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Ukraine Flare-Up Lays Bare Fears in Europe’s East
Ukraine Flare-Up Lays Bare Fears in Europe’s East
Isolation of Post-Soviet Conflict Regions Narrows the Road to Peace
Isolation of Post-Soviet Conflict Regions Narrows the Road to Peace
A tank from the Ukrainian Forces is stationed outside a building in the flashpoint eastern town of Avdiivka, just north of the pro-Russian rebels' de facto capital of Donetsk, on 2 February 2017. AFP/Alexey Filippov

Ukraine Flare-Up Lays Bare Fears in Europe’s East

Renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine is quickly turning into a litmus test of Russia’s intentions in backing Ukrainian separatist rebels, and the real willingness of the West, in particular the United States, to support Kyiv. Fears over Washington’s wavering may also cause positions to harden in the protracted conflicts in Europe’s East, most immediately in Georgia. 

Renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine in the first weeks of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has laid bare fears in Europe's East about Russia’s declared intent to restore its former dominance in the region – and about whether or not the U.S. will continue to provide a counterweight to Moscow’s assertiveness.

Fighting that broke out on 29 January in eastern Ukraine, around the Kyiv government-controlled industrial town of Avdiivka and separatist-controlled railway hub of Yasynuvata, has continued for six days. Violence has also swept from this traditional hotspot across the whole Donetsk region: the Special Monitoring Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has registered more than 7,000 ceasefire violations in the area on 1 February alone. 

Some things seem clear for now: most of the fighting is being carried out at a distance, using artillery and rockets. But neither side has crossed the front line and tried to seize territory, which could fatefully undermine the Minsk peace process. As they have done in the past, both sides seem to be testing their adversaries’ resolve. Kyiv probably hopes that the fighting will once again convince their U.S. and European backers that any reduction of support would be disastrous. Moscow is probably trying to remind Kyiv that it is not going to give up the separatist entities. As usual, however, politicians are scoring points at the price of civilian deaths and further destruction of vital infrastructure in the war zone.

The current fighting has destroyed power lines and water systems, producing a new humanitarian emergency. People in and around Avdiivka, long among the most directly affected by the conflict, are without electricity. Around 1 million people in the region have suffered from disrupted water supplies or lack of heating in temperatures that are well below freezing. More water infrastructure damage could lead to an environmental disaster if chlorine supplies were to leak. 

The two sides trade accusations on who is to blame for the new violence in the nearly three-year-old conflict, which has killed almost 10,000 people and pits Ukrainian government forces against Russian-backed separatists in a band of territory across eastern Ukraine. Rebels, and their backers in Moscow, may simply be testing how far they can go and how much Western support the Ukrainians have.

Kyiv’s positions are bound to get more entrenched if U.S. support weakens. If the U.S. were to lift sanctions on Moscow relating to its actions since 2014 in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, some in Kyiv have informally told Crisis Group that Ukraine’s only choice may be to escalate. 

An official close to the Minsk talks said, and many commentators agree, that the escalation is directly linked to shifts in the geostrategic environment since the election of President Trump in November. The local, regional and geostrategic levels at which conflicts in Europe’s east play out are all directly linked, as must be any resolution. 

Ukraine, which seeks to integrate into Euro-Atlantic political and economic institutions, was concerned about lessening support from Washington even before the new U.S. administration took office. The European Union’s reach is weakening as its own challenges grow, and Russia is seen as undermining Western unity on sanctions by multiple means, including both open and covert support to populist and nationalist parties ahead of key 2017 elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands. In late 2016, a former senior Kyiv official told Crisis Group that Ukraine feels abandoned, especially on security matters. Kyiv, for its part, could have done more to increase Ukraine’s resilience, including by addressing corruption that is chipping away support for President Petro Poroshenko’s government.

