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A member of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic forces stands guard at a checkpoint at the frontline with the Ukrainian armed forces near the town of Avdiivka, outside Donetsk, Ukraine, 17 March 2016. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Ukraine: The Line

The 500km line of separation between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatist rebels suffers heavy daily violations of the ceasefire agreed in Minsk in 2015. Escalation is possible, and the status quo risks a political backlash against the Kyiv government and no way out of sanctions for Moscow. All sides should pull back heavy weapons from front lines, take responsibility for civilians trapped there, and return to other steps toward peace set out in Minsk.

I. Overview

The 500km line of separation between Russian-supported separatist districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and the rest of Ukraine is not fit for purpose. The ceasefire negotiated at the February 2015 Minsk talks is being violated daily and heavily. Tens of thousands of well-armed troops confront each other in densely populated civilian areas. The sides are so close that even light infantry weapons can cause substantial damage, let alone the heavy weapons they regularly use. This presents major risks to civilians who still live there – about 100,000 on the Ukrainian side alone, according to an unofficial estimate – often next door to troops who have taken over unoccupied houses. It also heightens the risk of an escalation. Kyiv, Moscow and the separatists all bear responsibility for the security and well-being of civilians living along the front line.

Likewise, Kyiv’s European allies, Washington and Moscow all have crucial roles to play in addressing the overall situation. They should insist that both sides withdraw their heavy weapons, as Minsk requires, from the front line to storage areas monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). They should also press their respective allies – the Ukrainian government on one side, and the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (DNR and LNR) on the other – to separate troops from civilians and to substantially widen the line of separation. Russia’s role in this is vital. It insists it is not a party to the conflict, but its military intervention in early 2014 triggered the crisis; two major incursions by its armed forces in 2014 and 2015 deepened it; and it is now the sole source of military, economic and other assistance to the two entities. Its officers train and largely command the separatist forces, and it continues to assure the separatists that it will intervene again if Ukraine attacks. Given Russia’s continued role in the conflict, international sanctions need to be maintained.

There is little doubt that the death toll is significantly higher than either side admits. Fighting takes place daily along large parts of the line, much of it unreported. Both sides often use howitzers, heavy mortars and rocket systems or park them menacingly in the centre of large urban areas where they risk at the least becoming targets for the other’s artillery. The Minsk agreement to withdraw heavy weaponry, meanwhile, is violated daily.

Both sides should take urgent measures to address the security and humanitarian, including health, needs of the civilians stranded along the front line. Troops and military equipment should be moved out of civilian buildings and settlements. It would be helpful if the OSCE, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) specifically identified in their public monitoring reports those locations where civilians and military are intermingled. Ukraine also urgently needs to address the humanitarian fallout of the conflict, including clear signs of psychiatric distress in front-line villages. If it is unable to do this, an experienced international organisation like Doctors without Borders should be encouraged to survey the needs. And the Ukrainian government should order local civil administrators, most of whom seem to have abandoned settlements on the front line, to return to work and at least be in contact with the population concerned.

The humanitarian crisis on the front line is also a political one. President Poro­shen­ko’s poll ratings in the east, including those areas Kyiv controls, have declined substantially. One oft-cited reason is the sense that the country’s leadership is not interested in the east. Ukraine, whose sovereignty over the occupied territories is internationally recognised, needs to take the lead in addressing these problems. Doing so would not be a sign of weakness, as some Ukrainian voices argue, or imply equal guilt with Moscow for the damage inflicted by the conflict. On the contrary, it would be proof that Kyiv was acting as a legitimate and responsible member of the international community that cares for the well-being of all its citizens.

The government-controlled areas of the two oblasts are also the stronghold of one of Ukraine’s main opposition parties, the Opposition Bloc. Widely described as pro-Russian and oligarch-funded, the Bloc is running nationwide ahead or neck and neck with the president’s party in many polls. Failure to help its own citizens on the border thus could well have political cost for the Kyiv leadership and fuel conflict by strengthening anti-government feelings in Luhansk and Donetsk.

This briefing, based on travels along the Kyiv-controlled side of the line of separation in April-May 2016, focuses on the intermingling of civilians and military in front-line areas on the Ukrainian side. It also surveys the views and outlook of Ukrainian military officers stationed along the front line. The officers are younger and more confident than those encountered two years ago. But their opinions were bitingly critical of the country’s political and military leadership, including President Petro Poroshenko. The president and other top leaders would be well advised to pay more attention to the mood of what is in essence the next generation of Ukrainian military commanders. All officers interviewed described the Minsk process as dead and strongly supported the idea, floated by some leading politicians, to seal off the separatist enclaves for the foreseeable future – a policy move the international community should caution against in no uncertain terms. 

II. Home on the Front

A. Elusive Statistics

Government officials in Kyiv and in the east were unable to provide figures for the number of civilians still living in the many villages and settlements that are now part of the front line. Staff of the Agency for the Restoration of Donbas, the very theoretical government lead for work in the east, said they knew of no consolidated data. The Donetsk governor’s office, Donetsk police, internal affairs ministry and state statistical service, among others, were unable to provide up-to-date figures. 

Enquiries to local military or civil administrators in the combat zones yielded some estimates: 10,000 highly vulnerable in the Luhansk district of Popasna; 1,500 in the industrial town of Avdiivka, whose suburbs are part of the front line; a substantial portion of the population of Marinka, a small front-line town with a pre-war population of over 9,000; and 1,500 out of a village of 3,000 in a position close to Mariupol. The UN Humanitarian Response Plan for 2016 estimates the civilian population in Ukrainian-controlled front-line areas at 200,000. Other specialised international organisations feel this may be an overstatement. Given a pre-war population of approximately 230,000 in these areas of Luhansk and Donetsk, it seems reasonable to assume that the most at-risk population – those living in government-controlled areas where front-line military units are based, and which are frequently subject to attacks – number around 100,000. 

Crisis Group was not able to conduct research on the separatist side of the front, as access to much of the separatist-controlled territory is becoming increasingly difficult. However, earlier visits to the self-proclaimed People’s Republics and reports from major international organisations leave no doubt that the intermingling of civilians and military is also prevalent there.

There is no distinction between military positions and civilian dwellings in many front-line settlements. Combat units are embedded in villages, usually scattered in houses beside civilian dwellings. In Marinka, a town just beyond the western edge of Donetsk city, many civilians still live in Matrosova Street, once a quiet area of pleasant small houses and large gardens. Military units now occupy abandoned houses, and the beginning of the front line is marked by a heavy machine gun position on the street corner. Separatist positions are 150 metres or less away. During firefights, which usually happen at night and are frequent, casualties are evacuated along Matrosova and parallel streets. An officer who coordinated casualty evacuations noted that he preferred to use small passenger cars rather than ambulances, as those drew heavy incoming fire that left civilians “pretty scared”.

In the hamlet of Zaitseve, military armour pokes out of the bushes, and visitors observed fresh craters from a 152mm howitzer and an 82mm mortar on the edge of a newly tilled vegetable plot. Local people said the shells had dropped short of a military position. On Kirova Street in Avdiivka, a Ukrainian military observation post is on high ground behind residents’ gardens. Just across the road, troops occupy houses, one of which had been seriously damaged in fighting a few weeks earlier. The front line is only 50 to 100 metres away. 

B. Those Who Stay

Those who remain in the front-line area usually have nowhere else to go or lack the means to leave. They are more likely women than men, are often pensioners and sometimes have to care for family members too infirm to leave. Moving requires considerably more financial outlay than pensioners can afford. A one-bedroom apartment in Kramatorsk, the temporary seat of the Ukrainian government’s Donetsk regional administration, costs approximately 1,500 hryvnia ($60) per month, about three quarters of a monthly pension. Utilities would add substantially to this. With schools closed or on the other side of the line and mines everywhere, families have usually left or sent children to relatives. Schools and health facilities in Horlivka, some 15km from the front, used to service a significant part of the area, but the large industrial town is now on the separatist side of the front, a strategic part of the defences of Donetsk city and frequently subject to shelling and attacks. 

Few if any civilian males of military age have stayed – not surprisingly given military suspicions that locals are separatist sympathisers (see below). Often one person, usually a woman, has remained to ensure that the family home is not sequestered by the military or damaged. The military takeover of temporarily uninhabited homes and other buildings seems ad hoc and arbitrary. In many places, the houses have become billets for small units or fire positions. As a soldier explained, a house is more comfortable to live in than a trench. In some places, residents have protested, usually with little success. 

People living along the front line have drastically simplified their daily routine. Most sleep in cellars for all or part of the night, remaining close to their house and shelter through late morning. Firing usually tapers off around noon or early afternoon, before residents edge closer to shelters. Work prospects in the villages have largely disappeared. Those previously employed outside them are unable to travel, most local mines are closed, and farming has become dangerous.

The front line has cut through some of eastern Europe’s richest farmland and vegetable gardens, bringing agriculture to a halt in most places and making even subsistence farming dangerous. Large fields are mostly untilled, for fear of shelling or mines (see below). Any planting is usually limited to potatoes in vegetable patches close to the house – in some cases the small green space outside village houses where in quieter times the elderly would sit. Even these relatively sheltered areas are vulnerable. In Avdiivka, the coke-smelting town whose suburbs flow into the front line, a 75-year-old woman was killed by what locals say was an incoming shell while working on her potatoes. The police report attributed her death to “careless handling of ammunition”.

The military on both sides carries out hit-and-run raids from largely civilian areas. Several front-line residents in Avdiivka related how a small Ukrainian unit recently sped in, strafed its foes, then pulled back. These actions inevitably trigger retaliation, well after the soldiers have left. Donetsk residents described separatist mortar teams using the same tactics and provoking the same response. 

Given the volatility of the situation, few who have left show any sign of wanting to return permanently to the villages. Residents of Zaitseve reported a family briefly returning to plant potatoes, “in case there is peace later this year”. Villagers said that even occasional visits from relief agencies offer little hope. An international organisation explained to Avdiivka residents that it was too early to distribute roofing and other building materials, as they would only have to be replaced again in a few months.

Those able to leave are among the 1.7 million officially registered internally displaced persons (IDPs). About one million are registered as living in other parts of Luhansk and Donetsk, though it is quite possible that many have moved elsewhere or even returned home on the other side of the line. Most IDPs are said to live with relatives, friends or in rental accommodations in larger towns that offer more safety and work opportunities.

C. Military-civilian Relations

Civilians in the east agree that the Ukrainian military’s behaviour has improved substantially since the grim days of 2014, when its troops were a byword for indiscipline, drunkenness and sometimes violence. But there are lingering suspicions on both sides. Some civilians, echoing a line favoured by many separatist propagandists, discreetly remarked to visitors that if the troops were not living next door, their homes would not be under fire. 

The military has its own preconceptions regarding the locals. One holds that civilians have chosen to remain at the front because of separatist sympathies. Quite often, in Avdiivka for example, residents reported allegations by soldiers that local people helped DNR sabotage teams that slipped into the area at night. Another frequent comment offered by the military was that local people were getting what they had asked for in the May 2014 separatist-organised referendum on self-determination. Some senior officers were more direct: “50 per cent of my civilians are separatists”, claimed a battalion commander; in another area, an officer estimated hard-core sympathisers at about 10 per cent of the population. Soldiers said they could hear separatist radio stations from their civilian neighbours’ homes, which reinforced their suspicion. One of the few local officials on the ground remarked that, on the rare occasion he or his colleagues were able to achieve something for the local population, separatist media claimed credit, and the news quickly spread among locals. 

Separatist media are ubiquitous, because in the vast majority of settlements along the front line, towers carrying Ukrainian broadcasting were destroyed in the early days of the fighting and have not been replaced. The only choice for most civilians are local radio stations from nearby separatist-controlled towns. The governor of Donetsk acknowledged the problem but noted that repair of transmission equipment is the central authorities’ responsibility.

