Soviet-Era Apartment Block - Zhytomyr - Polissya Region - Ukraine. Taken on 19 May 2016. FLICKR/Adam Jones
Report 247 / Europe & Central Asia

Ukraine: Will the Centre Hold?

Far from the deadly battle against Kremlin-backed separatists in its eastern provinces, Kyiv faces a groundswell of resentment and disenfranchisement among citizens in the country’s west. To restore faith in the state’s laws and institutions, the government must address endemic corruption to win back those in the state’s margins.

  • What’s the issue?

    While the war in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas rumbles on, the regions of Polissya and Zakarpattya in the country’s west are corroded by systemic state corruption. Resentment toward Kyiv in these peripheral regions is pushing many into the shadow economies and exacerbating state fragility.
  • Why does it matter?

    Widespread corruption in Ukraine’s western regions demonstrates that state fragility is not limited to areas controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists. This is undermining Kyiv’s capacity to withstand Russian aggression and restore its sovereignty over Donbas, meaning Moscow’s withdrawal from eastern Ukraine will not necessarily lead to national cohesion.
  • What should be done?

    Kyiv must acknowledge that Moscow, while clearly the aggressor in Donbas, is not the root cause of all the country’s challenges. Ukraine’s leaders need to correct their failing battle against corruption. Kyiv’s international backers, in particular the European Union, must attach stricter conditions to financial assistance.

Executive Summary

As Kyiv battles Kremlin-backed separatists in its eastern region of Donbas, it is also waging a half-hearted war against corruption whose mismanagement risks further undermining national stability. While several million Donbas residents live under separatist rule, Ukrainians elsewhere are losing faith in the country’s laws and institutions. The result is a dramatic weakening of the state: millions of dollars bypassing the official budget, chronic low-level violence in centres of illegal trade, and swathes of rural territory with no legal workforce or tax base to speak of. Kyiv and its allies need to acknowledge their failures in battling corruption and quickly change course. If not, centrifugal tendencies could potentially spread well beyond Donbas.

At every opportunity, Kyiv reminds its constituents and international backers that Kremlin aggression is the single greatest threat to the country’s statehood. They are right: between the invasion of Donbas, the annexation of Crimea, possible infiltration of military and security structures, and insidious information warfare, Moscow has played a lead role in Ukraine’s destabilisation. Securing Ukraine’s future will require the West to take a firm, consistent line on Russia, namely maintaining all sanctions until Moscow withdraws fully from Donbas. Yet as Kyiv and its allies acknowledge these truths, they must also face the profoundly corrosive effects of continuing systemic corruption.

These are suggested by the phenomena of organised crime in, and mass migration from the two western Ukrainian regions of north-western Polissya (along the Belarusian and Polish borders) and south-western Zakarpattya, next to Hungary. Outside meddling is present in both regions, but corruption at all levels of government is the decisive factor behind the social problems they face.

Just as Kyiv cannot afford to maintain its current stance on Donbas, where it lacks a coherent policy to reintegrate a war-scarred population ruled by Kremlin-backed separatists, it cannot retain its current haphazard approach to vulnerable populations on the far side of the country. The latter, in large numbers, are seeking better livelihoods across borders or retreating into shadow economies. Poorly-conceived attempts to confront these behaviours – such as ill-timed language laws and disingenuous crackdowns on organised crime – may be only fuelling resentment toward Kyiv. Instead, Kyiv must confront their root cause by following through on old promises to hold accountable corrupt officials at all levels.

Many residents of these areas live on the state’s margins. In Polissya, tens of thousands work in a multimillion-dollar, illegal amber trade controlled by armed gangs and allegedly sheltered by officials. In Zakarpattya, much of the working-age population relies on labour migration and tax-free remittances that deprive entire communities of their workforce or tax base. Some ingredients of the Donbas conflict – strong regional identities; deep resentment toward an ineffectual, heavily centralised state; corrupt law enforcement and criminal shadow economies – are also present here, and outside actors – including Moscow and Budapest – could use it to stir up separatism. Absent organised irredentism, these regions’ alienation from the state still casts doubt on whether Kyiv is capable of governing its vast, diverse territory in an inclusive manner.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s leaders have reaped colossal profits from politics. It is no surprise, then, that a large part of the population – between one-quarter and half, according to various estimates – operates in the shadow economy: they see leaders prioritising private wealth over public good and follow suit. Kyiv has made large strides since Maidan, with a new anti-corruption bureau, a new police force, and momentum toward regional decentralisation – yet Ukrainians remain largely convinced that their leaders systematically obstruct or derail reforms to protect personal fiefdoms and corporate bottom lines. Ukraine must get serious about fighting corruption, or risk becoming a state that people on the margins choose to abandon.


