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Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine
Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
The Ukraine War: Europe’s Critical Challenge
The Ukraine War: Europe’s Critical Challenge
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.

The Ukraine War: Europe’s Critical Challenge

More than two months ago, the Russian assault on Ukraine transformed a regional conflict into a war that poses the gravest risk to international peace and security in decades. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2022 – Spring Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to keep supporting Kyiv, while averting escalation and laying the groundwork for post-war European security arrangements.

Russia’s military assault on Ukraine, now in its fourteenth week, has deeply unsettled European security and is likely to have profound implications for the EU itself. On 24 February, Russian forces attacked Ukraine from the north, south and east, transforming a simmering eight-year conflict in the country’s eastern Donbas region into a war that arguably poses the gravest risk to international peace and security in decades. Russian forces encountered stiff Ukrainian resistance, soon reinforced by Western-supplied weapons and body armour, forcing Moscow at least to postpone its goals of overthrowing the government in Kyiv and bringing Ukraine back into Moscow’s sphere of influence. Russia now seemingly seeks, in the near term, to maintain control of captured territory connecting Russia to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and to gain land in Donbas beyond what Russian-backed separatists controlled as of 24 February. Even with more limited objectives, however, its forces appear to be struggling along some front lines, though precise battlefield dynamics are hard to gauge. The Kremlin continues to describe Kyiv’s government as “Nazis”, moreover, suggesting that its overall aims have not changed.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric of some leaders in the Western countries that back Ukraine – including EU member states and their transatlantic partners – suggests that their goals in the war have expanded. Western leaders continue to say they will not fight Russia directly, but they are sending heavier weaponry and allocating greater resources for Ukraine. Some hint that their aim is Russia’s strategic defeat, including a Ukrainian victory that recovers for Kyiv all the territory it has lost to Moscow since 2014, Russian reparations payments and war crimes tribunals. This approach risks raising the stakes to where neither side has room for compromise and edging toward an escalation into direct conflict between NATO and Russia.

Since Russia’s invasion, the EU and its member states have faced a difficult balancing act. They have simultaneously sought to support Ukraine while avoiding too grave a risk of escalation. While genuine peace talks appear some way off, European leaders should aim to create, as best possible, incentives for both sides to get to talks and lay the groundwork for greater stability in a European security order that will continue to evolve in the years to come.

As they work toward these goals, the EU and its member states should:

  • Keep sending weapons and non-lethal material and financial assistance to help Ukraine hold the line against Russia’s invasion, but improve oversight regarding those deliveries. EU leaders should also refrain from providing training on Ukrainian soil and continue to avoid engagement of their own or allied, or partner forces in the fight.
     
  • Emphasise publicly that they will follow Kyiv’s lead as to what peace deal or other violence reduction arrangements are acceptable. They should not push Ukraine to agree to anything not in its interests – such as a ceasefire whose terms would lay the ground for a fresh Russian offensive. Nor should they use language suggesting that Ukrainian victory requires Russian acceptance of Kyiv’s sovereignty over all Ukraine’s territory, including Crimea, which some Western leaders have veered toward doing. If battlefield conditions create a situation where Ukraine is better served by a deal that accepts Russian control of some Ukrainian land – still a more than plausible outcome, especially in the case of Crimea – Kyiv should feel supported in taking that deal.
     
  • Think through which of the sanctions levelled against Russia they might lift if there is a deal acceptable to Ukraine; these might include, for example, those that harm ordinary Russians the most.
     
  • Assess forms of closer EU association for Ukraine, which could include better trade and political relations, given that a fast-tracked EU accession process is unlikely, notwithstanding enthusiasm in some quarters for Kyiv’s membership request.
     
  • Continue to welcome and provide for Ukrainian refugees, recognising their specific and gender-differentiated needs, and increase aid to help Kyiv cope with a surging number of internally displaced people.
     

A War Full of Surprises

Russia’s war in Ukraine has confounded early expectations and dealt Moscow a series of setbacks. Most analysts – Ukrainian, Russian and Western – expected Russia’s larger, better-equipped army to rapidly overcome Ukraine’s smaller numbers. Instead, Russian forces turned out to be ill-prepared, quickly demoralised and poorly disciplined – drawing wide condemnation for reports of looting and brutal attacks on civilians. Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, bolstered by Western-supplied anti-tank weapons, air defences such as Stinger missiles, ordnance and body armour, proved determined and resourceful, shattering Russian hopes of an early victory. Within weeks, Russian troops had withdrawn from northern and central Ukraine and redefined their mission. Now, it appears that Russia’s immediate goal is to gain control of the entirety of Donbas and retain the strip of land in the south connecting Crimea to Russia.

