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Ukraine’s Meat Grinder Is Back in Business
Ukraine’s Meat Grinder Is Back in Business
Enhancing Prospects for Peace in Ukraine
Enhancing Prospects for Peace in Ukraine

Ukraine’s Meat Grinder Is Back in Business

Originally published in Foreign Policy

The one bright spot in the otherwise largely unimplemented February 2015 Minsk peace agreement was a ceasefire that ended full-scale fighting between Ukrainian forces and Moscow-backed, pro-Russian rebels who seized parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on the Ukrainian-Russian border almost two years ago.

The ceasefire took over six months to gain traction, but eventually sharply reduced the casualty rate of a war that has so far killed about 10,000 people, both soldiers and civilians. Exchanges of fire, usually small arms, have never completely ceased, of course.

But heavy fighting has broken out, and continues today, in one small but important segment of the 500 km line of separation between the two sides. There is no clear indication of how the fighting started — whether one of the sides is trying to send a warning to the other, or test their response. It is just as likely as that local sniping gradually and imperceptibly turned into a local battle.

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Enhancing Prospects for Peace in Ukraine

EU-Russia ties are frostier than ever. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2021 – Spring Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to forge consensus with the U.S. and UK on responses to any threats, or evidence, of Russian attacks on Ukraine, and to work with the U.S. on breaking the impasse in talks.

Relations between Russia and the European Union (EU) are frostier than ever. Reasons include disagreements old and new, with Europeans concerned about issues from Moscow’s treatment of opposition activist Alexei Navalny and other dissidents, to its alleged meddling in their elections, to newly surfaced reports of Russian involvement in a 2014 explosion at a Czech munitions depot. Those reports formed the backdrop for a rash of diplomatic expulsions by Prague and other European capitals, on one hand, and Moscow on the other. But it is the continuing war between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian state forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region that remains the sorest point of friction.

Russia raised worries of a substantial escalation in Kyiv and among Ukraine’s Western partners when it massed forces near Ukraine’s borders in March and April. While these anxieties were largely assuaged when Russia started to pull back its forces in late April, the situation as a whole remains fraught. A ceasefire Kyiv and Moscow agreed to in July 2020 has broken down. Negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow are deadlocked. Neither side is taking steps prescribed by the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements that ended the worst of the fighting and were intended to bring peace. The Normandy Format peace process that includes France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine is largely dormant, with no new summit on the horizon. Absent changes, the coming year could bring new problems and new dangers of further outbreaks of violence. The EU, for all its difficulties with Moscow, can and should work with member states and allies to mitigate the risks and seek ways to break the impasse.

To deter future threats to Ukraine and reduce tensions with Moscow, the EU and its member states should:

  • Forge consensus with the U.S. and UK about how they would respond to evidence of Russian threats to attack or actual attacks on Ukraine, focusing on what additional sanctions they would apply and under what circumstances. Options for increasing military pressure should be viewed cautiously, given that they could bring further risks of escalation.
  • For purposes of deterrence, quietly communicate agreed-upon red lines and repercussions to the Kremlin, being careful not to rely on bluffs that Moscow would be likely to call.
  • Encourage Kyiv, on one side, and Moscow and its proxies, on the other, to return to observing the July 2020 ceasefire as a prelude to renewed talks among the Normandy Format countries and the U.S.
  • Work with the Biden administration to create incentives for breaking the long-running impasse in talks, including by delineating, and communicating, a clear plan for gradual, reversible sanctions relief for Russia in response to measurable progress.
  • Develop and propose economic incentives to aid and support Kyiv’s planning for Donbas’s eventual reintegration, to include proposals for restoring social, economic and transport links between government-controlled and separatist-held Donbas.

Political Stalemates

In December 2019, as French, German, Ukrainian and Russian leaders met in Paris to hold their first Normandy Format meeting to advance the Ukrainian peace process in three years, there seemed to be cause for hope. With a new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had averred his commitment to peace both on the campaign trail and upon taking office, the summit might have been a first step on a new path after years of stalemate and disappointment.

A year and a half later, those hopes are foundering. The conflict parties have taken only two of the seven joint steps promised in Paris: Kyiv and the Russian-backed leadership of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Donbas exchanged detainees in December 2019 and April 2020, and Kyiv and Moscow agreed to a ceasefire starting 27 July 2020. But other important steps – including, crucially, disengagement of forces from front lines, demining, particularly around key infrastructure facilities located on the line of separation between Ukrainian and separatist forces, and full access for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission – remain outstanding.

