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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

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Klimkin (L), German Foreign Minister Gabriel (2ndL), French Foreign Minister Ayrault (R) and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov (2ndR) sit down for talks at the 53rd Munich Security Conference in Germany, on 18 February 2017. Sven Hoppe/POOL/AFP
Report 246 / Europe & Central Asia

Can Peacekeepers Break the Deadlock in Ukraine?

Implementation of the Minsk ceasefire agreement remains deadlocked. Russia’s first proposal of a UN peacekeeping force in Ukraine’s breakaway eastern regions cannot work, but it opens a much-needed window for diplomacy.

  • What’s the issue? In September 2017, Moscow proposed the deployment of UN peacekeepers along the line dividing Ukrainian from separatist and Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. Such a mission would not help end the conflict. To do that, peacekeepers would need a greater role, including helping secure the Ukraine-Russia border.
     
  • Why does it matter? The Ukraine conflict has killed over 10,000 people and provoked a humanitarian crisis. It undermines Ukrainian sovereignty and is hugely detrimental to relations between Russia and the West. There are good reasons to suspect Russia’s intentions, but with implementation of the Minsk peace agreement stalled, its proposal provides a slim opening for diplomacy.
     
  • What should be done?  Kyiv and its Western allies should further develop ideas on how peacekeepers might help. Discussions with Russia should continue and a more central role for Europe would make sense. Western powers must, however, better factor in developments on the ground, notably increasing resistance to the Minsk agreement in Ukraine itself.

Executive Summary

In September 2017, Russia circulated a draft UN Security Council resolution proposing a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine’s breakaway eastern regions. There are good reasons to suspect its motives for doing so, not least that the narrow mandate and lightly armed force envisaged would do little to resolve the conflict. At most, it could establish just enough security to pressure Kyiv into making concessions to separatist held areas, which would weaken its hand and strengthen that of Russia. Moscow’s proposal does, nevertheless, present an opening for dialogue and for Kyiv and its Western allies to explore how peacekeepers might facilitate return of those areas to Ukrainian authority, including by helping both secure the Ukraine-Russia border and unblock implementation of the February 2015 Minsk II agreement. In so doing, however, their diplomacy should factor in developments on the ground, including growing Ukrainian resistance to Minsk, by promoting a more nuanced debate on the agreement and thus helping tackle this animosity. Without that, even a credible peacekeeping mission could provoke a nationalist backlash.

Peacekeepers might offer a way to help settle the conflict, but would almost certainly need to fulfil at least three core tasks: securing the line that divides Ukrainian from separatist and Russian forces after withdrawal of heavy weapons; helping secure the Ukraine-Russia border; and fostering Kyiv’s implementation of Minsk, particularly by creating conditions for credible local elections and the reintegration of breakaway areas into Ukraine. Kyiv’s and Moscow’s consent would be critical: not only to avoid a Russian veto on the Security Council and enable a mission’s deployment, but also because peacekeepers could not operate without a reasonable degree of support from both capitals. Even then, they could face considerable local hostility and potentially violent spoilers. A force would need to be relatively large and capable, but with troops from neither NATO nor Russia.

Moscow’s proposal contemplates little of that. True, it comes after three years of diplomatic deadlock; implementation of the Minsk Agreement, which foresees reintegration of separatist held areas into Ukraine, has stalled. Kyiv insists it cannot fulfil its Minsk commitments while the east remains insecure and Russia controls the border; Moscow says it cannot cede border control to Ukraine until political conditions for the breakaway regions’ self-governance are in place.

But the small, lightly-armed force that, under the Kremlin’s proposal, would protect Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors in the conflict zone does not help bridge this gap. In particular, it denies peacekeepers a role along the Ukraine-Russia border, essential for reestablishing Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moscow’s intentions in submitting the proposal are uncertain too. While, in principle, there may be reasons for it to seek a way out of a costly intervention in eastern Ukraine, the small force proposed would more likely freeze the conflict than resolve it. The draft resolution more likely served to highlight Kyiv’s failure to implement its side of Minsk, play for time and test Western resolve after U.S., French and German elections.

While Western diplomats regard Moscow’s proposal warily, some also view it as an opportunity to engage.

While Western diplomats regard Moscow’s proposal warily, some also view it as an opportunity to engage. U.S. Envoy Kurt Volker has met several times with Vladislav Surkov, aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, to discuss peacekeeping options. Europeans for the most part have supported his efforts. Some privately express concern that American diplomacy is insufficiently inclusive, but European leaders themselves have provided few fresh ideas on how to break the deadlock.

In Kyiv, suspicion of Moscow’s draft runs deeper still, particularly given the narrow mandate and deployment area envisaged. Many Ukrainians fear Moscow intends to create just enough security to compel Kyiv to implement Minsk while retaining leverage in the east. Peacekeeping talks that fail to address this concern risk escalating violence on the front line, or even in government-controlled areas.

Talks also need to factor in other critical developments in Ukraine: anger at elites; mutual distrust between not only Kyiv and separatists but also Kyiv and other parts of the east; and, especially, mounting resistance to Minsk. Many see that agreement, signed in the wake of two disastrous military defeats, as reaffirming Russia’s gains in the conflict rather than guaranteeing a just resolution. Minsk political provisions – notably on special status; local elections; amnesties; and reintegration of separatist held areas – are widely disparaged. Even reformist politicians denounce them, while heated parliamentary debates on related legislation provoke nationalist protests. Anger at Minsk could colour the 2019 election campaign and strain Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s ruling coalition, which comprises the only parties – bar pro-Russia ones – that still support the agreement. Absent efforts to reverse it, the deployment of peacekeepers, even were Moscow to concede to their role on the border, could provoke a backlash.

Reaching consensus on peacekeeping for now appears a stretch. But Western allies are right to try; indeed, they should expand efforts. The Volker-Surkov meetings provide a useful direct U.S.-Russia channel. Europe’s influence in Kyiv and enormous levels of assistance to Ukrainian development and reform should give it a more central role; appointing a high-level European Union (EU) envoy could complement Volker’s diplomacy. The Normandy Format, currently comprising French, German, Russian and Ukrainian leaders, could be expanded to include both the EU and U.S. (at least at ministerial level). For now, neither an EU envoy nor expanded Normandy Format appears likely, but Europe’s diminished involvement leaves a gap; genuine progression in negotiations will require it to play a more active role. Too many parallel tracks also risk forum shopping by Moscow or Kyiv.

Continued discussions require Western diplomats to develop incentives for Russia. They could, for example, specifically address the concerns (whether genuine or not) that Moscow raises about the risk of reprisals in separatist areas. The core incentive for Russia’s withdrawal must remain the prospect of lifting sanctions only once Minsk agreements are fully implemented or once Russia gives up its military and political interference in Donbas and facilitates the return of the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine-Russia border to Kyiv's control. At the same time, Western diplomats should reassure Kyiv that Ukrainian security concerns lie at the heart of negotiations. They should also promote debate in Ukraine on Minsk by encouraging leaders currently stoking resistance against it to instead clarify measures – whether peacekeeping modalities or forms of Western support – that could make its implementation more palatable.

After several years of deadlock, Moscow’s proposal opens a window, however small and potentially disingenuous, for diplomacy. Developing peacekeeping plans would be valuable: were Moscow ever to seek an exit, a neutral, UN-mandated force would likely be required to facilitate its withdrawal and the return of Ukrainian authorities. Kyiv’s Western allies should redouble diplomatic efforts, but also better factor in conditions on the ground. For Ukraine, the only scenario worse than continued Russian interference in the east would be nationwide civil unrest over a mismanaged rollout of Minsk political provisions.

Brussels/Kyiv/New York/Vienna/Washington, 15 December 2017

 

I. Introduction

The conflict in Donbas is entering its fourth winter and has claimed over 10,000 lives. Implementation of the February 2015 Minsk II agreement, which Ukraine’s Western allies and Moscow still insist is the only way to end the crisis, has stalled.[fn]In September 2014, after Ukraine retreated from Ilovaisk six months into the crisis, negotiators from the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) – Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE – as well as representatives of separatist-held areas, signed a ceasefire agreement in Belarusian capital Minsk. This deal collapsed almost immediately, leading to some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, including the battles of Donetsk airport and Debaltseve in January and February 2015, which saw separatists with significant Russian support deal Kyiv two crippling defeats and seize strategic territory. France and Germany, following talks with Russian President Putin and Ukrainian President Poroshenko, then drew up a new peace plan known as Minsk II, formally the Package of Measures to Implement the Minsk Agreements, signed 12 February 2015 by the same group that signed Minsk I. This second deal, drawing from the first failed one, laid out a roadmap for a sustainable ceasefire and reintegration of the disputed regions back into Ukraine. See appendices for the Minsk agreements. For Crisis Group’s previous reporting on Ukraine and these agreements, see Crisis Group Europe & Central Asia Briefings N°79, Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine, 5 February 2016; N°81, Ukraine: The Line, 18 July 2016; N°85, Ukraine: Military Deadlock, Political Crisis, 19 December 2016.Hide Footnote In fundamental breach of that agreement, high concentrations of heavy weapons and forces persist along the line of separation, leading to daily exchanges of fire and cutting off the separatist-controlled areas – the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk – from the rest of the country.

Normandy Format meetings, which comprise Ukrainian, Russian, German and French leaders and give a political steer to the Minsk process, have helped hammer out a number of partial ceasefires.[fn]Since 2014, a complete ceasefire on the entire line of separation, including the last “back to school ceasefire” that entered into force August 2017, has been declared sixteen times, not counting numerous local ceasefires to conduct repair work at infrastructure facilities. Each has only led to a short-term reduction in violence.Hide Footnote OSCE Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) working groups, consisting of representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE and primarily responsible for implementing Minsk, have met dozens of times and provide a forum for valuable exchanges.[fn]There are four working groups: on political, security, humanitarian and economic issues. Ukraine does not recognise the self-proclaimed republics’ role in the TCG, but by Minsk II they are identified in text as “representatives of certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions”. Russia denies involvement in the conflict and that it is a party to it.Hide Footnote But progress – whether withdrawal and cantonment of heavy weapons, agreement on procedures for local elections, hostage exchanges, even the provision of humanitarian assistance – has been minimal.[fn]For instance, much discussion has focused on three disengagement zones – identified by a roadmap document from March 2017, designed to implement former German Foreign Minister and current President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s “Steinmeier Formula” – two of which have seen the withdrawal of forces. But all three areas are small and none is in an area with significant security challenges. Crisis Group interviews, OSCE officials, Kyiv and Vienna, September and October 2017. A senior Ukrainian interlocutor remarked that TCG participants could often only find common ground on a single goal: preserving and restoring shared critical infrastructure. Crisis Group interview, elder Ukrainian statesman, November 2017.Hide Footnote Talks are stalled too: Moscow points to Kyiv’s lack of progress on Minsk political provisions; in turn, Kyiv argues it cannot implement those provisions while there is no security in the conflict zone and adjacent segment of the Ukraine-Russia border.