The dangers for Kyiv increase if it loses resolute Western support, and especially if the U.S. wavers or drops its backing for continued sanctions on Moscow. President Trump has hinted that a deal is possible if Moscow cooperates on the anti-terrorism front. Trump refused to rule out the dropping of the sanctions in a press conference with United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May on 27 January. The next day, the first call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin covered opportunities for closer cooperation, and reportedly touched on the war in Ukraine with no public reference to sanctions.  U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s 2 February remarks to the Security Council stressed that the U.S. would not lift the sanctions until Crimea is returned to Ukraine. Her words need to be backed up by President Trump’s unambiguous statements and actions. Otherwise, the U.S. role will remain open to speculation, and continued uncertainty will further increase tensions.

Any more general escalation of fighting would have unpredictable political repercussions throughout Europe. Ukrainian families have borne the brunt of displacement of 3.8 million people within the country, but their capacity is overstretched. Those displaced internally today could well become the next wave of refugees pushed into Central and Western Europe. 

From the Western Balkans to Central Asia, the wider geostrategic shifts are creating insecurity and entrenching positions. Georgia is a good example. Its conflicts have been protracted: the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have defied Tbilisi’s control for over twenty years, but Moscow’s direct role reached a new level with recognition of their independence in 2008 after the Russian-Georgian war.  

Hopes rose that there could be some progress towards reconciliation in the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian disputes after the Georgian Dream party overwhelmingly won last autumn’s parliamentary election. The ruling party’s constitutional majority has provided space to advance its long-discussed plan to reach out to the Abkhaz and Ossetians and start addressing divisive issues. Meanwhile, Tbilisi is trying to cope internationally with what it sees as Russian occupation, which Moscow has shown no interest in discontinuing. 

Any steps to address local conflict legacies are welcome. Any future settlement must address longstanding grievances in mutually acceptable ways and build bridges between divided societies. But this is only possible if Georgia is securely fixed and supported within a predictable international framework that will help address its own grievances vis-à-vis Russia.

If the Ukrainian and Georgian governments feel that they cannot genuinely trust the West to protect them against Russia, they are likely to become increasingly nervous and unpredictable.  They may also be less willing to invest in reconciliation with those living in breakaway areas, whom they too often see as willing Kremlin proxies.

There is an immediate need for all international actors to prevent the present escalation in eastern Ukraine from getting out of hand and to address the growing humanitarian needs of the affected population. The primary responsibility for this lies with Russia. At the same time, however, the U.S. should join the European Union in giving their partners in the East strong reassurances of firm backing. The West must make clear that it will not compromise on their territorial integrity — nor will it hypocritically say the right things while in fact looking away, which is perhaps more plausible and scarier. With the U.S. course being far from certain, the EU’s confident and undivided support is more important than ever.

If Western backing is solid, Ukraine and Georgia – each with their different conflicts and in different ways – may have the geopolitical space to start addressing existing local divides. This is not a given and would not alone deliver a full-fledged settlement – for that, Moscow would have to change its calculations and course.  But without Western backing, Ukraine and Georgia will find themselves getting ever more deeply enmeshed in insoluble conflicts, with dire consequences for affected populations and increasing risks for security on the continent.

Spring rains cover the Rukhi bridge, located on the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict divide, before much needed renovation works began in summer 2016. CRISIS GROUP

Isolation of Post-Soviet Conflict Regions Narrows the Road to Peace

Unresolved conflicts and breakaway territories divide five out of six of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership countries, most of them directly backed by the Russian Federation. But a policy of isolating the people living in these conflict regions narrows the road to peace.

The lung specialist I consulted for bronchitis recently in Abkhazia exuded competence, warmth and the poetic courtesy of Soviet-era intelligentsia. She apologised for the hospital as she flicked through a notebook from a year-old seminar on the latest treatment protocols in Russia. She said she had been lucky to attend the briefing: most doctors from Abkhazia or other conflict or breakaway regions in the former Soviet space do not learn about modern treatments. Most teachers have little access to new international best practices and methods. Police still work according to old manuals.

A policy called “isolation” by residents of such regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have sought to secede from Georgia, and the Nagorno-Karabakh region at the heart of the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia – severely restricts their links with the world and contributes to a sense of living under siege, sometimes for over two decades. A tendency toward isolating populations is in place also in eastern Ukraine for separatist Donetsk and Lugansk. Transnistria, the breakaway region of Moldova, has more trade and travel ties but development has not followed. In all these regions, different though they are, isolation harms the people, creates resentment and causes positions to harden.

