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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

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin give a press conference after a summit on Ukraine at the Elysee Palace in Paris, December 9, 2019. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS
Report 256 / Europe & Central Asia

Peace in Ukraine I: A European War

To help Ukraine find peace, the EU, NATO, and member states must seek new approaches to arms control discussions with Russia and European security as a whole. They should also consider a more flexible sanctions policy, such that progress in Ukraine may lead to incremental easing.

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What’s new? Russia’s Ukraine policy, including its military intervention, is driven both by Moscow’s goals in Ukraine itself and its longstanding desire to revise Europe’s security order. Western responses are similarly driven by both Ukraine-specific and Europe-wide interests. A sustainable peace plan must address both sets of factors.

Why does it matter? Efforts to make peace in Ukraine by solving problems specific to Ukraine only will fail, because the causes of the conflict are both local and geostrategic. A truly sustainable peace should address European security as a whole to make Russia, its neighbours and the entire continent safer.

What should be done? European states should engage Russia in discussions of European security, including regional and sub-regional arms limitations. They should also consider adjusting the current sanctions regime to allow for the lifting of some penalties if Russia contributes to real progress toward peace.

Crisis Group conducted the field work for this Report before the COVID-19 pandemic. Some dynamics examined in this publication may have changed in the meantime. Moving forward, we will be factoring the impact of the pandemic into our research and recommendations, as well as offering dedicated coverage of how the outbreak is affecting conflicts around the world.

Executive Summary

This report is first in a Crisis Group series that will examine various dimensions of the war in Ukraine and chart possible pathways to its resolution. The initial instalment focuses on the conflict’s geostrategic underpinnings and their implications for any settlement.

The war in Ukraine is a war in Europe. It is also a war about European security. Russia’s military intervention on its neighbour’s territory was undertaken in large part to guarantee that Ukraine did not align with Western economic and security institutions. Russia’s belief that such alignments would do it tremendous damage is rooted in its overall dissatisfaction with the European security order as it has evolved over the last three decades. Although any peace settlement will need to address Ukraine-specific matters, it also needs to address broader European-Russian security concerns in order to be sustainable. The EU, NATO and their member states, including the U.S., should begin exploring new approaches to European security with Moscow, including new arms control measures, even as they support Kyiv’s efforts to end the fighting in Ukraine. In the meantime, the EU should also consider adopting a more flexible approach to its sanctions policy, offering incremental relief in exchange for incremental progress by Russia instead of today’s all-or-nothing posture.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Kremlin consensus has held that Western countries represent a hostile U.S.-led bloc, intent on limiting Russian power and influence and encroaching on what Moscow considers its natural sphere of influence, defined as most of the countries on its immediate periphery. Russia has been most neuralgic about Ukraine, with which it shares a complex and intertwined history. Although the popular uprising that resulted in the 2014 overthrow of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych surprised Brussels and Washington as much as it did Moscow, the Kremlin saw it as one more Western attack. In response, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and supported a violent separatist movement in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, beginning a war that continues to this day.

For Ukraine, Western support has been crucial to withstanding Russian aggression as repeated efforts to negotiate with Moscow to end the war have yielded scant results. Maintaining that backing, however, has meant accepting at least one component of Moscow’s argument: that the war in Ukraine is a standoff between East and West, and that if Western states do not resist Russia in Ukraine, they will eventually face Russia elsewhere.

Western states have also accepted this argument, to a point. Uninterested in getting involved in the armed conflict itself, they have sought to compel Moscow to back down mainly through the use of sanctions. Some of those levied by the U.S. and EU have been directly linked to the war in Donbas. Washington and Brussels both argue that once the commitments Moscow made by signing onto the Minsk agreements, negotiated with Kyiv and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 2014 and 2015, are fulfilled, those sanctions will be lifted. Russia, for its part, sees the Minsk implementation as Ukraine’s responsibility, and the sanctions as another instance of Western aggression. These competing interpretations have contributed to the impasse, and continuing war, that is now in its sixth year.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, elected president of Ukraine in April 2019, has sought to break the logjam. Having campaigned on a platform of peace, prosperity and an end to corruption, he reached out to Moscow and to people living in separatist-controlled territory, looking to stop the shooting, exchange prisoners and find a way to reintegrate Donbas. But despite prisoner exchanges and new ceasefires, peace remains elusive.

The geostrategic nature of Moscow’s motivations and the West’s response is one reason for the impasse. Because the problem extends beyond Ukraine and reflects deep structural mutual suspicions, the solution must also encompass those external elements to be sustainable. To be sure, a peace plan for Ukraine is a prerequisite for peace. Future publications in this series will address several elements any such plan will have to include. But those almost certainly will not suffice if European security as a whole is not also part of the approach.

EU members, Russia and their neighbours ought to start addressing broader European security issues.

In this sense, sustainable peace in Ukraine will require a dialogue on European security and Russian relations with the West. EU members, Russia and their neighbours ought to start addressing broader European security issues, including through regional arms control discussions, to lower tensions and alleviate all sides’ security fears. These talks will neither end the war nor, in all likelihood, result in quick agreements. But they will send a signal to Russia that its threat perceptions are taken seriously and that discussions with European states offer a promising way forward.

To strengthen the case that European-Russian dialogue holds real potential, the EU also should consider making its sanctions policy more flexible. Allowing some incremental sanctions relief for Russia in exchange for progress in eastern Ukraine would be in line with sanctions best practices and counter Moscow’s narrative that they merely reflect a punitive strategy. By contrast, the current rigid, all-or-nothing approach has limited Russian incentives to change behaviour.

Critics of a more flexible sanctions policy understandably point to risks. The first is to EU unity, which has been a crucial feature of Europe’s Ukraine policy and has helped convey seriousness to Moscow. But ironically, that unity could weaken if Russia were to take some conciliatory steps. A well-planned, agreed and more flexible approach would render Europe better prepared to act together if Russia changes tack. Preserving consensus will also require the EU to maintain its most severe sanctions linked to the Donbas war as long as Ukraine does not control all of its Donbas territory, and those related to Crimea for as long as Moscow continues to control the peninsula. A second risk is that of Russian backsliding. This can be mitigated by developing and clearly communicating the intent of the EU Council to reimpose sanctions within the framework of the Common Foreign and Security Policy if progress is reversed.

The war in Ukraine is local, and some of its roots are specific to Ukraine. The road to peace in Ukraine leads through Moscow, as only Moscow can cut off support to fighters in the east, withdraw weapons and ensure that Kyiv regains control of its territory. But the road to Moscow also leads through Europe: Moscow’s decision to annex Crimea and support armed fighters in Donbas was driven as much by its view of European and global security as by its interests in Ukraine itself. The steps outlined in this report will not in themselves end the conflict. But they could create a framework that gives peace in Ukraine a chance.