Given this deadlock, Russia’s circulation in September 2017 to other members of the Security Council of a draft resolution for peacekeepers in Donbas came as a surprise. The draft went through two iterations. The first called for lightly-armed UN forces along the line of separation to provide security to civilian teams working with the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM).[fn]“Draft UNSC Resolution on UN Mission on Support in Protecting the OSCE SMM in the South-East of Ukraine, Russian Federation Permanent Representative to the United Nations”, 5 September 2017.Hide Footnote Kyiv and Western powers on the Security Council rejected this: not only did it not envisage peacekeepers securing the border, a critical step toward reestablishing Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, but it also fell short of providing security throughout the zone of conflict, where heavy weapons are the greatest risk, including to SMM monitors. In the words of a UN diplomat, the draft was a non-starter because it would “effectively freeze the conflict” and legitimise the de facto entities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN official, Kyiv, September 2017; and diplomat, New York, October 2017.Hide Footnote

The content of Moscow’s second draft has not been widely publicised. It appears, however, to have conceded to UN deployment throughout those areas covered by the SMM mandate (in principle all of Ukraine),[fn]For the SMM mandate, see OSCE Decision No. 1117: “The Special Monitoring Mission members will have safe and secure access throughout Ukraine to fulfil their mandate”. Ukraine, the U.S., and Canada interpret this as all of Ukraine within internationally-recognised borders, including Crimea; but Russia excludes Crimea and Sevastopol to reflect “political and legal realities existing since 21 March 2014”, the date of the SMM mandate. In reality, the SMM does not regularly monitor the border. According to diplomats who work closely with the SMM, Russian monitors simply notify separatists of imminent visits through Russian officers assigned to the multilateral military body also responsible for monitoring the ceasefire – the Joint Centre for Command and Control (JCCC), staffed by Ukrainian and Russian officers; militants then remove or conceal weapons or personnel before SMM monitors arrive.Hide Footnote without explicitly foreseeing a role for peacekeepers along the border.[fn]The content of this second proposal has been mostly gleaned from press accounts of a September 2017 phone call between Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Putin tells Merkel UN peacekeepers could be deployed not only on Donbas contact line”, Reuters, 11 September 2017. Crisis Group interview, diplomat, New York, October 2017.Hide Footnote By suggesting willingness to extend peacekeepers’ area of operations – and thus potentially some readiness to compromise – this draft generated more interest among Ukraine’s Western allies.

Moscow’s proposal was all the less expected because it followed repeated Russian rejections of calls by Kyiv for peacekeepers.

Moscow’s proposal was all the less expected because it followed repeated Russian rejections of calls by Kyiv for peacekeepers. President Poroshenko first floated the idea, which Russia at the time opposed, of deploying UN forces to the Ukraine-Russia border in spring 2015. In September 2017, he pressed the issue again at the annual high-level UN General Assembly meeting, though Kyiv, perhaps pre-empted by Moscow’s draft, has yet to submit its own.[fn]A Ukrainian diplomat in New York told Crisis Group Kyiv is working on a draft, but has yet to clarify if they will table it. Crisis Group interview, Ukrainian diplomat, New York, October 2017.Hide Footnote In November 2017, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin announced a fresh Ukrainian proposal was ready, but the U.S. reportedly discouraged its submission, opting to focus instead on further diplomacy with Moscow.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, EU official, Brussels, senior U.S. official, Washington DC, November 2017. “Klimkin: UN resolution for Donbas peacekeepers is ready”, Kyiv Post, 12 November 2017.Hide Footnote With little progress made on the margins of the General Assembly, negotiations moved from New York to capitals: Moscow, Washington, Berlin, Paris, Vienna and even Minsk and Belgrade, both of which have hosted meetings in which Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now special representative for Ukraine negotiations, and close Putin aide Vladislav Surkov have attempted to tease out common ground.

This report examines the extent to which Moscow’s proposal represents an opportunity, particularly for Kyiv’s Western allies, to explore how peacekeepers might play a role in Donbas. It looks at competing perspectives from Moscow, Washington and European capitals, the gap between negotiations in those capitals and developments in Ukraine, challenges on the ground that peacekeepers would have to overcome and options for the role and composition of such a force. It draws on interviews with Ukrainian civilian and military officials; U.S., UN, OSCE, EU and Russian officials; Donbas residents; and Russian experts.

II. Competing Perspectives in Capitals

Russia’s proposal has generated a mixed response in the capitals of Ukraine’s Western allies. Distrust between the West and Moscow, the Kremlin’s rejection of the idea of peacekeepers in the past and doubts that it genuinely intends to facilitate the return of separatist-held areas to Kyiv mean that many Western officials are sceptical about its intentions now. A wide gulf still separates what Russia has proposed and what Ukraine and Western powers would accept. Absent better alternatives, many Western diplomats have been willing to explore whether Moscow’s proposal represents an opening, however small, to break the deadlock.

The U.S. has been particularly active, mainly through Volker’s meetings with Surkov. European officials have supported U.S. diplomacy, even as many privately express concerns it has been insufficiently inclusive. Some argue, too, that European security mechanisms should lead efforts to resolve the Ukraine crisis. But while Germany and France provided decisive leadership to contain the conflict through the Minsk I and II agreements, neither they nor the EU have actively proposed ways to unblock the stalled settlement process. The appointment by the EU of a new envoy and the expansion of the Normandy format to include the EU and U.S. might be ways to reinvigorate discussion of peacekeeping options, although both for now appear unlikely.

A. Moscow

Moscow’s peacekeeping overture is, on paper, a notable shift in posture, but the intentions behind it are far from clear. The proposal could have been a first step in a genuine attempt to find a way out of an increasingly expensive entanglement in Donbas, a way to test the West’s appetite for compromise – particularly with a view to sanctions relief – after U.S., French and German elections, or simply a tactic to divert attention from the question of its withdrawal from Donbas by burying the conflict in negotiations over peacekeeping modalities. Russia’s willingness to compromise on a mission’s strength, composition and mandate clearly hinges on what kind of role for peacekeepers, and what outcome, it seeks. A Russian diplomat confirmed to Crisis Group that Moscow preferred a limited mandate, along the lines formulated in its draft resolution, with the force protecting, not replacing, the OSCE SMM.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Russian official, November 2017.Hide Footnote This does not indicate much flexibility. Regardless, Moscow’s proposal opens up opportunity for discussion of what role peacekeepers in Donbas could perform should that option be seriously considered.

There are reasons why Russia might, at some point, seek a face-saving way out of eastern Ukraine. Its role in Donbas incurs a significant financial toll. Some costs are direct; a leaked September 2017 Russian finance ministry memorandum, which calls for Moscow to move funds away from Donbas into Crimea and Kaliningrad, suggests Moscow funding keeps the self-proclaimed republics afloat.[fn]“Крым вместо ДНР: как в правительстве обсуждают отказ от помощи Донбассу” [Crimea instead of DNR: how in the government they discuss cancelling aid to Donbas”], RBC (RosBusinessConsulting), 15 September 2017. Crisis Group Briefings, Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine; and Ukraine: Military Deadlock, Political Crisis, both op. cit.Hide Footnote Russia spends over $1 billion a year on pensions, social benefits and salaries to de facto officials and the separatist forces and even more on the military.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine, op. cit. “So the Kremlin finances the Ukrainian rebels”, Bild, 16 January 2016.Hide Footnote These direct costs may be significant but are unlikely decisive. More significant are indirect costs, related to sanctions. While the Russian economy has largely stabilised, thanks to consumer borrowing and higher oil prices, experts suggest Putin is increasingly eager to have sanctions lifted.[fn]“Russia’s economy is growing with borrowed money”, Bloomberg, 14 November 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-11-14/russia-s-economy-is-growing-with-borrowed-money; Crisis Group interview, private sector expert, Kyiv, September 2017.Hide Footnote Russian experts say that Moscow knows Donbas is a liability, not only financially, but also to Russia’s reputation on the world stage at a time when it seeks greater recognition as a global power.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Russian experts, October-November 2017.Hide Footnote The intervention in Donbas drives a significant anti-Russia backlash in the rest of Ukraine; in that sense, too, the deadlock incurs costs.

A peacekeeping compromise could serve Russian interests in other ways.

A peacekeeping compromise could serve Russian interests in other ways. A mission could increase pressure on Kyiv to implement the Minsk agreement’s political provisions, which until now it has deferred, citing the security situation and Russia’s continued influence in Donbas. Such an operation might force Poroshenko to start rolling out those provisions during the run-up to the 2019 Ukrainian parliamentary and presidential polls, potentially jeopardising his and his party’s chances to continue leading the government. Donbas elections, required by Minsk, would likely result in local authorities friendly to Moscow winning power in the east; pro-Western politicians are unlikely to fare well even in credible local polls.

Moscow also retains other forms of leverage over Kyiv that could prove more effective and less costly than direct engagement in Donbas: cyber-attacks; manipulation of the oligarchy; strategic business acquisitions; clandestine support to far-right groups; extensive information and influence operations via Russian government-controlled broadcasters RT and Sputnik, or social media bots and troll factories.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior U.S. official, November 2017.Hide Footnote So in principle, there are reasons to think Russian openness to compromise might not be completely off the table.

That said, Moscow’s track record suggests there are also good reasons to regard it warily. For now, it appears more plausible Putin was testing the waters after French and German elections, almost a year into a new U.S. administration initially expected to be friendlier to Moscow, and ahead of Russia’s March 2018 presidential election. In this light, the peacekeeping proposal served as a trial balloon. It arguably aimed to give Moscow a clearer reading on how flexible the U.S. and EU might be, prospects for sanctions relief and how united a front they present overall, thus allowing Putin to better assess his options, especially after his widely expected re-election, even as they served as a dilatory manoeuvre.

Whatever Moscow’s intentions, its proposal creates a tactical window in a diplomatic process that has been stuck for three years. This is particularly true because, by citing concrete reservations (regardless of how genuine) over Ukrainian and Western red lines for peacekeepers, Russia is presenting Ukraine’s Western partners with the opportunity to develop counterproposals that explicitly address them and thus put the ball back in Moscow’s court. In response to demands that peacekeepers patrol the border, for example, Moscow expresses fear of reprisals against the population of the breakaways. If Russian and separatist forces withdraw, Moscow claims Ukrainian nationalist forces may exact revenge on those they perceive as separatist collaborators, with peacekeepers unable to protect them. Putin himself suggested such a scenario could lead to another Srebrenica, referring to the failure of UN peacekeepers to prevent atrocities in Bosnia.[fn]Putin made these comments during his remarks at the October 2017 Valdai discussion club. “‘Боимся повторения трагедии в Сребренице’. Путин о ситуации в Донбассе” [“‘We fight repetition of the Srebrenica tragedy’. Putin on the situation in Donbas”], RIA Novosti, 19 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Such comparisons are farfetched, but reprisals are a concern, given the presence of Ukrainian nationalist paramilitaries along the line and dehumanising language some use to describe inhabitants of separatist-held areas (see Section III). According to Russian experts, a peacekeeping mission that deploys in phases, securing areas as Russian and separatist forces withdraw, could better guarantee the safety of inhabitants of the self-proclaimed republics.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Russian expert, October 2017.Hide Footnote Indeed, one option floated by an expert close to the Kremlin is three-phase deployment: first along the line, consistent with the first Russian draft resolution; then a second phase involving peacekeepers occupying a 50km zone beyond that line in areas currently outside government control; and a third involving deployment up to and including the border, if and when political provisions of Minsk are met.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Russian expert, October 2017.Hide Footnote The downside of such an option would be that it delays deployment along the border, and potentially gives Moscow the opportunity to block latter phases after peacekeepers’ initial deployment.

