Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
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

Members of self-defence battalions take part in a rally to commemorate demonstrators who were killed during the 2014 Maidan protests in Kiev, Ukraine, 20 February 2016. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Briefing 85 / Europe & Central Asia

Ukraine: Military Deadlock, Political Crisis

After three years of conflict and 10,000 deaths, Russia has shown it can destabilise and dominate Ukraine. The Kyiv government may still prevail, but only if it uproots corruption and if the U.S. and EU maintain sanctions until Russia’s complete withdrawal from the country’s east.

I. Overview

After almost three years and 10,000 deaths, Russia’s military intervention continues to define all aspects of Ukrainian political life. The conflict and the Minsk peace process are stalemated, but few days pass without deaths along the line of separation. The deadlock hurts Ukraine most. Indeed, Moscow is close to its main aim: destabilising Ukraine and influencing its policy choices. Russia’s victory, however, would be more than local. The trial of strength in the Donbas is also with the U.S. and European Union (EU). Success would reinforce a signal that Russia will defend its perceived national interests by any means necessary. Ukraine still has a good chance of prevailing in the long term, but only if it roots out the corruption that is eating away support for the Poroshenko government. The U.S. and EU must help on both fronts: pressing Kyiv harder for reforms while using strong diplomacy with Russia, including maintaining sanctions, so as to leave President Putin in no doubt he will face firm resistance until he withdraws completely from eastern Ukraine.

Kyiv’s main tactic in the confrontation with Russia has been procrastination: faced with a disadvantageous 2015 Minsk agreement imposed by Russian arms, President Petro Poroshenko has hunkered down, arguing plausibly that key terms are politically unpalatable to his country. This has worked well enough with regard to the Russian half of the crisis, but he has used the same delaying tactics toward another crucial problem, the struggle against corruption. That failure to act has alienated the public and alarmed Ukraine’s foreign backers. Moscow’s tone has hardened since the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. Kyiv’s allies are increasingly worried that the inaction on corruption is dangerous, and a senior Poroshenko administration figure warned Crisis Group recently that “time is on Putin’s side”.

More and more, Kyiv feels alone. Hopes for its EU perspective have not materialised. Top Ukrainian officials are dismissive of the EU and critical of what they say is grudging U.S. military assistance. Meanwhile, as more potentially damaging allegations of corruption in the military sector emerge, their inability or unwillingness to follow through on reforms and anti-corruption legislation is eating away at American and European patience and their own domestic support. Relations have evaporated with the Maidan activists, who essentially brought Poroshenko to power. The growing assumption in public discourse and in government offices is that the top leadership of the country is incorrigibly corrupt.

The deepening political disillusionment and malaise in Kyiv could soon produce major consequences. Russia has been pursuing a two-track policy in Ukraine, with the ultimate goal of rolling back Western influence in a country it considers a prime example of its “privileged interests”. If it succeeds in solidifying the two Donbas political entities, it will be able to tell its own people plausibly that NATO’s seemingly inexorable advance to Russia’s borders since the Soviet Union’s disintegration has finally been stopped. Moscow has also encouraged and assisted pro-Russian parties to drastically increase their influence throughout the country’s local and national legislatures. This scenario has not yet been successful, but with rising prices, continuing scandals and a steady collapse of the president and his allies in polls, it now has at least modest odds of being realised.

Politicians of all persuasions are convinced that Poroshenko’s majority in the Rada (parliament) will collapse, probably in the first part of 2017, and new elections will follow. The parties gaining ground are sympathetic to the Russian world view and in many cases keen to restore the pre-Maidan state of affairs. One emphasises, in private at least, its closeness to Moscow. The presence of a substantial group of pro-Russian politicians in the parliament would further weaken the reform faction and possibly result in politics overflowing onto the streets, as in 2004 and 2014.