The cohesion and extent of [the West's] initial response appeared to exceed expectations.

The West also produced surprises. The cohesion and extent of its initial response appeared to exceed expectations, not just in Moscow, but perhaps also on the part of Western leaders themselves. Partly as a result, Russia’s advance faltered. Admiration for Ukraine’s charismatic president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, accordingly grew in the West, along with revulsion at Russia’s initiation and conduct of the war. To date, Russia has done little beyond issue verbal threats to counter Western action. Western governments have thus found themselves both facing domestic pressure and with the political manoeuvring room to take measures that just months earlier might have seemed fanciful.

One pillar of the Western response is material support for the war effort. NATO has respected certain lines, for example, rejecting Ukrainian requests to impose a “no-fly zone” out of concern that this measure would escalate to direct conflict with Russia. But as Ukraine holds out and its dwindling Soviet-era supplies threaten to hamper its capacity to keep doing so, Western governments are becoming readier to supply increasingly heavy and sophisticated weaponry that requires more training and logistics, and which they had previously held back for fear it might fall into Russian hands. The EU itself has approved the release of €2 billion of weaponry, largely to recompense member states for their bilateral transfers to Ukraine, and coordinated the response to Kyiv’s requests for more. Western states have also provided intelligence, sometimes creating the impression that they are behind some of Russia’s biggest battlefield losses.

Sanctions are another pillar of the Western response. Going far beyond the sanctions levied in 2014 and 2015 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in eastern Ukraine, the EU and U.S. came together around a series of far-reaching new measures. These have, in effect, divorced Russian banks from global financial markets, spurred many Western firms to leave the country and hindered many Russian customers who wish to make transactions abroad. Western countries have frozen about $300 billion worth of Russia’s gold and foreign currency reserves. Germany suspended Russia’s Nord Stream II gas pipeline, and the EU banned new investment in the Russian energy and defence sectors, in addition to placing other limitations on transport and Russian media. Having stopped coal imports, EU member states are discussing a ban on Russian oil. So far, the EU is unlikely to include gas in its sanctions due to concerns about how sustainable that move would be, given how many member states use significant amounts of Russian gas and how much a cutoff could hurt industry and households in those countries. (For its part, the U.S. banned imports of Russian coal, oil and gas in March.) Other sanctions targeted President Vladimir Putin, other senior officials, business leaders close to the Kremlin and their respective families.

Worries of a Wider War

While neither Moscow nor NATO wants war with the other, both sides have used rhetoric and signalling that can only escalate tensions. Moscow has indicated that it sees the Ukraine war as a proxy conflict with the U.S.-led West, which it describes as a puppeteer pulling strings attached to Zelenskyy and his ministers. Increasingly, Russian officials say they are in fact fighting NATO in Ukraine. Western leaders, particularly the EU’s partners in the U.S. and UK, have indicated that they may expect the war to end with war crimes tribunals for Russian officials, and have even hinted at a regime change in Russia. They have also spoken openly about the need to ensure that Russia emerges from this conflict weakened.

From the standpoint of European security, there is a logic to aiming at weakening Russia, reducing European dependency on its energy and commodities, and promising that those responsible for atrocities will be held to account. An enervated Russia would, in theory, be less likely to threaten other countries on the continent or in its neighbourhood. Trying those responsible for horrific abuses would, in addition to providing a measure of justice for the victims, signal a commitment to values that European states see as an enduring strength of theirs.

The perils of escalation are significant.

But the danger of such talk, as war still rages, is that the Kremlin will conclude that Western states aim to destroy Russia’s government, if not Russia itself, increasing the risk that Moscow itself takes more extraordinary measures. The perils of escalation are significant, given that Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, and has repeatedly made barely veiled threats to use it. President Putin commented on the invasion’s first day that anyone who interfered would face “consequences such as they have never seen in their history”.