Moreover, even the slim progress made in 2019 and 2020 has begun to unravel. By March 2021, the ceasefire, the most successful of the many reached since the war began, had collapsed. As shelling and sniper fire resumed across the line of separation, a new crisis emerged. Russian troop build-ups near Ukraine in late March and early April sparked fears of a return to large-scale combat. The Kremlin said the soldiers were conducting routine training, but the deployment of paratroopers to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and establishment of a base camp at Voronezh (a few hours’ drive from the Ukrainian border) were nonetheless unusual and, understandably, alarming for Kyiv and its Western allies. When Ukraine asked for help, European countries, the EU, U.S. and UK spoke supportively but took no overt action in response.

At the end of April, ten days after Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden discussed a possible summit in a call, Moscow announced that the troops had completed their training and would be coming home. The announcement helped assuage concerns (although leaving unclear what precisely Moscow’s motives had been), but by then relations between Russia and the West were taking new twists and turns. In mid-April, the Czech Republic made public its findings of Russian involvement in a 2014 explosion at a Czech munitions depot and announced the expulsion of eighteen Russians affiliated with Moscow’s mission in Prague. Further expulsions by both sides ensued, with other European countries also expelling dozens of Russian diplomats. At around the same time, Washington announced its own expulsions of Russian diplomats along with new sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s alleged hack of U.S. government infrastructure through software provided by the SolarWinds company. In response, on 14 May, Russia said it deemed the Czech Republic and the U.S. “unfriendly” countries, curtailing the staff of their diplomatic missions. Then on 19 May, Washington imposed sanctions on a total of thirteen Russian vessels involved in laying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bypass traditional routes for which Russia pays lucrative gas transit fees to Ukraine and pump Russian gas directly to Germany.

Yet amid the rancour there are positive signs. Even as the new U.S. sanctions were announced, when Putin and Biden’s top diplomats met in Iceland in preparation for their possible summit in June, they noted their differences but struck an optimistic tone. Moreover, the Kremlin and Kyiv were exchanging invitations for summits of their own: Zelenskyy invited his Russian counterpart to meet in Donbas and Putin countered with an invitation to Moscow – although only to discuss issues unrelated to the war. Ukraine and Russia confirmed in late May that preparations for a meeting between Putin and Zelenskyy were under way.

But for there to be any chance of progress toward resolving the Donbas conflict, itself necessary for improving relations between Moscow and the West, the parties will need to address certain core areas of disagreement relating to implementation of the Minsk agreements. Among the most contentious is a Minsk requirement that Kyiv grant local autonomy (“special status”) to the separatist-held areas and hold local elections there in exchange for Ukraine regaining control of its eastern border. Ukraine says it cannot run credible polls in these regions until it has reassumed territorial control, and indeed its parliament has prohibited elections without first regaining such control. Russia says Minsk is clear: elections and special status come first, control only afterward. Moving past this fundamental impasse will be hard, but in theory, a deal is possible. The parties might agree, for example, that the OSCE and UN will monitor the border and region as a whole while elections are held, in order to assuage Kyiv’s concerns about their integrity.

The longer the war continues, the more positions harden, and the more difficult concessions seem.

In practice, however, the longer the war continues, the more positions harden, and the more difficult concessions seem. Complicating things further, Moscow sees Donbas-related sanctions as part and parcel of a broader Western pressure campaign, with Ukraine only one component. Russia is particularly rankled by what it perceives as the EU’s interference in its domestic politics. Russian parliamentary elections scheduled for September are likely to be a source of friction alongside the dispute over Navalny, particularly if, as appears likely, the Kremlin escalates its crackdowns on independent media and opposition. European positions may also harden due to forthcoming polls in European countries – notably Germany in September – in which European leaders will likely fear Russian meddling given Moscow’s previous alleged interference. Broader tensions make it all the harder to find mutually acceptable ways forward on Donbas.

Recommendations for the EU and Its Member States

Still, with Russia reversing its troop build-up and Washington interested in a June summit with Moscow, the EU and its member states may have an opportunity to work with the U.S. and UK to develop a joint deterrence strategy and revive the peace process.

