icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube

Ukraine: Running out of Time

Ukraine needs a government of national unity that reaches out to its own people and tackles the country’s long overdue reforms; both Russia and Western powers should back a vision for the country as a bridge between East and West, not a geopolitical battleground.

Executive Summary

Ukraine’s provisional government faces an uphill struggle to make it to the 25 May presidential election. Shaken by separatist agitation and distracted by Russian troops on its borders, it has not asserted itself coherently and has lost control of the eastern oblasts (regions) of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have voted for independence in contentious referendums. It appears incapable of keeping order in much of the south east, where separatists, supported and encouraged by Moscow, threaten the state’s viability and unity. Kyiv and the presidential candidates should reach out to the south east, explaining plans for local self-government and minority rights, and for Ukraine to be a bridge between Russia and Europe, not a geopolitical battleground. With relations between Moscow and the West deeply chilled, the U.S. and EU should continue tough sanctions to show Russia it will pay an increasing cost for destabilising or dismembering its neighbour, while pursuing parallel, vigorous diplomacy to reach understandings that avoid the worst and respect mutual interest.

The situation has consistently worsened since late February, as much of the optimism from the Maidan protests that brought down the Yanukovych government has faded. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, “volunteers” and quite possibly special forces (Spetsnaz) dispatched by the Kremlin have seized the initiative in the south east. The separatists’ objective seems to be to provoke sufficient disruption and bloodshed so that President Vladimir Putin can assert, if he chooses, what he says is Moscow’s right to protect Russian speakers anywhere – in the worst case scenario by carving off what would in effect be a new autonomous entity embracing almost a third of the country and many of its most viable economic resources, which might eventually be absorbed into the Russian Federation. All this deepens the crisis between the West and Russia, making the rapproche­ment necessary to resolve it much more difficult.

The chaos in the south east seriously threatens the presidential election. The govern­­ment formed in February after months of street demonstrations and fighting barely functions, consists mostly of veterans of a discredited political system and new faces with little or no government experience. Communication within government institutions seems weak, with the public as a whole almost non-existent. Moscow’s depiction of a country in the thrall of a fascist coup, dominated by ultra-right militias, has persuaded the Russian public and for lack of alternatives has taken root in parts of Ukraine.

Kyiv must urgently talk to its own people, especially in the south east, where, unlike Crimea, ethnic Russians are not a majority, and even some leading members of the Yanukovych-era ruling party denounce calls to break up the country. Language, self-government and corruption – the latter of immense public concern – should be high on the government agenda and publicised as such. So too should preparing the population for the inevitable pain of deep reforms required to save an economy wrecked by two decades of endemic corruption and incompetence.

Military efforts to restore order in the south east have underlined both the government’s weakness and the pressing need for a solution through dialogue, not force. Such a solution is made more difficult by the competing prisms through which the crisis is viewed. For much of Ukraine and the West, a popular uprising in support of a more European-oriented Ukraine is being stymied by Russian revanchism; for Russia, the Maidan revolution was another calculated move, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, to surround and threaten Russia with enemies and humiliate it.

President Putin appears to consider that a West-leaning Ukraine government born of mass protests would set a dangerous example at home and thwart his ambition of establishing dominant Russian influence over as much of the former Soviet republics as possible. Russia is changing fast, and buoyed by overwhelming public support after the annexation of Crimea, Putin is rapidly creating an avowedly conservative ideology that consciously rejects many of the principles and concepts of Western democracy. In bringing Ukraine to its knees, however, Russia may also have lost its neighbour as a cultural and political ally in the long term.

A mid-April four-party – Russia, Kyiv, U.S., EU – Geneva agreement to calm the situation was ignored by the separatist forces, so is a dead letter. Nevertheless, the effort should be renewed as soon as possible. Ukrainian leaders – particularly presidential candidates – should commit to forming a post-election government of national unity with important representation from the south east and emphasise, as the guiding principle for rapprochement, that they want their country to link, not divide, Russia and Europe. They should also say forthrightly that they do not desire NATO membership and will guarantee continuation of Russia’s important defence industry and other ties to the south east, indeed to all Ukraine.

The dysfunction within the provisional government has complicated a slow and often fragmented Western response. The U.S. and EU need now to convey a consistent, firm, united and measured message, recognising – even if not accepting – Moscow’s take on the crisis’s origins. Its components should be political support for Kyiv to conduct elections, and political, financial and expert support for a national unity government to carry through the necessary stabilisation measures; measures to make Ukraine viable for foreign investment; further sanctions, to bite deeper into Russia’s economy if it does not change course; and quiet high-level talks with Moscow and facilitation of Kyiv-Moscow talks with a view to calming the situation and allowing Ukraine’s future to resolve itself organically over a period of years.

It is important to recognise that the new Russian readiness to use force to change borders, first evident a half-dozen years ago in Georgia, now clearly requires a firm deterrent response including sanctions and reassuring NATO members of the commitment to fulfil collective security obligations. Those actions must, however, be paralleled by diplomatic steps to lessen the confrontation. On the ground in Ukraine today, Russia has immediate advantages of escalation; over time, the West likely has the economic and soft-power edge. A successful, democratic Ukraine, substantially integrated economically in the West, but outside military alliances and a close cultural, linguistic and trading partner mindful of Russian interests would benefit all. Finally, as Kyiv and its international supporters look to the future, all should keep in the centre of their attention that Ukraine is a profoundly damaged country. This damage goes far beyond separatism and is the fruit of the poor governance and massive corruption that, over the past two decades, has all but destroyed it.

