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Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine
Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Peace in Ukraine: A Promise yet to Be Kept
Peace in Ukraine: A Promise yet to Be Kept
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko (C) looks at a Ukrainian flag brought from an eastern region of the country where a military conflict took place, 14 October 2015. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Briefing 79 / Europe & Central Asia

Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine

A 2015 ceasefire signed in Minsk is largely holding in eastern Ukraine, while the most likely outcome is a brittle, long-term frozen conflict. Nevertheless, Russia is juggling many options, and Minsk remains a vital possible path to resolution. The deal deserves steadfast, sanctions-backed support from the U.S. and European Union.

I. Overview

Despite repeated expressions of support for the Minsk process and recognition of Ukraine’s sovereignty over the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR, LNR), Moscow’s policy in Ukraine’s east looks more likely to strengthen those entities than prepare for the dismantlement the Minsk agreement envisages. The Kremlin views Ukraine’s European choice as a major security threat and the 2014 overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych as Western-backed and aimed at isolating Russia. It wants to keep Ukraine under its pro-Western leadership unstable, embroiled in open-ended military confrontation it cannot afford, so as to return it eventually to its sphere of influence. Moscow often seems to play with several options, but its tactical fluidity is dangerous. Almost 10,000 have died in the conflict, and tens of thousands of troops face each other along a 500-km line of separation. While recognising the risk of the Minsk process becoming a substitute for settlement, the international community should urge Russia to show its commitment to that process and remind it that sanctions will remain until Minsk is fully implemented.

The ceasefire in the east has largely held since 1 September, casualties are down, and all sides express determination to implement the Minsk agreement. Few Minsk provisions have been fully implemented however, and the timetable for completion has been extended into 2016. This gives Moscow further opportunities to concentrate the parties more on process than a settlement.

After showing little interest in building political institutions in the DNR and LNR or enthusiasm for funding social policies, Moscow has begun in the past four or five months to bankroll pensions, social benefits and salaries to local officials and the separatist military forces. If consistently maintained, this will cost it over $1 billion a year, a substantial sum for the Russian treasury in straitened economic times. 

Some observers in Donetsk are persuaded the measures are increasingly clear signs Moscow has decided to transform the crisis into a frozen conflict, a scenario international participants in the peace talks have long feared. Though a protracted conflict in eastern Ukraine would be very different from those in Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transnistria, it would have the advantage for Russia of pushing the issue further off the international agenda. 

Rather more persuasively, some seasoned observers of Moscow’s tactics in the east, including senior separatist officials, suggest that the Kremlin is probably considering several options, from freezing the conflict while keeping Minsk alive, to dropping the entities at a convenient time. It may also be waiting to see how other global agendas with potential for cooperation between Russia and the West – Syria, for example, and counter-terrorism – are developing. 

Russia says it is pushing hard for complete implementation as quickly as possible, but Ukraine and its Western supporters maintain that it has not done enough to remove weaponry and discuss a troop pullout. The Kyiv government has been unable to assemble enough votes to pass crucial constitutional amendments Minsk requires, to the indignation of Russia and its separatist allies, and is reluctant to accept sweeping amnesty for separatists. There has been little progress on what Minsk envisages to be an “all for all” exchange of prisoners, though several hundred releases have taken place. The opposing sides are also still arguing over inclusive, internationally-supervised local elections that would in theory help normalise the political situation in the entities.

Meanwhile, in addition to the many troops Russia retains on its side of the border who can deploy quickly throughout the DNR and LNR, separatist sources and Western officials say, it has a number of units inside the entities. One of the most useful steps Moscow could take to demonstrate its willingness to help resolve the conflict would be to quietly withdraw those units. This would substantially increase Ukrainian and Western confidence that it is indeed committed to Minsk. The international community could then ensure that Ukraine did not try to take advantage by moving across the line of separation. 

Another important step for Russia would be to reduce military supplies to the entities. Cuts in fuel, lubricants and ammunition for artillery and other heavy weapons would gradually diminish their forces’ mobility and effectiveness. As Russia still denies providing such items, this could be done with minimal publicity or face loss. The international community, including the U.S., might react with confidence-building measures, perhaps including a security dialogue in the region, or consultations on ways to dismantle the poorly-disciplined LNR and DNR militaries. 

