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Ukraine Flare-Up Lays Bare Fears in Europe’s East
Ukraine Flare-Up Lays Bare Fears in Europe’s East
To Reunite Ukraine, Kyiv Must Overcome Its Own Prejudices
To Reunite Ukraine, Kyiv Must Overcome Its Own Prejudices
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.

People carry national flags on a bridge while forming a human chain across the Dnipro River during celebrations for Unity Day in Kyiv, Ukraine, on 22 January 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

To Reunite Ukraine, Kyiv Must Overcome Its Own Prejudices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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