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Ukraine Flare-Up Lays Bare Fears in Europe’s East
Ukraine Flare-Up Lays Bare Fears in Europe’s East
Ukraine’s New Diplomatic Battlefronts: U.S. Weapons, UN Peacekeepers
Ukraine’s New Diplomatic Battlefronts: U.S. Weapons, UN Peacekeepers
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.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis walks past honour guards during a welcoming ceremony in Kyiv, Ukraine, on 24 August 2017. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Ukraine’s New Diplomatic Battlefronts: U.S. Weapons, UN Peacekeepers

The front lines between the Ukrainian army and Moscow-backed forces in eastern Ukraine may be static but see frequent and violent firefights. Diplomatic manoeuvering over new U.S. lethal weapons for Kyiv risks aggravating the conflict and Russia’s UN peacekeeping proposal could prove a distraction from a genuine solution.

Washington is considering providing Kyiv with lethal weapons, worrying many residents of eastern Ukraine – and not just separatist rebels or pro-Russian sympathisers. “Most people here don’t think about what these weapons would mean in practice – but of course I am scared”, an outspoken city council member generally loyal to Kyiv told me in Severodonetsk. The town has been Kyiv’s administrative centre for the Luhansk oblast since 2014 when its main city and former administrative centre, Luhansk, fell into Russia-backed rebel hands.

Another new dimension to the international struggle over Ukraine are competing proposals from Moscow and Kyiv for a new UN peacekeeping operation that would keep armed forces apart in the main conflict areas in eastern Ukraine. So far, however, it is unclear whether these are schemes designed to sow confusion or genuinely intended to lead to a separation of forces.

Not much is known either about what weapons the U.S. might provide to Ukraine, although media reports suggest it could be a $50 million package featuring shoulder-mounted Javelin anti-tank missiles. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis reconfirmed U.S. backing for Ukraine’s territorial integrity on a visit to Kyiv on 24 August, a welcome signal of support after the uncertainties of the early days of the Trump administration. At the same time, Mattis said the U.S. was reviewing the provision of lethal weapons. President Trump’s approval of any arms deal would be a sharp change of direction after years of refusal by the Obama administration.

Providing lethal weapons would do little if anything to change the situation on the ground or deter the most frequent kind of military action now taking place ... .

Opinion is sharply divided over what impact – military or political – the provision of lethal weapons would have on a war that has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014. Sceptics in this highly polarised debate cannot be written off merely as Russia appeasers; the military and political pressure such an arms deal could provide is limited. This is why it is all the more important to consider how the lethal arms provision would affect the humanitarian situation on the ground.

Meaningful Defence or Pouring Oil on the Fire?

In military terms, those in favour say the weaponry would be solely defensive and would improve Kyiv’s chances to push back against Russia’s continued aggression in eastern Ukraine. They say the arms package would allow Ukraine’s armed forces to face the volatile situation along the line of separation with more confidence and the most optimistic argue the mere presence of such weaponry would deter any attempts by Russian and separatist forces to shift the front line and acquire more territory. The newly-appointed U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, has dismissed the Obama-era argument that supplying weaponry to Kyiv would likely provoke an escalation by the Kremlin, calling the logic “backwards” and stressing deterrence.

Those who oppose such a move warn it would give Kyiv little military advantage or deterrence capability. First, they point to the current situation on the ground. The conflict generally is stable: positions along the line of separation are static and neither side is pushing for more territory, even if the sides have moved farther into the so-called grey zone over the past months. But there are still frequent and heavy exchanges of fire, which claim both military and civilian casualties. Some fear that this deadly stalemate could settle into protracted conflict, as in other disputes in Russia’s neighbourhood. But providing lethal weapons would do little if anything to change the situation on the ground or deter the most frequent kind of military action now taking place, the tactical use of rockets and other artillery to test the adversary’s resolve.

The most commonly discussed weapon – Javelin anti-tank missiles – illustrates this point. Kyiv first asked its partners for these portable missiles in 2014 when battles were raging and they arguably could have strengthened Ukraine’s positions. But today, provision of Javelins would constitute little more than political symbolism. As a Western diplomat commented: “Kyiv wants a decisive show of support from the West. Whether this is the right form now is not relevant: Ukraine has been wedded to this request for the past three years, so backing down is politically inopportune. Getting the weapons will be a powerful signal”.

Tactical military escalation is hardly the answer to a conflict that has no military solution.

Opponents of the lethal weapons package point to another issue, which relates to broader strategic calculations. Pouring $50 million worth of lethal arms into an already heavily militarised conflict zone likely will be met by matching Russian support for the rebels. The result would be an increasingly militarised zone of conflict, and more fighting. This is why Europeans generally have pushed against such a decision, with the exception, among NATO allies, of Lithuania, though many provide other forms of military aid. One could argue that the West should give Kyiv the weaponry it needs to take on the rebels and their Russian supporters. But this would be a risky, costly and uncertain gamble, and something for which few if any Western countries have an appetite.

That Ukraine has the right to defend itself is beyond dispute. Kyiv has been understandably unhappy about its Western partners’ emphasis on strengthening the government’s long-term resilience rather than its military arsenal. “We feel left alone with Russia and don’t see the focus on resilience as something that is helping us”, a Ukrainian security analyst told me in June. But tactical military escalation is hardly the answer to a conflict that has no military solution. Under the circumstances, the West can be most effective by maintaining sanctions on Russia while helping Ukraine build robust institutions and professionalise its armed forces.

Encouraging Negotiations or More Conflict?

The political, not the military, impact of providing lethal weapons is the real issue. Here too there are stark differences between assessments of how it would affect negotiations. Supporters claim provision of these weapons would strengthen Ukraine’s hand in the Normandy Format and Trilateral Contact Group negotiations, the main settlement venues for the conflict, giving Kyiv a better chance to achieve stronger security and political outcomes.