Kyiv/Moscow/Brussels, 28 April 2020




I. Introduction

The war in Ukraine has killed thousands, displaced about two million and torn communities asunder. Six years on, peace remains elusive, even with a young, energetic and seemingly committed new president in Ukraine. Among the many challenges to peace in Ukraine is the conflict’s multifaceted nature. A sustainable solution will need to address both Ukrainian and broader dynamics. Ukraine’s long-term security depends both on sustainable integration of the territories now controlled by separatists and on Kyiv’s relationships with Moscow, Brussels, Washington and other capitals, as well as their relations with one another. These are tightly interlocking, and solutions that address only some pieces of the puzzle likely will fail.

In April 2019, the victory of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his newly formed Servant of the People party sparked hope that an end to war in the country’s eastern Donbas region might be possible. Zelenskyy’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, had grown disillusioned and frustrated after several rounds of negotiation with Moscow. These had produced the 2014 and 2015 Minsk Agreements, which sought to outline a path to peace. But the agreements, signed by Kyiv under severe military pressure from Moscow and its proxies, proved highly controversial in Ukraine and remained largely unimplemented by all parties. Increasingly, Poroshenko’s team came to believe that the only sustainable path to peace lay in Russia and its proxies backing down in the face of international pressure, including tighter sanctions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ukrainian officials, Kyiv, July 2018; “Poroshenko rules out peace with Russia under Ukraine’s capitulation”, Unian Information Agency, 8 September 2018; “Захід змусить росію погодитись на введення миротворців на окупований донбас – Бригинець”, Priamii, 26 September 2018; Tom O’Connor, “Ukraine says it’s time for ‘peace with Russia … people are tired of war’”, Newsweek, 29 January 2019.Hide Footnote

Zelenskyy took a somewhat different approach. He seemed to believe that a negotiated peace remained worth seeking. Although his campaign promises were vague, he emphasised the renewal of economic and humanitarian ties with the breakaway region and conveyed the sense that peace and prosperity, including for Donbas, were more important than securing a geopolitical and cultural divorce from Russia.[fn]See Ze!Prezident, “Интервью Владимира Зеленского – про войну на Донбассе, олигархов и Слугу Народа [Interview with Vladimir Zelenskyy – on the war in Donbas, oligarchs and servant of the people]”, video, YouTube, 21 March 2019.Hide Footnote

Zelenskyy’s first months as president brought some results. Ukraine fixed a broken bridge at Stanytsia Luhanska, the only civilian crossing along almost 200km of the front line.[fn]Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (OSCE SMM), “Daily Report 276/2019”, 21 November 2019.Hide Footnote  Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists there have now been largely disengaged from one another for six months, although combatants remain nearby and skirmishes continue.[fn]OSCE SMM, “Daily Report 50/2020”, 29 February 2020.Hide Footnote  Working through the Trilateral Contact Group, a Minsk treaty implementation body comprising Russian, Ukrainian, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and separatist representatives, the parties agreed to an unprecedentedly wide-ranging ceasefire in July 2019.[fn]Ambassador Martin Sajdik, “Press statement of special representative of OSCE Chair in Ukraine and in the TCG Sajdik after meeting of TCG and working groups on 17 July 2019”, 18 July 2019.Hide Footnote  It produced an 80 per cent drop in violations, including of heavy weapon use. Although fighting resurged in late August, the drop was both larger and longer-lasting than during any previous ceasefire.[fn]Assessment of lower heavy weapons use reflects lower numbers of explosions recorded by the OSCE SMM. These are reported in their Daily Reports and Spot Reports. See also OSCE SMM, 2019 Trends and Observations.Hide Footnote  In September, Kyiv and Moscow each freed 35 individuals the other country had deemed political prisoners or prisoners of war in a much-lauded exchange.[fn]Katharine Quinn-Judge and Olga Oliker, “Ukraine-Russia Prisoner Swap: Necessary, Not Sufficient”, Crisis Group Commentary, 11 September 2019.Hide Footnote

In early October, Kyiv, Moscow and the separatists cracked open a door to renewed talks by signing on to the so-called Steinmeier Formula. The formula, aimed at implementing parts of the Minsk agreements even as sequencing of other issues remains contentious, was put forward by Germany’s then foreign minister and current president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The Minsk agreements call for so-called special status (which is to say, substantial autonomy) for parts of the Donbas now controlled by separatists, local elections there, and withdrawal of heavy weapons and foreign fighters as well as resumption of Ukrainian control.

But the opposing sides took competing positions regarding the order in which these steps would be taken. Kyiv insisted that it first needed to regain control over the territories before elections could be held or special status granted; Moscow and the forces it backs held to the opposite sequence. Steinmeier sought a compromise of sorts: areas now under separatist control would acquire provisional “special status” on the day local elections are held and achieve permanent special status if and when those elections prove credible and in compliance with both international standards and Ukrainian law.

Although Steinmeier’s formulation was silent when it came to Ukrainian control, Zelenskyy, in accepting it, made clear that credible and internationally compliant elections could occur only after separatist and Russian troops relinquished control over the territories.[fn]Zelenskyy’s words were: “If we say we want elections to proceed according to Ukrainian law, then we understand that there can’t be any machine guns, and the border should be ours”. “Брифінг Зеленського: формула ‘Штайнмайєра’ та ‘особливий статус Донбасу’ [Zelenskyy briefing: the “Steinmeier” formula and ‘special status of Donbas’]”, 5 Kanal, 1 October 2019.Hide Footnote  In a sense, his position left the disagreement with Moscow in place. Still, Russia greeted his acceptance of the formula as a step forward and agreed to hold the first meeting of the Normandy Four (Ukraine, Russia, France, Germany) since 2017.

In late October and early November, the sides carried out a further disengagement of their forces at the front-line towns of Zolote and Petrivske. This turn of events prompted protests in Ukraine led by a combination of veterans, Poroshenko loyalists and far-right activists, all of whom saw disengagement as capitulation. The Normandy Four nonetheless met in Paris in December. Although no breakthrough occurred, the gathering signalled a thaw in theretofore frozen negotiations. Ukraine and Moscow committed to another ceasefire, additional disengagements and improved access for the OSCE monitors tasked with observing and reporting on the conflict and facilitating dialogue among its parties.[fn]Although all OSCE member states agreed to deploy this mission, the monitors have been limited in their access to many locations on territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists.Hide Footnote  The parties also agreed to meet again in the spring of 2020.

These deals and the other small steps that have taken place to date – as well as the difficulties in achieving them – underscore the challenges faced by any peace endeavour. Some of these are domestic: Ukraine must be able to sell any peace to its diverse polity and needs a plan to sustainably reintegrate territory it has not controlled for six years, to say nothing of the people who live there. If it can accomplish that, it will still face the dilemma of what to do with thousands of Ukrainian citizens who took up arms against Kyiv. Still, while none of these questions is easy, creative thinking and good politics may bring workable solutions to Ukrainians on both sides of the line of contact.