In sum, while reasons to regard Russia’s proposal cautiously are many, the West should, nonetheless, continue to test Moscow’s willingness to compromise and, in turn, develop its own thinking on how peacekeepers could create conditions in the east that encourage Kyiv to advance Minsk political provisions. Russian calculations may also evolve. Some Russia experts, for example, suggest new opportunities could open up after Putin’s re-election, especially if downward economic trends compel him to launch long-discussed economic reform.[fn]The election will be on 16 March 2018 to coincide with the fourth anniversary of Crimea’s annexation. One senior U.S. official suggested instead that it would actually be harder to capture Putin’s attention after his re-election; the status quo would settle in and the opportunity disappear. Crisis Group interview, senior U.S. official, November 2017.Hide Footnote Such reform could require improved cooperation with the West on issues like technology transfer that in turn could create incentives for compromise on Donbas.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Russian expert, October 2017.Hide Footnote Again, prospects appear slim but, in a crisis with few openings, are worth pursuing.

B. Washington

More than any other Ukrainian ally, the U.S. appears willing to test whether a UN-mandated force could help in Donbas. President Trump himself may have inadvertently played into Ukrainian fears that the U.S. and Russia might strike a deal behind Kyiv’s back when he reportedly told Poroshenko during their September 2017 meeting that the U.S. wanted peace in Ukraine, suggesting that his administration was particularly vested in capitalising on the current diplomatic opening.[fn]Crisis Group interview, U.S. official, Washington DC, October 2017.Hide Footnote Meetings between Volker and Surkov, which take place in parallel to the Normandy Four and TCG, have become the main venue for discussion of potential peacekeeping modalities. Thus far these talks appear to have yielded little, despite positive official statements. Washington reportedly is now deliberating whether to table or ask an ally to table its own draft Security Council resolution.

The renewed energy Volker has brought to U.S. diplomacy on Ukraine stands in stark contrast to the past few years of Minsk deadlock. The political capital invested in his efforts suggests that the U.S., at least initially, found grounds to take Moscow’s proposal seriously, or at least viewed it pragmatically as the only opening for discussion with Russia over Ukraine. State and Defense Department officials assert that Russia “needs a way out” of eastern Ukraine, though some admit that remains an assumption.[fn]Crisis group interviews, U.S. State and Defense Department officials, Washington DC, October 2017.Hide Footnote Volker himself portrays the proposal as an opening to explore whether a peacekeeping mission with the right strength and mandate might give Kyiv sufficient confidence to implement Minsk political provisions, even if reaching consensus with Moscow subsequently proves impossible.[fn]“U.S. Envoy Kurt Volker on ending the war in eastern Ukraine”, Hromadske, 31 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Volker and Surkov have met three times, once in Minsk and twice in Belgrade, where they held a “discussion of principles”, according to Volker. A joint statement released by the U.S. embassy in Moscow after that November 2017 meeting was reasonably positive.[fn]It noted that the meeting involved “thorough discussion of the current diplomatic state of play concerning efforts to end the war in Donbas” and that “It is not surprising that the United States and Russia have different concepts for how to make peace, but we will continue to work to get there”. See U.S. embassy in Moscow press release, 14 November 2017.Hide Footnote Behind closed doors, however, U.S. diplomats admit it is easier to agree on principles with Russians than concrete measures, and that the last meeting was tense.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior U.S. official, Washington DC, November 2017.Hide Footnote For his part, Surkov told reporters that Volker presented 29 paragraphs of counterproposals to Russia’s second draft resolution, of which the Russians accepted three, illustrating the distance remaining between the sides.[fn]“U.S., Russia envoys differ on peace and peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 14 November 2017.Hide Footnote Strained U.S.-Russia relations reportedly complicated this latest round of talks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior U.S. official, Washington DC, November 2017. He pointed to sanctions, the closure of facilities, and the expulsion of diplomatic personnel by way of illustrating the challenges in the bilateral relationship.Hide Footnote

For Kyiv and Western allies, the red line for any mission is that peacekeepers secure the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine-Russia border.

For Kyiv and Western allies, the red line for any mission is that peacekeepers secure the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine-Russia border, a basic premise of national security for Kyiv that should ultimately lead to hand-over of control to Ukraine, as per Minsk. Without control of the border, Moscow could provide political and economic support to the self-proclaimed people’s republics, supply weapons and rotate forces in and out without consequence. Peacekeepers deployed without a clear mandate to control the border risk freezing the status quo in the conflict zone.

Volker envisages a robust peacekeeping force, potentially comprising some 20,000 peacekeepers, a number floated not only by him but also Ukrainian diplomats in New York.[fn]Volker repeated this number before his third bilateral meeting with Surkov. A Ukrainian official in New York also cited 20,000 as the minimum that could realistically secure land and maritime borders between Ukraine and Russia. Volker himself has compared such a force to the UN-mandated NATO force in Kosovo, K-FOR. Crisis Group interview, senior U.S. official, Washington DC, November 2017.Hide Footnote Such a force would help stabilise Donbas, secure the border, oversee cantonment of weapons and withdrawal of forces from the line and potentially administer elections. Volker’s vision is, in other words, almost the polar opposite of the lightly armed force Russia suggested to protect OSCE monitors.

After the November 2017 Belgrade meeting, U.S. officials indicated they or an ally may table a new Security Council resolution in New York.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior U.S. administration official, Washington DC, November 2017.Hide Footnote One option would be for Volker to prepare a draft that lays out, in response to Moscow’s proposal, a peacekeeping force with the strength and mandate he envisages as necessary to create conditions for Minsk implementation. Moscow may, however, reject it outright. A second option could be to explore a phased approach, though with clear language in the resolution that guarantees subsequent phases will follow initial deployment. This approach might plausibly win Russian consent or at least continued discussion, but could encounter Ukrainian resistance. Either of these options also risk parties getting stuck in debates over peacekeeping minutiae without evidence Russia genuinely seeks a mutually acceptable compromise.

The U.S. reportedly hopes a resolution can be tabled before Ukraine relinquishes its Security Council seat at the end of the year.

The U.S. reportedly hopes a resolution can be tabled before Ukraine relinquishes its Security Council seat at the end of the year, possibly in December when Japan has the presidency of the council.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior U.S. official, November 2017. In the wake of Volker’s October 2017 visit to Kyiv, two Ukrainian parliamentarians claimed on Facebook that he declared a UN Security Council resolution on peacekeeping might even be ready before 2018. “Ukrainian deputies unveil details of discussion with Volker on UN peacekeeping for Donbas”, Kyiv Post, 28 October 2017.Hide Footnote Whether Volker will remain in the job past March 2018, when his post formally closes, is unclear. U.S. officials report that newly confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Wess Mitchell may assume management of the Ukraine file.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Washington, November 2017.Hide Footnote

There are important limits on the extent to which the U.S. would be willing and able to offer sanctions relief in return for a Russian compromise. A senior U.S. diplomat noted sanctions should only be lifted once main Minsk provisions were implemented – after credible local elections – rather than partially, in parallel with incremental progress on benchmarks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior U.S. official, Washington, November 2017.Hide Footnote State and Defense Department officials similarly stress that only full Minsk implementation would enable lifting sanctions, an important qualification that could help allay fears in Kyiv that the U.S. and Russia might strike a deal on Donbas behind Ukraine’s back.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN official, Kyiv, September 2017.Hide Footnote

Moreover, even then, only sanctions related to Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine would be lifted; sanctions related to Russian actions in Crimea, 2016 election interference, or the Magnitsky Act would not be affected.[fn]President Obama signed the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act on 14 December 2012. It sanctions Russian officials responsible for the 2009 prison death of auditor and civil lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, jailed in November 2008 for investigating fraud involving Russian tax officials. Magnitsky was held for eleven months without trial and developed several diseases left untreated. On 16 November 2009, eight days before authorities would have had to release Magnitsky because they had not brought him to trial within a year of arrest, he died. In response to the Magnitsky Act, Russia banned U.S. international adoptions five days later on 19 December 2012.Hide Footnote Finally, Congress could complicate any effort to lift sanctions for reasons including recent legislation that requires the president to notify Congress if he intends to proceed with any significant lifting of Russia-related sanctions.

C. Europe

U.S. officials present cooperation with EU and OSCE counterparts as close, and the latter view Volker as a serious, clear-headed negotiator.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Washington and European capitals, September-December 2017.Hide Footnote That said, some European diplomats privately express concern that the U.S. risks monopolising diplomacy on peacekeeping; is insufficiently inclusive of the OSCE, the EU and its member states, which tend to lead efforts to end or manage crises on the continent; and does not have an adequate feel for what an endgame acceptable to Ukrainians looks like.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Washington, October 2017. For example, an OSCE diplomat argued the U.S. was forging ahead in negotiations to break the stalemate without an adequate feel for what an endgame acceptable to Ukraine looks like. One EU official involved in Ukraine claimed the U.S. was pursuing its own track on peacekeeping, with Brussels and even Berlin and Paris feeling sidelined; German policy experts have said Volker’s autumn visit to Berlin was much welcome. Crisis Group interviews, OSCE diplomat and EU official, October and November 2017. The new U.S. administration has yet to appoint its OSCE ambassador, which other participating states’ representatives view as a sign of disengagement.Hide Footnote One EU official, who stressed the need for more multilateral cooperation, said that – without more direct channels at the time – EU and German counterparts went to an October informal meeting in Stockholm organised by a European think-tank in order to better understand Volker’s vision.[fn]Crisis Group interview, EU official, November 2017.Hide Footnote For their part, however, Europeans have provided little recent visible leadership on Ukraine, and the OSCE has allowed the settlement process to be bogged down in often inconsequential details without addressing bigger picture challenges.[fn]Former Swedish prime minister, Carl Bildt, commented in an October 2017 public discussion in Brussels that “the EU is missing in action”. “Ukraine: What’s Next?”, an on-the-record public debate on Ukraine organised by ECFR, Brussels, 11 October 2017.Hide Footnote

This is unfortunate. Greater European involvement could bring valuable perspectives and influence to talks on peacekeeping, even if many in Europe doubt this is a genuine opening.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, European Commission representatives, Brussels, November 2017.Hide Footnote Many Europeans, especially those from newer EU member states better understand Ukrainian sensitivities and are keenly aware of the obstacles peacekeepers would face on the ground. Some worry that direct U.S.-Russia diplomacy raises the potential for a deal without sufficient Ukrainian and or EU buy-in. A former European leader said the EU is well aware Ukraine could be pushed over the brink if Ukrainians do not believe their security concerns are addressed.[fn]Crisis Group discussion, former prime minister of an EU member state, October 2017.Hide Footnote However sceptical they are about the prospects for a peacekeeping mission, EU and OSCE officials should express their concerns clearly and directly with the U.S. if they are not yet doing so. Better to do so now, than for discussions on peacekeeping to progress without these concerns being factored in.