D. Mines

Visitors to a hamlet in Zaitseve are instructed on arrival to use only well-trodden paths between houses, never shortcuts. Mines – anti-personnel and anti-armour – have been laid all across the front line. Both sides recently added trip wire devices. Few have been mapped, so regular troop rotations mean that any institutional memory of the mines’ location has been lost. Inhabitants of the front-line villages often cite mines as the main reason for sending children to relatives. “The shelling is bad enough, but at least we see or hear the risk: with mines you had to keep children in prison”, a woman explained. On Kirova Street in Avdiivka, a resident said his five dogs had “gone”, probably killed by mines just beyond his back garden, which opens out on the front.

Demining specialists believe that clearing all mines once hostilities end will take a minimum of five years and up to twenty if sufficient funding is not available. Large-scale demining cannot begin, however, until the Ukrainian parliament passes legislation determining which government authority oversees the removal of mines and unexploded ordnance, and establishing national technical standards, including a framework for the accreditation and quality. Meanwhile, the number of mines and explosive remnants of war is increasing daily. Western diplomats say the legislation is so far moving slowly. 

E. Distress and Alcohol

The sheer terror of living in a war zone, the highly limited opportunity of moving even a few miles away, the lack of work, the separation of families and general social disruption have for two years subjected the remaining inhabitants of front-line areas to inordinate social pressure that has disproportionately devolved upon women. The state has done little or nothing to address these problems, and visits by international monitors and aid organisations are rare. Residents are mostly anxious and depressed: few conversations continue for more than a few minutes without an interlocutor showing signs of this.

Alcohol abuse has long been an engrained feature of village life in Russian and Russian-speaking areas, but usually among men. In villages along the front line, alcohol consumption by women is widespread. Church volunteers in Marinka, as well as members of other local groups working with villagers, expressed concern that constant military activity was leading to an increase in serious diseases. After particularly heavy attacks in mid-June, a pastor reported “pathologies” among the local children: “their hair starts falling out, their legs and arms shake, and some stop speaking”. None of the villagers recalled visits by psychiatric health professionals. A senior regional government official shrugged off the question when asked if such visits had been made. There is urgent need for a survey of the psychiatric health needs on the front line by a competent international body.

F. Where Are the Officials?

A number of local government officials recently joined a delegation of the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) Human Rights Committee on a visit to Marinka. The committee chair, Hrihoriy Nemyria, recalled that local people were surprised they were from the district administration. No one recognised them: local officials left with the onset of war and have been handling administrative affairs from the small resort town of Kurakhove, a good distance from the front. Zaitseve residents said they did not recall any visits by officials. A military commander in Dokuchayevsk mentioned that civilian administrators initially joined him on front visits. They would note requests, leave and not follow up. “People here are abandoned” by the local government, he said. “There is no sense of interest in their problems, and the quality of civilian officials is very low”. The result is that people on the front line are left to fend for themselves.

G. Holes in the Line

There are six official vehicle-crossing points between Ukrainian and separatist-controlled territories, while mostly local people use a hastily-repaired bridge in Stanitsia-Luhanska, the single official pedestrian crossing. Over 700,000 passed through the official checkpoints in May, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). They tend not to live along the front line, are usually relatively affluent, own vehicles, can pay for fuel and food and have a certain sophistication in dealing with the sometimes intimidating military or security personnel. Even so, the crossing is challenging. Waits of ten hours or more – often overnight – are common. Crossing points are usually close to military installations, increasing the danger of shelling or mines. Many who live on the front line, on the other hand, have neither the money nor experience required to deal with men in uniform. Some complain that they are asked at Ukrainian checkpoints for proof they are registered as displaced, which they are not.

On rare occasions, local officials on both sides have unofficially created crossing points. These purely local initiatives, distinct from the officially stipulated crossing areas, allow front-line residents to visit nearby settlements on the other side to buy food – considerably cheaper on the Ukrainian side – visit relatives and, when possible, collect pensions. They must show proof of registration in a settlement close to the border: despite the current armed conflict, all Ukrainian citizens remain required to register in their place of permanent residence. Two such informal points were known to exist as of early 2016. One, in Popasna, remains functional while another, near Marinka, has reportedly closed. 

There are other ways to get across, but not for simple residents. Ukrainian soldiers know the village of Verkhnetoretskoye as a smugglers’ crossing. Some contraband is for local consumption, but much is part of the major smuggling operation – of coal, scrap, weapons and probably drugs – that is enriching officials on both sides of the line. A prominent blogger and volunteer supporter of the armed forces, Yuriy Kasyanov, described watching a goods train passing through the village and into the separatist-controlled area of Donetsk oblast. Fighters from the ultra-nationalist Right Sector prepared to attack the smugglers’ train, but were stopped, Kasyanov said, by Ukrainian soldiers.

There has also been at least one instance of soldiers on both sides cooperating to improve conditions on their part of the front. Ukrainian troops said that sometime in May 2016, they contacted the troops facing them; one of their number crossed to the opposing front line and over a bottle of vodka suggested they might shoot at them less often. The separatists explained that military service was one of the few ways to earn money in the entities – a frequently heard complaint in the DNR. They reportedly agreed, however, that on those days when they were on duty they would fire away from their targets. They added that they could not answer for the Russian troops on duty the other days. 

III. The Military

Around 90,000 troops face each other across the 500km-long line of separation. The Ukrainian government says it has 69,000 troops in its Anti-Terror Operation (ATO) zone, not all of whom are based directly on the front line. Kyiv and its allies usually estimate the separatist military strength at 35,000, though this is probably high. In addition, Ukrainian officials say, more than 8,000 Russian troops remain inside the separatist entities, with a much larger force permanently stationed just the other side of the border, ready to intervene. Moscow denies any such plans, just as it does having ever intervened militarily in Ukraine over the past two years. Separatist officials say the permanent Russian military presence is considerably less than Ukraine claims, but they stress that Russian troops on the border could deploy throughout the entities in hours if needed. 

A. Officer Politics – Criticism of the President, 
Support for Sealing-off the Separatists

Most observers agree that the Ukrainian military is very different from the poorly led, often demoralised force sent into action two years ago. Many battalion commanders and their deputies are in their early thirties. A lieutenant colonel who hopes to leave soon for staff college said most of his peers in neighbouring front-line positions were between 29 and 32. At 34, he is feeling old, he joked. In private, the officers are deeply critical of their country’s military and political leadership. One started his analysis by describing the deadlock in the conflict as beneficial to both Russian and Ukrainian leaders: “The Russians can maintain pressure on us, and our president has an excuse for not carrying out reforms”. 

All expressed belief that the Minsk process is “dead”. This line has been increasingly echoed by Ukrainian officials, Western diplomats and many Russian commentators. As a result, the officers said, the crisis could only be solved by military means. None, however, felt this would happen soon. There is wide agreement among analysts and the military that while the front-line advantage has shifted moderately in favour of Ukraine (see below), the key factor remains Russia’s readiness to intervene militarily in support of the separatists. As long as this holds, the officers felt, Ukraine would not attack to regain control of the entities. 

The idea to seal off the separatist entities from the rest of Ukraine, cutting political and economic ties and excluding their population from elections, has been floated since January 2016 by political leaders in Kyiv – including such prominent figures as the secretary of national security and defence, Aleksandr Turchynov, and Rada Speaker Andriy Parubiy. It has gained some support, but also considerable criticism. 

Officers interviewed along the line of separation were unanimous in their support for the idea. “People in the separatist areas are totally brainwashed. They still live in the Soviet Union”, one said. “Maybe, just maybe, they will one day come to their senses, and they will return to us, but until then we should close them off”. Another officer, who hails himself from a separatist-occupied area, was equally blunt: “Let the people who want to be Russian go to Russia; we will help them leave. In the meantime, the separatist districts should be fenced off, and Russia left to support them”. 

Proponents of sealing the border see a number of advantages, both political and economic. The Minsk agreement obliges Ukraine to pay for the restoration and rehabilitation of the entities, an endeavour that would cost billions of dollars. Sealing the enclaves off would in their view shift the whole financial burden onto Russia, which for months has already been paying salaries and pensions. This would intensify economic pressure on Moscow at a time when it is hard pressed by international sanctions and declining revenues. The assumption behind this line of thought, however, is questionable – Moscow has not formalised ties with the entities, and while it has provided social support, it has not indicated it would provide reconstruction or rehabilitation funding.

Ukraine is preparing for a difficult transition – with any luck – to a modern Westernised state, and the entities allow Russia to maintain military pressure that forces it to divert major budgetary resources from economic development to defence. Elections during the transition period are likely to be tense and volatile. Removing the entities from the voting process for several years would neutralise the votes of a million or more Ukrainians who, many politicians and analysts believe, would be little inclined to support the country’s present leadership. 

Proponents of the idea, who say they briefed senior Western ambassadors early this year, maintain that Poroshenko privately is sympathetic to the idea but cannot be seen as in essence amputating part of the country. Opponents fear sealing off the separatist enclaves would accelerate their slide into organised crime and contraband. Moves to close off the separatist entities from the rest of the country would concern several of the country’s most influential oligarchs, who have extensive holdings in the separatist areas. Many made their fortunes during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, and most – Rinat Akhmetov, Sergei Lyovochkin and others – are heavily invested in the area’s oil, steel and natural gas. Further limited access would be financially deeply painful to these businessmen. Ukraine’s Western allies should stress to all in Kyiv that isolation would be a risky policy choice that could exacerbate the conflict, create new tensions and deepen the sense of many inhabitants of separatist-controlled areas that Kyiv has abandoned them. 

B. Combat, Casualties

1. Ukrainian strategy: erode and probe

Front-line commanders are more confident than in the past that their troops could make serious inroads into separatist territory, or even destroy the entities, but the main factor stopping such an attempt is the threat of another major Russian invasion. Front-line Ukrainian forces consequently seem to be probing separatist territory in order to gradually erode military manpower. Local commanders noted that separatists are not only less well-trained than Ukrainians, but that it is much harder for them to replace lost equipment or personnel – the latter because of their very small recruitment pool. Many analysts sympathetic to the separatists agreed. 

Ukrainian troops have edged forward along most of the line into the so-called grey zone – a thin stretch of land between the fronts which both sides had until recently refrained from entering. By occupying this zone, Ukrainian troops have strengthened their positions along the border modestly, by inhibiting vehicular traffic on the other side, or gaining better forward observation positions. Asked whether this was a new strategy, officers sidestepped the question. 

In some cases, the troops are going further. In an area along the Mariupol sector, a battalion commander said his men had moved 1.5km into separatist-controlled territory. Similar movements have been reported elsewhere. Around Debaltseve, the site of a major Ukrainian defeat in February 2015, a military volunteer from one of the many groups that raise money to equip troops reported that a unit of the 54th Mechanised Brigade had advanced 1.5km and dug in. This could be, as an officer suggested, pure opportunism; it might also be that some units are trying to gauge Russian patience with such incursions. Officers routinely refused to comment on operational matters, but a senior government security adviser and avowed hawk in the confrontation with Russia described the penetrations as efforts by some commanders to maintain morale, combat preparedness and discipline. The static, often trench warfare saps morale, the adviser suggested, and when this happens, “the Ukrainian army drinks”.

2. A ceasefire ignored

Both sides complain that they are under instructions not to violate the ceasefire. Ukrainian troops said they are told to observe and report violations and only respond if their lives are threatened. “That is an instruction that only a staff officer could think up”, a Ukrainian senior lieutenant complained. “Everything we fire is life-threatening, for f***’s sake”. Separatists have complained for months that their Russian military handlers (kurators) have strictly enforced the ceasefire. In fact, both sides have violated the ceasefire daily for several months, most commonly with light weapons, but also with artillery rocket batteries and armour that should have been withdrawn many months ago. 

Ukrainian front-line officers all described Russia’s current military posture in the same terms. Its troops have pulled back from the front line: any remaining Russians are usually commanders of the separatist units or small groups of special forces. The Ukrainians portrayed many of their adversaries as poorly trained locals, with little inclination to fight and drawn more by the pay. Monthly salaries for separatist troops reportedly range from 15,000 roubles ($230) for a private to 46,500 roubles ($715) for a colonel. Some Ukrainian officers, however, singled out several separatist units for grudging approbation: the “Viking” battalion, named for its founder’s radio call-sign, and Vostok, which has been involved in some of the most intense fighting around Avdiivka.