To shore up the situation, the U.S., EU and other backers of Ukraine need to keep pressure on Moscow and intensify it on Kyiv. Russia should be reminded that sanctions will be maintained and its aspirations to regain acceptance as a responsible great power thwarted until it pulls out of eastern Ukraine. Washington and Brussels should keep the sovereignty question at the top of the agenda in all talks with Moscow on Ukraine and related European matters. Russia should also be reminded that an unequivocal, binding undertaking to dismantle the Donbas separatist entities and respect the sovereignty of all independent states in the region could open up a new period of mutually beneficial cooperation with the West as well as with Ukraine. This will be a hard sell: Moscow has shown no interest in compromise over the Donbas and appears to believe the situations in Europe and the U.S. are moving in its favour.

Ukraine’s allies will also have to take a much tougher line with the Kyiv leadership. A good start might be to present the president with any credible allegations of corruption implicating any close associates and business partners, insist he move swiftly in particular cases to remove individuals from office or deny them access to major government revenue streams, investigate and, where the evidence justifies, bring them to speedy trials. To retain credibility at home or abroad, the leadership must act dramatically on corruption.

II. Russia’s Strategies

A. In the East

Russia reacted to the 2014 overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych as a direct threat to its own security, another U.S.-instigated “coloured revolution” designed to encircle it and further proof that the West was determined to ignore its claim to an area of “privileged interests” within its neighbourhood.[fn]The term comes from an interview given by then President Dmitry Medvedev, Russian TV channels, 31 August 2008. The full text can be found at www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=205510.Hide Footnote The risk of Ukraine joining NATO, however remote, was considered unacceptable. “It was necessary to stop the extension of the West’s zone of military and political influence and control”, said Sergei Karaganov, a strong supporter of the Kremlin line. “This was done”.[fn]“Сергей Караганов: ‘Часть российских элит – в прострации, а часть хочет, чтобы все рухнуло’” [“One part of the Russian elite is in prostration, another part wants everything to fall apart”], Business Gazeta, February 2016. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO has grown from twelve to 28 members, all except one of the intake either a former Soviet republic or a Warsaw Pact member.Hide Footnote

Moscow quickly annexed Crimea and set up the two Donbas breakaway entities, the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Luhansk (LNR) and Donetsk (DNR), but soon abandoned more extensive plans. As a loyal Moscow think tank put it:

Calculations for the destabilisation of the situation proved to be inaccurate and the LNR and DNR failed to receive support in other regions of south-east Ukraine outside of Donbas. As a result, the initiative to create a large-scale protest movement throughout southern and eastern Ukraine that was about to take place in spring 2014 had to be dropped.[fn]“The Ukrainian Challenge for Russia”, Russian International Affairs Council, July 2015, at russiancouncil.ru/en/paper24.Hide Footnote

Russia is paying a high price for its intervention. Western sanctions have shaved off 1 per cent of annual growth, according to Russian estimates. Moscow pays salaries, pensions, social benefits in the two enclaves and trains, funds and supplies their militaries. It maintains an estimated 5,000-6,000 regular troops on the ground to guarantee security, with many more just over the border in Russia. The enclaves are poorly administered and corrupt, but this does not matter, a well-placed Russian observer remarked recently. Moscow has “found the way to keep a bleeding wound” in Ukraine’s body.[fn]Crisis Group interview, November 2016. The term “bleeding wound” (кровоточащая рана) was famously used by Mikhail Gorbachev to describe the impact of its Afghanistan war on the Soviet Union.Hide Footnote

1. Minsk

The instrument to achieve this is the Minsk process. The two agreements it has produced thus far, in October 2014 and February 2015, came at a grim cost for Ukraine. The first followed the loss of about 1,000 troops during Russia’s initial major offensive in summer 2014, when regular units crossed the border and repelled what had been a successful Ukrainian operation. The second, an extension of the first, was negotiated during another Russian military intervention, which again resulted in heavy Ukrainian military and civilian casualties.