Zelenskyy’s other problem, however, is external. Peace requires Moscow to respond in kind: to end its support for the war, withdraw weapons and personnel, and ensure that Ukraine regains territorial control. But Ukraine lacks both sufficient carrots and sufficient sticks to independently change Russia’s cost-benefit analysis and render peace preferable to war. The reason, in large part, is that Moscow’s motivations for this conflict are broader than Ukraine itself. For the Kremlin, the war in Ukraine is a war about both Ukraine and Russia’s security, in Europe and globally. The Kremlin sees the war as a fight with the U.S. and, more tangentially, with European countries.

For Ukraine-specific solutions to be sustainable, they will need to be paired with and bolstered by geostrategic progress involving not just Kyiv and Moscow, but the Euro-Atlantic community as a whole.

Ukraine, in turn, has relied on Western support to push back against Russia. While this backing has helped Kyiv, it has also contributed to Moscow’s perception that it is, in fact, locked in conflict with Western states over Ukraine. As a result, for Ukraine-specific solutions to be sustainable, they will need to be paired with and bolstered by geostrategic progress involving not just Kyiv and Moscow, but the Euro-Atlantic community as a whole.

This report is the first 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 Russia, Ukraine and a range of NATO and EU member states conducted since 2015, as well as on other other primary and secondary sources.

II. Think Globally, Act Locally: Russia, Ukraine and Western Powers

A. What is Russia Thinking?

Vladimir Putin has often noted that the histories of Ukraine and Russia are tightly linked, their populations knit together by linguistic, familial and cultural ties.[fn]For Putin on Ukraine, see Vladimir Putin, “Конференция ‘Православно-славянские ценности – основа цивилизационного выбора Украины’”, 27 July 2013; “Владимир Путин: русские и украинцы — один народ”, Kommersant, 27 October 2016; “Putin: Russians, Ukrainians are ‘one people’”, Associated Press, 20 July 2019.Hide Footnote  Moreover, the territories of both countries have often been ruled together and, in recent centuries, much of the territory of modern-day Ukraine has generally been governed from Moscow, whether under the Russian empire or the Soviet Union up until its collapse in 1991.[fn]For an overview of Ukrainian-Russian history and relations (which looks remarkably sanguine in its conclusions today), see Anatol Lieven, Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry (Washington, 1999).Hide Footnote  If Moscow presently does not wish to rule Ukraine directly, it seeks a settlement in which Russian long-term influence over Kyiv is guaranteed and an element of Russian identity is entrenched in at least part of Ukraine. It wants to ensure that today’s separatist territories, if and when reintegrated into Ukraine, play a unique role in the Ukrainian polity, with substantial autonomy and optimally veto power over national policies.

Ukraine’s historical ties to Russia are one factor in Moscow’s intervention. But to Russia, the war in Ukraine is also the hottest element in a continuing standoff with what Moscow sees as a U.S.-led Western bloc long bent on constraining, weakening and coercing it.[fn]Crisis Group analyst’s interviews in previous capacities, Moscow, Washington and elsewhere, 2015-2018. Vladimir Putin, “Address by the President of the Russian Federation”, 18 March 2014. Crisis Group interview, former Russian official, Moscow, August 2019. See also Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (Washington, 2015), p. 265.Hide Footnote  According to the Kremlin, this alliance, formal (in the form of NATO) and informal, has sought to spread its influence and military might to Russia’s borders.[fn]These perspectives have permeated Russian policy for decades. Crisis Group analyst’s interviews in previous capacities, Moscow, Washington and elsewhere, 1999-2018. See Aleksandr Pel’ts, “Нужна Новая Военная Доктрина”, Krasnaia Zvezda, 6 November 1996; Viktor Kirillov, “НАТО и Россия: От Кого Исходит Угроза?”, Orientir (January 2008), pp. 9-13. More recently, see Ruslan Pukhov, “NATO is the obstacle to improving Russian-Western relations”, Defense News, 28 March 2019.Hide Footnote  The alliance under this view has served to legitimise Washington’s practice of destabilising governments on Russia’s periphery and around the world, both by military means and by fomenting public protest and unrest.

Because Western rhetoric is often critical of Russia’s leaders, including Putin himself, Moscow sees these practices as not only destabilising but also as a direct security threat. It also considers them hypocritical: Washington and Brussels accuse Russia of violating a rules-based order even as the U.S. and its NATO allies use force abroad time and again and make no secret of their intention to promote their political systems and values in countries that do not share them at present.

Threatened, in its view, by such pressure, Moscow has sought to block NATO’s further enlargement and convince other European countries to renegotiate the continent’s security architecture. It has also pursued its own military modernisation and sought to demonstrate capabilities and resolve with additional exercises and increased operational tempos.[fn]Susanne Oxenstierna et al., Russian Military Capability in a Ten-Year Perspective – 2019 (Stockholm, 2019).Hide Footnote  Moscow’s hope and intention is to eventually establish a new security system more responsive to its interests and concerns.[fn]A good overview is provided in Ulrich Kühn, “Medvedev’s Proposals for a New European Security order: A Starting Point or the End of the Story?”, Connections, vol. 9, no. 2 (Spring 2010), pp. 1-16.Hide Footnote

This perspective helps explain why, when President Yanukovych’s government fell in the wake of the 2014 protests in Kyiv, Moscow blamed the turn of events on Washington and its partners. The protests initially focused on Yanukovych’s plans to renege on promises to sign on to an EU association agreement but soon morphed into calls for the president to step down. Although protesters were seeking closer ties with the EU, not NATO, Moscow was convinced that their actions formed part of a U.S. project.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Russian official, Moscow, May 2019.Hide Footnote  That U.S. and other Western officials supported the protests was deemed further proof.[fn]See Hill and Gaddy, Mr. Putin, op. cit., pp. 260-261, 363.Hide Footnote  If Ukraine and Western countries consider Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and direct support for – and involvement in – violent unrest in eastern Ukraine as instances of clear-cut aggression, Russia presented those actions as essentially defensive, crucial to arresting Western expansion.[fn]See Sergei Karaganov and Dmitry Suslov, “A new world order: a view from Russia”, Russia in Global Affairs, 4 October 2018.Hide Footnote

For Moscow, Western sanctions imposed in response to Russian actions in Ukraine were just another attack – one its leaders say they are proud their country capably survived.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Russian experts and officials, Moscow, September 2019. See also interview with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, “Мы 47 раз пережили американские санкции”, Russian International Affairs Council, 8 September 2017.Hide Footnote  The sanctions linked to Crimea’s annexation were comparatively modest, and Russia largely brushed them off. In contrast, those imposed by the U.S. and EU in reaction to Russia’s military actions and support for fighters and self-proclaimed new governments in eastern Ukraine are far more serious. Some were relatively narrowly tailored, including travel restrictions and asset freezes targeting individuals linked to Russian operations in Ukraine or the ban on exports of weapons and dual-use items. Others had more far-ranging effect and seem geared to harm Russia’s economy as a whole, such as limits on access to primary and secondary capital markets as well as to technologies and services linked to oil production and exploration.[fn]EU sanctions are summarised in “EU Restrictive Measures in Response to the Crisis in Ukraine”, European Council, n.d. U.S. sanctions are tracked at “Ukraine and Russia Sanctions”, U.S. Department of State, n.d.Hide Footnote