Ukraine's President Zelensky welcomes former prisoners as they disembark from a plane on September 7, 2019 at Boryspil international airport in Kiev after a long-awaited exchange of prisoners between Moscow and Kiev. AFP/Sergei Supinsky
Q&A / Europe & Central Asia

Ukraine-Russia Prisoner Swap: Necessary, Not Sufficient

A long-awaited prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia marks a positive development in their bilateral relationship. Both countries should now build on their recent progress to implement the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements, the surest path to ending the war in eastern Ukraine.

What happened?

After months of rumours and negotiations, Ukraine and Russia finally exchanged dozens of prisoners, all held in connection with the conflict that began when Russia annexed Crimea in early 2014, and which continues violently in Ukraine’s east.

Moscow released 35 Ukrainian citizens. They included four Crimeans arrested shortly after Russia’s February 2014 takeover of the peninsula, along with 24 sailors whom Russian security forces apprehended in the Black Sea last year. Russian courts had charged them with crimes including terrorism, espionage, conspiracy to violate state borders, and, most bizarrely, killing Russian troops in Chechnya in the mid-1990s. Human rights groups and governments decried these detentions, and viewed the sailors as prisoners of war.

Kyiv also released 35 detainees: 22 Ukrainian citizens, twelve Russian citizens and one Moldovan. Best known is Kirill Vyshynsky, who had directed the Ukrainian branch of Russian state news outlet RIA. Arrested on treason charges last year, he renounced his Ukrainian citizenship. According to Moscow and international human rights groups, his arrest and imprisonment were politically motivated. Other prisoners had been charged with fighting alongside Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine or aligning with Russian troops in Crimea. Most controversially, Kyiv freed Vladimir Tsemakh, a Ukrainian citizen and separatist air defence commander who may have helped conceal the missile that shot down flight MH-17 in July 2014, killing all aboard.

How are Ukrainian and Russian publics reacting?

As the 35 men stepped off the plane in Kyiv on Saturday, the runway erupted with cheers, family members sobbed with relief, and President Zelenskyy teared up. Ukrainian media reflected a celebratory public mood. In Moscow, reactions were more subdued. “Our people have been freed!” tweeted the Russian Embassy in Ukraine after the plane carrying the former prisoners left for Moscow. Yet just a handful of officials met them upon landing and only Vyshynsky has received substantial coverage in the Russian press.

Many in and outside of Ukraine were critical of Tsemakh’s release, arguing that he was needed to prove Russian responsibility for launching the missile that downed flight MH-17. But speaking on the runway Saturday, Zelenskyy told reporters that Dutch investigators had questioned Tsemakh prior to release, and the exchange had been delayed to ensure they and their Ukrainian counterparts had the information they needed from him. Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok told his own country’s parliament the same. But the exchange may well not have happened without Tsemakh.

Are any prisoners still being held?

Ukrainian officials say over 200 citizens, including journalists, are held by de facto authorities in the Russian-backed self-proclaimed republics in Ukraine’s east, known as the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. Some of Kyiv's critics say Ukraine holds thousands of political prisoners, a claim that prominent rights groups have not backed up. Ukrainian authorities have indeed arrested large numbers of people in relation to protests and violence linked to the conflict, but Russian officials generally do not champion these prisoners’ cases publicly. According to media reports, representatives of Kyiv and the breakaway regions may meet on 18 September to discuss a trade.

Separately, according to Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman Lyudmila Denysova, 113 Ukrainian citizens are imprisoned in Crimea and Russia for political reasons. They include 89 Crimean Tatars accused of terrorism (critics of Russia say these are false charges premised on silencing opponents of annexation). On 10 September, Denysova said Kyiv was negotiating with Moscow for their release too.

What does this mean for prospects for peace?

The prisoner exchange is the latest and most notable in a series of recent positive steps. Kyiv and Russian-backed entities in eastern Ukraine recommitted to a ceasefire that has, over the past six weeks, brought civilian deaths down to zero. They further agreed to repair a long-destroyed bridge connecting the de facto Luhansk People’s Republic to government-held Ukraine. Kyiv has also spoken of reinstating trade across the front lines, which, apart from rebuilding commercial and social ties, could improve dire living conditions in separatist-held areas. In this context, the exchange signals Kyiv’s and Moscow’s willingness to make concessions. Moreover, the apparent public support for Saturday’s exchange strengthens Zelenskyy’s mandate to pursue compromise and defy hardline critics.

Still, no one should overstate the significance of this event: real progress in ending the conflict requires each side to implement the stalled 2014-2015 Minsk agreements. That means Russia must withdraw its forces from eastern Ukraine and suspend support to groups it backs in that region. Kyiv, for its part, needs to hold elections, implement an amnesty, permit some form of self-governance in these territories and fulfil its other obligations to enable reintegration. The two sides have yet to agree on the sequence of these steps.

What’s next?

Kyiv seeks a meeting of the Normandy quartet, which brings together Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany, to chart a way to peace. Should it take place soon and produce clear steps to advance the Minsk agreements or otherwise improve Russia-Ukraine relations, the meeting could be cause for optimism. Further prisoner exchanges, restoration of legal trade and eased travel restrictions between Ukraine and its breakaway regions (including by repairing the bridge mentioned above), or between Ukraine and Russia, would signal a continued thaw.

Much could derail progress; worst would be a recurrence of fighting in eastern Ukraine. How Zelenskyy responds to domestic pressure from those opposed to further concessions bears watching, as does rhetoric from both Moscow and Kyiv in the coming weeks and months. The EU and its member states, the U.S., and other interested parties can improve prospects for peace by welcoming the steps Ukraine and Russia have taken so far and facilitating further dialogue, including through the Normandy format.

Contributors

Senior Analyst, Ukraine
Program Director, Europe and Central Asia
OlyaOliker