The February 2015 document’s thirteen points gave Russia almost everything it wanted: an autonomous territory abutting the border with its own armed militia and administrative and justice system, guaranteed by permanent – a word Russian officials regularly stress – legislation and changes to Ukraine’s constitution.[fn]An English version of the text is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minsk_II. The document says that the appointment of judges etc. will be carried out with the participation of the local government. In fact, the DNR and LNR have both created supreme courts as well as appointed many judges.Hide Footnote Kyiv would not control the enclaves but would pay for their upkeep. Russia, their sole source of military, political and economic support, insists it recognises Ukraine’s sovereignty over them and regularly denies it has troops on the ground. It hopes that the elections in the enclaves Minsk stipulates will produce political groupings and local leaders who can eventually negotiate with Kyiv on an equal footing and sooner or later enter the Ukrainian parliament.

Though the agreement has stopped large-scale fighting and served as a basis for talks that have managed the conflict with fluctuating success, Western ambassadors were privately aghast at its terms. A “terrible document”, said one, “the euthanasia of a sovereign state”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, April 2015.Hide Footnote Asked why President Poroshenko had agreed to be bound by it, another answered simply, “his army was on its back”. Russia, whose troops were mopping up Ukrainian positions in Debaltseve during the negotiation, was allowed to publicly declare itself a guarantor of the agreement, not a conflict participant.[fn]“We simply physically cannot do this, because Russia is not a participant in this conflict”, Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, stated. “Песков: Россия – гарант урегулирования на Украине, но не исполнитель” [“Peskov: Russia acts as a guarantor of the regulation of the situation in Ukraine, but not as an executor”], RIA Novosti, 13 February 2015.Hide Footnote

Moscow consistently demands the “total and literal implementation of the Minsk agreement”. While many Western politicians and observers assume that the agreement is intended to return the situation to the status quo ante, Russian commentators explicitly deny this. The aim, a Russian think tank explained, is to create a situation in which “neither participant feels it has lost” and each “receives reliable guarantees regarding the maintenance of the status quo in the future”.[fn]“Ошибка Порошенко: Как Украина потеряла время” [“Poroshenko’s mistake: how Ukraine lost its time”], Centre for Current Policy, 11 November 2016.Hide Footnote Russian analysts working on Minsk have also stated that the separatist areas would not be dismantled, and Moscow rarely misses an opportunity to slap down anyone who suggests anything different. When in late 2016 Croatia announced the creation of a working group with Ukraine to share experiences of peaceful post-conflict reintegration, the Russian foreign ministry expressed “serious concern”, saying that would only distract Ukraine from its responsibilities to implement Minsk.[fn]“МИД России обеспокоен планами Хорватии передать Украине опыт реинтеграции территорий” [“Russian MFA is concerned about Croatia’s plans of transferring its experience of territorial reintegration to Ukraine”], Russia Today, 22 November 2016.Hide Footnote

While Russia has most of what it wanted for the separatist entities, the important missing ingredient is Ukrainian funding for the enclaves, foreseen in the agreement but as yet not forthcoming. The resulting financial burden for Moscow is heavy and worrying, but not enough to force concessions.

2. Minsk in broader Russian strategy

The Donbas and its other major external projection of power, Syria, are part of Russia’s struggle to push back against perceived Western domination and reassert itself as a world power, not just a regional one, as President Obama once described it, to Moscow’s irritation. Government and presidential administration analysts are already reassessing their strategic scenarios after the election of Donald Trump. They caution against euphoria but make clear they believe the gains of “détente”, as they term it, with the Trump administration could be enormous.

A long article published by an authoritative analytical centre connected to the presidential administration laid out an optimistic best-case scenario in discussing the “American factor” in Russia’s 2018 presidential elections. Détente, it said, would include Russia and the U.S. jointly destroying the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Washington publicly dropping the idea of regime change in Damascus. The two countries would work together to combat terrorism elsewhere, and Western sanctions would be cancelled by the end of 2017 – “without any serious concessions on the Donbas”. This would ensure Vladimir Putin’s re-election and be depicted to the public as “revenge for the loss of the Cold War” and proof that Russia’s line had been correct from the start. Russia meanwhile would return to the world stage as “a global power”. The worst-case scenario, on the other hand, it noted, could possibly trigger resumption of hostilities in Ukraine or unspecified “non-standard moves in Central Asia or the Near East”.[fn]“Американский фактор в президентской гонке в России” [“American factor in presidential race in Russia”], Actual Comments, 6 December 2016.Hide Footnote