For Moscow, the decision by Brussels and Washington to tie the lifting of sanctions to implementation of the Minsk agreements was further proof that the policy was one of arbitrary punishment. Russia insists that it has done all it can to carry out Minsk: under its interpretation, the parties are to fulfil the agreements’ terms in the order in which they are listed. In other words, Russia should withdraw its forces only after the Ukrainian government has granted Donbas special status, held elections there and given amnesties to former separatist fighters.[fn]Kyiv, for its part, argues that lasting ceasefires must happen first, which Russia and its proxies must help deliver. Moreover, as will be discussed below, Ukrainian officials question how elections can take place if Russian forces remain in place.Hide Footnote  As a result, Moscow argues that to condition sanctions removal on Minsk implementation is tantamount to giving Kyiv veto power – and to keeping the penalties in place for the long term in order to strangle Russia’s economy.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Russian officials, policymakers and experts, September and December 2019; January 2020.Hide Footnote

Sanctions and continuation of the state of war represent significant burdens for Moscow, yet these are seemingly pale in comparison to the cost of Ukraine joining NATO or the EU. The conflict has led to the death of Russian soldiers and irregulars; Moscow also has paid to support the statelets: estimates of the yearly cost, not including military operations, run over 2 billion euros.[fn]Nikolaus von Twickel, “Events in the ‘People’s Republics’ of Eastern Ukraine”, Annual Report 2019, DRA for a European Civil Society, February 2020.Hide Footnote  The loss of economic ties with Ukraine has also been painful, including for Russia’s defence industry.[fn]Cut ties with Ukraine cost Russian defense industry $940 million”, Moscow Times, 22 July 2014; Kristina Khlusova, “Украинозамещение: как российский ВПК обходится без продукции западного соседа” [Ukraine replacement: how Russia’s military industrial complex is getting by without its Western neighbour’s production], Russia Today, 27 June 2017.Hide Footnote  Yet, however unlikely Ukraine’s membership in either of those Western institutions might seem, Russian hardliners in particular take the threat seriously and regard Ukraine’s putative membership as dangerous, designed to further the goals of a hostile West.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former Russian official, Moscow, August 2019.Hide Footnote

In this context, it is not surprising that Moscow at first reacted cautiously to Zelenskyy’s outreach. Its initial response to his election was far from friendly: Russia announced that it would begin offering passports to residents of Ukraine’s Donbas region and took time finalising the prisoner swap.[fn]See Neil MacFarquhar, “Outrage grows as Russia grants passports in Ukraine’s breakaway regions”, The New York Times, 25 April 2019; Leonid Bershidsky, “A prisoner swap with Russia tests Ukraine’s president”, Moscow Times, 1 September 2019.Hide Footnote

Russia would prefer peace on its terms to war and believes Zelenskyy offers a better chance of reaching this outcome than did his predecessor.

Why then did Moscow come to the table in Normandy and go along with the measures that have let Zelenskyy claim at least limited success? One answer is that Russia would prefer peace on its terms to war and believes Zelenskyy offers a better chance of reaching this outcome than did his predecessor. These terms remain recognition of the Russia-supported leadership’s authority in the statelets as well as a special status for those territories. Moreover, Moscow wants some sort of guarantee of Ukrainian neutrality, which many Ukrainians fear special status would provide by granting the regions a foreign policy veto.[fn]Sabine Fischer, “The Donbas Conflict: Opposing Interests and Narratives, Difficult Peace Process”, SWP Research Paper 2019/RP 05, April 2019.Hide Footnote  Even if Zelenskyy is unwilling or unable to deliver anything of the sort, Russia may hope that he or a successor could eventually grow more amenable, and that talks with Zelenskyy can lay the groundwork. In the meantime, keeping lines of communications open costs little and supports Russia’s argument that it is doing all it can.

Ukraine is only one piece of evidence informing Russia’s overall perception that it faces a hostile West. Even if achieved, Ukrainian neutrality, however crucial from Moscow’s vantage point, would not solve Russia’s European security problem; a local veto held by the now-separatist controlled territories over foreign policy might not even guarantee such neutrality in the long term. Assuming that Ukraine could somehow be turned into a long-term buffer of sorts, Russian fears of Western influence and efforts to undermine Moscow’s security likely would persist.

For Moscow, in other words, peace on Ukraine’s terms – in which Russian forces exit the statelets, Moscow stops supporting the separatists and Ukraine regains full control, free to pursue integration with the West – would be more than losing a local battle. Capitulation to Kyiv would be tantamount to backing down to Washington, a display of Russian weakness that could leave the door open to future coercion.

B. Ukrainian Perspectives

The Ukrainian people may have voted for peace, but the shape of that peace, and even the process of negotiating it, remain divisive. Between late August and September, two Ukrainian envoys to the Minsk Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) – where Russian, Ukrainian and de facto breakaway representatives discuss implementation of the agreements – quit. Both cited fears that Kyiv was making unilateral concessions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Roman Bezsmertnyi, Kyiv, October 2019; former Ukrainian diplomat, Kyiv, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Members of the military command, as well as leading figures associated with Ukraine’s far-right militias, characterised the July ceasefire as one-sided. The critics also accused Zelenskyy’s team of endangering the troops by trying to impose stricter limits on return fire and sniper activity, falsely painting the soldiers as trigger-happy.[fn]Кучма: запрет ответного огня должен действовать при провокационных обстрелах оккупантов [Kuchma: ban on return fire should function during provocative shelling by occupants]”, Bykvu, 6 June 2019; “Прошу Зеленского не отдавать незаконных приказов, которые все равно не будут выполняться – Ярош о предложении Кучмы не стрелять в ответ [I ask Zelenskyy not to issue illegal orders that will not be obeyed anyway – Yarosh on Kuchma’s suggestion not to return fire]”, Censor.net, 6 June 2019; “Генштаб не собирается запрещать войскам ‘любое ведения огня’ по оккупантам – Бутусов [The General Staff does not plan to forbid troops ‘to launch any fire’ at occupiers – Butusov]”, Censor.net, 19 July 2019.Hide Footnote