3. Hiding the casualties

Both armed forces play down the intensity of fighting and often under-report casualties. Ukrainian troops on a section of the front line which has not figured extensively in official combat reports stated that they have been involved in almost 60 engagements since deployment in late 2015. Another officer in the same unit said his troops have taken “heavy” loses but that the figure has been classified – “the General Staff does not want to be embarrassed”. Civilian volunteers who help resupply Ukrainian troops have at times denounced the official military spokesman for disinformation or covering up the real situation. In March 2016, a volunteer juxtaposed on his social media site a photograph of the burial of elite Ukrainian troops with a military spokesman’s announcement that there were no casualties that day. 

The same thing happens on the separatist side. The commander of DNR’s Viking battalion resigned in December 2015 along with a number of staff officers in protest at a high command decision to reclassify military casualties as victims of civilian accidents. Supporters of the separatist militia, usually Russian nationalist groups, have on occasion leaked much higher death tolls than officially admitted. For instance, a supportive website revealed that in late March and early April 2016, separatists had lost at least 90 fighters along a small stretch of the front line around Avdiivka. More recently, a well-informed Russian nationalist blogger quoted a DNR officer saying that a regiment heavily involved in late May fighting “no longer had” two companies.

4. A message from Moscow?

Separatist civilian and military officials have admitted privately for some time that the Russian military exercises complete control over militias. Russian officers command units, handle operational planning and oversee the military. Given regular separatist complaints that they are not allowed to respond to Ukrainian fire without the permission of their Russian minders, analysts on both sides have posited that sudden spikes of violence along the line are explicit reminders from Moscow that war could quickly escalate if deemed necessary. “I think we sometimes dial up or down the pressure as needed”, a veteran Russian analyst remarked. A recent burst of costly attacks on Ukrainian positions in late May followed signals of Moscow’s frustration with the Minsk process. Shortly before the escalation, a Kyiv politician with close links to Moscow expressed concern the situation could turn ugly.

C. Unpaid Bonuses, Understrength Front-line Positions

Ukrainian military confidence and morale may be higher in 2016, but many problems remain. Most are connected to what front-line troops see as incompetence at best, venality at worst among the country’s top military and political leadership.

Mid-level officers, in particular the deputy commanders responsible for troop morale and related matters (zampolit) in several places raised the same problems. They said troops rarely received the 1,000 hryvnia (approximately $40) bonus they were promised for every time they were engaged in combat. Other promised bonuses – for destruction of enemy heavy weapons or armour, for example – have also not materialised. Instead, troops have been warned they must reimburse the defence ministry for damaged uniforms and equipment on demobilisation. 

Delays in demobilisation are another source of resentment. Troops said they had to stay on the front line for weeks – in one case several months – after their eighteen-month rotation had officially ended. An officer in an affected unit remarked that such delays had drastically reduced the number of conscripts willing to remain in the army under contract at the end of their service. “Six months ago, half my company were ready to sign contracts and stay in the army”, he said. Now the number planning to stay is “in single figures”. Shortages of equipment are another regular complaint. Many units still depend to some degree on volunteer groups who raise funds, providing them with anything from electrical cable to night vision gear, binoculars and food. 

Troops seem most concerned, however, about the clumsy and chaotic process of bringing front-line units back up to strength when a cohort of conscripts has ended its service and left for home. This often leaves front-line positions dangerously understrength and lacking in combat experience for weeks. “Our ‘specialists’ have had two years to get this right”, an officer said, “and it is still a cock-up”. 

These delays can have lethal consequences. Lieutenant-Colonel Andriy Zhuk, 32-year old commander of the 3rd battalion of the 72nd independent mechanised brigade (72OMBr ) stationed in the area of Dokuchayevsk, was killed on 28 May in a brief clash. An investigative journalist who specialises in military affairs interviewed his fellow officers immediately after. The officer had spent much of the past eighteen months on the front line, and his battalion was desperately short of armour and troops: most of his men had been demobilised in April and he was reportedly left with 100, 20 per cent of a full-strength battalion, to control a 15km stretch of the line. Given the lack of experience of his remaining men, the journalist wrote, he took it upon himself to investigate reports of unidentified armed men and was killed. An informal 72nd brigade Facebook page posted photographs of Zhuk’s funeral. Just under that posting was a message urging any would-be volunteers to make their way directly to brigade positions on the front line, bypassing recruitment centres.

D. A Non-functioning Pullback

The persistent and regular violation by both sides of a key part of the Minsk agreements – withdrawal of all heavy weapons from the front line – has further deepened military insecurity and tension. Their ample inventories of heavy weaponry seem to rotate almost permanently from storage areas to front-line positions and back. Most OSCE daily monitoring reports note the absence of tanks, rocket systems and artillery from storage areas and, more occasionally, their return. Weapons covered by the agreement have been extensively used in recent fighting, most often tanks and artillery. Others are relocated to major population centres, usually Luhansk and Donetsk cities. On 5 June, a relatively typical day, monitors checking Ukrainian government sites and positions inventoried a number of forbidden systems, including two surface-to-air SA-8 missile systems, six 152mm towed howitzers, and three 100mm anti-tank guns. They also noted 33 howitzers missing from two storage sites. The next day, monitors recorded Grad missile batteries and anti-aircraft systems in the LNR and DNR areas.

OSCE monitors complain regularly that their teams are harassed and on occasion refused access to areas. They also report that their drones have been shot down and monitoring equipment shut down. They continue to do a thorough job under very difficult circumstances. However, their reports have no tangible consequences for the violator. Until Europe and Washington on one side and Russia on the other are willing to force their allies to observe the pullback – by withholding military or other aid, for example – the situation will remain highly volatile.

IV. Conclusion

A temporary fix on eastern Ukraine’s front line has become, by oversight or neglect, a semi-permanent “solution”, like so much in the Ukrainian crisis today. In the absence of a genuine settlement, most parties would probably welcome a frozen conflict, even though they are unwilling to say so publicly. But the situation on the ground is too unstable to guarantee even this. There are too many troops far too close to each other. A crucial agreement to withdraw heavy weaponry from the battlefield is violated daily by both sides. The needs of many thousands of civilians stuck along the line and the many grievances of troops who are fighting there have been ignored.

A number of issues need to be addressed immediately. A substantial distance – much more than the 100 or so metres currently common – should separate the sides. Military positions and civilian settlements should be clearly distinguished. These are not just requirements for Kyiv. The separatists should take the same steps. The DNR and LNR have shown neither capacity nor interest in doing so. Kyiv should do better. 

By failing to address these issues, Ukraine’s leadership is storing up political problems for the future. Civilians’ feeling on both sides of the line that the government has abandoned them plays into the hands of Opposition Bloc, President Poroshenko’s major political rival in the east and an important actor in Ukraine’s parliament (Rada), where it is often decisive in key votes. Meanwhile, on the other side of the line, Ukrainians living under separatist control regularly complain of being abandoned by Kyiv. When eventually Kyiv is able to restore full control over the east, there is a serious risk that the several million residents in the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts will have become a strong anti-centre political force. The needs of another important constituency also must be considered. Incompetence, neglect and corruption in the military high command, both military and civilian, may well turn a large pool of angry, militant and articulate critics of Poroshenko – active duty and demobilised troops – into a force that could prove even more of a threat to Kyiv.

This does not detract from Russia’s responsibility for the situation. Moscow denies, against all evidence, that it is a major actor – and the main initiator – of the present crisis. It should pressure its separatist allies to support serious efforts to defuse the situation. And while many western analysts and diplomats seem increasingly to view a frozen conflict in the east as the least bad option, even this will be impossible without firm action to increase the distance between opposing front lines and address humanitarian problems. 

Kyiv/Brussels, 18 July 2016

A member of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service seen at a checkpoint near the contact line between Ukrainian troops and pro-Moscow rebels, after the government tightened up measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, in Mayorsk, Ukraine March 17,2020 REUTERS/Gleb Garanic
Report 260 / Europe & Central Asia

Peace in Ukraine (II): A New Approach to Disengagement

Ceasefires in Ukraine's Donbas repeatedly fray because no side is fully invested in peace. Until the sides can agree on a long-term political solution, they should focus on protecting civilians through carefully targeted sectoral disengagements. If this facilitates peacemaking, so much the better.

What’s new? Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy came to power in 2019 promising to bring peace to Ukraine’s Donbas region, where government and Russian-backed separatist forces are locked in low-level combat. Yet a full, sustained ceasefire remains elusive. Although casualties have dropped from their 2014-2015 peak, fighting continues to kill soldiers and civilians.

Why does it matter? Each of the warring parties wants a ceasefire but only if it will lead to peace on its own terms. All prefer to tolerate continued fighting rather than stop the shooting under conditions they deem unfavourable.

What should be done? A comprehensive ceasefire is likely unattainable under today’s political conditions. In its absence, the parties should pursue sectoral bilateral disengagements with clear humanitarian and related goals, even as they seek a durable political settlement through talks.

Executive Summary

Volodymyr Zelenskyy assumed Ukraine’s presidency in July 2019 promising to end the war in the eastern Donbas region, where government forces and Russian-backed fighters are locked in slow-moving trench warfare. The first step, he said, was “to just stop shooting”. Yet despite several high-profile security and diplomatic initiatives, casualties have not declined significantly. Ceasefires, the most recent of which was announced at the end of July, have failed largely because the parties disagree on Donbas’s future and fear that an end to shooting will guarantee their adversary’s preferred outcomes. Overcoming these disagreements will take time and compromise. But even if a lasting ceasefire proves elusive at present, the parties should negotiate local military disengagements along the front line, thus limiting casualties and improving the humanitarian situation. If this measure eases the path to a political settlement, so much the better.

Among the greatest impediments to peace in eastern Ukraine are the warring sides’ fundamentally different views of the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements, which are supposed to provide the scaffolding for ceasing hostilities and reunifying Donbas. Signed as Russian regular forces were ravaging Ukrainian troops, the accords call for an immediate ceasefire and, ultimately, for the parts of Donbas currently under Moscow-backed separatist control to be reintegrated into the Ukrainian state under a special status that grants them partial autonomy. By injecting Russia-friendly enclaves back into the Ukrainian polity, Moscow likely hopes to secure continuing leverage over Ukraine’s foreign and domestic policy.

Among the greatest impediments to peace in eastern Ukraine are the warring sides’ fundamentally different views of the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements.

But the agreements have generated a fiercely negative reaction inside Ukraine, mixed reactions from its Western supporters and quiet resistance from Russia’s partners in the breakaway regions. In Kyiv, well-organised activists resent Russia’s heavy hand in drafting the second Minsk accord and its failure to force its proxies to comply with Minsk’s terms. Some also see the Minsk framework as drawing Ukraine further into Moscow’s orbit when they would prefer orienting it more toward the EU. Kyiv’s Western backers have sent mixed signals, with Germany and France seemingly eager to compromise in the interest of a deal and the U.S. appearing to see some upside in an unstable status quo that creates headaches for Moscow. Representatives of Russia’s separatist proxies publicly pay lip service to Minsk but make no secret of their disdain for Kyiv and desire to integrate with Russia.

Picking his way through this political minefield, Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy spent much of his first year in office making a big push to ease tensions and work in the direction of reintegration. But after some early successes – including the negotiation of new, stringent ceasefire provisions and the disengagement of forces in the Luhansk town of Stanytsia Luhanska – the going got considerably tougher. Protesters took to the streets after Zelenskyy announced in October that the sides had agreed on a 2016 proposal (put forward by then-German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier) that could have moved them a step closer to reintegration. The activist surge effectively scotched Kyiv’s newly announced plans to seek disengagement along the full front line in the near future, leaving the parties instead to focus on identifying three discrete new disengagement zones – something they have yet to do.