The EU Association Agreement with Ukraine, which entails political association and economic integration between the EU and Ukraine, and related cooperation on security and governance reform also should, in principle, give the EU a prominent voice in discussions on peacekeeping. EU officials privately admit the crisis chills nearly every area of reform: principles such as civilian oversight of the security sector, judicial presumption of innocence, press freedom and even anticorruption all fall casualty to real or perceived national security threats. At the same time, the EU’s framework for cooperation and vast bilateral support to Ukraine give it leverage and a practical way of nudging Kyiv forward on sensitive issues, if and when it implements Minsk political provisions.

Europeans, like the U.S., must hold the line on sanctions.

Europeans, like the U.S., must hold the line on sanctions. Only were the Minsk agreements to be completely implemented or Russia to end its military and political interference in Donbas and facilitate the return of the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine-Russia border to Kyiv’s control should sanctions aligned to the implementation of Minsk be lifted. In other words, there should be no partial lifting with partial progress. Moreover, even with complete implementation of the Minsk agreements, the EU and European governments should uphold restrictive measures linked to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol. It is important for European security to maintain them.

In short, European powers could and should better use their influence to further negotiations. One idea would be for the EU to appoint a special envoy for Ukraine. For now, there is little appetite in Brussels to do so. But an envoy could play a useful role as a European counterpart to Volker and work closely with him to ensure talks benefit from both U.S. influence and authority and the EU’s leverage and close ties to Ukrainian institutions.

Optimally, too, Germany and France, together with the EU and U.S., would push for an expanded Normandy Format, adding EU and U.S. participation to that of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine. This would reinforce Euroatlantic solidarity, centralise diplomatic efforts and signal to Russia Western commitment to resolving the conflict. Although a protocol discrepancy would exist without U.S. presidential participation, Normandy Format meetings between heads of state have only taken place five times, whereas regular meetings at the foreign ministerial and working levels offer another platform to engage. Volker has expressed public opposition to U.S. participation.[fn]Zerkalo Nedeli interview with Volker, “Курт Уолкер: ‘США могут сказать Путину: если хотите – мы можем помочь, если не хотите – мы можем гарантировать, что вам станет хуже’” [“Kurt Volker: ‘USA can tell Putin: if you want, we can help; if not, we can guarantee it will get worse for you’”], 24 September 2017. Volker’s opposition to U.S. participation puzzles European diplomats. The official explanation – that the U.S. adds little to technical debates of ceasefires and withdrawals and its value lies in forcing Putin to focus on the bigger picture – is unconvincing, given that European diplomats in Kyiv consider their U.S. peers masters of such detail. Some suggest the U.S. refuses to engage in the TCG and Normandy Four so as not to dignify Russia’s claims it is not a party to the conflict. Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Kyiv, September-December 2017.Hide Footnote But, together with the EU, the U.S. could bring new gravitas and momentum to those meetings. At a minimum, Washington and Brussels should work more closely with Berlin, Paris and the OSCE to ensure a substantive link between diplomacy and bilateral cooperation, including on reform. By cooperating more closely, Kyiv’s allies also could guard against forum shopping by Moscow and Kyiv.

III. Ground Realities

While Russia’s proposal provides an opportunity for Western allies to explore what role peacekeepers could play, the discussion risks overlooking important dynamics in Ukraine itself. Ukrainian diplomats mostly express concerns about security in Donbas, which would require peacekeepers controlling the border. Kyiv, they say, could implement Minsk political provisions once Donbas is secure; even if this will be a tough sell at home, they insist Ukraine will stick to its commitments.

Behind these statements, however, lies a complex reality: increasing resistance in Ukraine to Minsk and the presence of potential spoilers on both sides. Even were Russia to consent to peacekeeping at the border, Kyiv might still struggle to implement Minsk political provisions in the face of domestic opposition. Minsk is likely to become even more salient as Ukraine’s 2019 elections approach. Bar pro-Russia parties, Poroshenko’s ruling coalition is Minsk sole defender; were it to lose the 2019 vote, implementation of Minsk’s political provisions could be harder still.

A. Kyiv’s Sensitivities on Minsk II Political Provisions

Ukrainian concerns about Russia’s proposal are not only motivated by distrust of Moscow. They are also rooted in the domestic unpopularity of the Minsk agreements themselves. Many see Kyiv’s obligations under Minsk as concessions that would grant the Kremlin continued political and military leverage in eastern Ukraine even after reintegration of separatist held areas.[fn]“Про що ми проголосували” [“What we voted for”], Ukrainska Pravda, 8 October 2017.Hide Footnote Kyiv thus far has deferred its fulfilment of these obligations by appealing to insecurity in Donbas, Russia’s continued influence and Ukrainian authorities’ lack of access to those areas.[fn]“Украина ‘уперлась’: почему провалилась парижская реанимация ‘Минска’?” [“Ukraine ‘digs in’: why the Paris attempt to revive Minsk failed”], BBC Украина, 5 March 2016.Hide Footnote Ukrainian officials fear that the Kremlin could create enough of a semblance of normalcy in Donbas, through the limited deployment of peacekeepers, to spotlight Kyiv’s deferral of its own Minsk commitments.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, prominent Samopomich MP, Ukrainian national security expert, September 2017; civilian-military officials, Avdiivka, October 2017.Hide Footnote

Much domestic opposition to Minsk stems from the circumstances in which it was devised. The first agreement was signed in the wake of Ukrainian forces’ August 2014 defeat in Ilovaisk, when Russian-backed militants encircled 1,400 Ukrainian troops and volunteers, negotiated a ceasefire and then opened fire on them as they withdrew. Minsk II was negotiated after the Donetsk airport and Debaltseve debacles of early 2015, which saw Ukrainian forces lose strategic territory.[fn]As the Ukrainian, Russian, French and German presidents negotiated the second agreement in Belarus, fierce fighting raged in Debaltseve. 6,000 Ukrainian defenders – military and volunteers – ultimately surrendered the strategic rail hub on 18 February 2015, six days after Minsk II was signed on 12 February and three days after it ostensibly took effect on 15 February. The same day they signed Minsk II, German Chancellor Merkel, French President Hollande and Ukrainian President Poroshenko travelled to an EU heads of state summit in Brussels, where they asserted that Russian President Putin sought to delay implementation of the Minsk II ceasefire long enough to enable Russian and separatist forces to encircle Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve and force their retreat. “Putin tried to delay Ukraine ceasefire deal, EU summit told”, The Guardian, 13 February 2015.Hide Footnote As a result, many Ukrainians feel both agreements’ cemented Russia’s gains more than they provided for just resolution of the conflict.[fn]“Можно ли выполнить ‘Минск-2’?” [“Can ‘Minsk-2’ be implemented?”], Novaya Gazeta, 23 March 2016.Hide Footnote The low regard with which many Ukrainians hold the agreements’ signatories reinforces this animosity. These include, on the Ukrainian side, former President Leonid Kuchma, who faced various corruption scandals while in office,[fn]Kuchma left office in 2005 after the Orange Revolution amid rumours of electoral fraud and accusations of involvement in the brutal 2000 assassination of renowned Ukrainian journalist Georgiy Gongadze; allegations Kuchma has always strongly denied. A former police chief was convicted in 2013 of killing Gongadze. Prosecutors brought charges against Kuchma in 2011 for exceeding authority leading to the journalist’s death; those charges were dropped in December 2011 after a court excluded from evidence socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz’s allegedly incriminating audio recordings, ruling that they had been obtained illegally. Kuchma rejected allegations in connection with the killing and said the tapes had been altered. “Ukraine Gongadze case: Court convicts journalist’s killer”, BBC, 29 January 2013; and “Kiev police chief jailed for Gongadze murder”, Financial Times, 29 January 2013. See also “Комбат ‘Донбасса’ возмущен, что переговоры от Украины вел “отец коррупции” Кучма” [“Donbas battalion commander outraged that ‘father of corruption’ Kuchma led Ukrainian negotiations”], Obozrevatel, 25 June 2014.Hide Footnote and, on the separatist side, unelected leaders of the self-proclaimed republics, Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky.[fn]Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) state Security Minister Leonid Pasichnyk replaced Igor Plotnitsky in November 2017.Hide Footnote

Minsk viability in Ukraine is, if anything, lower now than when it was signed. Four years of war, over 10,000 dead and sixteen short-lived ceasefires, whose breakdown Kyiv blames on the separatists (though in reality they are broken by all sides), have hardened resistance to compromise. Some Ukrainian experts openly suggest Kyiv sees Minsk as a framework for managing the situation until Ukraine is in a better position to pursue its own interests.[fn]“Порошенко и наши дипломаты просто обманули Россию с Минскими соглашениями, – Антон Геращенко” [“Poroshenko and our diplomats lied to Russia with Minsk”], Strana, 29 November 2017.Hide Footnote Western allies should be prepared to face a new set of obstacles with Russia should Ukraine suggest crafting a new deal. Even liberal Ukrainians argue the country needs to build up its security capacity and protect itself from Russia, in Donbas and elsewhere, and call for measures such as securing from the West large-scale arms provision.

Minsk is so unpopular that a broad parliamentary coalition forced authors of a recent law on reintegration of the self-proclaimed republics to remove all references to the agreement before they would allow parliament to consider the draft.[fn]“Законы Порошенко о Донбассе. Главное, что нужно всем знать” [“Poroshenko’s Donbas laws: what is important for everyone to know”], RIA Novosti Ukraine, 7 October 2017.Hide Footnote This would have been Minsk’s first appearance in Ukrainian law and they feared legitimising it.[fn]Mustafa Nayem, “Законом о реинтеграции Донбасса мы легализуем Минские соглашения в рамках правового поля Украины” [“With the Donbas reintegration law, we legalise the Minsk Agreements within Ukraine’s legal framework”], Gordonua.com, 3 October 2017.Hide Footnote Not only nationalist politicians attack Minsk defenders as Russian sympathisers or insufficiently Ukrainian, the sentiment is widespread among political elites. Even a leader of the pro-European and reformist Samopomich party told Crisis Group that Minsk is tantamount to treason and implementation could destroy the country.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Samopomich MP, Kyiv, September 2017. Despite its modern, liberal image and close relationships with Western diplomats, Samopomich is among the hardest line and most vocal in their criticism, possibly inspired by the political calculations of party leader, Lviv mayor and Poroshenko challenger Andriy Sadoviy, ahead of Ukraine’s 2019 presidential elections.Hide Footnote Mainstream politicians appear to be competing to outbid each other in denunciation of the agreement. The only political forces outside the ruling coalition of Bloc Petro Poroshenko and People’s Front that do not actively oppose it are pro-Russia parties.[fn]These include Opposition Bloc, Vidrodzhennya, Nash Krai and Za Zhittya, which grew from remnants of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions in the wake of Maidan, and comprise mostly former allies of the deposed president. Their support base is south-eastern regions adjacent to separatist-held areas.Hide Footnote It looks likely, therefore, that Minsk will be a key issue ahead of 2019 polls, and ruling coalition support for it could become a campaign albatross. While it is unclear whether opposition parties could actually win power, their politicisation of Minsk could fracture Poroshenko’s coalition, as those of its members who went along with it to satisfy the West abandon ship.

