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Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine
Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Enhancing Prospects for Peace in Ukraine
Enhancing Prospects for Peace in Ukraine
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.

Enhancing Prospects for Peace in Ukraine

EU-Russia ties are frostier than ever. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2021 – Spring Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to forge consensus with the U.S. and UK on responses to any threats, or evidence, of Russian attacks on Ukraine, and to work with the U.S. on breaking the impasse in talks.

Relations between Russia and the European Union (EU) are frostier than ever. Reasons include disagreements old and new, with Europeans concerned about issues from Moscow’s treatment of opposition activist Alexei Navalny and other dissidents, to its alleged meddling in their elections, to newly surfaced reports of Russian involvement in a 2014 explosion at a Czech munitions depot. Those reports formed the backdrop for a rash of diplomatic expulsions by Prague and other European capitals, on one hand, and Moscow on the other. But it is the continuing war between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian state forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region that remains the sorest point of friction.

Russia raised worries of a substantial escalation in Kyiv and among Ukraine’s Western partners when it massed forces near Ukraine’s borders in March and April. While these anxieties were largely assuaged when Russia started to pull back its forces in late April, the situation as a whole remains fraught. A ceasefire Kyiv and Moscow agreed to in July 2020 has broken down. Negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow are deadlocked. Neither side is taking steps prescribed by the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements that ended the worst of the fighting and were intended to bring peace. The Normandy Format peace process that includes France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine is largely dormant, with no new summit on the horizon. Absent changes, the coming year could bring new problems and new dangers of further outbreaks of violence. The EU, for all its difficulties with Moscow, can and should work with member states and allies to mitigate the risks and seek ways to break the impasse.

To deter future threats to Ukraine and reduce tensions with Moscow, the EU and its member states should:

  • Forge consensus with the U.S. and UK about how they would respond to evidence of Russian threats to attack or actual attacks on Ukraine, focusing on what additional sanctions they would apply and under what circumstances. Options for increasing military pressure should be viewed cautiously, given that they could bring further risks of escalation.
  • For purposes of deterrence, quietly communicate agreed-upon red lines and repercussions to the Kremlin, being careful not to rely on bluffs that Moscow would be likely to call.
  • Encourage Kyiv, on one side, and Moscow and its proxies, on the other, to return to observing the July 2020 ceasefire as a prelude to renewed talks among the Normandy Format countries and the U.S.
  • Work with the Biden administration to create incentives for breaking the long-running impasse in talks, including by delineating, and communicating, a clear plan for gradual, reversible sanctions relief for Russia in response to measurable progress.
  • Develop and propose economic incentives to aid and support Kyiv’s planning for Donbas’s eventual reintegration, to include proposals for restoring social, economic and transport links between government-controlled and separatist-held Donbas.

Political Stalemates

In December 2019, as French, German, Ukrainian and Russian leaders met in Paris to hold their first Normandy Format meeting to advance the Ukrainian peace process in three years, there seemed to be cause for hope. With a new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had averred his commitment to peace both on the campaign trail and upon taking office, the summit might have been a first step on a new path after years of stalemate and disappointment.

A year and a half later, those hopes are foundering. The conflict parties have taken only two of the seven joint steps promised in Paris: Kyiv and the Russian-backed leadership of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Donbas exchanged detainees in December 2019 and April 2020, and Kyiv and Moscow agreed to a ceasefire starting 27 July 2020. But other important steps – including, crucially, disengagement of forces from front lines, demining, particularly around key infrastructure facilities located on the line of separation between Ukrainian and separatist forces, and full access for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission – remain outstanding.

Moreover, even the slim progress made in 2019 and 2020 has begun to unravel. By March 2021, the ceasefire, the most successful of the many reached since the war began, had collapsed. As shelling and sniper fire resumed across the line of separation, a new crisis emerged. Russian troop build-ups near Ukraine in late March and early April sparked fears of a return to large-scale combat. The Kremlin said the soldiers were conducting routine training, but the deployment of paratroopers to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and establishment of a base camp at Voronezh (a few hours’ drive from the Ukrainian border) were nonetheless unusual and, understandably, alarming for Kyiv and its Western allies. When Ukraine asked for help, European countries, the EU, U.S. and UK spoke supportively but took no overt action in response.