While disparate views of Minsk’s political components contribute greatly to Kyiv’s travails, there are other overlapping factors as well. Bilateral ceasefires and disengagement schemes tend to require mirror-image moves by each of the parties. This sort of reciprocity is a problem for some Ukrainians, who accurately see their adversaries as using these mechanisms to establish a form of equivalency between Kyiv and the statelets; Ukrainians understandably chafe at the idea that they should be withdrawing troops from a front line that cuts across their own country. The Ukrainian military also claims not to fully trust the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor Russian and separatist compliance with the terms of disengagement. Finally, many in the military and elsewhere also want to preserve modest territorial gains that Ukraine has notched in recent years, and dispute claims by OSCE and others that Ukrainian advancement imperils civilians who may be caught in the crossfire.

But while full front-line withdrawals no longer appear attainable, at least at present, a more modest strategy of pursuing limited sectoral disengagements linked to humanitarian objectives has potential – and could clear the way for a broader disengagement and fuller, more sustainable ceasefire in the future. Parties would agree to pull troops back from populated areas and in the vicinity of key civil infrastructure in order to protect the latter while improving freedom of movement and humanitarian access for local populations. Some representatives of the Ukrainian military and security apparatus have voiced their potential support for this approach.

The COVID-19 crisis and accompanying economic downturn create an important impetus to push these measures forward, as disengagement in the vicinity of key transport routes and public utilities will allow parties to better meet public health and economic needs. A humanitarian framing could make it easier for Kyiv to neutralise opposition among Ukrainian sceptics. For its part, Moscow, which claims to have local civilians’ best interests at heart, has good reason to embrace the effort. Initial points of focus should be new travel corridors in Luhansk oblast, where civilians can presently only cross the front line at one overwhelmed location on foot – as well as the crucial infrastructure such as Donetsk Filtration Station, on which 345,000 civilians rely for their daily sanitation needs, and which suffers regular service interruptions from shelling.

Carrying out these human-centred disengagements will not demand technical or logistical know-how that the sides do not already have. It will, however, require them to separate the task of disengagement from their long-term political aims. Previous efforts have failed because the sides attempted to either use or obstruct the process in the service of broader agendas. Now, they need to make disengagement about saving and improving lives even as they search for a long-term political solution to conflict in Donbas.

Kyiv/Moscow/Brussels, 3 August 2020

I. Introduction

The Minsk agreements reached in September 2014 and February 2015 form the written framework for efforts to bring peace to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Signed as Russian regular troops that had invaded to back up separatist fighters were devastating Ukrainian forces, the deals call for an immediate ceasefire, followed by implementation of a complex series of security and political provisions. The ultimate goal, as laid out in the February 2015 Minsk Package of Measures, is for Donbas to be reunited with the rest of Ukraine, with areas currently held by separatists forming partially self-governing entities under Ukrainian sovereignty. At present, these areas consist of two de facto statelets, which call themselves the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People’s Republics (DPR) (collectively, the L/DPR), having been carved out of Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.

The Minsk security provisions include a full ceasefire; bilateral withdrawal of heavy weapons by at least 50km on each side of the front line; verification of the ceasefire regime by monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE); full withdrawal from Donbas of “foreign armed formations, military equipment and mercenaries”; and “disarmament of all illegal groups”. The agreements’ political provisions call for Kyiv to amend its constitution to provide for decentralisation of powers throughout the country; pass a law outlining the terms of self-government for areas now held by separatists; and hold local elections in those areas in compliance with national law.[fn]Protocol on the Results of Consultations of the Trilateral Contact Group (Minsk Agreement), 5 September 2014; Memorandum on the Implementation of the Minsk Agreement, 19 September 2014; Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements, 12 February 2015. All documents are available at the UN Peacemaker peace agreements database.Hide Footnote

During a rally on the occasion of Ukraine's Defender Day, protests take place in Kyiv's city centre against the withdrawal of troops in Donbas, 4 October 2019. CRISISGROUP/ Bogdan Voron

While disagreeing on the order in which these steps should be enacted, the sides agree publicly that a sustained ceasefire is the agreements’ first and most basic provision, and the key to completing all the rest. Yet they have never achieved one. The September 2014 Minsk agreement was signed after the conflict had already caused close to 3,000 deaths, at least 500 of which occurred near the town of Ilovaisk, where Russian forces had surrounded Ukrainian troops in an August battle, and then opened fire as they retreated.[fn]The UN estimates that at least 36 civilians and 366 Ukrainian government-affiliated troops died, while a report by members of Russia’s political opposition estimates that at least 150 Russian citizens were killed.Hide Footnote The ceasefire provided for under the agreement quickly broke down, and 2,000 more had died when the second Minsk agreement was signed in February 2015 – at which point Ukrainian forces were battling Russian troops at the strategic railway hub of Debaltseve, in conditions reminiscent of Ilovaisk.

By this time, the sides were entrenched along the front line that had emerged, often less than a kilometre apart. Minsk II, as the February 2015 Package of Measures is sometimes known, called for Russian-backed forces to retreat to their September 2014 positions, but they did not. Instead, they held on to their territorial gains of the previous months, including Debaltseve. By mid-2016, casualties had nearly doubled to 9,000. As of mid-2020, they exceeded 13,000. Combatants make up the bulk of these numbers, with the UN estimating as of February 2020 that 4,100 pro-government forces and 5,650 of their opponents had died. Estimated civilian deaths stood at 3,350 at that time.[fn]Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine”, 16 November 2019-15 February 2020, pp. 7-8.Hide Footnote

In 2016, with each in a succession of bilateral recommitments to the ceasefire inevitably fraying after a few weeks, and with Russian-backed troops showing no sign of withdrawing or disbanding, the parties tried moving to a step-by-step approach.[fn]For dynamics of ceasefire violations over time, see “Trends and Observations from the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine”, OSCE, 2014-2020.Hide Footnote In September of that year, they signed a Framework Agreement on disengagement of forces and materiel.[fn]“Рамочное решение трехсторонной контактной группы о разведении сил и средств”, [“Framework agreement of the trilateral contact group on disengagement of forces and materiel”], OSCE, 20 September 2016.Hide Footnote  The agreement calls for the sides to create a series of demilitarised zones of at least 4 sq km apiece by withdrawing by at least 1km each along 2km segments of the front line. Its authors saw the separation of at least 2km in key areas as a way to put forces out of sniper range and out of sight, with the latter leading to reductions in heavy weapons fire as well.[fn]Сrisis Group interviews, international security expert, Ukrainian military commander, Kyiv, January 2020.Hide Footnote Once ceasefire violations and casualties dropped, the agreement’s proponents hoped, mutual confidence would grow, permitting the disengagement regime to broaden along the line of separation.[fn]Сrisis Group interviews, international security expert, Kyiv, January 2020.Hide Footnote

This 2016 effort failed. Warring forces disengaged in two pilot zones – Zolote and Petrivske – in October, but Ukrainian authorities opted not to disengage in the third, Stanytsia Luhanska, following protests featuring a combination of concerned locals and nationalist activists.[fn]“Мешканці Станиці Луганської протестуватимуть проти відведення українських військ”, [“Residents of Stanytsia Luhanska to protest withdrawal of Ukrainian troops”], Hromadske, 27 September 2016.Hide Footnote By May, the process was stuck, and by early 2018 the OSCE was referring to Zolote as “a re-engagement zone”.[fn]“Британия призывает объявить перемирие на Донбассе”, [“Britain calls for announcement of ceasefire in Donbas”], Korrespondent, 30 May 2018; Crisis Group interviews, OSCE staff, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Since taking office in late May 2019, members of the Zelenskyy administration have tried to revive the disengagement process.[fn]See “Інтерв’ю Володимира Зеленського – про війну на Донбасе, олігархів та Слугу Народу”, [“Interview with Volodymyr Zelenskyy: On the war in Donbas, oligarchs and Servant of the People”], Komanda Zelenskoho Facebook post, 21 March 2019.Hide Footnote It has been an uphill battle.

This report, which assesses the obstacles that have stood in the way of ceasefire and disengagement and offers recommendations for a new approach that might, in the latter case, surmount them, is the second in a series of Crisis Group briefings and reports that assess the components of a possible peace in Ukraine. It is based on interviews with officials and representatives of various perspectives in Ukraine, Russia and a range of NATO and EU member states conducted since 2015, as well as on other primary and secondary sources.

II. Minsk Disagreements

The key obstacle to disengagement in Donbas, and to a sustainable ceasefire more broadly, is that no side has faith that an acceptable political settlement will follow. Conflicting views of the Minsk agreements are at the heart of the impasse.

A. The View from Moscow

As Crisis Group has written in the past, Moscow appears to have had by far the upper hand in shaping the terms of the Minsk II agreement, and likely believes that full implementation of it as written would work in Russia’s favour.[fn]Crisis Group Europe Briefing N°85, Ukraine: Military Deadlock, Political Crisis, 19 December 2016, p. 4.Hide Footnote In its interpretation, the accord requires Ukraine to largely accept the de facto statelets’ governance structures as an integral part of the reunited state.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Moscow sees Kyiv’s absorption of these sympathetic entities as a way to mould Ukraine into a buffer against a hostile West, while freeing itself from Western condemnation and sanctions. Some Kremlin figures may also genuinely believe that this set-up would benefit Ukrainians, whom they see as largely sympathetic to Russia, and in need of protection from a West that seeks to dilute Ukraine’s culture and exploit its resources.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sergey Markov, Moscow, September 2019.Hide Footnote  Those who take this view acknowledge that Russian military and political support has helped sustain the de facto republics, but nevertheless deem these entities a reflection of grassroots Ukrainian sentiment.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) faculty, Moscow, April 2018.Hide Footnote

Moscow’s official line is that Kyiv bears all responsibility to implement Minsk.

Against this backdrop, Moscow’s official line is that Kyiv bears all responsibility to implement Minsk. Specifically, it places the burden on Ukraine to enforce a strict ceasefire along the front line, negotiate the terms of reintegration with the de facto leaders in the Donetsk and Luhansk statelets, amend the constitution to cement the breakaway regions’ special status and hold elections there. From Moscow’s vantage, only then can the Ukrainian government expect to resume control of its side of the border with Russia.

B. Three Ukrainian Perspectives

Within Ukraine, views of Minsk are varied. The political opposition is largely divided into two camps. One wing, colloquially referred to as “pro-Russian”, tends toward the Kremlin perspective on Minsk, likely due to a mixture of cultural sympathies and business interests. While viewed as something of a fifth column by the rest of the political elite and much of Ukraine’s top-tier media, this camp draws electoral support in the south-eastern regions close to Donbas, where their message of compromise with Russia resonates.[fn]“Группа Рейтинг: ОПЗЖ в Харькове обходит – Слугу народа”, [“Rating Group: Opposition platform For Life overtakes Servant of the People in Kharkiv”], Kharkiv Today, 6 February 2020.
Hide Footnote

At the other end of the spectrum are opposition parties that position themselves as liberal and/or “pro-Europe”, which is to say in favour of working toward integration with the EU and stronger partnerships with its member states. These tend to proclaim the Minsk process dead or at least moribund, stressing either that Russia came up with the terms of the second agreement or that Moscow has not implemented its obligations by enforcing a ceasefire and disarming its proxy forces – or both.[fn]Facebook post by the Ukrainian ministry of foreign affairs, 18 March 2017. Crisis Group interview, member of People’s Front party, Kyiv, April 2018.Hide Footnote Many who take this view believe that the key to Ukraine’s success lies in “decoupling itself from Russia politically, economically, religiously, culturally”.[fn]Solomiia Bobrovska, “Coronavirus crisis spells dooms for Putin’s dreams of rebuilding the Soviet empire”, Atlantic Council, 28 April 2020.Hide Footnote Many see Moscow’s heavy-handedness in negotiating Minsk II, and the circumstances in which it was signed, as ultimate proof of Russia’s cynicism and hostility, and as validation of their orientation toward Europe. They equate implementing Minsk to surrender and oppose reintegrating the population of the Donbas breakaways, at least in the near future.[fn]Crisis Group observation, protest against signing of Steinmeier formula, Presidential Administration, Kyiv, 1 October 2019; see the Holos party’s peace plan, “Голос Розуму: Стратегія холодної деокупації”, [“The voice of reason: a cold de-occupation strategy”], Goloszmin.org, n.d.Hide Footnote

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has sought a third way between Minsk’s domestic supporters and detractors, and both groups are represented on his team. Zelenskyy himself, according to advisers, is sincerely eager for quick peace and reintegration, and open to the view that the war is not only a function of Russian aggression, but also an expression of Ukrainian citizens’ competing visions for their country.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Roman Bezsmertnyi, Kyiv, October 2019.Hide Footnote At the same time, however, the president appears resentful of Russia’s denials of direct involvement in the conflict and its attempts to dictate the terms of peace.[fn]Yuriy Safronov, “Можно ли пожимать руку Путину?”, [“Can you shake Putin’s hand? ”], Novaya Gazeta, 11 December 2019.Hide Footnote Beyond seeking a ceasefire, his administration’s approach to Minsk has combined attempts to interpret the letter of the agreement creatively with efforts to renegotiate its stickiest components, such as when and how Kyiv resumes control of the country’s eastern border.