There is a risk that Minsk, were it to happen, could provoke a violent backlash. According to a former Ukrainian statesman and several foreign security advisors, a marginalised but vocal and well-resourced minority could take violent action against whatever ruling government is unfortunate enough to be tasked with Minsk implementation.[fn]Crisis Group interview, November 2017.Hide Footnote Many UN and other humanitarian staff in the conflict zone privately share this view; one UN official warned that “the slow boil of anger is palpable”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior UN official, Kyiv, September 2017.Hide Footnote That said, a growing sense of fatigue across the wider population, illustrated by the failure of ongoing protests to mobilise large numbers (see Section III.A.1), could dampen risks. The desire among many Ukrainians for a return to normalcy might encourage the majority of political and civic actors to continue working within the rule of law.

In sum, even were Moscow to agree on the deployment of peacekeepers along the Ukraine-Russia border, the implementation of Minsk’s political provisions would require a greater degree of national consensus than currently exists and could provoke a backlash, potentially, some fear, a violent one. Particularly contentious are provisions on the special status of what Minsk identifies as “certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions”; the question of amnesty; local elections; and the reintegration of separatist-controlled areas into Ukraine.[fn]See appendices for text of Minsk agreements.Hide Footnote

1. Special status

The special status law, renewed in October 2017, grants separatist controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk special rights consistent with Minsk.[fn]Minsk II’s lone footnote lists eight special status measures: 1) amnesty (which is also included as a stand-alone measure (Article 5) in the agreement itself, 2) Russian-language rights, 3) separatist participation in regional government appointments, 4) bilateral negotiations with the central government, 5) central government payment of reconstruction and recovery costs, 6) continued cross-border cooperation with Russia, 7) creation of people’s militias and 8) a guarantee that the central government cannot unilaterally terminate local officials’ powers. See Appendix D.Hide Footnote That law also includes a proviso that it enters into force only if and when the separatist controlled areas fully disarm and Russian forces withdraw.

Parliamentary debate on special status, both during recent renewal and earlier, has been heated. An August 2015 session on the issue provoked street fighting between Ukrainian nationalist demonstrators and national guardsmen assigned to cordon off and protect parliament, climaxing with detonation – by a member of the far-right Svoboda party’s paramilitary wing Sich – of a grenade in the crowd outside, killing four national guardsmen.[fn]“Grenade near Rada thrown by Sich battalion fighter on leave”, UNIAN, 31 August 2015.Hide Footnote According to the health ministry, the fighting left 21 people hospitalised with gunshot wounds. During the clashes, Right Sector, another nationalist militia, occupied streets around parliament and the cabinet of ministers. Police made no visible effort to intervene.[fn]Crisis Group observations (Crisis Group staff was present during both demonstrations).Hide Footnote

During the October 2017 debate on the special status law’s renewal, protesters erected a tent city, self-dubbed “liberation”, outside parliament and the cabinet of ministers.[fn]The protest was financed by donations, according to the handful of protesters still lingering at the end of November. Crisis Group interviews, protesters, November-December 2017. In December, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko publicised audio recordings he claimed proved disgraced ex-President Yanukovych and exiled oligarch Serhiy Kurchenko paid former Georgian president Saakashvili to stage the liberation protests. “Lutsenko: Saakashvili uses Kurchenko-Yanukovych money to seize power”, UNIAN, 5 December 2017. Saakashvili called the recordings fake. “Supporters of Mikheil Saakashvili clash with police in Kyiv after stopping arrest”, Deutsche Welle, 5 December 2017.Hide Footnote After the first week, however, it failed to attract more than a handful of people, suggesting popular fatigue four years after Maidan and thirteen after the Orange Revolution may finally be settling in. Such fatigue could provide a counterweight to radical, vocal minorities intent on destabilising the country.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ukrainian sociologist, Kyiv, September 2017.Hide Footnote

The contribution of special status laws in other European conflicts also does not inspire Ukrainians with confidence that such laws further reintegration, for which a complex set of measures are required, as discussed below. Ukrainian political elites cite examples of Serbia’s Vojvodina or Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska for instance, as well as Moldova’s Transnistria, where special status laws did not secure full reintegration.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kyiv, September-November 2017.Hide Footnote Even EU officials who worked on the former Yugoslavia point out that the special status applications in those conflicts are hard to qualify as reintegration successes.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, EUAM officials who served during the Yugoslav wars under various commands, Kyiv, September-November 2017.Hide Footnote

2. Amnesty

The issue of amnesties is equally divisive. Relevant Minsk II provisions – notably Article 5 providing for “pardon and amnesty by way of enacting a law that forbids persecution and punishment of persons in relation to events that took place in particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine” – leave room for interpretation. Some Ukrainians take a minimalist line: only those whom credible courts substantiate beyond a reasonable doubt to have participated in war crimes or crimes against humanity should be prosecuted.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Ukrainian civil society and politicians, Kyiv, Donbas and Berlin, September-November 2017.Hide Footnote Others argue that all who collaborated with unrecognised authorities in the self-proclaimed republics, including even doctors and teachers, should be brought to justice.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Not only is consensus absent, but so are signs of public debate. Yet, open discussion of the issue will be essential to build support for an approach consistent not only with Minsk but also with human rights principles and Ukraine’s obligations under international law. Neither blanket incriminations nor blanket amnesties will win international support. Were peacekeepers to deploy and prospects for the return of separatist held areas to Ukrainian sovereignty improve, those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity on all sides would have to be held accountable. Some form of vetting also would be necessary. Statements by Kyiv that those areas would not suffer retribution would be a good start; emphasising due process could avert the risk that some inhabitants, including qualified civil servants, leave, fearing for their livelihoods or safety.

3. Local elections

Of all Minsk provisions, Kyiv is perhaps most nervous about local elections, fearing they would legitimise existing structures in the self-proclaimed republics. Overcoming these concerns would require, at a minimum, that pro-Western parties enjoy unimpeded access to campaign in those areas freely.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international elections expert, Kyiv, September 2017.Hide Footnote Even then, prospects for such parties to win would be low, given animosity generated by the conflict. Even on the Ukraine-controlled side, support for Kyiv is far from assured; citizens and local authorities both complain about lack of national interest in their regions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil society representatives and local officials, Donbas, October 2016, September-October 2017.Hide Footnote

A peacekeeping mission would almost certainly have to help overcome some of these challenges, whether by supporting administration of local elections, even running the polls itself, or providing security on the campaign trail and around the vote (see Section IV). Even successful local polls that represent a step toward peace in Donbas could, however, provoke a nationalist backlash in the rest of the country, particularly if pro-Western parties lacked adequate access and pro-Russia candidates were perceived to have won as a result.

4. Reintegration

Full reintegration of Donbas into Ukraine, the end goal of Minsk, is elaborated in provisions on restoration of social and economic links between separatist areas and the rest of the country.[fn]Minsk II Article 8 states: “full resumption of socio-economic ties, including social transfers such as pension payments and other payments (incomes and revenues, timely payments of all utility bills, reinstating taxation within the legal framework of Ukraine)”. See Appendix D for full text.Hide Footnote Most experts agree this is unlikely to happen any time soon, if at all.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kramatorsk, Slavyansk, September 2017; Kyiv, Kramatorsk, October 2017; Kyiv, November 2017.Hide Footnote That residents of separatist areas have little faith in the current Ukrainian parliament’s ability to draft legislation consistent with its Minsk commitments on reintegration is understandable.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, staff from international humanitarian organisations still operating in areas outside Kyiv’s control, Kyiv, Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, Sviatohirsk, September-December 2017.Hide Footnote Not only nationalists, but even some liberal Ukrainian politicians in Kyiv support the isolation of the self-proclaimed republics. Pro-EU and reformist Samopomich party, for example, led a rogue economic blockade of separatist areas in January 2017, wide public support for which prompted Ukraine’s president to capitulate and legitimise it five weeks later as official government policy.[fn]Hrant Kostanyan and Artem Remizov, “The Donbas Blockade: Another blow to the Minsk peace process”, Centre for European Policy Studies, 2 June 2017.Hide Footnote Other liberal reformers, like parliamentarian Mustafa Nayem, an instigator of the Maidan protests, publicly warn that Ukraine must not formalise its Minsk obligations under national law.[fn]Mustafa Nayem, “Законом о реинтеграции Донбасса мы легализуем Минские соглашения в рамках правового поля Украины” [“With the Donbas reintegration law, we legalise the Minsk Agreements within Ukraine’s legal framework”], op. cit.Hide Footnote Forces on the ground reject reintegration too: a civil-military official in Kyiv-controlled areas along the line told Crisis Group his unit was ready to fully isolate separatist held areas were Kyiv to issue such an order – though he did argue for continued humanitarian support.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ukrainian official, Kramatorsk, August 2017.Hide Footnote Even some young internally displaced people with family members across the line prefer to isolate those areas.[fn]Some young people even advocated fostering internecine warfare among rival gangs governing the de factos, and getting the ruling regimes to turn on one another and wipe themselves out. Crisis Group interviews, displaced youth, Kramatorsk, September-October 2017.Hide Footnote

Some parliamentarians and experts in Kyiv suggest that rather than paying for the recovery and reconstruction of separatist controlled areas, Ukraine should spend its limited capital on reforms in the rest of the country, and by doing so also raise the cost of the conflict for Russia.[fn]Crisis Group interview, MPs and experts, Kyiv, September-October 2017.Hide Footnote Some cite the prospective price tag of reconstruction in Donbas as another argument against reintegration.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, MP, Kyiv, September 2017.Hide Footnote That Donbas’s defunct and uncompetitive heavy industry provides a weak base for revitalising its economy is widely understood in Kyiv; vast investment will be necessary to build viable alternatives. Others argue that as Ukraine strives to build a modern, Western-style state, it cannot afford to be overly concerned with the wellbeing of what they portray a wilfully primitive population without a shared sense of national identity. This point of view has been prevalent in Ukrainian society since the start of the conflict and largely ignored by Western allies, but may now be experiencing a renaissance.[fn]Alexander J. Motyl, “Kiev should give up on the Donbass”, Foreign Policy, 2 February 2017.Hide Footnote It also serves to reinforce Kremlin propaganda of Kyiv as fascist, alienating both residents of the breakaway republics and Donbas citizens on the Kyiv-held side of the line alike.[fn]Crisis Group interview, MP, Kyiv, September 2017; humanitarian volunteer, Slavyansk, September 2017.Hide Footnote

While calls for isolating separatist areas are not new, the peacekeeping debate and new legislation on reintegration have reinvigorated them. In October 2017, parliament passed the first reading of a reintegration bill naming Russia an aggressor, re-emphasising that Ukraine’s military operation is self-defence, denying Kyiv’s responsibility for human rights violations in the conflict zone and enabling the president to impose martial law far beyond it.[fn]“Проект Закону про особливості державної політики із забезпечення державного суверенітету України над тимчасово окупованими територіями в Донецькій та Луганській областях” [“Draft law on the aspects of state policy of the restoration of Ukraine’s state sovereignty over the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions”].Hide Footnote The bill has few provisions for actual reintegration: reformist MPs and Western diplomats quip that its more plausible outcome is disintegration.[fn]At a Kyiv civil society event in November 2017, this joke was met with long laughter by the audience. Crisis Group observations, Kyiv, November 2017.Hide Footnote Whether Ukraine as a whole – or even a majority of elites – genuinely want the devastated region back is a question.

