Ukraine Walks a Tightrope to Peace in the East
Ukraine Walks a Tightrope to Peace in the East
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 9 minutes

Ukraine Walks a Tightrope to Peace in the East

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has embarked on an uncertain path to end the war in the region of Donbas, but his efforts have revived a process that had seemed increasingly hopeless. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support Zelenskyy’s efforts to end the separatist conflict in the east.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has embarked on a difficult and uncertain path to end the nearly six-year war in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, but his efforts have revived a process that had seemed increasingly hopeless.

Having roundly defeated incumbent Petro Poroshenko in April 2019, Zelenskyy’s first months in office have been characterised by a hard push to make good on campaign pledges to stop the bloodshed at the front lines and win over citizens living in separatist-held areas. Peace-making in Ukraine is complicated by the need to walk a tightrope between Russia’s determination to keep its neighbour within its sphere of influence on one side, and well-organised nationalist constituencies in Ukraine who accuse Zelenskyy of surrendering to Moscow on the other. Though the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements (which create the operative framework for resolving the conflict) remain unimplemented, Zelenskyy’s efforts have helped move the parties in the right direction.

Early wins included the successful negotiation of mutual troop withdrawals from some front-line positions, an agreement to renovate a civilian border crossing to make it less hazardous, ceasefires and a prisoner exchange. Then, in October, Zelenskyy endorsed the so-called “Steinmeier Formula”, first put forward in 2016 by Germany’s then-foreign minister and current president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, under which separatist-held areas will acquire provisional “special status” (ie, autonomy) after local elections, but permanent special status only if and when those elections prove credible. Zelenskyy assured constituents that separatist and Russian troops would have to relinquish control over the territories in question prior to elections; Moscow welcomed the announcement all the same.

A December “Normandy format” meeting with Germany, France, and Moscow in Paris – the first since 2016 – brought the year to a close. It produced no breakthrough on Minsk implementation, but generated plans for cementing the ceasefire through further disengagement from front-line positions and increased monitoring of the security situation by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Building from that foundation, 2020 also presents an opportunity for thinking about how to resolve the thorny issues that have precluded a lasting settlement.

Russia’s desire to rid itself of Ukraine-linked EU sanctions gives the EU and member states a potential source of influence over peace negotiations.

Russia’s desire to rid itself of Ukraine-linked EU sanctions gives the EU and member states a potential source of influence over peace negotiations as they proceed in 2020. France and Germany also have a platform to shape talks through their participation in the Normandy process. Issues on which the EU and member states should encourage progress in 2020 include the following:

Both parties should treat the three-zone disengagement plan that they agreed to in December as the first step toward full withdrawal from the front line in 2020. They should prepare for the latter through public dialogue, focusing on front-line civilians. Kyiv should also continue dialogue with nationalist constituencies – especially veterans and prominent civic activists – who are concerned that Zelenskyy will capitulate to Moscow’s agenda. It should look for constructive ways to account for proposals from those with tactical objections to its de-escalatory moves, while sidelining those fundamentally opposed to compromise.

To break the election impasse, the parties should develop a plan that ensures a transfer to either Ukrainian or international control of all but small sections of separatist-held territory prior to local elections in those areas. To encourage Moscow’s cooperation, the EU and member states should develop a proposal that provides for a partial lifting of EU sanctions on Russia once elections are held under agreed conditions. Another incentive they could offer would be to engage in discussions with Moscow on broader European security issues – something in which Russia has long expressed interest – if sufficient progress is made on resolving the conflict.

Kyiv should, with EU support, strengthen and expand existing legislation guaranteeing affordable housing, employment and psychological care to both veterans and conflict-affected civilians so they do not compete for the same scarce resources. Both groups’ vulnerabilities alienate them from the state and make them prone to resist steps to resolve the conflict.

Moving Toward Full Disengagement

Disengagement remains at the top of the agenda in the peace process. Zelenskyy’s fall 2019 agreement with Moscow on bilateral disengagement from three areas along the front line was controversial at home – activists from the far-right National Corps party obstructed several attempts at bilateral disengagement before being broken up by police – but it has been effectively implemented to date and proven a positive step. Today, however, there remain several spots along the 400-kilometre front line where troops are separated by fewer than 100 metres. Frequent exchanges of small arms fire kill soldiers and endanger civilians. Troops should pull back by at least one kilometre on each side of the line – placing them outside the range of each other’s sniper fire and tempering the ill-will created on both sides by reports of troops killed in action. While this remains far short of the full disarmament and withdrawal of Russian support that could bring peace, it would lay the groundwork for those further steps.

The impediment to a broader agreement on disengagement is more on the Ukrainian than the Russian side.

The impediment to a broader agreement on disengagement is more on the Ukrainian than the Russian side. Prior to the December meeting in Paris, Moscow made clear that it favoured disengagement along most or all of the current front line – a line that lies further west in some strategic areas than agreed in Minsk in 2014-2015. But Kyiv, apparently fearing further protests, agreed only to withdraw from an additional three as-yet-undetermined pilot zones – amounting to about three kilometres of the front line. This halting approach worries some experts who recall how, in 2016 and 2017, the parties withdrew from a handful of zones only to later re-engage. Still, the agreement struck in Paris can succeed if the sides approach it as part of a larger process.