Minsk's detractors also include the Donbas separatists. Military and financially dependent on Russia, they are not allowed their own negotiating positions within the Minsk format. Their representatives attend Minsk discussions as observers: they parrot Russian positions, even as Kremlin representatives try to push them forward as Kyiv’s main negotiation partners.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international security expert, February 2020; Ukrainian Trilateral Contact Group participant, February 2020; international organisation staff, June 2020.Hide Footnote

C. Separatist Detractors

The separatists’ views may not be on display during formal negotiations, but they have made them clear through other channels.

Still, unlike Moscow, the separatists mainly oppose reintegration. Their opposition is driven by a combination of factors, including fear of violent or judicial reprisals, attachment to new sources of illicit earnings enabled by their political power and, for some, dreams of joining Russia.[fn]Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Report N°254, Rebels Without a Cause: Russia’s Proxies in Eastern Ukraine, 16 July 2019; Crisis Group interview, former Khartzysk city official, Sloviansk, April 2019; for a brief discussion of how DPR de facto leaders are perceived as embezzling Russian funds, see Zlobynyi Ukr, “Як пушилін на параді заробив”, Fashik Donetskyi, 26 June 2020.Hide Footnote An episode from October 2019 illustrates the difference between Russian and separatist positions. As discussed below, that was when the sides agreed to a proposal that German diplomat Frank-Walter Steinmeier had put forward in 2016 when foreign minister, which affirms Kyiv’s readiness to reincorporate the breakaway areas under special status if certain criteria for holding local elections are met. Moscow saw this step as a victory, as it moved the parties closer to a scenario in which Ukraine would absorb the statelets and preserve some of their autonomy. By contrast, L/DPR representatives were reportedly crushed.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, EU staff, Kyiv, October 2019; international organisation staff, June 2020.Hide Footnote

The separatists’ views may not be on display during formal negotiations, but they have made them clear through other channels. In a January 2020 social media post, a spokesman for the armed groups indicated that the only desirable “reintegration” was military victory for the separatists. “There were active attempts at reintegration in Izvarino and Ilovaisk in 2014. In 2015, reintegration took place in Debaltseve”, he wrote, alluding to battles in which pro-government forces suffered major setbacks at the beginning of the conflict.[fn]Telegram post by Neofitsial’niy Bezsonov, 5:54pm, 11 January 2020.Hide Footnote

D. Mixed Minds among Ukraine’s Western Backers

Ukraine’s Western backers appear to be of mixed minds on the value of Minsk.

France and Germany, the agreements’ co-signatories, are eager for the conflict to end. While they remain publicly committed to Minsk, it is fair to ask whether they might welcome a deal by other means.[fn]Crisis Group interview, European interlocutor, Kyiv, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Washington’s position is more complex. President Donald Trump has expressed support for a compromise agreement, while appearing at times to accept Moscow’s narrative of Kyiv as untrustworthy and undeserving.[fn]Vivian Salama and Rebecca Ballhaus, “Trump’s view of Ukraine as corrupt took shape early”, The Wall Street Journal, 16 November 2019; “Trump to Zelenskiy: I really hope you get together with Putin, ‘solve your problem’”, RFE/RL, 25 September 2019.Hide Footnote But U.S. government representatives generally take a different tack. In policy statements and remarks, U.S. officials support the Minsk agreements and argue that Russia is the party violating the deals. Indeed, a large package of U.S. (and EU) sanctions on Russia is explicitly tied to Moscow’s assessed non-fulfillment of the agreements.[fn]Crisis Group Europe Report N°256, Peace in Ukraine (I): A European War, 27 April 2020.Hide Footnote To add a further twist, however, some of these same figures have criticised the agreements. Kurt Volker, before he became Washington’s chief envoy for Ukraine in 2017 (a position he has since left), was quoted as saying the agreements were “not a solution, but a problem, as they essentially legitimise the Russian invasion of Ukraine”.[fn]Wayne Lee, “Минские договоренности – ‘это соглашение о разделе Украины’”, [“The Minsk accords ‘are an agreement to divide up Ukraine’”], Voice of America, 24 June 2015. The quote from Volker is an English translation of a Russian translation of a comment made in English. It may not correspond exactly to his original words.Hide Footnote

U.S. officials insist that their goal is to avoid a frozen conflict and see Ukraine peacefully reunited, yet some may see the status quo as acceptable and perhaps even useful.[fn]Dmytro Kaniewski, “US Special Rep to Ukrainian negotiations Kurt Volker: ‘The status quo is not good for anybody’”, Deutsche Welle, 29 August 2017.Hide Footnote “The longer Russia stays bogged down in Donbas”, a former U.S. diplomat said in June, the less likelihood there is that it might seek to subvert the Baltic nations, which are both its neighbours and NATO members.[fn]Crisis Group observation, online event hosted by Washington think-tank, 17 June 2020.Hide Footnote In April 2019, a U.S. official suggested to Crisis Group that reintegration of the statelets’ population would not serve Ukrainian interests, referring to these communities as “Soviet” and saying “some of our best [Ukrainian] reformers take a very hard line toward those folks”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, April 2019.Hide Footnote

III. A New Push for Disengagement

President Zelenskyy’s efforts to stop the shooting through a renewed push for disengagement have surged and stumbled since he took office. Views about disengagement largely track with views on the Minsk agreements more broadly. Although Moscow claims wholehearted support, its Donbas proxies pay disengagement lip service and many among them oppose it. Zelenskyy’s administration itself supports the idea unevenly, Ukraine’s self-identified pro-Western opposition opposes it. These various preferences have competed dramatically over the past year.

A. A Big Push

In mid-2019, Kyiv’s efforts to revive the 2016 Framework Agreement on disengagement seemed off to a good start. The sides disengaged at Stanytsia Luhanska – a town in the Luhansk oblast and the only point for 200km where civilians can cross the front line. At Kyiv’s initiative, the parties also began renovating the pedestrian bridge over the Sievierskyi Donets river, which had functioned in a dangerous state of disrepair for several years despite roughly 10,000-13,000 daily crossings. Additionally, the sides signed an agreement with the strictest ceasefire provisions to date, banning all parties from opening fire with any form of weaponry.[fn]Viktoria Bega, “Договоренность о ‘режиме тишины’ на Донбассе впервые запрещает любой огонь”, [“Agreement for Donbas ‘ceasefire’ bans on any fire for the first time”], Hromadske, 18 July 2019.Hide Footnote In mid-September, chief negotiator Leonid Kuchma promised that Zelenskyy would in the near future be proposing the bilateral disengagement of forces along the entire front line to participants in the Normandy Format – a negotiating body that convenes the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany – saying this route was the surest one to improving the security situation.[fn]“Кучма: Зеленський запропонує нормандській четвірці відведення військ по всій лінії”, [“Kuchma: Zelenskyy will propose disengagement of forces along entire line to Normandy Four”], Ukrainska Pravda, 13 September 2019.Hide Footnote  But other events intervened.

Views about disengagement largely track with views on the Minsk agreements more broadly.

Zelenskyy’s plans started to encounter heavy pushback when he signed on to the above-referenced Steinmeier formula in October. Minsk II calls for elections in separatist areas and stipulates that Kyiv grant them a special status, but it does not specify which of the two should come first. Moscow and the separatists whom it backs say it must be the special status, while Kyiv fears that concession would legitimise regimes in charge of these areas and make free elections impossible. Steinmeier tried to split the difference, suggesting that those areas receive provisional special status starting on the day of local elections, which would become permanent only if the OSCE finds the vote complied with Ukrainian law and international standards. Zelenskyy also made clear that, in his view, Russian troops must exit Ukrainian territory prior to holding elections.[fn]Crisis Group Statement, “A Possible Step Toward Peace in Eastern Ukraine”, 9 October 2019.Hide Footnote

At the same time as he shared this breakthrough with the public, the president also announced disengagement of forces would proceed in Zolote and Petrivske – and that, thanks to these agreements, Russia had agreed to the first Normandy Format summit since late 2016.

The "No to Capitulation" movement, led by a loose coalition of seasoned statesmen, positioned disengagement efforts squarely in the “capitulation” playbook.

These moves proved controversial. They sparked the birth of Ukraine’s “No to Capitulation” movement, led by a loose coalition of seasoned statesmen, liberal civil society activists and far-right figures.[fn]See the Рух Опору Капітуляції website.Hide Footnote The goal, said the movement’s leaders, was to oppose efforts “to make peace with Russia”, which they said seeks “the destruction of Ukrainian statehood”.[fn]“В Украине создали ‘движение сопротивления капитуляции’”, [“‘Movement to resist capitulation’ formed in Ukraine”], Pryamyi, 3 October 2019.Hide Footnote

This movement positioned disengagement efforts squarely in the “capitulation” playbook. By the second week of October 2019, when the sides were due to disengage forces at Zolote and Petrivske, thousands of Ukrainians had marched under the slogan. The deputy commander of the Pravyi Sektor fighters, a group of initially volunteer soldiers who had been loosely integrated into the military’s central command structure, vowed that “where [the president] withdraws troops, we’ll bring in thousands”.[fn]“В штабе ООС ответили Ярошу, что отдельных добровольческих батальонов на передовой нет”, [“The Joint Forces Operation tells Yarosh there are no separate volunteer units at the front”], Strana, 16 October 2018; “Ексклюзив ATR. Добровольці заявили, що займуть позиції ВСУ у разі відведення військ”, [“ATR exclusive: Volunteers announce they will take up positions of VSU if troops are withdrawn”], video, YouTube, 7 October 2019.Hide Footnote The National Corps, the political wing of the far-right Azov volunteer regiment and one of the driving forces of the protests, had set up a makeshift checkpoint in Zolote despite regulations prohibiting non-security personnel from carrying firearms at front-line locations.[fn]For a discussion of the National Corps and Azov’s far-right links and leanings, see Oleksiy Kuzmenko, “The Azov Regiment has not depoliticized”, Atlantic Council, 19 March 2020 (describing research that revealed a pattern of troubling international activity and ties to white supremacist groups).Hide Footnote

On 7 October, Ukrainian authorities announced that disengagement would be put off. They said the delay was due to the other side’s ceasefire violations in the vicinities of Zolote and Petrivske. That account, however, painted something of a skewed picture. While the 2016 Framework Agreement does state that any would-be disengagement sector needs to see at least seven consecutive days of quiet before withdrawal can commence, the OSCE recorded violations on both sides during this period.[fn]See daily and spot reports from the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, OSCE, 1-12 October 2019.Hide Footnote

Separatist and pro-Kremlin news sources alleged that Kyiv was using ceasefire violations as an alibi, and that the National Corps had in fact blocked disengagement, a claim that Corps members echoed.[fn]See, for example, the Telegram post by Хроники Ридика [Khroniki Ridika/The Ridik Chronicles], 2:34pm, 17 October 2019.Hide Footnote Simultaneously, various groups of civil society activists in Zolote demonstrated both for and against disengagement, with opponents vocally supporting the National Corps’ campaign.