To the government in Kyiv:

  1. Create a specialised national anti-corruption court with regional representation, in line with the Venice Commission’s October 2017 recommendation.
  2. Amend national legislation governing the use of mineral resources to facilitate licencing of small, local mining cooperatives managed at the oblast, district or hromada (community) level.
  3. Address language controversies by: (a) Revising ethnic language elements of the September 2017 Law on Education; (b) Developing legislation in partnership with education experts from the Hungarian, Romanian and other minority-language communities to augment Ukrainian-language instruction in minority language schools; (c) Following best practices regarding mother tongue-education for persons belonging to national minorities.
  4. To reduce incentives to take bribes and combat personnel shortages, raise salaries of police, doctors, teachers, and other civil servants incrementally through 2020, adjusting target salaries to account for inflation when necessary.
  5. Ensure decentralisation reform in Zakarpattya and other minority-majority regions proceeds in consultation with local communities, including but not limited to minority community leaders.

To the Rivne, Volyn, and Zhytomyr oblast governments:

  1. Oversee transparent, lawful provision of amber mining licenses for community-based cooperatives.

To the Zakarpattya oblast government:

  1. Approve the Office for Self-government’s plan for redistricting within the framework of decentralisation reform.

To the government of Hungary:

  1. Denounce calls by Hungarian officials for Zakarpattian autonomy.
  2. Refrain from blocking Ukrainian-led initiatives in multilateral bodies, except for cases when these could pose a direct threat to either human rights or the principles of the body in question.
  3. Revisit implementation of the 2010 Law on Citizenship for compliance with OSCE best practices, which call on states to ensure that “conferral of citizenship [to ethnic kin in other states] respects the principles of friendly, including good neighbourly, relations and territorial sovereignty”.

I. Introduction

Crisis Group’s 2014-2016 reporting on Ukraine focused on the security situation in Ukraine’s eastern breakaway territories, and the Kremlin’s crucial role in arming and financing the de facto entities. The December 2016 report Military Deadlock, Political Crisis argued that the main goal of Moscow’s interference in Donbas was to destabilise Ukraine and freeze its path to Eurointegration – and that Kyiv, through stalling on anti-corruption reforms, was only aiding this goal. The second part of this analysis is even truer today: corruption continues to take a corrosive toll on Ukrainian civic life, leading to potential instability even in parts of the country distant from the conflict zone. The present report takes a close-up look at this phenomenon, examining two peripheral regions where the state is particularly fragile, and many disaffected citizens are either resorting to illegal activities or abandoning the country altogether.

The Maidan uprising that culminated in the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014 promised to replace his kleptocratic regime with a European-style government based on rule of law. The Kremlin-backed insurgency that subsequently arose in eastern Ukraine lent this promise urgency: Kyiv’s international backers and domestic reformers agreed that deep anti-corruption and good-governance reforms were key to restoring territorial integrity and enticing residents of separatist-held territories back into the fold. In May 2014, President Petro Poroshenko won a convincing electoral victory with a series of interdependent promises: he would end the war and crack down on corruption, as well as sell or create blind trusts for his vast business assets.

Yet three years later the war continues to simmer, with over 10,225 dead and no end in sight.[fn]Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine, 16 May to 15 August 2017, p. 7.Hide Footnote Billions of dollars of Western aid have failed to yield clear breakthroughs in fighting corruption. Decentralisation and police reform have yielded modest successes, bringing new, young faces to the law enforcement sector and larger budgets to some poor rural areas. Yet despite these hopeful steps, many Ukrainians believe aid has only strengthened and legitimised high-level corruption, and that the president himself – who continues to control several increasingly profitable businesses – is a main offender.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kyiv, September-October 2017. See also Oleg Sukhov, Oksana Grytsenko and Alyona Zhuk, “All in the family: the sequel”, Kyiv Post, 7 October 2016; “International Investment Bank shareholders approve 25% rise of charter capital”, Interfax, 25 April 2017; Yevhen Solonina and Oleksandra Poloskova, “Російський бізнес Порошенка: продати не можна лишити” [“Poroshenko can’t hold onto his Russian business interests – or get rid of them”], Radio Svoboda, 28 March 2015; “Банк Порошенко увеличил чистую прибыль почти втрое” [“Poroshenko’s bank nearly doubles its net profits”], Ekonomicheskaya Pravda, 5 May 2017.Hide Footnote He denies any wrongdoing.[fn]See, for example, “Ukrainian president rejects fugitive lawmaker’s corruption allegations, but shock waves extend abroad”, Radio Free Europe, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote

If Kyiv and its backers initially saw the post-Maidan fight against corruption as a way to hasten a peaceful resolution to the Donbas war – by convincing would-be separatists to value Ukrainian sovereignty – citizens’ perceptions of continuing large-scale corruption have become a clear impediment to this mission.[fn]Serhiy Fursa, “Чому корупія більше вбиває Україну, ніж війна з Росією” [“Why corruption is killing Ukraine more than the war with Russia”],, 6 July 2017; IRI survey conducted in June-July 2017 showed that corruption within state bodies is the most important issue for Ukrainians along with the conflict in Donbas. “Ukraine Poll: Slight Improvement in National Outlook; Strong Support for Europe”, International Republican Institute (, 22 August 2017.Hide Footnote A member of the nationalist opposition recently argued that public calls from Kyiv and western allies to “save the three million people of Donbas” ring hollow: the real priority should be to “save the over 40 million people” in Kyiv-controlled Ukraine from a future of indignity.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv city, September 2017.Hide Footnote Like other government critics, he called for those concerned about the country’s stability to look “not just to the eastern border, but to the western border”, where Ukrainians’ close attention to neighbouring states’ superior living standards is driving anti-government sentiment.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kyiv city, February 2017, April 2017, September 2017.Hide Footnote

To weigh the merit of these critiques, this report examines citizen-state relations in Polissya and Zakarpattya, two western Ukrainian regions that domestic and international observers identify as potential centres of further state erosion.[fn]Crisis Group interview, advisor to high-ranking national official, Kyiv, November 2017; Balazs Jarabik, “Ukraine’s Fall”, Visegrad Revue, 28 September 2015; “Сепаратизм по-закарпатськи” [“Separatism Zakarpattian-style”], TSN, 18 June 2017.Hide Footnote It looks at the survival strategies residents use to work around state dysfunction and poverty. The present study does not argue that state fragility in western Ukraine deserves greater attention than the Donbas war, where soldiers and civilians continue to die each week, and where up to 3.7 million residents live under Moscow-backed de facto regimes that show little respect for basic rights.[fn]For various estimates of the population of the de-facto entities, see Delovaya Stolitsa, Occupied Territories: Economics, Demography, Groups of Influence, October 2017.Hide Footnote It does, however, seek to show how crises of governance in areas far from Donbas can shed light on long-term obstacles to the creation of a strong, peaceful and cohesive state.

Field research was conducted between January and June 2017 in Kyiv city, Zhytomyr oblast (Olevsk and Korosten cities), Rivne city and oblast (Rokytne and Sarny districts), Zakarpattya oblast (the cities of Uzhhorod, Berehove, Mukachevo, Solotvyno, Tyachiv, Lysychovo and Mezhhirye). These locales were chosen for high rates of poverty and damage to infrastructure, emigration and circular migration and/or proximity to illegal trade centres. Interviewees included local officials, journalists, health and education experts, small proprietors and black marketeers. Follow-up interviews were conducted with Kyiv officials in September-November 2017.

II. Polissya

Polissya, meaning “woodland”, is a geographical region that stretches from eastern Poland along the Ukraine-Belarus border into western Russia. Ukraine’s portion is home to roughly three million people, largely rural and poor, and lacks the rich soil, minerals or warm-water ports that fuelled development of agriculture, industry and commerce in other regions.[fn]Ukrainian Polissya, as defined by national agricultural policy, includes sections of nine oblasts, while taking up most of the northern parts of Volyn, Rivne, Zhytomyr, Kyiv, and Chernihiv oblasts. “Про визначення поліських територій України” [“On the definition of Polissian areas of Ukraine”], the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine 2068-98-p, 25 December 1998.Hide Footnote The heart of Ukrainian Polissya comprises the northern districts of Volyn, Rivne and Zhytomyr oblasts, all of which rank below national average socio-economic indicators.[fn]Per capita income averaged roughly $1,150 in the three oblasts in 2016, compared to $1,225 for the country as a whole. “Доходи населення за регіонами України” [“Income of population by region”], State statistics service of Ukraine.Hide Footnote Within these three oblasts, the districts that comprise Polissya are among the poorest. Monthly salaries rarely exceed $200,[fn]“Соціально-економічне становище Зарічненського району у січні-квітні 2017 року” ["Socio-economic conditions in Zarichnenskyi district, January-April 2017"].Hide Footnote compared to the national average of roughly $285.[fn]“Cредняя зарплата в Украине” [“Average salary in Ukraine”], Ministry of Finance Financial Portal.Hide Footnote