In all these regions, different though they are, isolation harms the people, creates resentment and causes positions to harden.

A leading politician in Georgia, speaking privately, recently explained the de-isolation dilemma: those who want to engage the populations in conflict regions more substantively and let the world do so – without recognising their self-proclaimed independence, of course – fear this would “cement de facto realities on the ground”, leaving no incentive for the breakaway entities “to come back” to what they regard as their former countries. On the other hand, isolation proponents wish to put pressure on the breakaway regions, or simply take revenge on them. In the words of a Georgian architect of the approach: “they have made their bed, let them lie in it, whatever that brings.”

Changing isolation-minded approaches is considered perilous by central governments like Tbilisi, Kyiv and Chisinau, which lay claim to these territories. They focus, understandably, on the danger of Russia’s economic and military backing for them. In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku is angry about the breakaway region’s links with Yerevan and the Armenian diaspora. The central governments fear that support for the people in these conflict regions might translate into their acquisition of resources to reinforce their separatism. They also worry that allowing increased engagement with the outside world is a slippery slope toward the very recognition of these territories that they have sought to prevent.

These conflicts in Europe’s east are unlikely to be resolved soon. They play out at different levels – geostrategic, regional and local – all of which are stuck and have in the past years seen a deterioration. Formal conflict resolution processes can at best manage the conflicts for now, and in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh even that is not easy. Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan form part of the European Union’s (EU) “Eastern Partnership” – along with Belarus, which has no such conflict. But although the EU would willingly engage with the trapped populations of their breakaway regions, of course without their recognition, there is little diplomatic space for this.

It is hard for governments that have lost control to devise the right approach to breakaway entities, especially when a big power supports that entity militarily, economically and socially or even acknowledges its claim to independence, such as in case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Nevertheless, isolation policies tend to forget the ordinary people, whose choices and calculations matter, and local initiatives can present opportunities for progress towards settlements. Opening up these societies to alternatives – to the degree possible given Russia’s involvement in the regions and also their own concerns about Western political agendas - by building professional, educational and business links, irrespective of political status, can improve lives and prepare long-term conflict transformation.

When a Passport is Not a Passport

Work being carried out on Rukhi bridge, located on the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict divide. A long overdue facelift for the bridge started in summer 2016. CRISIS GROUP

Isolation policies have many faces and are rarely so named, since few would openly underwrite an approach that curtails human contacts. So what do they feel like in the conflict regions?

Travel is restricted. I met a young Abkhaz scientist who would have wished to study in Germany. A pair of newlyweds would have loved to experience Italy’s culture. A South Ossetian professor wanted help to attend a Hungarian archaeological conference. A Nagorno-Karabakh businessman was interested in European brandy-making. A fortunate few could afford travel to Europe for medical help. All these people know it is not on the cards.

In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, people mostly obtain Russian passports from consulates created after Moscow recognised their unilaterally declared independence in 2008. Tbilisi and much of the international community consider these passports illegal. Visas are put in them rarely, and mostly in special cases, meaning that most Abkhaz and Ossetians can only travel to Russia.

As an alternative, Tbilisi developed “status-neutral travel documents” in 2011-12, but the idea got little traction among people from the conflict regions. Most did not accept the Georgia country code on them, or traveling to the Tbilisi-controlled territory to acquire them. The divide is deep and loyalties matter.

This is also why many in Abkhazia also say it is too optimistic to expect large numbers to take Georgian passports when Tbilisi finally receives the visa-free regime with the EU expected by year’s end. Abkhazia’s own de facto foreign passport is considered illegal by Georgia and not recognised by others, except Russia and the other three countries that recognise it. Some legal experts argue that if used purely for identity, that document would not imply recognition. But since Russia annexed Crimea, the appetite in the West for imaginative solutions is minimal, not to speak of migration concerns.

Nagorno-Karabakh residents mostly hold an Armenian passport with a serial number tied to Karabakh residence into which Western embassies will rarely stamp visas. Azerbaijan also keeps a watchful eye for those who may represent Karabakh abroad even in apolitical civil society forums. Political hurdles block some much-needed dialogue, and even overshadow sports and culture. Would a football team representing a breakaway republic abroad be a sports enterprise or a political statement – or both?