3. Minsk implementation

None of the thirteen points in the Minsk agreement have been implemented in full. The Minsk process was to have been completed by the end of 2015, but officials are now loath to predict a date. “We continue to meet solely to keep the channels open in case one day we will have something to discuss”, said a senior European participant in the process. In the latest effort to show a modicum of forward movement, the presidents of the four countries that make up the Normandy Group that oversees and tries to nudge the process along (France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine) announced in October that a “roadmap” was to be prepared. It is to be quite modest, not changing the agreement, but only indicating dates for each key step. And it would not be new: the original February 2015 document already had clear timeframes for implementing the main steps. The road map was to have been ready by the beginning of December. It is now expected no earlier than the first quarter of 2017.

4. Minsk and Kyiv

It was clear from the start in Kyiv that the core of the agreement – an undertaking to pass a new constitution by the end of 2015 and to draw up permanent legislation on the special status of the two enclaves – would never get through parliament, though Ukraine’s Western partners have sought compromise options. What would almost inevitably be seen as an effort by a Ukrainian leader to change the constitution on Russia’s instructions would likely trigger a legislative revolt and massive street unrest. A new Maidan or uprisings by the poorly organised but militant and volatile volunteer units could not be ruled out. Poroshenko accordingly has opted to play for time.

III. In Domestic Politics – the Second Front?

When the government of Arseniy Yatsenyuk collapsed in March 2016, Vladimir Groysman, a long-time associate of the president, became prime minister.[fn]Sources for this section include numerous meetings with an Opposition Bloc (OB) strategist and others close to party leaders over the past year. Though Ukraine and Russia are essentially at war, there are no prohibitions against travel to Moscow, and visas are not required. Putin’s main Ukraine point person,Vladislav Surkov, is plausibly reported to have visited Kyiv several times during the Donbas crisis. Aides to former Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin have had informal talks with Ukrainian parliamentarians; senior Russian officials have joined “track two” talks; and a close friend of the Russian president, Ukrainian businessman Viktor Medvedchuk, acts as a trouble shooter for Minsk-related humanitarian and other issues. Medvedchuk, who is based in Kyiv, is also said to provide an important backchannel for communications between Putin and Poroshenko.Hide Footnote The new government was given a year to push through reforms. It has had mixed results, and most politicians and observers expect he will lose a confidence vote in the spring – “unless there is violence in the streets first”, a senior Rada deputy said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, 11 November 2016.Hide Footnote

The steady decline in the opinion poll ratings of both President Poroshenko and his supporters in the Rada has galvanised the opposition, in particular two parties: former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna and what is essentially the new incarnation of Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, Opposition Bloc (OB).

OB says it has a “discreet” electoral alliance with Batkivshchyna, close relations with Kremlin officials and that at least one of its leaders has discussed the Ukrainian situation recently with President Putin. It asserts that Tymoshenko’s party is also talking at a high level to Moscow but complains it is not kept informed. Batkivshchyna is reticent about its relationship with OB, and a leader protested that its representatives did not travel to Moscow “that often”. Government officials and other parliamentarians believe the two parties are working together. Batkivshchyna as a party and Tymoshenko as a possible president usually come out at the top of opinion polls, with Poroshenko’s Block “Solidarity” and OB battling for the second position.

With the addition of one of the parties that usually support either OB or Batkivshchyna, the putative alliance would likely substantially outnumber the president’s supporters in any new parliament and probably be able to increase that margin by winning over additional groups with promises of government positions or other blandishments. An OB strategist said his party could add considerably to its own core vote if its overly comfortable leaders stirred themselves to work harder.