Since Maidan in 2014, this border backwater has come to symbolise post-regime change chaos. News stories, YouTube videos and social media depict a region consumed by a gold-rush mentality, where well-armed miners destroy forests and armed groups compete among themselves for turf, unhindered – and in some cases abetted – by local authorities and police.[fn]For example, “Ukraine’s amber-mining outlaws”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 24 August 2017,; “Поколение Янтарь” [“Generation Amber”], Kanal Ukraina, 18 July 2016, Footnote The illegal amber industry now reportedly employs tens of thousands, some of whom travel to Polissya from other regions, clogging rural roads during the spring and summer amber mining season.

Media sensationalise mining districts as “the Amber People’s Republic”,[fn]See, for example, “Янтарная Республика – это аналог ДНР на западе Украины – Романенко” [“Romanenko: The Amber Republic is western Ukraine’s answer to the DNR”], Hvylya, 13 March 2016.Hide Footnote and a Rivne oblast official warned that attempts to curb the trade by force could spark violent resistance.[fn]Crisis Group interview, journalist, Rivne, February 2017; see also “В зонах добычи янтаря может начаться вторая АТО – депутат Ровенского облсовета Ковальчук”
[“Rivne Oblast Council Deputy Kovalchuk: a second ATO [anti-terrorist operation] could begin in amber mining zones”], Antikor, 8 February 2017.Hide Footnote
While this is likely an exaggeration, amber mining and trafficking certainly fuel violent crime that the state lacks capacity to counter. Even if local law enforcement were committed to stopping the trade, officials and activists worry any dramatic escalation, such as the forcible dispersion of a mine working at full capacity, would be met with violence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, city official/activist, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017.Hide Footnote

A. The Amber Boom

Polissian villagers have long supplemented their incomes through informal work using what the forest provides: selling small batches of lumber, berries and mushrooms, or small amounts of fossilised tree resin – amber – dug up from forest clearings. Ukrainian amber began to attract the interest of organised crime in the 1990s after Poland cracked down on illegal mining in its Polissian regions. Some Polish gangs then migrated east and introduced their Ukrainian neighbours to a more efficient, but environmentally devastating form of extraction. Crews first clear the forest with backhoes and scoop out channels to a water source, such as a river or marsh. Then they dig pits into the sandy soil and use hoses and pumps powered by old car engines to blast water underground and raise amber, which is lighter than sand or rocks, up to the surface. This practice has polluted rivers and streams, while destroying thousands of hectares of pine and birch forest, leaving behind bare, cratered land that looks like a moonscape.[fn]The practice has been well documented in news and magazine stories and on YouTube. See, for example, John Wendle, “The dramatic impact of illegal amber mining in Ukraine’s wild west”, National Geographic, 31 January 2017. Inna Bilets’ka Facebook posts, 28 March, 24 May, 1 April 2017,; Facebook search results for “Бурштинова республiка Полiсся” [“Amber republic + Polissya”],; YouTube search results for “Янтарные старатели на Полесье” [“Amber miners in Polissya”], Footnote 

Crowds of Ukrainians gather near the village of Olevsk in Polissya to mine for amber. To find this ancient, fossilised resin of pine trees, miners have torn down many hectares of forest and flooded the bare soil using electric water pumps. 23 March 2017. CRISIS GROUP/Oleksandr Nikolaychuk

Strong protection rackets reportedly overseen by figures close to Kyiv[fn]Tomasz Piechal, “The Amber Rush in Ukraine”, Centre for Eastern Studies (, 8 May 2017.Hide Footnote emerged in the 2000s, when increases in the global price of amber stimulated illicit mining. Throughout this period, the state enterprise Burshtyn Ukraini (Ukrainian Amber) was the only legally licensed miner, and saw yields that were merely a fraction of the illicit traders’. Under Presidents Yushchenko and Yanukovych, lawmakers attempted to regulate the trade but were said to have lost their nerve as they came to understand the magnitude and power of the protection rackets.[fn]

