempt for locals pervades the military and civilian bureaucracy in Kyiv, and even the aid operations in the Kyiv-controlled section of Donbas, where roughly 200,000 civilians live along the front. According to a widespread – and partly ahistorical – narrative, people in Donbas are descended from petty criminals whom the Soviet government imported from Russia after Stalin’s manmade famine of 1933 decimated the Ukrainian peasant population. In conversations over the past autumn, several high-ranking frontline officials, as well as a priest involved in humanitarian work, used variations of this trope to explain their difficulty working with Donbas residents, whose origins they said made them mercenary and often hostile to “native” Ukrainians. This narrative ignores the fluidity of identity in the country’s east, where many people have historically felt kinship both with their neighbours in the Russian Federation and their fellow citizens to the west. It also conveys a perverse acceptance of the Kremlin’s rationale for its invasion – that the values of people in eastern Ukraine are incompatible with those in the rest of the country.

While some Kyiv representatives in Donbas are sympathetic to civilians on the frontline, they often interpret the grim living conditions there as signs of innate immorality. Many frontline residents, who are disproportionately female, have lost their livelihoods to the war: the cities where they worked are in separatist-held territory and the fields where they sowed crops are mined. Prostitution is all too common. During a community outreach expedition, a soldier casually mentioned a teenage girl in an oft-shelled village whose father was “making money off of her”. A brief discussion followed about whether to intervene, which he concluded by saying that “maybe she’s happy”, as she had not yet left.

It was a sad fact, a commander present explained, that many civilians chose to “sit in the village and receive aid” rather than go somewhere else. He did not mention that Kyiv has no mechanism to relocate civilians in frontline areas and no durable solution for the displaced, or that this village, like many nearby, was on a mined road closed to non-military vehicles. A humanitarian volunteer who had previously worked in the presidential administration described frontline residents as people “with a minimum level of human development”, many of them single mothers by choice, content to prostitute themselves and their children to soldiers.

In the name of building a European-style state based on rule of law and respect for life, Kyiv may have chosen to treat millions of its citizens as expendable.

Such perceptions feed the notion that reintegrating the people of Donbas should not be a priority. The humanitarian volunteer, for one, said she could not stomach the idea. Schoolmates of hers from western Ukraine had died in the war, sacrificing themselves “to build an entirely new society”. Making concessions to the separatist-held areas – that is, the self-government and amnesties to which Kyiv has committed itself as part of the Minsk agreements that were supposed to end the Donbas conflict – would be an affront to the memory of her schoolmates. “What did all these guys die for, only for us to live together? It would be a bad peace.”

But for those living near the frontline, rebuilding links with their neighbours is critical and the notion of “bad peace” largely meaningless. Most, regardless of their political leanings before the war, now dream of normalcy and want the war to end through “political compromise” – a phrase that, in light of Moscow’s past intransigence, makes much of the Ukrainian intelligentsia shudder. While frontline residents generally lack the energy for political hatred, their anger is aimed at hawkish attitudes in Kyiv, not people in separatist-controlled territories. A conversation with teachers in a frontline town brought this home. When I asked whether the arrival of new students whose families had moved from separatist-held territories had provoked conflict at school, they let me know the question was absurd. “We knew we were one people before the war, and we know that now”, one said grimly. Asked about her thoughts on isolating these territories, she snapped, “it shouldn’t even be under discussion”.

Russia’s aggression – which many Donbas residents acknowledge – has divided Ukrainians physically and mentally. But the deepest rift is not between “pro-Russians” and “pro-Ukrainians”. It is between those who portray the war as an integral part of nation building for Ukraine – notwithstanding the stalled reforms – and those for whom nation building is moot as long as the war grinds on. The former have the upper hand. In the name of building a European-style state based on rule of law and respect for life, Kyiv may have chosen to treat millions of its citizens as expendable. If Ukraine and its Western backers are serious about the values they proclaim, they must recognise this self-defeating approach for what it is.

Ukrainian officials, representatives of Russian-backed separatists, OSCE officials and ICRC accompany the prisoner exchange between the Ukraine military and Russian-backed separatists at Mayorsk control gate in the Donetsk region on 27 December 2017. ANADOLUAGENCY/Stringer

Peacekeeping in Ukraine’s Donbas: Opportunities and Risks

The prospect of a UN peacekeeping force in Ukraine's Donbas offers a rare opening to discuss how to resolve the conflict. But Moscow's diplomatic overtures also risk fueling political infighting in Kyiv in the run-up to next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.

The war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region will soon enter its fifth year. In September 2017, talk of a settlement picked up after Russia circulated a draft UN Security Council resolution proposing the deployment of UN forces along the front line separating Kyiv’s forces, on one side, from Kremlin-backed separatists, on the other.