Tymoshenko is one of Ukraine’s most formidable campaigners, with a serious nationwide structure and a history of working well with Russia. Like most senior politicians, she is also widely viewed as corrupt.[fn]A poll commissioned in July 2016 for by Novoe Vremya, an influential news magazine, ranked Tymoshenko as the fourth most corrupt person in Ukraine, some way behind the the president and two others.Hide Footnote And, like the president, she firmly dismisses such allegations.[fn]President Poroshenko, for example, dismissed as “lies” the latest such allegations against him, by Alexander Onishchenko, one of the country’s richest businessmen, who is currently under investigation for financial machinations and treason. Onishchenko claimed to have taped business conversations with the president and supposed representatives. For more details see “СМИ опубликовали первую запись так называемых ‘пленок Онищенко’” [“Media has published the so-called ‘Onishenko’s tapes’”], Zerkalo Nedeli, 6 December 2016. The presidential administration described the allegations as “absolute lies” and politically motivated, while the president’s office surmised that Onishchenko was “an agent of the Kremlin” in “Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine”. “В АП прокомментировали заявления А.Онищенко о политкорупции” [“Presidential Administration of Russia commented on A. Onishchenko's statements about political corruption”], UNN News Service, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote Her party cooperated with OB in November 2016 in demonstrations against rising food prices; Ukrainian security officials, without offering evidence, suggested the Kremlin might have had a hand in the protests. OB’s leaders include Ukraine’s richest oligarchs, but it targets pensioners and low income voters with promises of a better life, more law and order and an end to social turmoil. Another aim, less often voiced in public, is return to the Yanukovych-era big business friendly climate: “a normal Ukraine, but without Yanukovych”, as one of its strategists put it.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Leadership is also shared between several major oligarchs, who do not always see eye to eye.

A number of key OB figures have extensive holdings in the separatist-controlled areas, and regional government officials say the party is the dominant political machine in large parts of the south east, including the government-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. Members are also believed to be still functioning in the occupied east. But OB has problems: its top leadership will not, according to a senior party operative, throw themselves or their money wholeheartedly into the campaign. Leadership is also shared between several major oligarchs, who do not always see eye to eye. Russia is deeply suspicious of the motives of one whom it views as pro-European.

Most OB leaders made massive fortunes at spectacular speed, largely during the Yanukovych era, and some fear the government could open legal cases against them or their property should they be too politically active. Both parties speak generally of a new start with Russia, a less hostile atmosphere in discussions on Donbas’s future and a greater willingness to listen to Kremlin ideas. Moscow’s track record shows little inclination to make concessions, but, a Russian official commented, the Kremlin has had plenty of experience in dealing with them, and friendly faces in the Rada would be welcome.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Russian government official, 4 December 2016.Hide Footnote

IV. Playing for Time

Poroshenko is, an admirer says, “the master of procrastination”, and has used that quality brilliantly to minimise the damage Russia can inflict on Ukraine under the Minsk agreement. He has put his head down, said little and explained when challenged that he can do nothing. On at least one occasion, he has telephoned Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to explain that he did not have the parliamentary votes to pass the key laws on the status of the enclaves and ask Nazarbayev to pass the word to Putin. Nazarbayev did so, receiving no public response from Moscow.[fn]Komsomolskaya Pravda, 24 August 2016.Hide Footnote

Many of Poroshenko’s supporters in Ukraine and abroad wish he would do more. To their repeated dismay, he has done nothing, diplomats working on the subject say, “to put Russia on the back foot” by forcing Moscow to explain its position rather than allowing it a free hand to criticise Kyiv for not implementing Minsk. Aides have long suggested he declare the eastern enclaves occupied zones, and parliamentarians have prepared legislation on this. He has neither done this, nor explained his reasoning. Neither has he reached out to the population of the enclaves to express solidarity or concern for their difficult situation.[fn]The subject has been a frequent element in Crisis Group interviews since early 2015 with presidential administration staff, senior members of the legislature and senior Kyiv-based diplomats.Hide Footnote