In 2014, with the instability that accompanied Maidan and the start of the Donbas war, amber mining exploded as the economy slid into recession and Ukraine’s currency plummeted in value, driving many citizens to supplement their meagre incomes through the black market.[fn]The hryvnia’s value fell from about $0.13 in February 2014 to less than $0.03 in February 2015. See “XE Currency Charts: USD to UAH”, XE, Footnote With the new volume of mining came increased chaos. Rival bands vying for turf filled the vacuum left by the consolidated protection racket that disintegrated after Yanukovych fled.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Obishche, Zhytomyr oblast, March 2017. See also Wendle, “Dramatic impact”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Ukraine’s depleted security structures were overwhelmed by the 2014 challenges;[fn]Crisis Group interviews, police official, Rivne city, February 2017; municipal official, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017; interior ministry official, Kyiv, September 2017.Hide Footnote unable to stem the 24 to 36 tonnes of illegal amber exported from Ukraine in 2013 for shadow earnings of roughly $1 million, according to news reports.[fn]“Теневой сектор составляет 50% экономики – НБУ” [“The shadow sector makes up 50% of the economy – National Anti-Corruption Bureau”], Novoe Vremya, 18 July 2017; “Тенденції тіньової економіки” [“Tendencies in the shadow economy”], Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, 21 September 2017.Hide Footnote In 2014, Ukraine may have illegally exported as much as 300 tonnes, worth an estimated $300 million to $600 million, based on black market rates of at least $1,000 per kilo.[fn]The estimate of 300 tonnes is cited in “Янтарная лихорадка: зачем Украине легализация добычи 'солнечного камня'” [“Amber fever: why Ukraine needs to legalise extraction of the 'sunshine stone'”], Segodnya (online), 7 August 2015. The figure of $2,000 as the price for amber on the black market is from “Украину делят на янтарь Газета” [“Ukraine is being cut up into amber”], Gazeta, 23 August 2017. The Segodnya article cited provides a lower estimated price of $1,200 per kilo for a tranche of amber seized by law enforcement in Rivne in 2015.Hide Footnote

Little attempt is made to hide illegal mining, or the sums of money involved. Polissians describe bumper-to-bumper traffic on rutted roads during the spring and summer, as both impoverished locals and workers from poor neighbouring oblasts flood into mining areas.[fn]Several Kyiv taxi drivers, for example, spoke independently of having mined amber in Zhytomyr oblast with a group of friends in the summer. One described making tens of thousands of dollars each in a single week, despite once having had their pumps confiscated by police who he said were helping local “thugs” protect their turf. Crisis Group interviews, Obyshche, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017; Kyiv city, October 2017.Hide Footnote Economic motivation comes in the form of $300 to $1,000 per shift divided among work gangs of – in their vernacular – five to ten knights per brigade and one leader, who together control access to deposits in particular areas. Traffickers pay not only the brigades but reportedly also local officials for protection, at sums equivalent to 30-50 per cent of their earnings.[fn]“Результати круглого столу щодо нелегального видобутку бурштину в Україні” [“Results of the round table on illegal amber mining in Ukraine”], Automaidan, 26 February 2016; Crisis Group interviews, February, April, November 2017.Hide Footnote According to news reports, traders in 2013 bought amber at prices up to $250 per kilo and sold it across the border in Poland for mark-ups as high as 100 per cent. As of September 2017, buyers typically paid $1,600 or more per kilo in Ukraine before selling abroad at more modest mark-ups of as low as ten per cent.[fn]An online seller offered a “discount” price of $14,500 on 25-26 September 2017, with an additional markup of $1,520 if the stone was purchased in Poland. Crisis Group correspondence, September 2017. “Янтарная лихорадка: зачем Украине легализация добычи ‘солнечного камня’” [“Amber fever: why Ukraine needs to legalise extraction of the ‘sunshine stone’”], Segodnya (online), 7 August 2015. Several local sources noted a recent slump in prices due to decreased Chinese demand, yet it is unclear whether this marks a long-term change, and if and how such a shift would affect amber’s position in the local economy. Crisis Group interviews, Sarny, Rivne oblast, April 2017.Hide Footnote