In reality, the odds of nuclear use remain low, but they are still too high to be cavalier about. Russia’s nuclear doctrine permits using a weapon only in the face of an existential threat to the state, although Western intelligence agencies wonder whether in fact the bar for the Kremlin would be lower (and indeed states are not always bound by their doctrine when push comes to shove). In terms of what might push Moscow over the edge of nuclear use, it seems unlikely that battlefield failures alone would do so, as that would dramatically increase the risk of escalation with NATO – precisely what Russia wishes to prevent – and serve no direct military purpose that could not be accomplished with conventional weapons. By contrast, should NATO enter the war, that would certainly qualify as an existential threat, as would, most likely, a concerted effort by other countries to forcibly change Russia’s government. Although Western governments have thus far avoided direct involvement, the escalated rhetoric comes with risks – particularly if it leads Western states to espouse or imply goals that can be accomplished only with such direct involvement, for instance, if Ukraine proves unable to decisively push back Russian forces on its own.

A parallel risk is that Moscow escalates against NATO, risking in turn a stronger NATO response. Faced with ever more substantial Western arms deliveries to Ukraine and training missions to enable Ukrainian soldiers to use those weapons, the Kremlin could increasingly see itself as at war with the West in more than just rhetoric, leading it to strike targets in NATO member states rather than Ukraine. While such action, too, is unlikely at present, any such attack would likely compel a response from NATO, rendering Moscow’s fears self-fulfilling. If Western trainers deploy to Ukrainian soil and are struck by Russian weapons, moreover, NATO members may also feel bound to retaliate.

What the EU Can Do

Broadly speaking, EU policies, together with those of other Western states, should seek to balance the imperatives of supporting Ukraine, minimising risks of an escalation into direct NATO-Russia war and creating incentives for an end – even if that starts as a temporary pause – to the war on terms Kyiv can accept. Thus far, the low-level negotiations that have continued sporadically throughout the conflict seem unlikely to lead to a lasting solution. Each of Kyiv and Moscow continues to believe that gains on the battlefield can force the other to back down and acquiesce to greater concessions. But, at some point, both may determine that their interests are better served by seeking some form of settlement, even if they appear far from reaching that conclusion today. The EU and its member states can take several measures to keep the danger of escalation down, encourage an end to violence and prepare for what comes next.

It is critical that European governments avoid measures that run too high a risk of widening the war.

The first relates to the nature of weapons supplies. The continued provision of conventional weapons to Kyiv helps position Ukraine to secure more palatable terms when it and Moscow are ready for serious peace negotiations. At the same time, it is critical that European governments avoid measures that run too high a risk of widening the war.

As they continue to provide assistance, donor countries can do better in how they provide and account for it. They should continue to avoid placing trainers or other forces on the ground in Ukraine. They should also keep training efforts as quiet as possible, wherever they take place. Accountability for weapons deliveries is important, given the vast quantity of armaments that have entered Ukraine since February. Already, Crisis Group has heard reports of diversion of both lethal and non-lethal supplies for personal gain. With volunteers engaged to a great extent in the delivery of both military and civilian assistance, foreign partners like the EU Advisory Mission in Ukraine can work with local civil society organisations to develop and enforce mechanisms for tracking deliveries. Although monitoring this assistance while fighting rages remains a major hurdle, the EU should work with Ukrainian authorities to ensure all efforts are made to keep their weapon stocks in check and prevent corrupt practices that will keep assistance from reaching those who need it. Brussels should reinforce the monitoring of its supplies by verifying the traceability of sensitive material, Ukraine’s stockpile management and respect for international law.

When it comes to the language they use to talk about the war, the EU and other Western states should emphasise that any arrangement for ending it that is acceptable to Kyiv will be acceptable to them too. They should not pressure Ukraine to agree to anything that is not in its interests, such as a ceasefire whose terms would leave Russia in a favourable position for a new phase of hostilities. But, importantly, they should also avoid suggesting that Moscow will need to accept Kyiv’s sovereignty over the whole of Ukraine’s territory, including Crimea, before Kyiv can consider itself to have prevailed. If Kyiv concludes that its interests are better served by a deal that accepts Russian control of some Ukrainian land – something it may well do – the West should back it in that assessment.