The EU and member states should encourage both Moscow and Kyiv to use the slow start to disengagement to develop strategies for understanding and addressing the concerns of civilians, whom the process will most affect. Many civilians who live close to the front line worry about being caught in the crossfire and are eager for troops to withdraw. Others, however, see stationing troops as a buffer against incursions from the other side. On a technical level, Kyiv will need to ensure security and meet humanitarian needs in front-line areas where residents often depend on government forces to arrange the provision of food, medicine and fuel. The coming four months should accordingly be a time not just to disengage from the three agreed zones but also for the two sides to prepare for comprehensive disengagement by better understanding and taking steps to address civilian concerns about the implications of withdrawal.

Dialogue with the Opposition

Another communications challenge for Kyiv will be to soften opposition to the compromises necessary for progress toward ending the conflict.

Zelenskyy’s performance in Paris disarmed some opponents. His talk of pursuing peace through compromise and endorsement of the Steinmeier Formula had raised fears that he would capitulate to Russian interests, trading Ukraine’s sovereignty for an end to the war. After Paris, many of his critics concluded that he in fact held his own.

Nevertheless, more than a few opponents of Zelenskyy’s approach to negotiations remain, including some groups and individuals whom Kyiv would do well to consult as it enacts the provisions agreed in Paris. Outreach should focus in particular on security experts and military personnel angry that the government has not, in their view, adequately communicated the logic and procedures for its new disengagement plans. Kyiv can help build political support for its efforts by engaging thought leaders in these communities and making clear that it is working to address their tactical concerns and, where constructive, implement their advice.

Zelenskyy should also be clear, however, that the government will not be swayed by hardliners who believe the reintegration of separatist-held territories should come only when the Russian-backed troops there surrender directly to Ukrainian authorities (an unlikely scenario) or that the population of separatist-held areas should be punished through isolation (which, aside from its humanitarian effects, would only increase a sense of mutual grievance and make conflict resolution that much harder). While the government has been reluctant to clearly repudiate such views, given that many who hold them are respected veterans or civic activists, it should do so, making clear that it has a mandate to pursue a different path to peace even as it thanks those who have served the country. To the extent that Kyiv chooses to do this, the EU can play a valuable reinforcing role by continuing to publicly underscore its preference for an inclusive approach toward Donbas.

A Compromise to Facilitate Local Elections

In order to make meaningful progress in implementing the Minsk agreements, Moscow will need to show some flexibility on key points.

First, Moscow ought to come some distance in Zelenskyy’s direction on the question of whether elections in separatist-controlled territory can be held before Ukraine is in control of the territory. Although Point 9 of the second Minsk agreement states explicitly that Ukraine must resume control of its eastern border with Russia only after elections, Kyiv insists that there is no way to run credible elections under Ukrainian law with Russian-backed armed groups controlling the border. It argues that these groups would sway the results, either through direct interference or simply their intimidating presence.

A possible compromise might involve Moscow pressing its separatist proxies to return control of most of the border to Kyiv – or an international force – before elections.

A possible compromise might involve Moscow pressing its separatist proxies to return control of most of the border to Kyiv – or an international force – before elections. To address Moscow's fears that separatists remaining on the Ukrainian side of the line would be subject to reprisals, agreed-upon sections could remain under Russian and separatist control so that those who wish to evacuate to Russia can do so. Moscow would not need to admit to backtracking from its previous demands. It would, however, need to press separatist authorities to submit to the new arrangement, just as it must press them to implement the agreements reached in Paris. Ideally, Moscow would also facilitate the replacement of current de facto authorities with figures more amenable to Kyiv before any substantive election preparations commenced.

To motivate Moscow to consider these options seriously, the EU and member states could consider offering new incentives. One possible albeit highly controversial step would be for Brussels and member states to develop a plan for offering partial sanctions relief contingent on progress toward peace – such as the visible withdrawal of Russian forces and proxy support. This would be a change in current EU policy, which links sanctions relief to full implementation of Minsk, and might threaten the united front that EU member states have so far maintained in the face of Russian intransigence. The status quo also has risks, however, not least that it makes it more difficult for the EU to persuasively signal to Moscow that efforts toward peace will be rewarded.

Another incentive that member states might consider is to express willingness to have preliminary discussions about other key issues on the European security landscape, which the Kremlin has long sought. Areas of discussion that could contribute to a more secure Europe might include limits on Black Sea militarisation, deployment of intermediate range missiles, and basing.

Taking Care of Conflict-affected Citizens

Kyiv should work to eliminate perceptions that its policies have left veterans and their families competing for resources – like scarce affordable housing – with persons displaced by the conflict, including many female-headed households. These perceptions could exacerbate resentment between two groups that have suffered the war’s effects most directly, and privation could also sour them on the compromises that Ukraine will need to make in order to end the conflict. The EU and member states should provide incentives – in the form of financial and other support – for Kyiv to continue strengthening and expanding legislation that governs access to affordable housing for veterans and IDPs, as well as these groups’ access to psychological support.

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