Moscow had ignored Kyiv’s calls for peacekeepers since early 2015, so its proposal was regarded with suspicion by Ukraine and its Western allies. Most saw the small force envisaged along the front as a non-starter, more likely to freeze the conflict than end it. Nonetheless, the proposal spurred fresh thinking about ways out of the stalemate.

U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker has now met several times with Vladislav Surkov, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, to discuss what a compromise on peacekeeping might entail. After their fourth meeting in Dubai in January 2018, both expressed cautious optimism regarding initial aspects of force composition and deployment. In February, former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, whose political consultancy group runs a strategic campaign called the Ukraine Initiative, floated a detailed proposal for a peacekeeping force.

While scepticism about Moscow’s intentions is justified, the Kremlin’s willingness to discuss peacekeepers marked a shift in the tenor of dialogue on Donbas, as Crisis Group argued in its December report Can Peacekeepers Break the Deadlock in Ukraine? Whether the change in tone brings a change in substance remains to be seen. The evolution of the peacekeeping debate, and the fact it even remains on the table, suggest it should be taken seriously. So too should the impact inside Ukraine. As the country prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019, Moscow’s peacekeeping overtures – genuine or not – risk fuelling political infighting motivated more by competition to establish patriotic credentials than by efforts to reintegrate Donbas.

Jonathan Brunson on Ukrainian Conflict and Donbas Reintegration

Jonathan Brunson, Crisis Group's Ukraine/Eastern Neighbourhood Senior Analyst, talks about the conflict resolution process, peacebuilding initiatives and policy recommendations relating to Donbas reintegration on Ukrainian state TV Ukrinform. CRISISGROUP

Competing Perspectives

Since Russian-backed separatists seized parts of Donbas in early 2014, fighting has left more than 11,000 dead and thousands injured. Millions of civilians are either displaced in Ukraine or living as refugees in Russia. The February 2015 Minsk II Agreement sets out a framework that leaders both in Russia and among Kyiv’s Western allies say they view as the only way to end the conflict. That agreement foresees the withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons from the area and reestablishment of Kyiv’s control over its side of the Ukraine-Russia border. It also sets out political provisions for the reintegration of separatist-held areas into Ukraine, including on local elections in those parts of Donbas, self-governance of these areas and amnesties.

Kyiv has long seen the war in Donbas as an inter-state conflict involving Russia rather than a civil conflict.

Kyiv’s argument has been that continued fighting and Russia’s financial and military support for separatists prevent Ukraine from advancing the political elements of Minsk. But more fundamentally, most Ukrainians see the deal as generally favourable to Moscow and the separatists. Kyiv has long seen the war in Donbas as an inter-state conflict involving Russia rather than a civil conflict. A new reintegration law signed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in February 2018 makes this view explicit, labelling Russia as an aggressor and Donbas as an illegally occupied territory. Political and civil society actors in Kyiv insist this designation was necessary to place full responsibility for the conflict – its costs, as well as the human rights protection of those living in rebel-held Donbas – on Russia, and prevent it from participating in a peacekeeping operation, as the Ukrainian side formally considers Moscow a party to the conflict. Parliamentary Chairman Andriy Parubiy says the next step is to enact a de-occupation law. In this climate, Ukrainian leaders are likely to accept peacekeepers only if they believe the mission would safeguard Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, at the very least by monitoring the Russian border.

For its part, Moscow blames the deadlock on Kyiv’s failure to implement the Minsk agreement’s political provisions. The Kremlin also voices fears of reprisals against inhabitants of separatist-held areas were Ukrainian forces to return. In principle, Russia may gain from finding a way out of eastern Ukraine, where its interference has incurred both financial costs – due to U.S. and EU sanctions, as well as expenditures required to keep the regional administration afloat – and wider reputational costs. But despite the Volker-Surkov talks, it is unlikely that Moscow is seeking a way out, almost certainly not ahead of Russian elections in March 2018.

At this stage, Putin’s peacekeeping proposal and participation in subsequent dialogue probably aim to gauge reactions from others; possibly, to explore under what conditions Western powers might lift sanctions; and likely, to test how much pressure prospects of reintegrating Donbas by implementing the political provisions unpopular among most Ukrainians could put on Kyiv ahead of elections there in 2019. Whether Moscow is more willing to find a constructive solution after its elections remains unclear. Its degree of openness will depend on the nature of Putin’s domestic and foreign policy calculations after his almost guaranteed re-election. An optimistic scenario has Russia compromising on Donbas to help reframe relations with the West and prompt the lifting of sanctions. But some Western diplomats in Kyiv fear Moscow may float proposals that would stop short of guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty, all the while increasing the onus on Kyiv to deliver on the divisive political aspects of Minsk.