Ukrainian police did not move to stop the activists until 29 October, when Zelenskyy visited Zolote to discuss the disengagement process with residents. When they did, numerous political observers were certain it was due to the personal intervention of Arsen Avakov, the powerful interior minister who had also held that job in the previous administration and who is believed to be closely tied to the Azov movement, which he helped fund at its inception in 2014.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, EU personnel, November 2019; Track 1.5 dialogue expert, December 2019. See also Christopher Miller, “G7 letter takes aim at role of violent extremists in Ukrainian society, election”, RFE/RL, 22 March 2019.
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Many analysts believe that Avakov indulges or even quietly encourages National Corps protests against presidential policies, and then reins them in, in order to maintain leverage over the president – an allegation that a close adviser vehemently denied.[fn]Crisis Group interview, adviser to ministry of internal affairs, Kyiv, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Following Zelenskyy’s visit, police compelled the National Corps activists to remove their weapons from the zone of military operation, and disengagement finally began. In Zolote, ceasefire monitors declared it complete on 2 November.[fn]“Receipt of Notifications on Completion of Withdrawal of Forces and Hardware in Zolote Disengagement Area”, OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, 2 November 2019.Hide Footnote Disengagement in Petrivske followed on 9 November, with the sides pronouncing it complete three days later.[fn]“Spot Report by OSCE SMM: Receipt of Notification on Completion of Withdrawal of Forces and Hardware in Petrivske Disengagement Area”, OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, 13 November 2019.Hide Footnote

B. Dimming Prospects

Going into the 9 December Normandy Format summit, disengagement in the three agreed-upon zones was largely holding, but prospects for further progress looked dim. “No to Capitulation” activists were holding large demonstrations in major cities attended by opposition leaders, and they were swearing to protest “indefinitely” if any red lines were crossed.[fn]Crisis Group interview, veteran Ukrainian diplomat, Kyiv, December 2019; Crisis Group observation, Presidential Administration building, Kyiv, 8 December 2020. For the activists’ manifesto, see the Рух Опору Капітуляції website.Hide Footnote

Thus, despite Kuchma’s September remarks forecasting disengagement along the full front line, the summit memorandum ended up prescribing it at only three more zones before April 2020. Moscow – which saw disengagement as a step toward its goals with respect to Minsk implementation – reacted with dismay. So did some Western security experts, who had hoped that full disengagement would bring faster reductions in violence.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior international organisation staff, October 2019; EU personnel, December 2019; Dmytriy Gordon, “Аваков Гордону в Париже о грустном Путине”, [“Avakov tells Gordon in Paris about sad Putin”], video, You Tube, 9 December 2019Hide Footnote Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later blamed U.S. warmongering for the outcome, without citing evidence.[fn]“Открытый дипломат”, [“An open diplomat”], Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 10 February 2020.Hide Footnote

On 18 February, Ukrainian forces reported a heavy artillery strike by LPR forces just outside the Zolote disengagement zone, provoking a fresh storm of commentary in Kyiv on the destructive naiveté of Zelenskyy’s peace efforts.

As 2020 began, the sides had still not agreed on the next spots for disengagement. Worse, the withdrawal at Zolote and Petrivske was fraying. On 18 February, Ukrainian forces reported a heavy artillery strike by LPR forces just outside the Zolote disengagement zone. The incident provoked a fresh storm of commentary in Kyiv on the destructive naiveté of Zelenskyy’s peace efforts.[fn]For example, “Сегодня мы видели полный провал капитулянтской тактики Зеленского- Герасимов”, [“Today we saw the total failure of Zelenskyy’s capitulatory tactics – Herasimov”], Pryamyi, 18 February 2020.Hide Footnote

Both sides claim that the other has only grown more bellicose throughout these months of de-escalatory measures, although all are likely posturing somewhat. Reports from Ukraine’s Joint Forces Operation press service, as well as oft-cited data on separatist casualties, suggest a slight year-on-year drop in deaths on both sides.[fn]Crisis Group data from Joint Forces Operation reports found at the Груз-200 [Cargo 200] website. “На Донбассе в 2020 году погиб 61 военный: поименный список”, [“61 soldiers died in Donbas in 2020: list of names”], 24 Kanal, 28 June 2020.Hide Footnote A Ukrainian commander, who called disengagement “pointless”, told Crisis Group that the July 2019 ceasefire-related ban on opening fire from any form of weaponry, including small arms, had led to greater Ukrainian losses, as the snipers who typically protect military units had found their hands tied.

The statelets tell a similar story of defencelessness. An LPR blogger wrote in June 2019, “Big losses again. The Ukrainians are attacking out of impunity. Because there’s a permanent ban on opening fire, and people are threatened with dismissal and charges for violating it”.[fn]Telegram post by Aleksandr Zhuchkovsky, 11:24am, 25 June 2020.Hide Footnote One of the DPR’s spokesmen replied, “The situation in Donetsk is no better”. He offered what he said was a direct quote from a fighter, who appeared to allude to stealth Russian units. ‘The Ukies don’t hold back at all anymore from taking apart our positions with all they’ve got. There are still a few subdivisions on our side that fly the black flag and allow themselves to snap back. But it’s a drop in the bucket’”.[fn]Telegram post by Ратник 2-ого разряда, 11:41am, 25 June 2020.Hide Footnote

This dire depiction may reflect reality to the degree that separatist forces, by several accounts, suffer considerably higher losses than their opponents.[fn]See the Груз-200 [Cargo 200] website for statistics from a Ukrainian nationalist volunteer, whose data prominent Ukrainian media outlets view as reliable. Ukraine’s Joint Forces Operation press service generally provides higher estimates for L/DPR casualties, although one Ukrainian military commander expressed doubt about their accuracy. Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, February 2020.Hide Footnote That said, OSCE monitoring reports belie the notion that the separatists are largely ceasefire-compliant.[fn]Daily and spot reports from the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, OSCE, op. cit.Hide Footnote

While the sides had agreed in December to disengage in three more zones by the end of March 2020, all they could muster was an 11 March agreement to keep working toward this goal. Even this modest pledge was undercut by various pressures. On the same day the parties committed to it, they also committed to creating an Advisory Council within the political subdivision of the Trilateral Contact Group created under Minsk, in which residents of both government-held and separatist-controlled parts of Donbas would produce non-binding recommendations for a political resolution.[fn]Vyktoria Venk, “Минская зрада. Почему Ермака обвинили в госизмене за создание Консультационного совета по Донбассу”, [“Minsk treachery: Why Yermak is being accused of state treason for creating an Advisory Council on Donbas”], Strana, 13 March 2020.Hide Footnote Despite the council’s limited prospective mandate, both the opposition and members of Zelenskyy’s own party denounced it as potentially legitimising the Russian-backed de facto authorities.[fn]“Ряд депутатов Слуги Народа просят Зеленского вернуть Минские переговоры в поле законодательства Украины: все переговоры должны вестись исключительно с РФ”, [“Segment of Sluha Narodu asks Zelenskyy to bring Minsk negotiations back in line with Ukrainian law: all negotiations should be with the RF exclusively”], Censor.net, 13 March 2020.Hide Footnote

IV. More Reasons for Failure

Zelenskyy’s push to stop the shooting foundered in part because of incompatible views on the Minsk agreements, which have kept the sides from establishing a lasting ceasefire and executing disengagement. But there are other overlapping reasons for the failure of basic security measures to take hold. These include everything from mistrust of monitoring arrangements to deeper, more structural issues. In particular, because these security measures are often designed to apply symmetrically to both sides, Russia and its proxies tend to view them as a mechanism for establishing a form of equivalency between the separatists and the Ukrainian government. Conversely, Kyiv firmly rejects the idea of parity between the sides, seeing the de facto authorities’ territorial claims as unlawful and illegitimate, and believing that it should enjoy unilateral freedom of action to reassert control over lost ground.

A. The Problem with Symmetry

The incompatibility of Russian and Ukrainian views on symmetrical security measures cuts to the heart of the parties’ difficulties in negotiating ceasefires and disengagement zones. Disengagement treats the line of separation, not the Russian-Ukrainian border, as the conflict’s centre of gravity, and, like a bilateral ceasefire, requires the same actions of the defending force and the invading force. Some Ukrainian commentators find this objectionable, with one remarking that, “You don’t withdraw troops on your own soil”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, nationalist activist in Zolote, October 2019; Crisis Group observation, “No to Capitulation” movement press conference, Kyiv, October 2019.Hide Footnote Similarly, some Kyiv officials and foreign backers question the notion that ceasefire directives should bind Ukrainian forces to the same degree as the separatists. As then-U.S. official Kurt Volker put it in 2018, “Of course the Ukrainians also fire in battle, but you have to keep in mind that this is all happening on Ukrainian territory”.[fn]Julian Röpcke, “‘Putin wird seine Beteiligung am Ukraine-Krieg leugnen’” [“Putin will deny his involvement in the Ukraine war”], Bild, 6 July 2018.Hide Footnote

In the disengagement context, Kyiv’s distaste for symmetrical actions from the two sides is increased by the fact that L/DPR troops would not even be pulling back from the front line that the parties agreed to in Minsk II. Minsk II required separatist forces to retreat to their September 2014 withdrawal lines (ie, to where they were prior to their seizure of Debaltseve), but the separatists have not honoured this commitment. Kyiv thus tends to want disengagement to function as a tool to induce retreat to pre-Debaltseve lines, while Russian-backed forces conversely seek to seal their post-September 2014 gains.

Kyiv firmly rejects the idea of parity between the sides, seeing the de facto authorities’ territorial claims as unlawful and illegitimate.

This clash of objectives surfaced in late 2016, as the sides were making their first attempt to disengage at Petrivske and Zolote and scoping out potential future efforts. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko insisted that the next round of pilot zones include Debaltseve.[fn]“Киев настаивает на разведении сторон и демилитаризации Дебальцево – Порошенко”, [“Kyiv insists on disengagement and demilitarisation of Debaltseve – Poroshenko”], Interfax, 23 October 2016.Hide Footnote The other parties refused. Disengagement at Zolote and Petrivske frayed soon after.

Four years later, the parties have been having a different iteration of much the same conversation. During negotiations over the past months, Moscow and DPR representatives said they wanted the new disengagement pilot zones to include a village near the latter’s de facto front line outside Debaltseve. Both Kyiv and international arbiters see this move as a bid to achieve international recognition for the separatists’ claim to that city.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior military official, Kyiv, January 2020; international security expert, Kyiv, January 2020.Hide Footnote For much the same reason, Ukraine appears to regard the idea as a non-starter.

The sides’ contrasting accounts of ceasefire violations follow a similar pattern: they often cherry-pick statistics to serve their narratives about the war. Kyiv’s national security and diplomatic establishment, whether under Zelenskyy or Poroshenko, and Ukraine’s Western backers tend to present ceasefire violations as close to the sole domain of the other side. This is a misrepresentation that nevertheless reflects their big-picture view of the conflict, according to which no violence would be occurring without Russia’s aggression.[fn]See Peter Dickinson, “Russian escalation dampens hopes for peace in Ukraine”, Atlantic Council, 18 February 2020.Hide Footnote But on the front lines, shots are exchanged so regularly across the tiny distances between the two sides that there is rarely any telling who fired first. Daily OSCE reports record an abundance of heavy weapons fire from west to east, showing government troops to be lively combat participants.[fn]Daily and spot reports from the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, OSCE, op. cit.Hide Footnote UN human rights monitors say over three quarters of civilian casualties from live fire occur in separatist-held territory.[fn]United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, “Conflict-related civilian casualties as of 31 December 2019”, 16 January 2020; “Conflict-related casualties in Ukraine”, 4 February 2019.Hide Footnote This finding suggests that Ukrainian forces’ fire is causing these casualties, though this is largely a function of the front line’s geography, as the eastern side is more densely populated.

Contrasting accounts of ceasefire violations follow a similar pattern: they often cherry-pick statistics to serve their narratives about the war.