Nor do those in Donbas necessarily want to reintegrate. A senior Russian journalist captured opinion in separatist-controlled territories: “The worst scenario” he wrote, “could only be the return of Kyiv”.[fn]Russkiy Reporter editor-in-chief Vitaliy Leybin’s Facebook page accessed 3 November 2017.Hide Footnote A pro-Russia activist expressed hope for reunification with Russia.[fn]Konstantin Dolgov’s Facebook page, accessed 3 November 2017.Hide Footnote Leaders in the self-proclaimed republics fear a peacekeeping mission would be used by Ukraine to get rid of them.[fn]“Pushilin: Poroshenko wants to clean-up DPR and LPR by the UN forces”, Komsomolskaya Pravda in Ukraine, 21 September 2017.Hide Footnote It does not help that war trauma and Kremlin misinformation have led to a widely-held view in separatist controlled areas of post-Maidan coalitions as neo-Nazi juntas that encourages ethno-nationalists to beat Russian-speakers and spit on Red Army graves, and forces municipal authorities to rename streets after Holocaust collaborators.[fn]Lev Golinkin, “You want to name streets after the murderers of Ukraine’s Jews?”, Forward, 2 August 2016.Hide Footnote Moscow-affiliated media outlets incite fear through their coverage of politicians like parliament speaker Andriy Parubiy, a founder of the Social-National Party of Ukraine, and hawkish national security and defence council secretary Oleksandr Turchynov.[fn]“When is the far-right acceptable to the West? When it’s in Ukraine”, RT, 30 January 2014. In a 2008 webchat hosted by Lviv-based ethnic Ukrainian online outlet VGolos, Parubiy said he “was one of the founders” of the far-right Social-National Party of Ukraine, and that “since that time until now, neither my political orientation, nor ideological foundations have changed”. (“Я был одним из основателей СНПУ, с того времени и до сих пор мои политические ориентиры не изменились, как и мои идейные основы”.) Also see “Андрей Парубий: Закон о Генпрокуратуре – это был вопрос национальной безопасности” [“Andriy Parubiy: The prosecutor general law was a question of national security”], Ukrainska Pravda, 24 May 2016. Ukrainians ironically call Turchynov, a Baptist preacher who served as early-2014 post-Maidan acting president, the “bloody pastor,” a nickname that several of his advisors told Crisis Group Turchynov is proud of. “‘Bloody pastor’ Turchynov awaits a task force invasion of the Russian Armed Forces during exercise ‘West-2017’”, anna-news.info, 23 August 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Potential Spoilers

Beyond Kyiv’s animosity toward Minsk political provisions, another challenge that should factor into peacekeeping discussions is the risk of spoilers on both sides. On the Kyiv-controlled side, units of volunteer paramilitaries reportedly numbering in the low hundreds continue to operate in Donbas, though Kyiv has integrated or disbanded the majority of volunteers since 2015.[fn]Crisis Group interview, interior ministry advisor, Kyiv, September 2017.Hide Footnote The government appears to accept that it cannot force the formal integration of those remaining into the military or national guard at this stage, while disarming them might not only prove politically fraught but could provoke outbreaks of violence even far removed from the conflict zone.[fn]A Right Sector fighter and SBU special operations officer died in a December 2015 machine gun shootout in a Kyiv apartment building during a pre-emptive operation to disarm a Right Sector cell. “The murky story of Oleh Muzhchyl: Russian spy or Ukrainian patriot?”, Kyiv Post, 17 December 2015.Hide Footnote Such groups seemingly enjoy a degree of impunity; former members assumed senior positions in the interior ministry.[fn]Examples include national police deputy chief and Deputy Internal Minister Vadym Troyan of the Azov battalion and controversial former police counternarcotics head Ilya Kiva of Right Sector; both organisations are well-known for espousing neo-Nazi ideology. “Disastrous Police Appointment”, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, 7 November 2014; and “Ukraine’s ultra-right militias are challenging the government to a showdown”, Washington Post, 15 June 2017.Hide Footnote The challenges of reintegrating or demobilising paramilitaries are also linked to the security structures’ reservations about Minsk, given the paramilitaries’ public preference is for a military resolution to the conflict.

Moreover, while hate speech is more prevalent in separatist controlled areas, both civilian and military Ukrainian nationalists along the line of separation routinely describe inhabitants of separatist-controlled areas in dehumanising terms.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kramatorsk, Severodonetsk, Slavyansk, September 2017; Avdiivka, October 2017. Terms used to describe residents of separatist-held areas and even Kyiv-controlled Donbas included “slaves”, “dogs”, “trash”, and “genetically sick”. For prevalence of hate speech in separatist areas, see “Мова з ознакамі ворожнечі в друкованих медіа Донбасу та на ТБ” [“Hate speech in the printed media of Donbas”], Donetsk Institute of Information, August 2017.Hide Footnote The UN has documented instances where the Ukrainian secret police, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), threaten to hand over families of alleged separatist sympathisers in Kyiv-controlled areas to paramilitary groups to be tortured.[fn]UN OHCHR Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine 16 May to 15 August 2017.Hide Footnote Even some ostensibly Western-oriented parliamentarians, like Samopomich MP and former Donbas battalion commander Semen Semenchenko – responsible for the January 2017 Donbas blockade – reportedly make nationalist-tinged threats against the state.[fn]“Есть угроза военного переворота: комбат из АТО сделал громкое заявление” [“There is a threat of armed coup: ATO veteran makes significant declaration”], Apostrophe, 3 November 2017.Hide Footnote Speaking to Crisis Group in late October, one Ukrainian army officer in Avdiivka and Kramatorsk expressed deep resistance to the idea of peacekeepers, hinting strongly that Ukrainian forces would make a push to regain separatist controlled territory in anticipation of any potential UN deployment.[fn]Crisis Group interview, conflict zone, October 2017.Hide Footnote

On the separatist side, potential spoilers include leaders of the self-proclaimed republics and local opponents. Donetsk leader Zakharchenko, for example, has stated he would reject any peacekeeping mission with a mandate beyond providing security to the SMM.[fn]“Захарченко прокомментировал ‘условия’ Путина по размещению миротворцев на Донбассе” [“Zakharchenko comments on Putin’s ‘conditions’ for deploying peacekeepers to Donbas”], UNIAN, 10 September 2017.Hide Footnote Influential critics of the authorities in the self-proclaimed republics may pose an even graver threat. Vostok battalion Commander Aleksandr Khodakovsky, rumoured to be close to both Moscow and Ukraine’s richest oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, opposes peacekeeping talks and repeatedly states there can be no peaceful resolution to the conflict.[fn]“Main trends in the development of the conflict in the East of Ukraine from October 16 to October 31, 2017”, Centre for Research of Donbas Social Perspectives, 5 November 2017. Khodakovsky has rejected claims of links to Akhmetov. “A separatist militia in Ukraine with Russian fighters holds the key”, The New York Times, 4 June 2014.Hide Footnote He plans to challenge Zakharchenko in elections scheduled to be held by de-facto Donetsk authorities on an as-yet-unspecified date in 2018.[fn]See Александр Сергеев Facebook posts from October 31, 2017, October 30, 2017, October 28, 2017. As a counterpoint to the view that Khodakovsky could be a spoiler, he is also rumoured to have good relations with Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which could make him more likely to obey the Kremlin’s orders. See “Cкоро повіє північний вітер: три причини повернення Ходаковського в Донецьк” [“The north wind will soon blow: three reasons for Khodakovsky’s return to Donetsk”], Apostrof, 20 September 2016.Hide Footnote While known candidates like Zakharchenko are likely to follow Kremlin orders, figures like Khodakovsky are less predictable.

The proliferation of weapons, mostly from the conflict zone, further heightens risks.[fn]
“Глава Нацполиции Сергей Князев: ‘Есть у нас проблемы, но, как говорится, какая страна, такая и милиция’" [“National police head Sergey Knyazev: ‘We have problems, but as they say, the police reflect the country’”], Leviy Bereg, 14 February 2017. “В Киеве полиция обнаружила большой арсенал оружия и взрывчатых веществ” [“Police discover large arsenal of arms and explosives in Kyiv”], Unian, 4 June 2017. Anna Nemtsova, “Ukraine’s out of control arms bazaar in Europe’s backyard”, Daily Beast, 9 June 2016.Hide Footnote
In November 2017, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov told an expert panel in Kyiv that constant instability makes Ukraine vulnerable to attacks from within.[fn]“Avakov warns of high threat of ‘internal attacks’ to destabilize situation in Ukraine”, Kyiv Post, 28 November 2017.Hide Footnote

Broad Ukrainian resistance to Minsk, likely difficulty rolling out its political provisions, the presence of spoilers and arms proliferation all pose potential obstacles to a Donbas peacekeeping mission aimed at reinvigorating Minsk’s implementation. Unless they are factored into planning, the deployment of peacekeepers could provoke a backlash or even turmoil if and when it eventually was to occur.

Reinvigorated efforts are needed to address such challenges before peacekeepers deploy. Poroshenko’s ruling coalition claims Ukraine will implement even Minsk’s most divisive measures with or without opposition consent. But recent events – like a mob freeing Mikhail Saakashvili from arresting police by force in December 2017[fn]“Saakashvili: Ex-Georgia leader freed from police in Kiev”, BBC, 5 December 2017.Hide Footnote – and tacit government admission it cannot reintegrate all volunteers, cast doubt on this. Parallel to further talks and thinking on peacekeeping, Western allies should insist Kyiv demobilise or reintegrate into formal security structures any remaining volunteers as part of ongoing security sector reform. The West should also encourage Kyiv to initiate a broader discussion on how to implement political provisions of Minsk without undercutting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Kyiv should prepare Ukrainian society to deal with divisive issues like amnesties and lift taboos on public debate about politically charged issues such as special status in the context of a diverse but unitarian state. It should also encourage discussion on whether the Minsk provisions themselves, or rather misinformation and misunderstanding about them, drive resistance.