Until there is a clearly positive change in the core Russian approach, the international community needs to build its policy toward Moscow over eastern Ukraine on the assumption that anything, including more serious fighting, is possible. For now, this may seem highly unlikely. Russia is embroiled in Syria, the Donbas has been banished from its media, and the economy is under great strain, due in part to sanctions, in part to low oil prices. But large Russian units have already fought twice in Ukraine, once (February 2015) even during peace talks. Moscow could resort to such means again should the lower-cost, lower-visibility approach of supporting the entities in a protracted conflict fail. The European Union (EU), especially member states Germany and France, and the U.S. should avoid the trap of letting a potentially lengthy resolution process and different interpretations of its provisions undermine their vital consensus on maintaining sanctions until Minsk is fully implemented. 

Research was conducted in Kyiv, Dnepropetrovsk, Krasnoarmiisk, Kurakhove and Moscow and during five visits to DNR/LNR-controlled areas of Donetsk city and oblast since July 2014. The briefing focuses on recent political changes in the entities, their relations with Moscow and the nature of Russia’s presence and control.

Peace in Ukraine: A Promise yet to Be Kept

Originally published in ISPI

Last May, President Volodymyr Zelensky took office promising to end the then-five-year old war with Russia. As his administration approaches its one-year anniversary, however, Zelensky’s peacebuilding efforts face backlash in Kyiv, skepticism in Moscow, and hostility in the Russian-backed breakaways in Donbass.

Last May, President Volodymyr Zelensky took office promising to end the then-five-year old war with Russia – to “just stop the shooting”. As his administration approaches its one-year anniversary, however, Zelensky’s peacebuilding efforts face backlash in Kyiv, skepticism in Moscow, and hostility in the Russian-backed breakaways in Donbass. Violence at the 400-km frontline, which cuts through the southeastern industrial region, has subsided only marginally. Hobbled from the beginning by poor communication, especially with his domestic audience, his team has yet to offer their Russian adversaries or the Ukrainian public a coherent vision for peace – namely for how to make the controversial 2014-2015 Minsk agreements, which entail return of Donbass’s Russian-backed enclaves to Kyiv’s control, acceptable to all sides. Now, amid the COVID-19 crisis and resulting economic struggles, other pressing matters threaten to derail his key goal.

Critics accused Kyiv of undoing years of incremental advances by Ukrainian troops.

Upon taking office, Zelensky set about re-booting the stagnant peace process, and the backlash was immediate. In June, the sides revived a failed 2016 agreement to disengage forces along small sections of the frontline. Critics accused Kyiv of undoing years of incremental advances by Ukrainian troops. Presidential press secretary Iuliia Mendel, in line with Zelensky’s campaign pledge to treat residents of Russia-backed enclaves more like full-fledged Ukrainians, drew attention to the prevalence of civilian casualties in these areas, which she blamed on government forces’ injudicious use of return fire. This earned her a prosecutorial summons. The sides negotiated a wide-ranging ceasefire in July 2020, leading to an unprecedented drop in violations and civilian casualties, but Ukrainian pro-military activists insisted only their side was complying. After Russian-backed fighters reportedly killed four Ukrainian soldiers in an unprovoked August attack, violations climbed up to pre-ceasefire levels, where they have hovered since, with a few spikes and falls.

Kyiv tended to convey conflict-related moves to the public haphazardly, compounding widespread opposition. The outrage, however, failed to improve communication. This cycle repeated itself on 1 October 2019, when Zelensky surprised his constituents with the announcement that Ukraine had accepted the so-called Steinmeier Formula. This formula, proposed by German Foreign Minister (now President) Frank-Walter Steinmeier in fall of 2016, was intended to jump-start Minsk implementation. It re-affirms Ukraine’s commitment to reintegrate the enclaves under “special status”, while calling on Kyiv to apply the status provisionally starting on the day local elections are held under Ukrainian law. Steinmeier’s proposal does not address the most contentious aspect of the Minsk agreements, which calls for Kyiv to resume control of its eastern border with Russia only after elections. Zelensky indicated in his October announcement that elections would only proceed when Kyiv has resumed control of the border – implying he may try to alter Minsk. This point was lost in the ensuing controversy over whether Zelensky had given up too much ground.

Protests ensued under the slogan “No to Capitulation”, uniting far-right activists, frustrated combat veterans, seasoned statesmen and much of the Kyiv intelligentsia. Far-right activists – cheered on by many liberals – then set up an armed checkpoint to prevent disengagement in a frontline town. It took the interior ministry two weeks to сompel them to remove their weapons, after which disengagement proceeded. In December, Zelensky and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met in Paris for their Normandy Summit with the French and German leaders, the first such meeting since 2016. Moscow, as well as many international security experts, expected an agreement to mutually withdraw troops along most of the frontline, potentially resulting in major reductions in ceasefire violations. When the day came, the interior minister was at Zelensky’s side, and helped ensure that the disengagement would only occur in three additional 4 square kilometer zones by the end of March. Zelensky also reiterated his desire to re-negotiate the timing of the border’s return to Kyiv’s control. By mid-March, the sides had not progressed on the border issue, or agreed on a single new disengagement zone.