The announcement that Kyiv had agreed to the Steinmeier Formula – even with Zelenskyy’s significant caveat that Ukraine must control all of Donbas before local elections – prompted waves of protests organised by activist veterans. The demonstrations brought together a range of constituencies including far-right groups and more moderate supporters of the previous president, all of whom expressed fears that Kyiv was preparing to return to Moscow’s sphere of influence by reintegrating a region shaped by Russian military and political interference.[fn]Crisis Group observation, protest gathering outside Presidential Administration, Kyiv, 1 October 2019; Crisis Group observation, “No to Capitulation” protest, Kyiv, 15 October 2019. See manifesto of “No to Capitulation” movement at the Hi Капітуляції! Facebook page. For coverage of participation of public intellectuals and veteran politicians in the protest movement, see “Порошенко приходил на Майдан Незалежности на акцию против формулы Штайнмайера [Poroshenko comes to the Maidan for protest against Steinmeier Formula]”, Gordon, 6 October 2019.Hide Footnote  One of the right-wing groups, National Corps, threatened to block disengagement in Zolote, one of the three spots along the front line where the sides had agreed to establish demilitarised zones ahead of the December Normandy Summit. The threat likely contributed to its delay.[fn]On 11 October, Putin stated that “nationalists came [to the front line] and are not letting the army withdraw”. “Путин: Зеленский не может обеспечить развод сил и техники в Донбассе из-за националистов [Putin: Zelenskyy cannot guarantee the withdrawal of forces and materiel because of nationalists]”, TASS, 11 October 2019. His statement jibed with reports from the organisers of the National Corps party’s “last checkpoint” in Zolote. One of these men wrote on 9 October, the day disengagement was meant to take place: “The government really wants to begin withdrawing troops. If we sleep through this moment, we’ll sleep the whole country away”. Khroniki Ridika Telegram post, 9 October 2019. A Zolote resident opposed to disengagement told Crisis Group that without the National Corps protest it already would have proceeded. Crisis Group telephone interview, Zolote resident, 9 October 2019.Hide Footnote

For the most part, the opposition is driven by fears that, in his search for peace, Zelenskyy will sacrifice Ukrainian sovereignty and independence. Critics argue that Zelenskyy cannot be trusted to steer Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence. As evidence, they cite his past statements describing the war as a tragedy in which both sides harmed Ukrainians as well as Zelenskyy’s personal history as an unapologetic Russian speaker who has referred to Russians and Ukrainians as “truly fraternal peoples”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former assistant to Andryi Parubyi, Kyiv, October 2019; former volunteer pro-government fighter, Kyiv, December 2019; Crisis Group observation, “No to Capitulation” protest at Presidential Administration, Kyiv, December 2019; “Выборы президента: Владимир Зеленский о войне и мире [Presidential choices: Vladimir Zelenskyy on war and peace]”, OstroV, 18 January 2019.Hide Footnote

The suspicion appears at the very least to be overblown. At the Paris meeting, Zelenskyy reassured critics somewhat. He made clear that he had no intention of agreeing to Moscow’s preferred outcome, insisting, among other things, that Ukraine must control its territory before local elections are held. The Ukrainian president and his team also seem no more enamoured of formulas to ensure the country’s neutrality than were their predecessors, viewing it as a recipe for perpetual Russian influence over Ukraine at the expense of closer ties to the West.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former diplomat, Kyiv, December 2019; Shaun Walker and Andrew Roth, “Volodymyr Zelenskiy: My White House invitation? I was told it’s being prepared”, The Guardian, 7 March 2020.Hide Footnote

More broadly, if most Ukrainians reject the so-called neutrality option, they are clear-eyed in acknowledging that their country will not join the EU or NATO anytime soon. Although Ukrainians are far more favourable to eventual membership in either or both institutions than they were prior to the war, the country remains split, and the statelets’ eventual reintegration would drive down the numbers supporting any such association.[fn]See “Прес-реліз за результатами соціологічного дослідження – ‘Cоціально-політична ситуація в Україні на початку 2020 року’”, Center for Social and Marketing Research, February 2020; “Общественно-политические настроения населения (13-17 декабря) [Socio-political attitudes (13-17 December)]”, Rating Group, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Besides, Ukraine’s leadership increasingly realises that they are unlikely to be invited to join either institution in the near term, due to both the organisations’ enlargement criteria and the fact that any such invitation would require all member states to consent.[fn]On NATO enlargement, see “Enlargement”, North Atlantic Treaty Organization website. On EU enlargement, see “EU Enlargement”, European Commission website.Hide Footnote

Ukraine has, over the course of the war, increasingly looked to the West to help ensure its security from Russia.

Even short of EU or NATO membership, Ukraine has, over the course of the war, increasingly looked to the West to help ensure its security from Russia. To many Ukrainians, Western rhetoric and willingness to push back against Moscow has been valuable. Partly for this reason, the mirror image of Moscow’s narrative of the war as a geostrategic battle between Russia and the West has become prevalent in Kyiv, notably shaping the views of President Poroshenko’s administration. As many Ukrainians see it, their country is the front line of that conflict and therefore it is in the West’s interest to back Kyiv or face defeat.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Olena Zerkal, then-deputy foreign minister, Kyiv, July 2018; Crisis Group interviews, Joint Forces Operation personnel, April 2019; see “Выступление Порошенко на генассамблее ООН 26.09.18 [Poroshenko’s speech at UN General Assembly 26.09.18]”, 112 Ukraine YouTube channel, 26 September 2018.Hide Footnote

C. Ukraine’s Western Saviours?

Contrary to Russian narratives, the so-called West is far from monolithic.[fn]See, for example, “What Next for EU Russia Policy?”, European Council on Foreign Relations, n.d.Hide Footnote  Where U.S. administrations, for example, have been prone to support Ukraine’s NATO membership, many European governments, including those of France and Germany, have historically been wary.[fn]See Andrew T. Wolff, “NATO’s Enlargement Policy to Ukraine and Beyond: Prospects and Options”, in Rebecca R. Moore and Damon Coletta (eds.), NATO’s Return to Europe: Engaging Ukraine, Russia and Beyond (Washington, 2017), pp. 71-95. See also Aaron Mehta, “Ukraine sees two paths for joining NATO: will either work?”, Defense News, 13 January 2020.Hide Footnote  When sanctions on Russia were first proposed, they were also deeply controversial in several European capitals, including Athens, Rome, Sofia, Madrid and Vienna.[fn]Georgi Gotev, “Russia counts on EU ‘friends’ to avert further sanctions”, Euractiv, 9 July 2014. See also “Ukraine: EU fails to agree on new Russia sanctions”, BBC, 17 November 2014.Hide Footnote  Still, the prevailing view in Washington, Brussels and allied capitals is that Russia’s policies in Ukraine as elsewhere are deeply hostile.[fn]“What Next for EU Russia Policy?”, op. cit.; Crisis Group interviews (some in staff member’s previous capacity), Western officials, Washington, Brussels and London, 2015-2020.Hide Footnote  If Russia sees itself as pushing back against dangerous and coercive Western efforts to expand influence and reach, Western officials tend to see Russia as a revisionist power. In their view, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military involvement in eastern Ukraine challenge the longstanding rules-based international order.[fn]The notion of a “liberal international order” is, of course, highly contested, as is the West’s consistency in upholding its norms. For descriptions of that order from a Western vantage point, see, eg, Hans Kundani, “What is the Liberal International Order”, German Marshall Fund, 3 May 2017; G. John Ikenberry, “The Plot against American Foreign Policy: Can the Liberal Order Survive”, Foreign Affairs (May-June 2017); Thomas Wright, “The return to great-power rivalry was inevitable”, The Atlantic, 12 September 2018; Mira-Rapp-Hooper and Rebecca Friedman Lissner, “The Open World: What America Can Achieve after Trump”, Foreign Affairs (May-June 2019).Hide Footnote  That Russia’s military aggression is occurring in Europe is of particular concern: if it were to succeed, they fear, it could set a precedent and upend decades of relative peace (the Balkan wars excepted).[fn]See F. Stephen Larrabee, Peter A. Wilson and John Gordon IV, The Ukrainian Crisis and European Security (Santa Monica, 2015).Hide Footnote