Kyiv has its own complaints. U.S. military aid is far below needs, officials say, while Washington demands much and provides little. At one point in mid-2016, a senior U.S. official came to Kyiv to urge agreement to speedy elections in the enclaves. Kyiv rejects this for a number of reasons, the most practical of which is that the elections would essentially be organised by the two Russian-installed separatist leaders, and senior officials were incensed. “Like hell we’ll agree to that”, said the security adviser to a senior member of the administration. They also complain that, to the chagrin of many U.S. officials and members of Congress, President Obama has consistently refused to provide lethal weapons. A top official succinctly laid out Kyiv’s grievances:

The U.S. smiles sympathetically at us, but that’s about it. Rusty Humvees are not aid. We need advanced weapons or the credits to produce them. We need a clear signal from Washington that they are committed to our survival.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, 26 November 2016. The White House has argued that such weapons would not deter Russia and could well provoke it to escalate in Donbas. Supporters of more weapons in the administration and Congress argue that advanced weapons would inflict more casualties on Russian regular troops, thus increasing domestic pressure on Putin.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, he and others say, Russia is testing new military equipment and weaponry in the east – “experimenting on Ukrainian troops” – from armour to weapons location systems, and improved versions of its already effective technology for disrupting battlefield communications.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior official, Kyiv, 26 November; Professor Vladimir Gorbulin, presidential adviser, director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies, Kyiv, 25 October, 2016.Hide Footnote A number of military commanders say they need battlefield intelligence rather than sophisticated weaponry. Better weapons would be politically useful, as a clear signal to Moscow of the West’s determination. On the battlefield, however, Russia would probably respond with a further escalation of its own weapons, a combat commander consistently says.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kyiv and eastern Ukraine, August, October 2015.Hide Footnote Residual Western concern about Russian penetration of the Ukrainian military and security structures still limits the amount of intelligence support provided to troops. The harshest criticism is often reserved for the EU. “Europe is shaky”, the senior official said. “It is afraid to fight, so will never be a major international force”. Another said the EU’s focus on long-term resilience was good, but woefully insufficient in the short term.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, October 2016.Hide Footnote

The president has adopted the same procrastination tactics with regard to corruption, Western officials and domestic critics say. The impression is growing among foreign observers and many Ukrainians, including officials active in the war effort, that he presides over a system he cannot reform.[fn]Some steps have been taken, such as disclosure in October of assets by officials and parliamentarians who displayed vast wealth; this also indicated some of the difficulties in tackling a legacy of two decades of high-level corruption.Hide Footnote An increasing number of critics say he may not want to. He has resisted removal, let alone investigation of close associates and aides suspected of corruption. He resisted for months, for example, before removing a particularly controversial figure, Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin.[fn]For criticism of Shokin and his denials of wrong doing, see, inter alia, “Ukraine’s unyielding corruption”, The New York Times, 31 March 2016. “Шокин опровергает информацию о гражданской жене с имуществом и обещает судиться с журналистами” [“Shokin denied information about his civil marriage and promised to take legal action against journalists''], 112.ua, 29 July 2016.Hide Footnote Poroshenko “played deaf for weeks, months”, said an ambassador. “It was quite amazing”. When the head of state of one of Ukraine’s strongest supporters raised Shokin with him, another diplomat recalled, “President Poroshenko said it was hard to find qualified candidates for such positions”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior diplomat covering Ukraine, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Corruption and incompetence within the highest echelons of the armed forces have since the beginning been viewed as one as the most important threats to the Ukrainian effort.