Moscow and its proxies, for their part, emphasise that the preponderance of civilian casualties and almost daily damage to civilian infrastructure occur in areas that they control. Doing so draws attention to a painful issue that receives scant attention in the Ukrainian and Western press. This selective reading of events also serves their broader narrative that Ukrainian government troops, egged on by the West, are waging war against civilians. It ignores, however, two metrics where OSCE reports show Russian-backed forces to be the main offenders. First, most cases in which monitors record the presence of Minsk-proscribed weapons in front-line areas occur on separatist-controlled territory.[fn]“Trends and Observations from the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine”, OSCE, 2014-2020.
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The placement of military personnel and equipment in populated areas puts civilians at risk of fire from imprecise weapons – a dynamic of which residents appear acutely aware.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Donetsk residents, April 2019.Hide Footnote Secondly, the separatists are responsible for almost all cases of denial of access to OSCE monitors who, despite Minsk and successive promises from all parties, have almost no personal access to areas bordering Russia, where weaponry and Russian personnel regularly pass.[fn]“Trends and Observations from the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine”, OSCE, 2014-2020.Hide Footnote

B. OSCE Monitoring

Disengagement discussions are also hampered by Ukrainian suspicions regarding the OSCE monitors who, under Minsk, are supposed to patrol all separatist-held areas up to the border. These suspicions have both practical and political dimensions.

At a practical level, Ukrainian officers say OSCE monitors cannot be relied upon to give them sufficient warning should the 20,000-30,000 Russian troops stationed just outside the de facto territories cross over to assist what Kyiv estimates to be roughly 32,000 separatist forces at the front line.[fn]Ivan Safronov, “Юго-запад укрепили боевыми генералами”, [“The south west gets reinforced by fighter generals”], Kommersant, 10 July 2017.Hide Footnote (Ukrainian forces number roughly 50,000.[fn]“В ОРДЛО воюют 11000 тысяч российских военных – Наев”, [“There are 11,000 Russian soldiers fighting in the [L/DPR] – Nayev”], Zn.ua, 27 December 2018.Hide Footnote ) The Ukrainian officers say they lack confidence in the monitors in part because they are frequently denied access to certain areas by the de facto authorities and/or their Russian supervisors.[fn]See daily and spot reports from the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, OSCE, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Some Ukrainians go further and also contend that the monitoring mission contains Russian spies who alert the separatist forces to monitors’ movements and prevent them from witnessing that side’s ceasefire violations.[fn]A former U.S. diplomat told Crisis Group in a 2017 discussion in Kyiv that this view of OSCE monitors was present at the embassy as well. Kurt Volker expressed suspicions about the mission in a 2018 interview. Röpcke, “‘Putin wird seine Beteiligung am Ukraine-Krieg leugnen’”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Some in the Ukrainian military even allege that the OSCE monitoring team’s leadership has systematically downplayed the other side’s violations.[fn]One Ukrainian military representative told Crisis Group that a former leading monitor was “bought by the Russians”, an allegation the OSCE mission has roundly rejected. Crisis Group interviews, Ukrainian military representatives, Kramatorsk, April 2019; OSCE staff, September 2019.Hide Footnote Conversely, an expert with intimate knowledge of monitoring procedures and Trilateral Contact Group negotiations characterised Ukraine’s complaints as “an excuse” not to disengage forces and argued that Ukraine’s posture on disengagement boils down to “a lack of political will”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international security expert, Kyiv, February 2020.Hide Footnote

C. Preserving Advances

Another point of contention is that disengagement would also reverse slight but steady advances by government forces made in several spots along the front line between late 2015 and the present, which many Ukrainian veterans and activists are eager to preserve.

These advances did not so much push back the separatist fighters as they narrowed the buffer zone between the two sides. They gathered steam in 2016-2017, after the first attempt at disengagement failed. In 2016, government forces made a series of gains outside Debaltseve. Ceasefire monitors also documented forward movement, sometimes by both sides, in areas where civilians regularly crossed the front line in large numbers, such as the Stanytsia Luhanska bridge and the Novotroitske-Olenivka checkpoint near Donetsk city.

The OSCE mission expressed concerns about these advances and advocated instead for disengagement.[fn]“Thematic Report: Civilian Casualties in Eastern Ukraine, 2016”, OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, September 2017, p. 28; Crisis Group interview, international expert, Bakhmut, May 2018.Hide Footnote It blamed the shrinking distance between the sides for a number of civilian casualties, including the deaths of four civilians overnighting in their car near the Olenivka checkpoint from artillery fire in April 2016.[fn]“Thematic Report: Civilian Casualties in Eastern Ukraine, 2016”, OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, September 2017, p. 28.Hide Footnote The organisation accordingly advocated for disengagement around that time in large part as a civilian protection measure.

Ukrainian military sources, however, tend to see things differently. They assess that government forces’ territorial gains have made it possible for them to assume more advantageous positions and stop the enemy from launching attacks or conducting reconnaissance in the grey zone.[fn]Andryi Kovalenko, “Почему ВСУ делает систематические вылазки в ‘серую зону’”, [“Why the VSU is making systematic incursions into the grey zone”], Depo.ua, 18 July 2016. Crisis Group interview, former volunteer battalion member, Kyiv, October 2019.Hide Footnote Some veterans contend that eating away at the grey zone outside Debaltseve has significantly reduced illegal cross-line trade by local civilians – trade that they see as giving comfort to the enemy and undermining troop morale.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former volunteer battalion commander, Kyiv, October 2019; former volunteer member, Kyiv, December 2019.Hide Footnote Proponents likewise argue that Ukraine’s territorial gains are beneficial in motivating Ukrainian troops, stirring up supportive, patriotic fervour among the public and inflicting losses on the Russian-backed side – keeping them busy fighting and distracting them from consolidating governance over the statelets.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, military correspondent, Kyiv, April 2018; Serhiy Harmash, Kyiv, January 2019; see also Kovalenko, “Why the VSU is making systematic incursions into the grey zone”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The OSCE mission expressed concerns about advances and advocated instead for disengagement.

Looking through the same lens, some military figures and supportive journalists have suggested that the forward movement may even be part of preparations to launch assaults to recover separatist-held areas.[fn]For example, Kovalenko, “Why the VSU is making systematic incursions into the grey zone”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Such statements likely reflect eagerness to project military readiness, rather than any concrete plans. A senior Ukrainian military figure, asked about the history of advances and heavy fighting around Debaltseve, suggested that forward movements were also a matter of principle: “According to Minsk, we’re supposed to control Debaltseve, so naturally we’re trying to control it”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Ukrainian military commander, Kyiv, January 2020.Hide Footnote

As for OSCE concerns about the impact of Ukrainian advances on civilians, some military officials and pro-Kyiv commentators argue that Ukrainian control of buffer territory actually helps alleviate hardships for civilians who otherwise would be living in a grey zone without access to either government services or those of the de facto leadership.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international security expert, Kyiv, September 2019; senior Ukrainian military commander, Kyiv, January 2020.Hide Footnote

Opponents of disengagement also argue that Ukraine’s territorial gains have saved lives by discouraging enemy advances.[fn]Crisis Group interview, nationalist activist, Shchastya, January 2020; “Public appeal of VostokSOS in regard to the upcoming Normandy Summit on December 9, 2019, in Paris”, Deutsch-Russischer Austausch Facebook post, 3 December 2019.Hide Footnote They point to a trend of declining civilian and military casualties over the past years. In 2017, the number of civilians killed (117) and injured (487) increased by 27 and 5 per cent respectively relative to 2016.[fn]“Conflict-related Civilian Casualties in Ukraine”, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 14 January 2019.Hide Footnote In 2018, however, 55 civilians were killed and 226 wounded.[fn]“Conflict-related Civilian Casualties in Ukraine”, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 16 January 2020.Hide Footnote Progress was so significant that by 2019 UN representatives were hoping that civilian casualties could be brought down to zero; in the end, 27 died and 140 were injured.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Moreover, casualties among government-affiliated troops fell by 44 per cent in 2018, to 133, and to 111 in 2019.

When government forces have experienced setbacks, these have become grist for anti-disengagement arguments.[fn]“Потеряли два опорных пункта у Золотого, требуем отчета министра”, [“We’ve lost two observation posts near Zolote, and demand a report from the minister”], Ukrainska Pravda, 18 February 2020.Hide Footnote For example, on 18 February, separatist forces attacked a newly established Ukrainian forward post near Zolote, near the disengagement zone in that location. Ukrainian opponents of disengagement argued that the attack proved the withdrawals had merely emboldened the enemy. In so doing, they elided the fact that even observers typically sympathetic to Kyiv had viewed its moves in the days leading up to the encounter as highly provocative.[fn]Opponents of disengagement tend to look past some important facts about the battle. In addition to the fact that the separatists attacked a post that the Ukrainians had established only in January 2020, as part of their advance, commentators also note that the Ukrainians had been shooting at separatist forces for days prior to the attack. Artur Hor, “Дискотека в Марьинке: зачем украинская армия захватывает ‘серую зону’”, [“‘Disco’ in Maryinka: Why the Ukrainian army is seizing the ‘grey zone’”], Apostrof, 17 June 2019. According to one security expert, “The Ukrainian army was shooting at the other side for days ahead of the escalation”. Alluding to Poland’s reliable anti-Russian stance, he added, “Even the Poles are upset … at the Ukrainians”.Hide Footnote

Opponents of disengagement also argue that Ukraine’s territorial gains have saved lives by discouraging enemy advances.

By mid-2018, Ukraine’s Joint Forces Operation announced that it had established control over almost all of the grey zone, including 15 sq km that year alone.[fn]“За час ООС українські військові повернули 15 кв км території на Донбасі під свій контроль – Наєв”, [“Ukrainian troops have retaken 15 sq km of territory in Donbas over the course of the Joint Forces Operation”], Radio Svoboda-RFE/RL, 16 August 2018.Hide Footnote Ukrainian forces kept pushing in 2019 – even as Kyiv formally pursued disengagement in three zones – and continued in the same fashion in 2020. “Disengagement looks particularly inept now”, a journalist with strong ties to the military wrote ahead of disengagement in Stanytsia in June 2019, “as our troops have taken back scores of square kilometres over the past three years and solidified our position on the front considerably”.[fn]“Россия сорвет разведение. Подобные попытки уже провалились в 14-15 гг. – Бутусов об отводе ВСУ под Станицей-Луганской”, [“Russia will disrupt disengagement. Similar attempts already failed in 14-15 – Butusov on the UAF’s withdrawal at Stanytsia Luhanska”], Censor.net, 26 June 2019.Hide Footnote

The bottom line is that for some Ukrainians, incremental troop advances carry both symbolic and strategic value, making disengagement that much harder to sell. Interior Minister Avakov, speaking shortly after the September 2019 Normandy meeting, seemed to agree. Explaining why Kyiv had surprised Moscow by agreeing to only three additional disengagement sectors, he echoed language used by National Corps and other hardline activists: withdrawing from ground where “every metre is covered in blood”, he said, would be both tactically and morally impermissible.[fn]“Аваков: Сурков психанул во время переговоров из-за разведения”, [“Avakov: Surkov lost it over disengagement during negotiations”], Novosti Donbassa, 10 December 2019.Hide Footnote

V. On the Front Line: The View from Shchastya

Another consideration in weighing how to proceed with disengagement is how it will play at the front line. There, views on disengagement among civilians tend to closely correlate with broader attitudes toward reintegration. Front-line dwellers who support disengagement may see it as a step toward a normal life with no soldiers around, and/or as a prelude to restoring social and economic ties with neighbours and family on the other side.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, aid worker from Lysychansk, Kyiv, October 2018; journalist, Kyiv, October 2019; journalist, Kyiv, December 2019.Hide Footnote Those who strongly oppose it, meanwhile, may view the line of separation as a cordon sanitaire, walling them off from people with whom they do not wish to interact.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sievierodonetsk resident, Kyiv, October 2019; Selydove resident, by telephone, October 2019; humanitarian worker, Svyatohirsk, November 2019.Hide Footnote