All of this is exacerbated by the fact that the war in Ukraine does not exist in a vacuum. It is taking place amid instances of alleged Russian efforts to influence elections in Euro-Atlantic countries; a substantial Russian military modernisation program; Russian military intervention in Syria and, more recently, Libya; bellicose rhetoric; suspected government targeted killings of Russian citizens abroad; and the occasional incident when Western and Russian military vessels and aircraft operate in close proximity.[fn]For Western discussions of these various activities, see James Kirchick, “Russia’s plot against the West”, Politico, 17 March 2017; and Mieke Eoyang, Evelyn Farkas, Ben Freeman and Gary Ashcroft, “The Last Straw: Responding to Russia’s Anti-Western Aggression”, The Third Way, 14 June 2017.Hide Footnote

Taken as a whole, as many Western leaders see it, these activities suggest a growing Russian threat beyond Ukraine. In response, and alongside sanctions, they have sought to strengthen deterrence and reassure the most nervous of their NATO allies. The Western response has involved both military manoeuvres and force deployments, particularly what NATO terms “enhanced forward presence” in the Baltic and Poland.[fn]For details, see “Enhanced Forward Presence/About EFP”, NATO website, n.d.; See also “Decades after the end of the cold war, Russia is showing new aggression”, The Economist, 14 March 2019.

If Russia is not to be emboldened by its Ukraine experience, it follows that the war there must not be resolved in Russia’s favour. The best-case scenario for Western leaders would be a lasting peace that returns Ukraine’s Donbas territory to Kyiv’s control; optimally, this arrangement would include Crimea as well, although privately, and even as they refuse to recognise Moscow’s annexation, Western officials tend to acknowledge that the peninsula will remain in Russian hands for the foreseeable future.[fn]Crisis Group staff member’s interviews in a previous capacity, Washington and European capitals, 2016-2019.Hide Footnote  As a corollary, Ukraine ought to be free to make its own choices regarding political and institutional affiliation – with the caveat that the institutions in question would need to accept Ukraine as a member.

No NATO or EU country has an alliance commitment to defend Ukraine and none seems prepared to risk armed conflict with Russia over this issue.

That said, the U.S. and its European allies remain cautious about escalation risks. No NATO or EU country has an alliance commitment to defend Ukraine and none seems prepared to risk armed conflict with Russia over this issue. Their efforts to achieve their goals in Ukraine have therefore taken the form of sanctions on Russia coupled with rhetorical, economic and military support for Ukraine.[fn]Iain King, “Not Contributing Enough? A Summary of European Military and Development Assistance to Ukraine since 2014”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 26 September 2019.Hide Footnote  Should Minsk be implemented and Ukraine regain control over its eastern border, European states are unlikely to maintain sanctions on Moscow, save those linked directly to Crimea or non-Ukrainian issues (eg, sanctions placed on Russian officials in response to the attempted murder of Sergei and Yuliya Skripal in the UK).[fn]The Skripals survived the poisoning attempt, but Dawn Sturgess, a UK citizen exposed to the poison, died. Jennifer Rankin, “Skripal poisoning suspects put on EU sanctions list”,
The Guardian, 21 January 2019.Hide Footnote
 The U.S. is an outlier insofar as a large number of its sanctions are simultaneously tied to Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian issues, including election interference and Russian policy in Syria. The intermingling of reasons for the sanctions, high political costs of lifting them, and the variety of legislative and administrative procedures required to do so make the situation in the U.S. far more complex.

D. A Prolonged Paralysis

The current logjam is explained, in part, by tension between Russia’s view of the war in Ukraine as one component of a broader conflict with the West, and NATO as well as EU member states’ view of Russia’s actions in Ukraine as part of a broader assault on their security and stability. In order to break the impasse, some in the West have argued for stronger pressure on Moscow: increased sanctions on Russia, greater military assistance to Kyiv or both.[fn]U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, “Senators Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Hold Russia Accountable”, press release, 13 February 2019; U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Office of Foreign Assets Control: List of Specially Designated Individuals”, 30 September 2019. See also Liudmyla Grubnyk, “‘Перекрити’ східний кордон: експерт пояснів, навіщо Україні амеріканська ППО [To ‘cover’ the eastern border: expert explains why Ukraine needs the American Patriot system]”, Segodnya, 29 August 2018; Diane Francis, “When Javelins aren’t enough”, Atlantic Council, 3 April 2019.Hide Footnote

The historical record of sanctions in general, as well as those imposed on Russia to date, indicates that they are unlikely to end this war.

The effectiveness of such instruments is debatable. Sanctions certainly can inflict economic pain and, in certain circumstances, alter the target’s incentive structure. But the ability of sanctions to change state behaviour is more limited. The historical record of sanctions in general, as well as those imposed on Russia to date, indicates that they are unlikely to end this war.[fn]See Daniel W. Drezner, “Sanctions Sometimes Smart: Targeted Sanctions in Theory and Practice”, International Studies Review, vol. 13, no. 1 (2011), pp. 96-108. See also Meghan L. O’Sullivan, Shrewd Sanctions: Statecraft and State Sponsors of Terrorism (Washington, 2003).Hide Footnote  Russia’s economy, while deeply bruised, proved remarkably resilient over the six years of the crisis, a product of luck (oil prices that mainly rose through 2016-2018) and fiscal policies that kept inflation in check.[fn]Henry Foy, “Russia: adapting to sanctions leaves economy in robust health”, Financial Times, 30 January 2020.Hide Footnote  Russian business practices of cutting salaries rather than firing workers during downturns also helped.[fn]Crisis Group interviews (some in analyst’s previous capacity), financial specialists and business representatives, Moscow, 2016-2019.Hide Footnote  Tellingly, a majority of Russians polled shortly before the start of the COVID-19 crisis said they did not personally feel the effects of sanctions even though the country’s economy had slowed.[fn]See Elena Mukhametshina, “Большинство россиян не чувствует проблем от западных санкций [Most Russians do not experience problems as a result of Western sanctions]”, Vedomosti, 16 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Likewise, there is reason to doubt whether new weapons supplies to Kyiv would force Russia to change its policy. With the conflict at an ugly but slow simmer, Russia is unlikely to feel threatened by foreign weapons shipments to Ukraine. Kyiv can already inflict pain on Russia’s proxies and any Russian troops that support them with its existing capabilities. If additional Western aid does not alter the balance of power, it will make no meaningful difference; if it does alter the balance, then Russia’s capacity for escalation would in any event be substantially higher than Ukraine’s. True, continued Western assistance to Kyiv in the form of both lethal and non-lethal support benefits Ukraine and arguably saves lives, not least by signalling where Western sympathies lie. Absent the deployment of Western forces and the attendant risk of the war’s spread, however, it is unlikely to substantially degrade Moscow’s advantage.[fn]For a variety of perspectives on the debate over the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine, see Michael Kofman, “Putin’s military is playing the long game in Ukraine”, Foreign Policy, 31 August 2016; Peter J. Marzalic and Aric Toler, “Lethal weapons to Ukraine: a primer”, The Atlantic Council Ukraine Alert, 26 January 2018; Amy McKinnon and Lara Seligman, “Far from the front lines, Javelin missiles go unused in Ukraine”, Foreign Policy, 3 October 2019; Mark Episkopos, “What if Ukraine’s army finally became strong enough to fight Russia on its own?”, The National Interest, 24 September 2019; and Corey Dickstein, “Top U.S. commander in Europe endorses more Javelin missiles to Ukraine”, Stars and Stripes, 3 October 2019.Hide Footnote