As for Moscow, while thus far signs from the Kremlin of compromise are sparse, it would still be worth the EU laying out which of the sanctions crippling Russia’s economy could be eased once Moscow has signed and fulfilled a deal acceptable to Ukraine – perhaps, in some narrow cases, in exchange for progress on, say, enabling Ukrainian grain to safely transit through the Black Sea for export. Generally speaking, EU sanctions, and those of the West more broadly, fall into four rough, overlapping categories: those punishing Russia as a whole; those punishing individuals perceived to be responsible for or strongly linked to the war; economic and trade restrictions that deprive Russia of revenue; and similar constraints that weaken Russia’s strategic capacity, including that of its military.

Many of the penalties in the third and fourth categories seem likely to outlast the war: those intended to limit Russian military capacity, such as constraints on Russian import of certain technologies, appear set to be long-term European policy; some economic measures, which fall in the third category, particularly those that also serve to wean European states off of Russian oil and gas, are also likely to stay. The latter reflect a profound rethink of energy security in Europe that is leading to long-term investment in renewables and new liquified natural gas infrastructure, as well as contracts with alternative suppliers.

Sanctions cutting Russia off from global financial markets ... could be put on the table.

But the first and second types of sanctions – punitive measures against the Russian state and certain individuals – could be eased or lifted in exchange for specified Russian actions. Arguably, too, sanctions cutting Russia off from global financial markets – which fall in the fourth category, because they would hamper military rebuilding after the war but also hit Russia’s economy as a whole and punish ordinary Russians – could be put on the table. Governments could also encourage private firms that have left Russia to return, at least in some cases. Improved access to foreign transactions would make it easier for Russians to purchase VPNs, for example, increasing their exposure to non-Kremlin sources of information, and for the government’s opponents who have left Russia to establish themselves abroad.

European states must also start thinking about how a deal on Ukraine might further reshape the security order and define their own terms for how to make that safer. Already, the changes, such as the Finnish and Swedish applications to join NATO, are profound. In reality, Ukraine and broader European security are likely to remain interdependent issues for the foreseeable future. Although a deal between Moscow and Kyiv will probably be necessary to end the war, it will also likely be precarious, with both sides frustrated by the concessions they made. The dangers will likely grow in the months and years to follow, as Russia, Ukraine and European states build up forces and capabilities with the aim of deterring one another or, in Russia’s case, having the option to relaunch an offensive.

Any agreement should thus be accompanied by a broader diplomatic effort involving the major military powers in Europe, including the U.S., to seek a wider settlement. It will inevitably be tremendously challenging to negotiate, given the collapse in Russia-West relations to date and the near certainty that any deal over Ukraine would likely make the bad blood worse. Still, an agreement that redefines the parameters for weapons deployments, exercises and activities across the continent would be a sustainable approach. While such a deal seems like a remote prospect, it is not too early for European leaders to start talking behind closed doors about what it might entail and what they might be willing to limit in exchange for limits on Russia.

Relatedly, European leaders will also need to continue managing Ukraine’s expectations for its future relationship with the EU. Even though President Zelenskyy’s request for membership met with some enthusiasm, a fast-tracked EU accession process remains contentious among European leaders, difficult to define, and therefore unlikely. Still, prospects for increased cooperation between Brussels and Kyiv might be part of Ukraine’s own assessment of elements that make settlement of the war more acceptable. The EU should look at other forms of closer association for Ukraine, which could include better trade and political relations, while not over-promising with respect to EU membership.  Whatever the EU does with regard to Ukraine will shape expectations and policies, with regard to other aspiring members, including Georgia, Moldova and the countries of the Western Balkans.

In the more immediate future, Western countries will need to continue pouring in humanitarian aid. They should continue financially supporting both Ukrainian refugees who now live elsewhere in Europe and the large population of internally displaced people in Ukraine itself – many of whom will not have homes to return to. Because most of the refugees are women, host countries should pay special attention to their needs. The EU can assist host countries and local women’s groups in providing adequate health care, including support for those who seek aid in getting urgent access to sexual and reproductive health services. Host countries can also protect refugees from trafficking and other forms of gender-differentiated abuse they might encounter and ensure decent child care as refugees seek employment. At the same time, the EU should keep working on the financial dimension of its humanitarian assistance. The release of €3.5 billion to help member states cope with the needs of displaced Ukrainians seems insufficient, as the war uproots more and more people.