Of Ukraine’s Western allies, the U.S. has been most active in exploring peacekeeping options.

Of Ukraine’s Western allies, the U.S. has been most active in exploring peacekeeping options, primarily through the bilateral channel between Volker and Surkov. Talks among the Normandy Four – the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany – complemented by more frequent exchanges among their respective advisers, and the Trilateral Contact Group comprising representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, proceed in parallel with the Volker-Surkov track.

Volker’s diplomacy continues to overshadow any European role. In 2018, however, Germany’s leaders appear to have again found their voice. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel called for a UN peacekeeping mission in early January, and Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces Hans-Peter Bartels announced on 15 February that Germany is ready to contribute troops.

Renewed European attention to Ukraine, particularly from the EU itself, could be useful. The EU’s close political ties to Ukraine and substantial aid give it critical leverage in Kyiv. A first step might be for Brussels to nominate its own special envoy or representative with a mandate similar to that of Volker. According to one EU official, a senior former politician would stand the best chance of making an impact, particularly given the sensitivity of the agenda and differences among member states.

Including the EU and U.S. in an expanded Normandy format might make sense, too. For now, that course appears unlikely, but it would serve to keep all actors on the same page and discourage both Moscow and Kyiv from shopping among rival forums.

Ukrainian Resistance to Minsk

Russian interference in Donbas is not the only obstacle to ending the crisis. In Ukraine, resistance to the Minsk agreement’s political provisions is growing. It is already a central campaign issue ahead of the 2019 elections.

The vast majority of Ukrainian parties and civil society groups consider Kyiv’s obligations under Minsk unwanted concessions to the Kremlin

Bar pro-Russia factions, President Poroshenko’s party stands alone in endorsing the accord. Even some in the president’s ruling coalition reject it. His junior partner, the People’s Front, openly declares that Minsk is dead, says Ukraine never endorsed its contents in the first place, and argues that Kyiv signed only to check the Russian-backed separatists’ military momentum and buy time. Indeed, even Poroshenko’s own commitment to Minsk is not entirely clear; he may merely be paying it lip service, so as not to alienate Kyiv’s Western allies. The vast majority of Ukrainian parties and civil society groups consider Kyiv’s obligations under Minsk unwanted concessions to the Kremlin, whose leverage in Donbas looks set to endure even if Russia pulls out its forces.

A narrative appears to be taking hold among Ukrainian elites that implementing controversial Minsk provisions could provoke a new wave of anti-government violence, even if the Minsk security provisions are implemented. The provisions on amnesties and self-rule for the now rebel-controlled areas are particularly contentious; many Ukrainians would see granting the special status stipulated in the agreement to parts of Donbas as rewarding a separatist area with privileges no other region in the country enjoys. For now, however, there are few visible omens of mass civil disobedience. Little suggests Ukrainians would come out onto the streets in large numbers, other than their recent history of doing so. The failure of successive revolutions to root out pervasive corruption appears to have provoked fatigue as much as anger among many. And Western diplomats have been speculating since October 2017 that the government was preventing the assembly of crowds outside parliament and on Maidan by occupying traditional demonstration spaces with an uninhabited protest camp and large outdoor exhibition. Authorities’ sudden March 2018 clearance of these may indicate government fears of public turmoil have largely abated. After the dismantling of the camp outside parliament, some prominent reformers and social media influencers criticised what they called aggressive policing reminiscent of old regime tactics, but the immediate reaction on the street has been muted.

Still, animosity toward Minsk fuels an early pre-election campaign in which discourses are hardening, as elites seek to outbid each other in their expressions of patriotism. A G7 diplomat privately commented: “Moscow knows full well how much damage it can create in Ukraine by floating more peace plans”, and said he expected it to do so after Russia’s presidential election. Peacekeeping dialogue needs to factor in this resistance and anxiety across the country about how the disputed areas would be reintegrated. European powers, in particular, could push Kyiv to explore how it might enact Minsk in a way that would not challenge Ukraine’s national cohesion and sovereignty. They should also help Kyiv prepare for the social and political challenges that the implementation of Minsk might engender.

An Expansive Peacekeeping Mandate?

To help resolve the conflict, the mandate of any peacekeeping mission would likely have to involve at least three elements. First, peacekeepers would need to establish control over the front line, protect civilians, provide security across the conflict zone, and verify the cantonment of weapons, disengagement and withdrawal of forces. A sustained ceasefire (a tall order, given that the record, set in September-October 2017, is twelve days) should be a precondition for any deployment. Second, peacekeepers ought to be mandated to monitor the Ukrainian side of the border with Russia to deter infiltration to the extent possible, with the eventual goal of reestablishing Kyiv’s control over its own side. Third, peacekeepers would have to lay the groundwork for Kyiv to implement the Minsk political provisions, starting with creating conditions for credible local elections that guarantee all candidates the right to safely campaign.