Ultimately, a sustainable solution to the conflict is unlikely as long as its geostrategic underpinnings remain unaddressed. Progress in Ukraine requires progress on broader European security.

III. European Security: Necessary if Not Sufficient for Peace in Ukraine

Enlarging the discussion to broader security concerns is a controversial proposition. Many Europeans fear it could lead to questioning principles of territorial integrity or the right to choose one’s allies; they fear, too, that it could give rise to a “grand bargain” that trades Ukrainian sovereignty for promises of Russian restraint elsewhere. Neither of these outcomes is desirable. Instead, broadening the conversation should mean honestly acknowledging Russia’s security concerns and being willing to seek ways to work with Moscow to alleviate them, on the one hand, while mitigating the fears other countries – Ukraine included – have regarding Russian intentions on the other. If such conversations are successful, Ukraine, Russia and all their European neighbours would feel far safer.

In thinking of how to conduct such discussions, several considerations are in order. First, if Russia’s concerns are on the table, so, too, must be those of other European countries. For example, conversations regarding limitations on weapons deployments are one way of reassuring Russia. In return, however, Russia would need to accept limits on its own deployments. All sides would need to agree on mechanisms for verification and sanctions for eventual violations.

Secondly, the parties might be well served by beginning with less divisive topics. European countries have sought to promote cooperation with Russia on climate change and counter-terrorism; today, they might also seek common ground in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. They could also start with more targeted security issues. Discussions could be carried out on a sub-regional rather than continent-wide level, for instance focusing on the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, and other narrower ground and maritime environments. In itself, European states’ willingness to come to the table, acknowledging Russian concerns while also voicing their own, could send an important signal. Once discussions are under way, they may help temper antagonistic rhetoric on all sides.

Some argue that such conversations, occurring even as war continues in Ukraine, would reward Russia.[fn]See Jamie Dettmer, “Macron’s courtship of Putin alarming Russia’s near neighbors”, Voice of America, 11 September 2019; and Janusz Bugajski, “Beware another Russia reset”, CEPA, 20 February 2020.Hide Footnote  Western governments shut down many existing dialogues and other forms of cooperation in response to Moscow’s aggression, signalling they would restart or be reconsidered only once Ukraine regained control of its border.[fn]Endeavours that have been curtailed include “practical” NATO and member state cooperation with Russia, notably in Afghanistan and on counter-terrorism as well as EU funding for most cooperative projects other than people-to-people exchanges. See “NATO-Russia Relations: The Facts”, NATO, 9 August 2019; “The EU’s Russia Policy: Five Guiding Principles”, European Union Briefing, February 2018.Hide Footnote  But suspending these talks has not helped move Russia and, besides, progress on broader continental concerns is as important to the rest of Europe as it is to Russia. A more secure Europe is also better for Ukraine, diluting its role as battleground between Russia and the West and making a sustainable peace more realistic.

In the longer term, progress in security dialogues almost certainly would make peace in Ukraine more sustainable; by contrast, in the shorter term, the absence of visible results could undermine the prospect of advances in Ukraine.

Even if they occur, regional security discussions will take time to produce visible results. Although they could encourage greater Russian flexibility, Moscow is unlikely to compromise on Ukraine today in exchange for the promise of sub-regional weapons limits at some point in the future. In the longer term, progress in security dialogues almost certainly would make peace in Ukraine more sustainable; by contrast, in the shorter term, the absence of visible results could undermine the prospect of advances in Ukraine.

Thirdly, therefore, there should be more immediate incentives tied to the conflict in Ukraine itself. These should aim at building faith in Moscow that Western states would be more cooperative if Russia were to show greater willingness to compromise on Ukraine. Sanctions arguably are the most promising area in this regard: linking incremental steps by Moscow to incremental relaxation of sanctions is likely to be more effective than today’s all-or-nothing approach.[fn]Much of the research on the effectiveness of sanctions argues for flexible sanctions strategies when seeking behaviour change rather than containment. See O’Sullivan, Shrewd Sanctions, op. cit., especially pp. 284-320.Hide Footnote  Under current circumstances, were Moscow to shift tack and be more constructive (for example, by pressuring separatists to respect ceasefires and provide access to monitors or by seriously reciprocating Zelenskyy’s peacemaking efforts), European governments would have few if any effective tools to respond positively; Russia would face the same sanctions as they do today. Such an outcome would reinforce Moscow’s narrative that sanctions are detached from Russian behaviour. It might also spur dissent within EU ranks, with some members refusing to extend sanctions when the six-month renewal comes up.

An alternative to the current framework would be for Europe to develop a plan clearly linking the lifting of specific sanctions to specific steps by Russia. The bulk of sanctions would remain tied to the most important components of any peace deal, namely restoration of Ukraine’s control over its territory (with the exception of Crimea, whose status is linked to a different set of sanctions). For instance, Russia could be granted access to some capital markets or limited technologies and services in the oil sector in exchange for Moscow’s success in pressuring its proxies to provide access to monitors and to honour any ceasefire. In so doing, Europe would be sending a credible signal to Moscow that sanctions can be eased, without sending a message either of weakness or of desperation.