At the end of April, ten days after Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden discussed a possible summit in a call, Moscow announced that the troops had completed their training and would be coming home. The announcement helped assuage concerns (although leaving unclear what precisely Moscow’s motives had been), but by then relations between Russia and the West were taking new twists and turns. In mid-April, the Czech Republic made public its findings of Russian involvement in a 2014 explosion at a Czech munitions depot and announced the expulsion of eighteen Russians affiliated with Moscow’s mission in Prague. Further expulsions by both sides ensued, with other European countries also expelling dozens of Russian diplomats. At around the same time, Washington announced its own expulsions of Russian diplomats along with new sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s alleged hack of U.S. government infrastructure through software provided by the SolarWinds company. In response, on 14 May, Russia said it deemed the Czech Republic and the U.S. “unfriendly” countries, curtailing the staff of their diplomatic missions. Then on 19 May, Washington imposed sanctions on a total of thirteen Russian vessels involved in laying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bypass traditional routes for which Russia pays lucrative gas transit fees to Ukraine and pump Russian gas directly to Germany.

Yet amid the rancour there are positive signs. Even as the new U.S. sanctions were announced, when Putin and Biden’s top diplomats met in Iceland in preparation for their possible summit in June, they noted their differences but struck an optimistic tone. Moreover, the Kremlin and Kyiv were exchanging invitations for summits of their own: Zelenskyy invited his Russian counterpart to meet in Donbas and Putin countered with an invitation to Moscow – although only to discuss issues unrelated to the war. Ukraine and Russia confirmed in late May that preparations for a meeting between Putin and Zelenskyy were under way.

But for there to be any chance of progress toward resolving the Donbas conflict, itself necessary for improving relations between Moscow and the West, the parties will need to address certain core areas of disagreement relating to implementation of the Minsk agreements. Among the most contentious is a Minsk requirement that Kyiv grant local autonomy (“special status”) to the separatist-held areas and hold local elections there in exchange for Ukraine regaining control of its eastern border. Ukraine says it cannot run credible polls in these regions until it has reassumed territorial control, and indeed its parliament has prohibited elections without first regaining such control. Russia says Minsk is clear: elections and special status come first, control only afterward. Moving past this fundamental impasse will be hard, but in theory, a deal is possible. The parties might agree, for example, that the OSCE and UN will monitor the border and region as a whole while elections are held, in order to assuage Kyiv’s concerns about their integrity.

The longer the war continues, the more positions harden, and the more difficult concessions seem.

In practice, however, the longer the war continues, the more positions harden, and the more difficult concessions seem. Complicating things further, Moscow sees Donbas-related sanctions as part and parcel of a broader Western pressure campaign, with Ukraine only one component. Russia is particularly rankled by what it perceives as the EU’s interference in its domestic politics. Russian parliamentary elections scheduled for September are likely to be a source of friction alongside the dispute over Navalny, particularly if, as appears likely, the Kremlin escalates its crackdowns on independent media and opposition. European positions may also harden due to forthcoming polls in European countries – notably Germany in September – in which European leaders will likely fear Russian meddling given Moscow’s previous alleged interference. Broader tensions make it all the harder to find mutually acceptable ways forward on Donbas.

Recommendations for the EU and Its Member States

Still, with Russia reversing its troop build-up and Washington interested in a June summit with Moscow, the EU and its member states may have an opportunity to work with the U.S. and UK to develop a joint deterrence strategy and revive the peace process.