Many Kyiv elites contemplate a number [of required peacekeepers] that would exceed 30,000.

The composition of a potential peacekeeping force – which nations would contribute troops – has been the topic of some discussion in Kyiv. NATO and Russian forces would likely be unacceptable: Russia is predisposed to reject the former, Ukraine and its Western allies the latter. Many Ukrainian military and civil society experts also posit that Collective Security Treaty Organization members like Belarus or Kazakhstan be excluded. Other options might include troops from countries such as Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, all of which would probably be acceptable to most Ukrainians. That said, even were consensus to emerge on the principle of peacekeeping, finding a mix of troop contributors acceptable to both Kyiv and Moscow, and persuading those countries to commit forces, would likely prove a challenge.

Another decision relates to the number of peacekeepers required. Volker and some Ukrainian diplomats have floated the concept of a force of 20,000, a number now widely cited by Kyiv and its Western partners as necessary to carry out a robust mandate over a large and heavily populated area. That number would already be at the upper end of existing UN operations, but a smaller force would likely be unable to both monitor the border and project force across all of Donbas as local elections approach. Many Kyiv elites contemplate a higher number that would exceed 30,000.

The Security Council would also need to decide on the degree to which UN peacekeepers would enjoy explicit enforcement capability, how robust a posture they would adopt in the face of spoilers, and the manner in which they would deploy. Even with the consent of both Moscow and Kyiv – a prerequisite for any mission’s deployment – peacekeepers could still face local hostility.

Phased deployment – first along the front line, then within a wider radius, and finally across the entire disputed territory, including the Russian border – almost certainly would be required to dispel dual fears of non-compliance and reprisals. While Kyiv might oppose such a proposal, given suspicions that the Kremlin could obstruct latter phases, a fast deployment with clear deadlines might mitigate such concerns. Western officials say they are exploring options for a phased deployment that would combine security and political steps: deployment along the line of contact; followed by Kyiv’s adoption of legislation on greater autonomy for conflict regions; then deployment all the way to the border; and finally, local elections in Donbas. There are many hurdles to such a scenario, which would, however, address key points of the Minsk framework.

Any mission should also facilitate the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and commuters who continue to live on both sides of the front line, as well as refugees. IDPs and commuters could be a politically moderating force in reintegrating a Donbas society dominated, on the rebel-controlled side, by a siege mentality and exposed to potent anti-Kyiv and anti-Western propaganda.

Ukraine’s Western allies need to reassure Kyiv that any deal on peacekeeping would be acceptable only if it addressed security concerns without further undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty.

A final question is whether the Security Council ought to establish a temporary UN administration to govern separatist-held areas until the return of Ukrainian authority. Some past UN missions – Eastern Slavonia, Kosovo and Timor Leste – played this role. Whether such an intrusive mandate is needed in eastern Ukraine remains a divisive question for Kyiv. Ukrainian authorities would not be able to return immediately, but many elites also resent the notion of outsiders meddling in domestic affairs. Existing local de facto authorities are largely out of the question; indeed, the U.S. has long insisted on a change in their leadership as a precondition in its negotiations with Russia on Donbas, and Kyiv clearly would prefer a temporary UN administration to one led by pro-Russian separatists. If the UN does not play an administrative role, it is unclear what a transitional regime might look like. At the very least, the Security Council would need to empower a peacekeeping mission to help local state institutions perform basic functions during the transition.

A Rare Opening

Ukraine’s Western allies need to reassure Kyiv that any deal on peacekeeping would be acceptable only if it addressed security concerns without further undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty. Ukraine must not become a bystander to this process; spoilers on either side could easily exploit the perception that Kyiv is unable to influence the outcome. The West should continue to make clear to Moscow that non-Crimea sanctions on Russia will be lifted only once Minsk is fully implemented or when Russia ends its interference in Donbas, and that partial withdrawal will not give rise to partial lifting of sanctions.

A peacekeeping mission may still be a distant possibility. It is far from clear that Moscow is seeking an exit. Mounting resistance among Ukrainian leaders to the Minsk accord presents another challenge, which Russia may well be factoring into its calculations. Nonetheless, the current talks represent a rare opening to test ideas on how to settle the eastern Ukraine conflict and reintegrate the disputed Donbas into Ukraine. All parties should make the most of it.

Contributors

Former Program Director, Europe & Central Asia
Former Senior Analyst, Ukraine/Eastern Neighbourhood