International backers are increasingly impatient. An influential European ambassador regularly called for dramatic measures, saying bodies of corrupt officials needed, figuratively, to be seen hanging from lamp posts. Even the usually cautious International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently signalled deep unhappiness. In November 2016, a mission visited without approving another tranche of a four-year loan. This was an embarrassment and disappointment for the government, which had publicly predicted the tranche. After polite words about the economy, the IMF’s final press statement was blunt: “Decisive steps particularly need to be taken to fight corruption, which remains the most frequently mentioned obstacle to doing business in Ukraine”. New institutions, including the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), have been created, but, the statement continued, “tangible results in prosecuting and convicting corrupt high-level officials and recovering proceeds from corruption have yet to be achieved”.[fn]“Statement at the conclusion of the IMF Mission to Ukraine”, IMF, 18 November 2016. Senior Ukrainian officials say that the top leadership is becoming increasingly critical of NABU. One described it as a Western-backed effort to undermine the country’s leadership. Crisis Group interview, senior official, Kyiv, 14 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Other international supporters of the Poroshenko administration have been somewhat more encouraging. A recent EU press release stated that “Ukraine is carrying out unprecedented reforms” and quoted EU High Representative Federica Mogherini as praising the work done by the authorities. “It is now crucial to move from passing legislation and setting up institutions to full implementation of these reforms so that Ukrainian citizens can reap the benefits”, she added. “Ukraine can count on the European Union’s support moving forward”.[fn]“EU report: Ukraine carrying out unprecedented reforms”, press release, European Commission, 13 December 2016.Hide Footnote

The main reform-oriented NGO coalition, “Reanimation Package of Reforms”, continues to push a thoroughgoing agenda, with determination but limited success. Its roadmap for 2017 calls, inter alia, for full implementation of constitutional amendments on the judiciary and establishment of a new Supreme Court and anti-corruption courts “to make the punishment for high-profile corruption inevitable”.[fn]Reanimation Package of Reforms, http://rpr.org.ua/en.Hide Footnote

In Kyiv, however, discussion has shifted to corruption in a particularly sensitive area, the war effort. Corruption and incompetence within the highest echelons of the armed forces have since the beginning been viewed as one as the most important threats to the Ukrainian effort. Once again, little has been done to address this. Eighteen months ago, a government security adviser described the high command as “75 per cent of the problem”. The situation is unchanged. A top security official, challenged in December about regular complaints, particularly from front-line officers, of high level incompetence and corruption, acknowledged the grievance. But, he noted, any changes in the high command are “a prerogative of the president”. Asked why the president did nothing, he referred tersely to Poroshenko’s well-known reluctance to replace officials he has worked with for years.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, 28 October 2016.Hide Footnote

More recently, indications surfaced that corruption had extended to the defence industries. In February 2016, the economic development and trade minister, Aivaras Abromavicius, a Lithuanian investment banker, resigned and accused senior members of the ruling Bloc Petro Poroshenko party of trying to impose on him unqualified deputies, in circumvention of official channels. One was to be a new deputy minister overseeing the defence industries. In a highly unusual gesture, ten ambassadors issued a joint letter expressing their disappointment at the resignation.[fn]Novoe Vremya, 3 February 2016. The ambassadors’ statement read in part: “It is important that Ukraine’s leaders set aside their parochial differences, put the vested interests that have hindered the country’s progress for decades squarely in the past, and press forward on vital reforms”.Hide Footnote

The issue continues to attract attention and could inflict further serious damage on the president’s domestic and international reputation. The investigative newspaper Ukrainian Pravda claimed in December 2016 that the abuses were continuing, and politician-business people close to the president were still appointing their own people to key positions.[fn]“Война и бизнес. Как друзья Порошенко контролируют миллиардные заказы Укроборонпрома. Часть 1” [“War and Business, how friends of Poroshenko control billions worth of Ukrainian defense industry orders, Part 1”], Ukrayinska Pravda, 1 December 2016.Hide Footnote More striking is that the problem is now raised by senior officials in government offices and conversations with outsiders. “The issue has been around for months”, one said. “They claim that the president has sold the country to the Russians and is even benefiting from the military budget. I don’t believe it, but as for those around him …”[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, 4 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Poroshenko supporters, in both the Rada and the presidential administration, explained in interviews the president’s refusal to move against close associates by his conviction that in difficult times he needs to stick with the few tried and trusted associates on whom he has relied for years. He is very much a loner and a micro-manager, they say – foreign policy is made in the president’s office, for example, not the foreign ministry. Such loyalty, however, is seriously damaging his reputation and undermining trust in his leadership.