Abkhaz register in Russia and Karabakh Armenians register in Armenia, though the latter get regular passports and can travel more easily. But this forces them deeper into political dependency on third actors, and further away from those they would need to be addressing to reach a long-term settlement.

The Sukhumi to Moscow train, passing through Novyi Afon station in Abkhazia. CRISIS GROUP

Abkhaz from all walks of life – intellectuals from Sukhumi, war veterans from Gudauta, youths looking for jobs in the ancient monastery town of Novyi Afon on the coast – spoke of frustration at exclusion from the Europe they feel they belong to. Many call it a human rights violation that their visa applications are not even considered. However, the considerations have less to do with human rights than with politics of the conflict. But political hurdles also mean there could be space for pragmatic solutions.

Transnistria, perhaps because there is no prominent ethnic component, is a rare post-Soviet conflict that evidences some pragmatism.

Although a part of the population holds Russian passports, some also have Ukrainian and even Romanian passports, and a number of residents have Moldovan passports, which became more attractive with the visa-free EU access gained in 2014. But these solutions are hard to replicate.

Holding Back Education

Education and healthcare work have been held back in the conflict regions, where infrastructure was destroyed and post-war dilapidation followed. Like the Abkhaz doctor, professionals struggle to keep their knowledge current.

Education and healthcare work have been held back in the conflict regions, where infrastructure was destroyed and post-war dilapidation followed.

Russian social and economic development and military aid supports Abkhazia, Ossetia and Transnistria. Armenia and its diaspora assist Nagorno-Karabakh. But support for human development is fitful. Russians occasionally invite doctors and teachers for training. Armenians seem more systematic about aiding Nagorno-Karabakh professionals. To a small degree, international organisations also help in health and education, but they are careful to avoid classical, long-term development strategies that could get them into political trouble. 

Regional governments should give more space to allow for external actors like the EU to provide more professional training and exchanges, locally and in Europe, without raising excessive central government concerns. Better trained, more empowered doctors, teachers and police would produce a more competent, better-adjusted population, whatever the political future.

The environment is another apolitical sphere where the need for basic technology and know-how are high. Waste water management and garbage disposal need investment, especially after a generation of neglect. An ex-leader admitted that this could improve the Black Sea coast, shared by six countries and Abkhazia’s greatest tourist attraction. Engagement would benefit everyone, irrespective of geo-political disputes.

It is local people who must buy into settlement processes, but a new generation has come of age in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh knowing no Georgians or Azerbaijanis on the other side of the front lines and considering them enemies. Their world may be smaller thanks to the internet but it is also very far away due to isolation. In eastern Ukraine, a propaganda war is working to deepen the polarisation.

The isolation leads to entrenched self-sufficiency and saps any appetite for developing links across divides or recalibrating calculations about the conflicts. Yet, it is such links that can ultimately work to restore the ripped social fabric in eastern Ukraine or, in Karabakh, inspire some rethinking of the cost of conflict, and pave the way to enable compromise and sustainable transformation.

Economies in Limbo

One of Sukhumi’s Black Sea piers; some piers host cafés and restaurants. CRISIS GROUP

Among conflict-region residents, there are always complaints about the lack of jobs and the attendant ills, from depression to drugs. Shadow business exists across borders, maintaining contacts but creating vested interests that perpetuate the conflicts. In the Georgian-Abkhaz context, there is for instance trade in the local cash-crop, hazelnuts. In eastern Ukraine, the scale is larger: coal from separatist areas goes, at least partly, to Kyiv-controlled Ukraine. Corruption, locals admit, is rampant. The term “kontraband” is used in all the conflict regions to describe informal trade that includes alcohol, tobacco and even drugs.

While shadow business generally finds a way, developing local small and medium-sized enterprises is an uphill struggle. Investor confidence is low but the bigger hurdles are tied to politics: business cooperation with entities in conflict regions quickly hits status and legal issues. Georgia’s 2008 Law on Occupied Territories aimed to protect the country’s territorial integrity by penalising, among others, businesses with actors in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tbilisi has also sought to block investment. Ukraine is preparing a law on occupation.