By mid-March, the sides had not progressed on the border issue, or agreed on a single new disengagement zone.

Meanwhile, a diplomatic backchannel begun in the fall between Zelensky’s aide Andryi Yermak and Putin’s aide Dmitry Kozak had produced another wave of outrage in Ukraine – fed, as usual, by shoddy communication by Zelensky’s team and knee-jerk opposition from domestic critics. The two aides agreed to form a consultative body within the Minsk negotiations, in which as-yet-undetermined residents of the separatist-held areas could develop non-binding recommendations. Despite the body’s limited prospective mandate, Zelensky’s opponents, and some allies, said it amounted to recognition of the Russia-backed regimes. More street protests erupted before the COVID-19 quarantine took hold, coupled with accusations of corruption directed at Yermak.

To Zelensky’s critics, who include a cross section of Kyiv’s political milieu, his failures have all been predictable, the result of proceeding from a false premise: “We didn’t start this war, but it’s up to us to end it”, he sometimes says. His opponents counter that taking the first steps to end a war Russia began is neither possible, nor morally permissible. Former President Petro Poroshenko, whom he defeated, also came in promising peace in 2014 as Russian-backed fighters were taking over parts of the southeast. These groups rebuffed his offers of amnesty, after which Russian regular forces made at least two large incursions in August 2014 and January-February 2015. They inflicted staggering losses on Ukraine’s military, eventually forcing Poroshenko’s signing of the February 2015 agreement.

Peace, according to Minsk, could bury hopes of integration with the West.

Many Ukrainians describe Minsk as a deal signed at gunpoint, whose implementation would grant Moscow continued leverage over the country’s internal and foreign policy. To them, keeping the conflict simmering is preferable. With just over 100 government troops dead in 2018 and 2019 each, a sharp contrast to the thousands of casualties of 2014-15, many of Zelensky’s critics consider the war’s ongoing costs bearable. Peace according to Minsk, on the other hand, could bury hopes of integration with the West. The loss of this prospect is something these constituencies would equate with betrayal of the thousands of troops who have died. And while Zelensky’s team has pledged to alter Minsk’s most controversial elements, few skeptics in Kyiv are reassured.

Moscow and its separatist proxies, meanwhile, paint Zelensky’s peaceful rhetoric as hot air. Some Kremlin watchers say Putin was more comfortable with Poroshenko, whose refusal to pursue reintegration took the pressure off of them to appear constructive. Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov warned in June that Kyiv should not expect goodwill gestures simply because the new president spoke of peace: these would only come when he began implementing Minsk through direct negotiations with the heads of the enclaves – which Kyiv refuses to do, insisting that Moscow is the accountable party. The de facto heads of the statelets, for whom reintegration could mean jail, are more hostile. “Zelensky, as if following a script, keeps grandly announcing his peace initiatives to the international community, but in practice he is mercilessly destroying the Republic’s residents”, the head of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic said last February.

Both sides are wrong. Zelensky is neither naïve and treasonous, nor inhumane. His views on the war – namely his opposition to a military solution and his openness to various avenues of negotiations – largely align with those of many Ukrainians, particularly in central and southeastern regions. He neither wants to capitulate to Moscow, nor pursue integration with the Westat the cost of unity. He frames the key difference between Russia and Ukraine not in terms of language or culture – calling Russians and Ukrainians “truly fraternal peoples” – but in terms of the humanity with which they are governed. These views leave little room for what many in Kyiv currently define as patriotism: the belief that the war is a nation-building exercise and the frontlines a filter dividing authentic Ukrainians from their ostensibly backward, Soviet-style counterparts living in the separatist-held areas. Nor are these views convenient for politicians in Moscow or Donbass who say they are defending eastern Ukrainians from an ultra-nationalist regime.

President Zelensky has yet to build the domestic alliances he needs to work towards peace.

Having come to power promising peace, Zelensky has yet to build the domestic alliances he needs to work towards it. He has been hindered by the backlash he has faced, which has been exacerbated by his own erratic communication. Until he finds a way to rectify this, the losers here will include many of those who voted for him – Ukrainians whose aim is not to see their grand narratives prevail, but merely to live in a single country.