Close observers tend to feel that Poroshenko’s gambit of playing for time may no longer serve him well. ‘The president has never understood that time is a commodity in desperately short supply in Ukraine’, a Western ambassador said.

At the moment, the general mood seems to be resignation and depression rather than violent anger. “I was planning to go into politics last year”, said the head of a military veterans organisation. “Then I realised the illness has metastasised throughout the [political] system and I gave up”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, 30 November 2016.Hide Footnote It has, however, become more common to encounter discussion among analysts and activists of the theoretical need for a “military interval” in Ukraine’s political development, a way to break the system of corruption that has taken root.

Meanwhile, Russia is ratcheting up pressure. Three days after the Trump election, a biting Russian analysis of the Ukrainian situation zeroed in on Poroshenko’s main tactic. Instead of buying time, it warned, he had lost it. The article poured scorn on the “illusion” of a return to the pre-February 2014 situation, rejecting the Ukrainian position that “an end to the Donbas conflict is possible only through the total liquidation of one side in the conflict – the DNR-LNR”. “In the future”, it concluded, “he or his successor will have either to accept the loss of sovereignty over a part of the Donbas, or accept a peace agreement on disadvantageous conditions”.[fn]Centre for Current Policy, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Close observers tend to feel that Poroshenko’s gambit of playing for time may no longer serve him well. “The president has never understood that time is a commodity in desperately short supply in Ukraine”, a Western ambassador said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, April 2016.Hide Footnote

V. Conclusion

Ukraine is reaping the bitter fruit of the last twenty years of its development, which has led to the formation of an oligarchic societal system that has parasitised on its Soviet inheritance, imitated market and democratic processes and institutions, polarised Ukrainian society, put the brakes on the development of the middle class, deformed political culture, created a dependent foreign policy totally lacking in initiative and undermined the potential of the armed forces.[fn]Vladimir Gorbulin, “Есть ли жизнь после Минска?” [“Is there life after Minsk?”], Zerkalo Nedeli, 12 February 2016.Hide Footnote

This withering diagnosis, by a defence and military adviser to the president, succinctly summarises the crisis. None of the problems he outlines have been addressed. The key scourge of the past generation, corruption that spreads into every interstice of government, diverting massive sums from the budget, is largely untouched. Concern is growing. The number of Poroshenko supporters who argue that any criticism of the president advances the Russian cause is declining. Even government advisers feel the leadership either cannot or will not change the system.

Kyiv’s supporters in Europe and the U.S. continue to push diligently on the corruption issue but do not seem to have gained any purchase. The risk is that they will be tempted to use presidential inaction as an excuse to quietly walk away from Ukraine in the next year or two. There would be serious consequences if that happened: for Ukraine surely, but potentially also for other countries in the region, including EU and NATO members, who are deeply concerned by Moscow’s increasingly assertive policy.

An approach to consider would be a joint démarche to the president from Ukraine’s main supporters, including the handover of a list of the most egregious suspects of high-level corruption that involves billions, not millions of dollars. Poroshenko would be advised that outside support – political and diplomatic, economic and military – risks being seriously curtailed unless he immediately takes energetic, public and unambiguous action to address the widespread allegations of corruption within his entourage. He would be pressed to institute a transparent investigation, followed, in all cases where results justify, by speedy trials, and to ensure that the legal process proceeds without interference.

The rationale for this is clear: corruption is now as great a threat to the Ukrainian state as Russian intervention in the east. Its leader should, therefore, move and be seen to move aggressively. Even if he responds as he has to other calls for action on corruption – with silence or inaction – the U.S. and EU should simultaneously stress to Moscow on all possible occasions that they will accept neither the violation that is occurring of Ukrainian sovereignty nor any further effort by Russia to infringe on neighbours’ sovereignty. The potential impact of the message to Moscow, however, will depend to a large degree on the political courage and commitment shown by the Ukrainian leadership.

Kyiv/Brussels, 19 December 2016