Brussels, Washington and London should coordinate a common approach to deterrence in the face of future threats or aggression in Donbas. The first step would be to reach agreement on both red lines and consequences if Russia crosses them. For these purposes, sanctions, for all their limits, remain the primary non-military tool at the West’s disposal. Existing sanctions could be augmented through steps that would curtail lending to certain Russian enterprises, cut off Russian access to the SWIFT banking network or block Russian purchases of sovereign debt on the secondary market. Moscow is likely to be particularly concerned about the possibility of U.S. secondary sanctions, through which the U.S. could block access to the U.S. financial system for third parties that engage in prohibited transactions. The secondary sanctions could have a negative impact on EU member states, however, and risk adding to transatlantic tensions over the cost to European companies of U.S. sanctions on Nord Stream 2. (On the latter front, in a nod to ties with Berlin, the Biden administration waived sanctions on the company behind the pipeline and its chief executive.) Brussels and Washington should reach as good an understanding as possible about when Europe would back U.S. sanctions of this nature.

As for whether military pressure could be useful for purposes of deterrence, the West’s somewhat muffled response to the Russian troop build-up only reinforced awareness on all sides that neither the U.S. nor European countries want to get drawn into conflict in Ukraine. The Western powers should not make bluffs that Russia could well call. They should be extremely cautious about taking or threatening measures that would increase the likelihood of confrontation – such as putting Western advisers on the front line in Ukraine. While ramping up the provision of weapons to Kyiv might be less risky, doing so is not likely to yield the kind of battlefield advantage that would change Moscow’s calculations.

Whatever combination of economic and other measures the EU, U.S. and UK agree upon, they should communicate clearly to Moscow what their red lines are and what the consequences will be for crossing them.

Whatever combination of economic and other measures the EU, U.S. and UK agree upon, they should communicate clearly to Moscow what their red lines are and what the consequences will be for crossing them. Sending the message through quiet rather than public channels may give Moscow more political room to absorb it without reacting counterproductively. To maximise the usefulness of sanctions as leverage, the Western powers should not threaten measures that they would be unwilling or unable to rescind in the event that Russia reverses course.

As the EU and its partners are developing their approach to deterrence, they should also be focusing on easing tensions on the ground and encouraging dialogue. This means getting the parties back to the table, ideally for a near-term summit among the Normandy Four and possibly the U.S. Either before or at the summit, France and Germany could press for a suite of de-escalatory measures: for example, returning to the July 2020 ceasefire; broader and freer access for OSCE ceasefire monitors; a roadmap to restoring civilian freedom of movement across the line of separation; and broader military deconfliction and resumption of prisoner exchanges.

Ideally, over the course of the summit and ensuing negotiations, the EU, U.S. and UK would also present Moscow with incentives for charting a path out of the current standoff. They could, for example – as Crisis Group has argued before – offer the Kremlin a concrete plan to exchange the lifting of specific Minsk-related sanctions (eg, against banks and companies) for specific Russian military and political concessions in Donbas (eg, compromises on the Ukrainian border, disarmament of combatants or flexibility on special status). The proposal would make clear that should Russia or its proxies renege, the sanctions will be reimposed. There is some risk in this course of action: should Russia pocket the concessions and then backslide, Brussels may find it difficult to cobble back together the consensus required for the reimposition of sanctions. But if the U.S. and its European partners are not ready to use sanctions relief to motivate incremental progress by Moscow, the combination of high demands and inflexible tools offers little hope of breaking the deadlock.

Brussels should also work with Kyiv to encourage flexible thinking along the lines suggested above about how to work through the impasse over “special status” and begin planning for the near-term reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk. The latter point is controversial: on one hand, Zelenskyy’s team has rallied to produce a roadmap for reintegration, but on the other, they appear to increasingly favour relegating the task to a distant and speculative future. If Brussels wants to help reverse this tide, it should keep up its promises of an EU economic support package to help rehabilitate the war-torn region, as well as offer plentiful guidance on overhauling Donbas’s fossil fuel-dependent economy. As further preparation for reintegration, Brussels should also maintain pressure on Kyiv to build an independent judiciary and adopt transitional justice legislation that encourages combatants to disarm and provides a framework for the fair trial of accused war criminals on both sides.