But others consider this too optimistic. Critics, and not only pro-Russian ones, warn that providing lethal weapons could further aggravate a zero-sum negotiation process that has failed to address issues central to a future settlement. “Power and perceptions of power are used as a negotiating chip in the talks”, commented a senior diplomat involved with the process, adding that neither side can afford to give in to a show of force and therefore each would respond with counter-measures of its own. Indeed, ever since active fighting for territorial gains ceased, the application of force by one side or the other has never helped efforts to end the conflict. Such a logic arguably could change if the balance of power were to shift substantially. But that does not appear to be in the cards for the foreseeable future.

A lethal weapons package that Russia could easily match is unlikely to have any political impact. It will not address the imbalance between Ukraine’s and Russia’s military capacities, nor the mismatch between the level of Western and Russian interest in Ukraine. The West does not want to engage in an armed proxy confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, a reality both Moscow and Kyiv understand. While the provision of lethal weapons could boost Ukraine’s confidence and tactical posture in the talks, it is unlikely to change their course, even if accompanied by a strong push by the West for diplomatic progress.

“Beating down the Temperature”

The conflict’s centre of gravity is not in eastern Ukraine, but that is where the situation is most unstable. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission reports anything from dozens to thousands of ceasefire violations each day. Ceasefire commitments periodically are renewed – at Christmas, Easter, for the harvest or the start of the school year – to give those living in the conflict zone a sense of normalcy. But these pauses invariably fizzle out, making way for new hostilities.

Constant insecurity aggravates the humanitarian situation. Front line villages are especially vulnerable given the intermixing of civilians with armed actors on both sides. Shelling of vital infrastructure is common. Interruptions of water and electricity supplies heighten the crisis, especially in the summer and winter months. Infrastructure also suffers from tremors caused by recurrent shelling and needs frequent repair.

While the provision of lethal weapons could boost Ukraine’s confidence and tactical posture in the talks, it is unlikely to change their course ... .

“Windows of silence”, or humanitarian ceasefires, have been hard to negotiate, although they periodically allow repair teams to weld leaking pipes or reconnect broken wires. Recent rounds of talks offer hope for establishing safety zones around key infrastructure hubs, such as the Donestk Filtration Station that provides water to over 345,000 people.

Negotiating these safety zones or implementing the last of three agreed disengagement areas would improve civilian lives in parts of the war zone, but these are small steps. Destructive weaponry still would remain within firing range, and the disengagement areas do not cover the most pernicious hotspots along the line. The systemic malaise would remain unaddressed. A diplomat involved with the settlement talks said: “We are beating down the temperature”, not healing the illness.

Focusing on the Bigger Picture

In this context, adding lethal U.S. weaponry risks shifting the focus away from what ought to be the priority: fashioning short- and long-term steps to settle or at least manage the conflict. While a comprehensive political solution is not within immediate reach, much could be done to minimise the conflict’s human cost. The greatest immediate danger is the deployment of weapons systems and hostile forces close to the line of separation.

Ceasefires are already hard to arrange and implement. They require all sides to make tough decisions, pass orders to all forces in the field and discipline those who do not comply. A diplomat told me that when Ukrainian soldiers were asked how they heard about the latest ceasefire, called ahead of the start of the school year, some answered that they had learned about it from TV.

Although Moscow bears significant responsibility for the conflict, Ukrainian authorities also need to take difficult steps to stabilise the east and better manage the humanitarian situation. Demonstrating full commitment to the ceasefire, disengaging forces, and formulating an inclusive vision for the reintegration of the divided region’s populations would be a good start, particularly as positions harden on both sides. Kyiv’s Western partners need to press Ukraine to implement such measures before the country’s 2019 presidential election. In the run up to that poll, Kyiv also should redouble its reform efforts, especially regarding systemic and high-level corruption.

While maintaining sanctions is important to convince Moscow its engagement in eastern Ukraine is costly and dangerous, the U.S. and the European Union (EU) also need to increase pressure on the Russian Federation, including in the OSCE, to allow monitoring of the Russian-Ukrainian border in rebel-controlled areas. This would allow the movement of weapons and supplies across those border segments to be tracked. The debate in the UN over different draft proposals by Moscow and Kyiv for a peacekeeping force in Ukraine is also a good opportunity for Ukraine’s Western partners to insist that Moscow allow for transparency along the Russian-Ukraine border as a first step. Meanwhile, Moscow should press its allies in rebel-held areas to urgently comply with their ceasefire commitments and withdraw heavy weapons.

New weapons in the area are unlikely to affect the sides’ broader calculations, but are sure to impact or even end the lives of those who live along the line of separation.

The idea of a peacekeeping operation is well worth pursuing, even if Moscow’s intentions appear to be to create a diversion rather than seek a genuine solution. Though likely to stumble on difficult issues such as mandate, area of deployment and composition – to cite just a few – it ultimately could help “unzip” the line of separation and facilitate a genuine disengagement of forces.

Providing lethal weapons to be deployed in the conflict zone should not be a priority for Kyiv’s partners. Such a step could upend the status quo, which, however imperfect, is preferable to escalating violence; nor would it produce substantive progress toward settlement. In Kramatorsk, a local humanitarian worker showed me pictures of Soviet-era shells, recently fired at front-line villages, enhanced in makeshift ways for more lethal impact. He said the sides were copying one another in their use. New weapons in the area are unlikely to affect the sides’ broader calculations, but are sure to impact or even end the lives of those who live along the line of separation. This can and should be avoided.

A compact, formatted PDF of this commentary can be downloaded here.