Presented with this suggestion, several European officials raise the concern that any progress by Moscow would be easily reversible.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, EU and member state representatives, Brussels, Moscow and New York, 2019-2020.Hide Footnote  They also fear that any loosening of the sanctions regime could jeopardise the European unity that has prevailed until now. [fn]Crisis Group interviews, EU and member state representatives, Brussels, Moscow and New York, 2019-2020.Hide Footnote  Despite early rumblings of discontent, member states have displayed remarkable consensus on the sanctions regime and any adjustment could weaken it. Were some sanctions eased in response to specific steps from Moscow, officials fear that reaching agreement on reimposing them were Russia to backtrack, which would require consensus from all EU member states, would be near impossible. These concerns are certainly valid.

That said, the failure of the current policy to get Russia to reverse course means consensus alone may not be a sufficient reason to maintain the status quo; indeed, to the extent the current approach forecloses providing partial incentives for partial concessions from Moscow, it could be deemed counterproductive. Moreover, it is unclear how long the existing consensus will endure in any case, as frustration with the current policy paralysis could grow, especially if Moscow begins to make some concessions, potentially at least in part with the intent of dividing Europe. All options entail risks, but on balance developing a plan that incentivises meaningful compromise from Moscow and prepares Europe to act in unison in the event that happens seems the better path. Clearly this should be done cautiously and incrementally, ideally making clear that the European Council will reimpose restrictive measures within the framework of the Common Foreign and Security Policy in the event of backsliding and, as best possible, securing support across European capitals for that idea.[fn]EU sanctions guidelines are clear that the Council can decide not to continue restrictive measures even if the criteria or specific objectives of the measure have not been met, including if there has been a change in the political context. Likewise, the Council always retains the option to reimpose sanctions by adopting a CFSP Decision under Article 29 of the Treaty of the European Union. See paragraphs 34 and 7, respectively.Hide Footnote

Optimally, a revised sanctions approach would include those imposed by the U.S. and reflect coordination between Brussels and Washington. That does not currently seem achievable. U.S. sanctions related to Ukraine would be difficult to lift or alter, as such steps would require legislative action at a time of polarisation and gridlock in Washington when neither Republicans nor Democrats will want to risk appearing weak on Russia. Furthermore, U.S. sanctions would be hard to disentangle: some are clearly linked to Russian policy in Crimea or Donbas; others to a wider range of issues.[fn]U.S. sanctions against Russia related to its involvement in the conflict in Ukraine were initially imposed through a series of Executive Orders (13660, 13661, 13662 and 13685) and were enshrined into law by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The law also established a Congressional review process for any action the president takes to ease or lift a wider variety of Russia-related sanctions, including those linked to Ukraine. Though some, including President Donald Trump, have questioned CAATSA’s constitutionality (Donald J. Trump, “Statement by President Donald J. Trump on the Signing of H.R. 3364”, The White House, 2 August 2017), the legislation makes these sanctions at a minimum harder to reverse if only because of the political cost such an action would incur. The scope and scale of Ukraine-related sanctions are wide-ranging. See Kristin Archick and Dianne Rennack, “U.S. Sanctions on Russia”, Congressional Research Service, 17 January 2020. For a good explainer on U.S. sanctions on Russia, see Jeffrey Mankoff and Cyrus Newlin and Jeffrey Mankoff, “U.S. Sanctions against Russia: What You Need to Know”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 31 October 2018.Hide Footnote

IV. The Local Still Matters: Components of Ukraine’s Peace

New approaches to European security will not, in and of themselves, end the war in Ukraine. The subsequent instalments in this series will unpack the necessary components of any peace package. To an extent, they align with those of the Minsk Agreements, which for all their inadequacies lay out much of what needs to be resolved to enable peace and the territories’ reintegration, including ending the fighting, withdrawing weapons and forces, resuming social and economic ties with separatist-controlled territories; holding elections, defining governance structures and relationships, and deciding whom to amnesty as well as how. But Crisis Group will also explore issues not explicitly addressed in the Minsk Agreements:

Stopping the shooting. Ceasefires have been often agreed but short-lived, with each new incident of violence further undermining prospects for a peaceful settlement. This briefing will assess progress to date and the challenges that must be overcome to move forward on disengagement, a ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons as well as foreign forces. It will address domestic opposition to disengagement and ceasefire within Ukraine, its implications and the challenges posed by fighting flare-ups. It will also examine potential roles of outside actors, such as existing or additional monitors and peacekeepers.

Restoring ties across the line of contact. Rebuilding relationships between communities divided by the war will be critical to livelihoods in the short term and reintegration in the long term. This briefing will describe actions taken to date by the Zelenskyy administration to restore social and economic ties between government-controlled Ukraine and the statelets. It will assess ways to sustainably reverse the line of contact’s increasing resemblance to a state border and outline additional potential humanitarian actions, while addressing challenges of outreach to territory Kyiv does not control.

Local elections, a critical component of Minsk, pose thorny problems.

Holding elections. Local elections, a critical component of Minsk, pose thorny problems. The thorniest is that Minsk calls for Kyiv to resume control of its eastern border only after elections, even as these are to be held under Ukrainian law. Zelenskyy insists that this provision means Ukraine must first control all or most of the border, which in turn implies that all foreign forces and their weapons will have departed and that fighters will have laid down their arms. This briefing will lay out various options for breaking the impasse.

Reintegration. In line with the Minsk Agreements, reintegration of separatist-held areas into Ukraine should go hand in hand with decentralisation and special status for all or part of Donbas. But the parties define these concepts differently. This briefing will outline prospects for resolving disagreements and consider policy steps necessary to effectively govern Donbas as reintegration is under way, including accommodations for returning refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), economic and social support, and policing.

Amnesty. Minsk calls for an amnesty law that precludes prosecution and punishment of those who took part in fighting and other “events”. Determining who will be amnestied and what it entails will pose significant challenges and is likely to prove divisive. This briefing will examine different approaches to amnesty, including eligibility, restrictions and limitations as well as approaches to war crimes committed by both separatist fighters and those who fought as part of or alongside Ukrainian government forces.

V. Conclusion

The costs of continued war, even if accompanied by decreased levels of violence, is high for all parties – for Ukraine, Russia and European security. Zelenskyy came into office promising peace and prosperity; should he fail to deliver, his government risks being replaced not by new reformers but by members of the old guard that failed Ukraine for many years prior to 2014. Russia, although it has weathered the sanctions, nonetheless has suffered their effects; absent progress on Ukraine, those will remain in full. Finally, a persistent conflict risks locking Russia and the West into a worsening spiral of tensions at a time of new and unpredictable geopolitical challenges. Resolving the conflict would redound to all sides’ benefit.

Although any viable and sustainable solution will need to address Ukraine-specific issues, it almost certainly also will need to take into account the broader European security context in which the conflict began and that has helped fan its flames. Conflict in Ukraine means conflict in Europe, and its implications spread far beyond that country’s borders. Today, under Zelenskyy’s leadership, Kyiv appears to genuinely be seeking a way to end the war. Its Western partners can help by starting to build a broader framework for peace on the continent as a whole.

Kyiv/Moscow/Brussels, 28 April 2020