Transnistria is again unique: textile production provides income and has helped ease disputes. The output, large enough to support meaningful export, gives Tiraspol an incentive to back the application to Transnistria of Moldova’s free trade deal with the EU. 

There is no similar large-scale business interest in Abkhazia or South Ossetia, which also have tendencies to self-isolate as a result of the conflict. South Ossetia seals its boundaries with Georgia, and there are few commercial exchanges. Abkhaz businessmen say registering on the Tbilisi side of the divide would be a non-starter. Even to test whether pragmatic solutions can be found to address legal considerations and legacies alike would require developing production capacities in these forgotten regions, which comes back to investment.

Abkhazia’s main economic focus has traditionally been tourism and agriculture. Pre-war, an older leader said, the territory supplied the Soviet Union with half the tangerines which Turkey now ships to Russia. After the 1990s conflict, both sectors broke down. Tangerine orchards were not maintained and nearly 75 per cent of their capacity was lost; tourism suffered too, although today, Abkhaz sources say, 1.5 million people visit yearly, mainly from Russia. Finding a way to facilitate investment needed to boost small and medium business in agriculture would not only create jobs, but also help open up a society that has felt besieged.

A small business in Gali, near the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict divide. CRISIS GROUP

Nagorno-Karabakh is in practice increasingly integrated into the Armenian economy. For instance, an Armenian producer grows some of his tobacco in Karabakh and completes the cigarettes in Armenia. No exchange is likely across the heavily-mined line of contact with Azerbaijan, however, until a political framework is found. Baku makes clear its strongly negative reaction to any outside investment in the breakaway territory’s development. 

When political solutions to the conflicts are found, major investment will be needed to rebuild the conflict regions. But for now, the question is how best to develop small-and medium-scale businesses that can improve local lives, open horizons and might create productive links across the divides.

What Engagement Could Do

Summertime on Sukhumi's seaside promenade. CRISIS GROUP

So how can isolated regions be opened up without crossing the red line of territorial-integrity? It requires Tbilisi, Kyiv, Chisinau and Baku to consider a shift in their thinking about affected populations, as opposed to thinking about the de facto leaderships in place in the conflict regions. Steps like offering free health care to people from separatist Donbas; prioritising education opportunities abroad for Abkhaz and Ossetians; developing professional capacities of Karabakh Armenian teachers would be a good start.

The EU has resources and frameworks to help: in 2007, it offered a creative “engagement-without-recognition” policy for Georgia’s breakaway entities. The 2008 war changed the landscape, however. Georgia then favored a restrictive line that in practice limited much engagement; the 2014 annexation of Crimea made the context more sensitive. However, the framework is there and could be repurposed for pragmatic, apolitical solutions there and in other conflict regions.

Encouraging conflict-region students to study at European universities, despite visa and diploma recognition issues, would be an important start. Other academic cooperation would also be useful, such as inviting more scholars for conferences and academic exchanges.

Offering apolitical professionals from conflict regions training for new qualifications abroad would do much good. Doctors specialised in chronic disease management, infectious diseases, trauma medicine and psychology and teachers might benefit most. Farmers learning modern farming techniques could boost the local agricultural sectors.

Engaging the conflict regions in status-neutral discussion of environmental issues – waste water treatment, garbage management and timber extraction – and helping to address them in practice, is equally urgent. Sustainable energy experts could help optimise the use of energy.

Supporting small-and medium-sized enterprises in agriculture, tourism, service or water production could build new constituencies with forward-looking interests and a wider frame of reference.

While comprehensive political solutions seem distant, engaging populations in the conflict regions can help break their isolation and thus create a much-needed peace resource.

Local and regional conflict grievances would still need to be addressed, but they would not be the sole focus. While comprehensive political solutions seem distant, engaging populations in the conflict regions can help break their isolation and thus create a much-needed peace resource.

The treatment prescribed by my Abkhaz doctor worked well. But many of her colleagues, especially the younger ones, crave more learning. Without a more open road to it and the other advantages of contact with the outside world, the populations of the breakaway regions will remain trapped ever more firmly in their isolated status quo.