Brussels, Washington and London should coordinate a common approach to deterrence in the face of future threats or aggression in Donbas. The first step would be to reach agreement on both red lines and consequences if Russia crosses them. For these purposes, sanctions, for all their limits, remain the primary non-military tool at the West’s disposal. Existing sanctions could be augmented through steps that would curtail lending to certain Russian enterprises, cut off Russian access to the SWIFT banking network or block Russian purchases of sovereign debt on the secondary market. Moscow is likely to be particularly concerned about the possibility of U.S. secondary sanctions, through which the U.S. could block access to the U.S. financial system for third parties that engage in prohibited transactions. The secondary sanctions could have a negative impact on EU member states, however, and risk adding to transatlantic tensions over the cost to European companies of U.S. sanctions on Nord Stream 2. (On the latter front, in a nod to ties with Berlin, the Biden administration waived sanctions on the company behind the pipeline and its chief executive.) Brussels and Washington should reach as good an understanding as possible about when Europe would back U.S. sanctions of this nature.

As for whether military pressure could be useful for purposes of deterrence, the West’s somewhat muffled response to the Russian troop build-up only reinforced awareness on all sides that neither the U.S. nor European countries want to get drawn into conflict in Ukraine. The Western powers should not make bluffs that Russia could well call. They should be extremely cautious about taking or threatening measures that would increase the likelihood of confrontation – such as putting Western advisers on the front line in Ukraine. While ramping up the provision of weapons to Kyiv might be less risky, doing so is not likely to yield the kind of battlefield advantage that would change Moscow’s calculations.

Whatever combination of economic and other measures the EU, U.S. and UK agree upon, they should communicate clearly to Moscow what their red lines are and what the consequences will be for crossing them.

Whatever combination of economic and other measures the EU, U.S. and UK agree upon, they should communicate clearly to Moscow what their red lines are and what the consequences will be for crossing them. Sending the message through quiet rather than public channels may give Moscow more political room to absorb it without reacting counterproductively. To maximise the usefulness of sanctions as leverage, the Western powers should not threaten measures that they would be unwilling or unable to rescind in the event that Russia reverses course.

As the EU and its partners are developing their approach to deterrence, they should also be focusing on easing tensions on the ground and encouraging dialogue. This means getting the parties back to the table, ideally for a near-term summit among the Normandy Four and possibly the U.S. Either before or at the summit, France and Germany could press for a suite of de-escalatory measures: for example, returning to the July 2020 ceasefire; broader and freer access for OSCE ceasefire monitors; a roadmap to restoring civilian freedom of movement across the line of separation; and broader military deconfliction and resumption of prisoner exchanges.

Ideally, over the course of the summit and ensuing negotiations, the EU, U.S. and UK would also present Moscow with incentives for charting a path out of the current standoff. They could, for example – as Crisis Group has argued before – offer the Kremlin a concrete plan to exchange the lifting of specific Minsk-related sanctions (eg, against banks and companies) for specific Russian military and political concessions in Donbas (eg, compromises on the Ukrainian border, disarmament of combatants or flexibility on special status). The proposal would make clear that should Russia or its proxies renege, the sanctions will be reimposed. There is some risk in this course of action: should Russia pocket the concessions and then backslide, Brussels may find it difficult to cobble back together the consensus required for the reimposition of sanctions. But if the U.S. and its European partners are not ready to use sanctions relief to motivate incremental progress by Moscow, the combination of high demands and inflexible tools offers little hope of breaking the deadlock.

Brussels should also work with Kyiv to encourage flexible thinking along the lines suggested above about how to work through the impasse over “special status” and begin planning for the near-term reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk. The latter point is controversial: on one hand, Zelenskyy’s team has rallied to produce a roadmap for reintegration, but on the other, they appear to increasingly favour relegating the task to a distant and speculative future. If Brussels wants to help reverse this tide, it should keep up its promises of an EU economic support package to help rehabilitate the war-torn region, as well as offer plentiful guidance on overhauling Donbas’s fossil fuel-dependent economy. As further preparation for reintegration, Brussels should also maintain pressure on Kyiv to build an independent judiciary and adopt transitional justice legislation that encourages combatants to disarm and provides a framework for the fair trial of accused war criminals on both sides.