The Luhansk oblast town of Shchastya, 5km from the front line and under Kyiv’s control, offers a vivid glimpse of these dynamics. The town, together with nearby Zolote, has been at the centre of arguments between the sides for years. It has gained attention because of the need to create a new official front-line crossing point for civilians. At present, the only such crossing in the oblast, in Stanytsia Luhanska, is pedestrian-only and – despite its renovation – overloaded with thousands of daily users. Kyiv has sought to establish a new civilian crossing roughly three hours by car to the west in Zolote, building the necessary infrastructure in 2017. But LPR de facto officials insist on the simultaneous opening of a motor bridge in Shchastya, which is midway between Zolote and Stanytsia. They argue that Shchastya sees less combat than Zolote, although some observers allege that their desire for a crossing has ulterior motives tied to anticipated payoffs from cross-line smuggling.[fn]“В ЛНР хотят открыть альтернативный закрытому КПП ‘Золотое’ пункт пропуска”, [“The LNR wants to open an alternative crossing point to the closed one at Zolote”], RIA Novosti, 21 November 2016; Crisis Group interviews, security observers, Sievierodonetsk, August 2017; Sievierodonetsk, May 2018; Kyiv, February 2020.Hide Footnote On 11 March, the sides agreed in Minsk to do just that, but all front-line crossings were closed in late March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A residential courtyard in Schastya, a small town 5km from the frontline in Ukraine's Luhansk region. January, 2020. CRISISGROUP/ Katharine Quinn-Judge

Negotiations over the Shchastya crossing have pitted local against national authorities. On the one hand, Ukrainian negotiators in the Minsk group historically have resisted supporting a crossing at Shchastya, which had been mined in order to keep Russian and separatist forces at bay. Some officials in Kyiv fear that such a step would invite an enemy advance or attempt to seize the nearby Luhansk thermal power station, the oblast’s sole electricity provider.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Ukrainian military commander, Kyiv, January 2020; international security expert, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Local officials in Shchastya, however, dismiss that suggestion. One told Crisis Group, “If the Russians wants to drive a tank across, they will find a way”, with or without a formal crossing.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local administration representative, Shchastya, January 2020.Hide Footnote Opening the bridge would not make an enemy advance more likely, they argued – while not opening it would mean relinquishing possible benefits that could, if all goes well, hasten the conflict’s resolution. A local official criticised opponents to disengagement in Shchastya as people who “just don’t want the war to end”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local official, Shchastya, January 2020.Hide Footnote

Local officials who favour disengagement cite the need to end their economic isolation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, Shchastya, January 2020.Hide Footnote The town is a suburb of Luhansk city, which, because it is now under LPR control, is essentially out of reach for residents despite being just 5km away. Residents who depended on Luhansk for shopping and medical care must now seek them in the provisional oblast centre of Sievierodonetsk, which is several hours away on potholed roads. Shchastya’s own economy used to depend on weekend tourists from Luhansk, who came to enjoy its forested setting, and on the thermal plant, which has shed jobs as it no longer services separatist-held areas. To both these officials and many ordinary residents, reopening the bridge leading to Luhansk would mean renewed access to that city’s services and a needed economic boost from city dwellers crossing over.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Shchastya residents, October 2017 and January 2020.Hide Footnote

Negotiations over the Shchastya crossing have pitted local against national authorities.

Residents opposed to disengagement, on the other hand, cite security concerns, along with political and social reasons, for their views. One civic activist was wary of disengagement, although she favoured reintegration and reopening the bridge. Notwithstanding local officials’ dismissal of this concern, she said she and her neighbours were afraid of incursions by the other side in the event of a troop pullback.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Shchastya resident, October 2019 and January 2020.Hide Footnote

Another activist, who said the goal of her work was to help Shchastya become “Ukraine” – ie, Ukrainian-speaking and free of what she described as Soviet-style paternalism – first cited concerns about tanks crossing the bridge, but quickly pivoted to other worries: “I don’t want all that trash coming over here”, she said, referring to residents of LPR-held areas. Ideally, she said, the state would erect a temporary border along the line of separation, which she called “a boundary” between competing belief systems.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Shchastya resident, January 2020.Hide Footnote

This stance echoed remarks by National Corps protesters against disengagement at Zolote. Some of the protesters argued the initiative threatened to undermine Ukrainisation efforts. The party’s leader posted a video of schoolchildren giving an unenthusiastic rendition of a pro-military song, saying disengagement could mean “giving the first real Ukrainian generation in Zolote over to the seps [separatists]”.[fn]Telegram post by Андрій Білецькій [Andryi Biletskyi], 4:48pm, 6 December 2019.Hide Footnote

Still, should Kyiv choose to proceed in Shchastya as it did in Stanytsia Luhanska, it would find considerable support in the local leadership and population. As discussed below, this could be a good next step in the disengagement process.

VI. A Way Forward

Over the past six months, the likelihood that Ukraine would push forward with a major effort at disengagement has seemed to go up and down. In February 2020, Defence Minister Andryi Zahorodniuk announced that Kyiv had reached a consensus against disengagement along the whole front line.[fn]“Загороднюк: моя главная задача – достичь военных критериев членства и сделать все для того, чтобы получить статус члена Программы усиленных возможностей НАТО”, [“Zahorodnyuk: My main task is to achieve military criteria for NATO membership and do everything possible to gain membership in the Enhanced Opportunity Partnership program”], Interfax, 22 January 2020.Hide Footnote In March, however, Zahorodniuk was replaced by Andryi Taran, an old-guard figure more inclined to see Moscow and its proxies as palatable, if not exactly desirable negotiation partners.[fn]Nationalist-leaning figures in Ukraine have alleged, without clear evidence, that Russia lobbied for Taran’s appointment, due in part to his lukewarm statements on Ukraine’s NATO integration. “Возможного нового министра обороны Тарана обвинили в госизмене. Комитет Нацбезопасности все отрицает”, [“Possible new defence minister Taran was accused of state treason; NatSec committee denies fully”], InfoResist, 4 March 2020.Hide Footnote As a result, some international experts have speculated that more vigorous attempts at disengagement may be back on the table.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, international security expert, May 2020.Hide Footnote But there was little progress until late July, when the parties instead announced a new ceasefire, promised to take effect on 27 July and lay the groundwork for another Normandy Format summit.[fn]“Ukraine: Government and rebels reach new ceasefire deal”, Deutsche Welle, 23 July 2020.Hide Footnote

This latest ceasefire may or may not hold. It and any successors have better long-term prospects, however, if the parties also begin to make incremental progress on disengagement in a way that explicitly accounts for the delicate political situation in Ukraine. As the sides have debated disengagement over the past year in Trilateral Contact Group discussions, General Staff representatives have advocated for a very limited approach. They framed their argument not around ending military activity, but around protecting and improving civilian infrastructure and freedom of movement in key areas.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ukrainian military commander, Kyiv, February 2020. Crisis Group telephone interview, participant in Minsk Trilateral Contact Group, June 2020.Hide Footnote

While access to the statelets was already limited before the pandemic, the pandemic created the added hurdle of a closed de facto border not only with Russia, but with the DPR as well.

Civilian and military officials suggest that a model for this approach can be found in the parties’ disengagement at Stanytsia and the accompanying bridge renovation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior military commander, Kyiv, February 2020; international security expert, Kyiv, February 2020; international observer, by telephone, June 2020.Hide Footnote Following this pattern, the parties would agree to disengagement zones in or adjacent to areas heavily travelled by civilians and near major infrastructure, creating breathing room for the latter to be upgraded or repaired.

This approach has particular appeal given the COVID-19 pandemic, which has created travel restrictions that have hampered humanitarian assistance while increasing the potential need for it (although the virus has yet to take serious hold in the region). While access to the statelets was already limited before the pandemic – the LPR has no open road links with government-controlled Ukraine – the pandemic created the added hurdle of a closed de facto border not only with Russia, but with the DPR as well. As they cannot legally ship aid supplies across the Russian border into the statelets, international humanitarian organisations responded by pushing for a road in through Ukraine. Both de facto borders were reopened in June, but with Ukraine’s virus containment efforts in flux, further closures cannot be ruled out.

One good step would be to open the much-discussed bridge at Shchastya and pair the opening with disengagement. Along with the aforementioned economic benefits, this measure would allow trucks bearing humanitarian aid and other goods to cross safely into Luhansk city and surrounding areas.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, humanitarian workers, April 2020.Hide Footnote It would also permit Shchastya residents to seek medical help in Luhansk city on the separatist side of the line rather than taking the hours-long trip to Sievierodonetsk.

There has been some progress along these lines. As of July, the sides have agreed preliminarily at the Trilateral Contact Group to open crossings at Zolote and Shchastya simultaneously by mid-November. Proceeding with these plans – which the parties should do apace – requires security guarantees from both Kyiv and its adversaries for construction and logistics workers at Shchastya. Work to open crossings, in turn, should serve as an impetus for disengagement, which is one way to help make such guarantees credible.

Kyiv may be able to help rally support for a more consensual political settlement by reducing the impact of a public health and economic crisis.

Another spot for near-term disengagement should be the Donetsk Filtration Plant, which provides clean water to 345,000 people on both sides of the front lines and whose employees work as a single unit despite living on different sides. It regularly comes under shelling, risking these communities’ water supplies – and their resilience to disease. Several employees have been killed on the job since hostilities started. Many others have been wounded, including by small arms fire that the UN assessed was aimed at them intentionally.[fn]Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 16 February to 15 May 2018”, p. 6.Hide Footnote The sides have reportedly identified a small section adjacent to the plant where both are willing to disengage.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior military officer, Kyiv, February 2020; international security expert, Kyiv, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Other less critical, but still key, elements of civilian infrastructure exist along the front line where the sides could usefully disengage, including a railway bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska that the sides have had on a tentative list of new disengagement sectors for months. Withdrawing forces here could be a first step toward reinstating some level of cross-line public transport service.

The parties have tried a step-by-step approach before, including in the 2016 Framework Agreement, and there is certainly a possibility that it will be no more successful than those efforts were. Still, the combination of military support and the concept of connecting it to humanitarian objectives could set this new approach apart.

As one expert on the workings of the Trilateral Contact Group put it, “It’s not enough to just say you have to stop shooting, you have to know why you’re not shooting”. At the Petrivske disengagement zone, which is uninhabited, he said the sides had rapidly re-engaged because they had no local civilians to protect by putting down their guns.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, security expert, June 2020.Hide Footnote

Human-centric disengagements, for example in the vicinity of crossing points, would not have this problem. To the contrary, they could create immediate benefits for civilians, which fighters might feel motivated to sustain. For example, creating crossing points at Zolote and Shchastya would provide impetus to adhere to disengagement in order to protect traffic at both areas. Success would be highly contingent on effective military command and control, and on strong mechanisms to ensure civilians’ safety, well-being and access to basic services in the absence of troops. These aspects require careful planning. This approach could remind doubters on all sides that peace is not some abstract idea that officials talk up in order to score political points, but something with concrete positive effects on people’s lives.

Even limited, humanitarian-driven disengagement may provoke public controversy, underlining the need for honest dialogue about the political and social grievances anchoring many Ukrainians’ opposition to disengagement. Zelenskyy’s team should face these concerns squarely, and address them with compassion, while sticking to promises to pursue de-escalation. Kyiv should work to consolidate support for the disengagement initiatives among local civilians as well as the military. Doing so would help the government dispel the air of legitimacy surrounding some opponents to disengagement.

If Kyiv succeeds at this task, the possible upside is considerable. By reducing the impact of a public health and economic crisis, and by communicating these successes to the broader public, Kyiv may be able to help rally support for a more consensual political settlement – weakening spoilers’ motives to undermine ceasefire attempts.

VII. Conclusion

In the Ukraine conflict, the warring sides’ chief immediate priority should remain, in Zelenskyy’s words, to stop the shooting. Yet as long as key groups on various sides believe that nothing good will come of a full ceasefire, they will likely seek to remain dug in at their current positions or to advance. Few fighters or politicians on any side of the conflict are likely to admit publicly that they consider today’s steady drip of military and civilian deaths preferable to the peace envisioned by the Minsk agreements. For now, however, there are many who do. At some point, presumably, the parties will arrive at a political settlement that renders these issues moot. That could be a way off, however. In the meantime, small, focused disengagements can ease humanitarian suffering, save lives and remind the sides of why the large steps are worth pursuing.

Appendix A: Map of Donbas Conflict Zone