IV. Peacekeeping Options

Further thinking on how a UN-mandated peacekeeping force in Donbas could help resolve the conflict would be useful. Clarifying the specific roles peacekeepers could fulfil, how to overcome operational and political hurdles they might face and how the red lines of Moscow, Kyiv and Ukrainians more broadly could be met and their fears allayed would help lay the groundwork for any future opportunity. Such planning should factor in not only major powers’ stances and Ukrainian leaders’ official statements, but also developments on the ground in Kyiv and Donbas.

Given the positions of Kyiv and Moscow, a compromise on peacekeeping would need to be built around three core elements. First, following the withdrawal of heavy weapons, peacekeepers would need to establish control over the line of separation, protect civilians and provide security across the zone of conflict and verify cantonment of weapons and withdrawal of forces. Second, they would monitor the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine-Russia border. Third, a peacekeeping mission would help advance Kyiv’s implementation of Minsk political provisions, particularly creating conditions for credible local elections. UN and other peacekeeping operations in the past have fulfilled similar functions, but such a mandate in eastern Ukraine would still be daunting. The potential compromise that would underpin such a mandate and the ability of peacekeepers to operate in Donbas would hinge on the consent and goodwill of both Moscow and Kyiv.

Volker’s team has done some planning. But within the UN Secretariat, whose role could become central were prospects for a mission to increase, considerable apprehension exists over deploying peacekeepers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews and informal exchange, UN officials, New York, October 2017.Hide Footnote Such scepticism is reinforced by the fact that the UN until now has not been invited to help resolve a conflict hitherto managed mostly by the Normandy Four and TCG. UN officials warn of the risk that member states achieve some limited consensus and deploy peacekeepers in hope of breaking the stalemate, but the UN then either get bogged down “without a real political roadmap”, and Moscow or even Kyiv put on the brakes.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Wider suspicion of Russia’s motives weighs heavily; its veto on the Security Council and influence on the ground would give it enormous power over any mission once deployed. But resistance to Minsk in Ukraine could also prove a complicating factor.

Other dilemmas are more operational. The first is whether the Security Council would deploy a UN mission or mandate a group of states to act with its blessing, with one acting as lead, or framework, nation.[fn]A “framework nation” model rests on the idea that a larger nation leads, often taking responsibility for coordinating smaller partners’ contributions. During the 2003 Operation Artemis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, was an EU operation with a Chapter VII Security Council mandate to secure parts of the north-eastern town of Bunia. France acted as framework nation, providing the majority of forces and logistics support. Kees Homan, “Operation Artemis in the Democratic Republic of Congo”, European Commission: Faster and more united? The debate about Europe’s crisis response capacity, Netherlands Institute for International Relations ‘Clingendael’, 2007.Hide Footnote The latter, which Volker’s team has reportedly explored, is regarded as more agile, allowing peacekeepers to deploy faster and more flexibly.[fn]A Pentagon official told Crisis Group that the U.S. is mulling over the UN peacekeeping option, a framework force, or forces, or a coalition of the willing blessed by the Security Council. Crisis Group interview, U.S. official, Washington, October 2017.Hide Footnote Were a non-NATO European government to provide such a lead, logistics support would probably require a wider European effort; it is unlikely that a non-NATO military force could manage the supply chain alone.

The idea of UN peacekeeping should not be dismissed too quickly.

A framework force would benefit less from UN expertise on specialised aspects of its mandate – weapons cantonment, ceasefire monitoring, election preparation or vetting – although the OSCE might fill some of these gaps. Notwithstanding the UN’s slow logistics, particularly around the deployment of a mission, the idea of UN peacekeeping should not be dismissed too quickly: in principle, nothing would prevent capable Western forces operating under UN command; in Lebanon and Mali, such forces are deployed as blue helmets. Another option might be for the Security Council to mandate an initial deployment of a small non-UN coalition. This could then re-hat under UN command, together with forces from other nations, once critical areas were secured, much as peacekeepers entered Timor Leste after the 1999 popular consultation.

A second question is which countries would contribute troops that could pose a credible deterrent. NATO or Russian forces are out of the question.[fn]Some Ukrainian interlocutors also pointed out that Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) member states should also automatically be disqualified because of close links to Russia.Hide Footnote Volker initially appears to have hoped for Sweden to lead as a UN-mandated framework force. Reportedly, however, the Swedes expressed significant misgivings, particularly if the mission entailed monitoring the Ukraine-Russia border.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Pentagon official, Washington, October 2017.Hide Footnote He has also suggested Kazakh forces; Kazakhstan, like Sweden, holds a non-permanent Security Council seat through 2018.[fn]Crisis Group interview, high-level policy expert, Vienna, October 2017.Hide Footnote Whether Kyiv would accept Kazakhstan’s role is unclear, given its membership in several Russia-led multilateral bodies.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ukrainian official, October 2017. Other countries reportedly floated as troop contributors in what are thus far only very tentative discussions include non-NATO Western forces like Austria and Finland and others including Mongolia, Serbia and Belarus, though screening out Serbian and Belarusian mercenaries that may have fought for the self-proclaimed republics would be essential. Crisis Group interviews, New York, November 2017.Hide Footnote Even were consensus to emerge on peacekeeping, finding a mix of troop contributors acceptable to both Kyiv and Moscow, and persuading them to commit forces, would likely prove a challenge. Any contributing government would have to factor in the risk of military entanglement with Russia or its non-state allies, particularly if a peacekeeping mandate foresaw military operations against spoilers.

A third question relates to the number of peacekeepers deployed, which would obviously hinge on their mandate. Volker himself has floated the figure of 20,000, also a number cited by some Ukrainians and military experts.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ukrainian diplomat, New York, October 2017.Hide Footnote Other Ukrainians suggest still higher numbers. Even 20,000 would be at the upper end of existing UN operations, though it is hard to imagine a force with fewer monitoring the border and projecting force across Donbas as elections approach. The UN Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium (UNTAES), deployed in 1996 to help reintegrate those areas into Croatia after the Yugoslav wars – a mandate with parallels to the potential mandate of any Donbas mission – comprised a 5,000-strong force. But that mission secured an area with a considerably smaller population size and could also rely, in an emergency, on NATO forces stationed nearby.[fn]In 1995, Eastern Slavonia had a population of 160,000; 3.2 million people are estimated to still reside in the war-torn territories of eastern Ukraine. UNTAES could rely on backup from NATO forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Implementation (up to December 1996) and Stabilisation Forces. For an overview of UNTAES, see Richard Gowan, United Nations Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium (UNTAES), and UN Civilian Police Support Group in Croatia (UNPSG), in Oxford Handbook of UN Peacekeeping Operations, September 2015, Oxford Press.Hide Footnote In Kosovo, some 40,000 NATO forces initially deployed, again to a much smaller area. But that force aimed to deter conventional Yugoslav forces, whereas peacekeepers in Donbas could deploy only with Moscow’s consent.

A fourth is the extent to which the Security Council would grant peacekeepers explicit enforcement capability, how robust a posture they would adopt in the face of spoilers and the manner in which they would deploy. For now, security in the conflict zone is dire. The deployment of peacekeepers along the line of separation would need to be choreographed with the withdrawal of heavy weapons and forces, including paramilitary and other non-state groups, by both Moscow and Kyiv. No peacekeeping mission would want to force its way in.

A phased deployment, along the lines proposed by some Russian experts – a first phase along the line, a second within a wider radius and a third across Donbas, including the border – could help address fears of reprisals. However, Kyiv would have reason to oppose such a proposal, given its fear that the Kremlin could obstruct latter phases once peacekeepers had deployed. That separatist forces are likely to withdraw – at least initially – only as far as existing depots, which already prove hard for the OSCE SMM to monitor, poses another challenge. That said, a September 2017 memo by an organisation working for the Ukrainian government recommended a variant of phased deployment. Some space for compromise may, therefore, exist.[fn]Rasmussen Global external memo, “Potential UN mission in the Donbas”, 13 September 2017. The Rasmussen option also lays out three phases: “1. In the first month, access should be provided within at least a 5km range of the line of contact, on both sides of the line (a variation on the Russian proposal); 2. after 30 days, access into territories not controlled by Kyiv (eg, 35 km) would be deepened and include Donetsk and Luhansk cities and other hotspots. This would curb artillery and rocket attacks and facilitate the withdrawal of Russian and proxy troops and equipment; 3. after 60 days, full access to the entirety of the occupied territories is to be ensured, including presence along the international border in Donetsk and Luhansk regions; and control over the border (including inspections of any cross-border traffic), thereby ensuring an end to further rearmament of the illegal militias”.Hide Footnote Overall, though, given the potential for Moscow to disrupt latter phases, peacekeepers deploying as fast as possible probably makes most sense.

Even with clear agreements between UN-mandated forces, Russia and Ukraine and a careful deployment, peacekeepers securing Donbas would confront local hostility.

Even with clear agreements between UN-mandated forces, Russia and Ukraine and a careful deployment, peacekeepers securing Donbas would confront local hostility, potentially protests and perhaps even violent resistance. The Security Council would almost certainly grant any mission a Chapter VII mandate but, in addition, could explicitly foresee military operations against groups attempting to obstruct the mission’s work, whether by targeting civilians, attacking peacekeepers, refusing to disarm or impeding elections. The mandates of a number of recent UN missions include stabilisation activities, involving military operations against spoilers; the NATO force in Kosovo played an even more coercive role.[fn]Recent UN missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali and the Central African Republic have all included “stabilisation” responsibilities, permitting robust and, in the DRC, even offensive operations to restore and maintain order by managing or containing aggressors and spoilers in support of the government or local authorities. See, for example, Cedric de Coning, “What does stabilisation mean in a UN context?”, 19 January 2015.Hide Footnote Even a robust force with a strong enforcement mandate would struggle, however, against determined local opposition, particularly if it enjoyed Moscow’s backing.

A last question relates to whether the Security Council would grant the mission executive powers to oversee implementation of Minsk in separatist areas. UN or OSCE expertise could, for example, prove critical to administering local polls or even the 2019 Ukrainian general elections. This could involve providing security to the campaign and vote, supporting Ukrainian authorities’ administration of registration and polling or – given potential friction between those authorities and communities in separatist controlled parts of Donbas – even running the elections directly. Both the UN and OSCE have administered elections in the past with some success.[fn]International experts in Kyiv often refer to the OSCE’s experience in Kosovo, though it also administered elections in Bosnia. The UN has administered elections over the past two decades in Timor Leste and Afghanistan, and earlier in other countries, though has not had an executive mandate for elections administration for some time.Hide Footnote A peacekeeping mission might also assist with or supervise the vetting – and further training – of local officials and police. The latter could potentially complement the disarmament and demobilisation of non-state groups, which peacekeepers might also supervise. Both the UN and EU have significant experience building the capacity of public administrations and training security forces. A mission might also facilitate the safe return of those displaced by the conflict.

The Security Council could even consider a temporary international administration, along the lines of the UN’s role in Eastern Slavonia, Kosovo and Timor Leste. This would entail not only peacekeepers providing security, but the UN fulfilling basic state functions before elections and also reintegration of separatist-held areas.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international elections expert, Kyiv, November 2017.Hide Footnote Kyiv would likely accept such an intrusive mandate only were there a clear UN-facilitated roadmap laying out the return of Ukrainian authority to Donbas. On the other hand, fears of reprisals in separatist-controlled areas mean that an interim authority, assuming at least some aspects of public administration, would likely be necessary, with Kyiv committing to a gradual and facilitated return to Donbas.

V. Conclusion

There are good reasons to regard with scepticism Moscow’s peacekeeping proposal and, more broadly, its willingness to allow the return of Donbas to Ukrainian sovereignty. But the proposal and concrete reservations Moscow expresses about Ukraine’s red lines, notably peacekeepers on the Ukraine-Russia border, nonetheless present a small window in otherwise deadlocked negotiations and an opportunity for fresh thinking on what purpose peacekeepers might serve. Were Moscow ever to genuinely want out of its costly Donbas intervention, then overcoming distrust between sides, Ukrainian fears of continued Russian meddling and the danger of reprisals would likely require a neutral, UN-mandated force.

Discussions could continue in different venues. Meetings between Volker and Surkov have reinvigorated diplomacy. They should persist as long as feasible, whether based on reworking Russia’s proposal, a fresh proposal from the U.S. or the three points in the last U.S. proposal on which reportedly there is consensus. Peacekeeping modalities that aim to address Russian fears about reprisals might help prolong such talks. Western powers might also prepare their own draft Security Council resolution – one either drafted together with Ukraine or if not that meets its red lines – as a counterproposal to Russia’s drafts.

How far Russian officials will proceed in such discussions is unclear; but it is likely that Western officials will need to put incentives on the table in return for any compromise. Sanctions relief is almost certainly of most interest to Moscow. But Minsk-related sanctions should remain in place until Moscow fully meets its end of the bargain: returning to Kyiv control of Ukraine’s border.

Ukraine [...] should continue developing its own vision for a peacekeeping mission, drawing on relevant international expertise.

In whatever format discussions take place, they should factor in not only substantive differences between Ukrainian and Russian positions, but also Kyiv’s fears of Russia and the U.S. striking a deal behind its back. Already some in Kyiv feel side-lined from a process critical to Ukraine’s survival as a state. Ukraine itself should continue developing its own vision for a peacekeeping mission, drawing on relevant international expertise.

Any discussion should also account for Minsk’s domestic unpopularity and seek to address it head-on. In this context, the West should promote more active debate in Ukraine on Minsk and publicly reassert their confidence in Kyiv’s ability to fulfil its part of the deal. Ideally, leaders in Kyiv, instead of stoking opposition to the agreement, would initiate a broad and honest debate on Minsk to convince their electorate of its legitimacy. This would include discussion of measures that could help Ukraine feel comfortable implementing its political provisions, notably in terms of control over the border and Western security guarantees, and how those provisions could be rolled out in a way that averts backlash.

Likewise, Western powers should help Kyiv prepare for the social and political challenges that Minsk implementation would engender: Kyiv may require support dealing with spoilers outside the east and devising reconciliation strategies. Kyiv’s allies should also encourage it to develop a strategy to re-integrate Donbas that takes into account the need for nationwide buy-in to the process. The UN could join in offering technical proposals to address these issues.

For its part, Europe should reinvigorate its Ukraine diplomacy. The creation of an EU envoy could provide a European counterpart to Volker and help ensure talks benefit from both U.S. influence and EU leverage through its close ties to Ukrainian institutions. Ideally, too, Germany and France, together with the EU and U.S., would push for an expanded Normandy Format, including the EU and U.S. This could galvanise further momentum, unify diplomatic initiatives and help avoid both Ukrainian and Russian forum shopping. For now, neither an EU envoy nor expanded Normandy Format appears likely. But the lack of Europe’s leadership is a gap, given its leverage in Kyiv and that some Europeans lament exclusion from recent U.S.-Russia diplomacy.

After several years of deadlock, Moscow’s peacekeeping proposal opens a window for diplomacy. Kyiv’s Western allies should expand their diplomatic efforts to push for a credible peacekeeping force that protects Ukraine’s core security interests. They should also better factor in conditions on the ground, particularly growing resistance to the Minsk agreement. Russia’s interference in the east is bad enough; nationwide civil unrest over the attempted rollout of Minsk’s political provisions could be worse still.

Brussels/Kyiv/New York/Vienna/Washington, 15 December 2017

Appendix A: Map of Ukraine

Map of Ukraine UN

Appendix B: Map of Donbas Conflict Zone

Map of Donbas Conflict Zone Crisis Group

Appendix C: The Minsk Agreements – 5 September 2014 (Unofficial English translation; OSCE hosts the Russian original on its website.)

The PROTOCOL on the results of consultations of the Trilateral Contact Group with respect to the joint steps aimed at the implementation of the Peace Plan of the President of Ukraine, P. Poroshenko, and the initiatives of the President of Russia, V. Putin

Upon consideration and discussion of the proposals put forward by the participants of the consultations in Minsk on September 1, 2014, the Trilateral Contact Group, consisting of the representatives of Ukraine, the Russian Federation and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe [OSCE], reached an understanding with respect to the need to implement the following steps:

  1. To ensure an immediate bilateral ceasefire.
  2. To ensure the monitoring and verification of the ceasefire by the OSCE.
  3. Decentralisation of power, including through the adoption of the Ukrainian law “On temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts”.
  4. To ensure the permanent monitoring of the Ukrainian-Russian border and verification by the OSCE with the creation of security zones in the border regions of Ukraine and the Russian Federation.
  5. Immediate release of all hostages and illegally detained persons.
  6. A law preventing the prosecution and punishment of persons in connection with the events that have taken place in some areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.
  7. To continue the inclusive national dialogue.
  8. To take measures to improve the humanitarian situation in Donbass.
  9. To ensure early local elections in accordance with the Ukrainian law “On temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts”.
  10. To withdraw illegal armed groups and military equipment as well as fighters and mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine.
  11. To adopt a programme of economic recovery and reconstruction for the Donbass region.
  12. To provide personal security for participants in the consultations.

Appendix D: Minsk II – 12 February 2015 (Unofficial English translation; OSCE hosts the Russian original on its website.)

The Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements

  1. Immediate and comprehensive ceasefire in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine and its strict implementation as of 15 February 2015, 12am local time.
  2. Withdrawal of all heavy weapons by both sides by equal distances to create a security zone at least 50km wide from each other for the artillery systems of calibre of 100 and more, a security zone of 70km wide for MLRS and 140km wide for MLRS Tornado-S, Uragan, Smerch and Tactical Missile Systems (Tochka, Tochka U):
    1. for the Ukrainian troops: from the de facto line of contact;
    2. for the armed formations from certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine: from the line of contact according to the Minsk Memorandum of Sept. 19th, 2014

Withdrawal of the heavy weapons as specified above is to start on day two of the ceasefire at the latest and be completed within 14 days. The process shall be facilitated by the OSCE and supported by the Trilateral Contact Group.

  1. Ensure effective monitoring and verification of the ceasefire regime and the withdrawal of heavy weapons by the OSCE from day 1 of the withdrawal, using all technical equipment necessary, including satellites, drones, radar equipment, etc.
  2. Launch dialogue, on day 1 of the withdrawal, on local election modalities in accordance with Ukrainian legislation and the Law of Ukraine “On interim local self-government order in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions” as well as on the future regime of these areas based on this law. Adopt promptly, by no later than 30 days after the date of signing of this document a Resolution of the Parliament of Ukraine specifying the area enjoying a special regime, under the Law of Ukraine “On interim self-government order in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions”, based on the line of the Minsk Memorandum of September 19, 2014.
  3. Ensure pardon and amnesty by enacting the law prohibiting the prosecution and punishment of persons in connection with the events that took place in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.
  4. Ensure release and exchange of all hostages and unlawfully detained persons, based on the principle “all for all”. This process is to be finished on the day 5 after the withdrawal at the latest.
  5. Ensure safe access, delivery, storage, and distribution of humanitarian assistance to those in need, on the basis of an international mechanism.
  6. Definition of modalities of full resumption of socio-economic ties, including social transfers such as pension payments and other payments (incomes and revenues, timely payments of all utility bills, reinstating taxation within the legal framework of Ukraine). To this end, Ukraine shall reinstate control of the segment of its banking system in the conflict-affected areas and possibly an international mechanism to facilitate such transfers shall be established.
  7. Reinstatement of full control of the state border by the government of Ukraine throughout the conflict area, starting on day 1 after the local elections and ending after the comprehensive political settlement (local elections in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on the basis of the Law of Ukraine and constitutional reform) to be finalized by the end of 2015, provided that paragraph 11 has been implemented in consultation with and upon agreement by representatives of certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the framework of the TCG.
  8. OSCE monitored withdrawal of all foreign armed formations, military equipment, and mercenaries from Ukrainian territory. Disarmament of all illegal groups.
  9. Carrying out constitutional reform in Ukraine with a new constitution entering into force by the end of 2015 providing for decentralization as a key element (including a reference to the specificities of certain areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, agreed with the representatives of these areas), as well as adopting permanent legislation on the special status of certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in line with measures as set out in the footnote until the end of 2015.
  10. Based on the Law of Ukraine “On interim local self-government order in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions”, questions related to local elections will be discussed and agreed upon with representatives of certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the framework of the Trilateral Contact Group. Elections will be held in accordance with relevant OSCE standards and monitored by OSCE/ODIHR.
  11. Intensify the work of the Trilateral Contact Group including through the establishment of working groups on the implementation of relevant aspects of the Minsk agreements. They will reflect the composition of the Trilateral Contact Group.

Footnote: Such measures, in accordance with the Law “On special order of local government in individual areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” include the following:

  1. Exemption from punishment, harassment and discrimination of persons associated with events that took place in individual areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions;
  2. The right to self-determination with regard to language;
  3. Participation of local governments in the appointment of heads of prosecutors’ offices and courts in individual areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions;
  4. The possibility for the central executive authorities to conclude agreements with the relevant local authorities on economic, social and cultural development of individual areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions;
  5. The state shall support socio-economic development of individual areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions;
  6. Assistance from central government to cross-border cooperation between individual areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and regions of the Russian Federation;
  7. The creation of people’s militia units [police] upon the decision of local councils in order to maintain public order in individual areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions;

Powers of local council deputies and other officials elected in snap elections, appointed by Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada according to this law, cannot be terminated.