Local police are largely ineffectual at countering illegal amber. Observers point to corruption: the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) arrested four high-ranking Rivne oblast police officials in 2016 on accusations of sheltering the trade, and in early 2017 a key officer was rumoured to have struck a deal with “amber mafia” elements.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rivne city, February 2017. In April 2017, Ukraine’s prosecutor general accused Rivne oblast’s police force of systematically covering up crimes involving amber. See “О Луценко, янтарной мафии и возможных кадровых изменениях в руководстве Ровенской области” [“On Lutsenko, the amber mafia, and possible personnel changes in Rivne oblast leadership”], Zik, 28 April 2017. Following the accusations, a new head of the Rivne oblast police was appointed – but the old one was promoted to the role of special advisor for the key amber oblasts, Rivne, Volyn, and Zhytomyr.Hide Footnote Accounts abound of officers treating amber as an earning opportunity: a Rivne city policeman whose units intercept amber shipments en route to the Polish border said colleagues in the amber belt sometimes call him to say, “So you seized the amber and then what, you just turned it in?!”[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rivne city, February 2017. Crisis Group interview, Sarny, Rivne oblast, April 2017.Hide Footnote

Lawlessness in amber areas is hardly the fault of the police alone. As the Rivne officer put it: “Do you think [140 police] can take on 100 mines with 1,000 people working at each one?”[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Kyiv city, June 2017.Hide Footnote Ukraine’s ongoing national campaign to rid law enforcement of the corrupt vestiges of its militia forerunner and rebrand it as mindful of Maidan sensibilities may have brought new faces to police forces in several amber districts, yet officers remain outnumbered by armed gangs of miners, and suspicions of collusion persist.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, trader, October 2017; Crisis Group interview, miner, October 2017; Crisis Group phone call, anti-mining activist, December 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Kyiv’s Response

In July 2015, Poroshenko denounced law enforcement and security service officials in the three amber oblasts for protecting the illegal industry. His ultimatum gave them two weeks to purge their ranks of amber racketeers, using a variation of the Russian word krysha, which means “roof” both literally and in the sense of protection racket. He also called on Ukraine’s parliament – Verkhovna Rada – to draft a bill to formalise and institutionalise a framework for regulating the trade in early 2015.[fn]“Ukraine: President Targets Illegal Amber Mining Industry”, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (, 6 July 2015; Petro Poroshenko Facebook video post, 3 July 2015, Footnote

But there was little change in the amber regions for almost a year until March 2016, when Rivne’s governor requested National Guard deployment.[fn]“Бурштинові війни: губернатор Рівненщини просит ввести Нацгвардію” [“Amber wars: Rivne governor asks to send in the national guard”],, 17 March 2016.Hide Footnote Less than two weeks later, a Rada deputy presented a report based on data gleaned from state security services that accused Rivne’s governor of protecting the trade in collaboration with high-ranking oblast police.[fn]“​В Раде представлен доклад о ‘крышевателях’ добычи янтаря в Ровенской области” [“Report on the ‘mafia protectors’ of the amber trade in Rivne oblast presented in the Rada”], Levyi bereg, 30 March 2016.Hide Footnote By the end of April 2016, Rivne’s governor had resigned, though he did not admit guilt or face any legal penalties.[fn]The governor said his resignation was due to his decision to pursue new career opportunities. See “Глава Ровенской ОГА Чугунников подал в отставку” [“Chugunnikov, head of the Rivne oblast administration, submits resignation”], RBK-Ukraina, 28 April 2016.Hide Footnote And in July 2016, Kyiv sent 300 personnel from various security organisations to conduct a series of raids in northern Rivne. They arrested dozens of alleged mafia operatives, including the first deputy oblast prosecutor, current and former police personnel, SBU officers and other rumoured “representatives of the criminal world”.[fn]Arsen Avakov Facebook post, 12 September 2016, Estimates for total numbers of security forces involved range from 100 to “over 300”. “Операція ‘Бурштин’ на Рівненщині: зампрокурор затриманий, прокурора відсторонять” [“Operation ‘Amber’ in Rivne: deputy procurator detained, procurator dismissed”], BBC, 4 July 2016. The former deputy prosecutor is currently on trial; another key arrestee, the Sarny district prosecutor, was reinstated 14 December 2017.Hide Footnote

In 2014, with the instability that accompanied Maidan and the start of the Donbas war, amber mining exploded as the economy slid into recession and Ukraine’s currency plummeted in value.

While national and municipal officials praised the raids as a turning point in the fight against illegal mining, others were more sceptical.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, oblast authorities, Rivne, February 2017; district official, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017. The head of the Rivne patrol police said the raids had “dealt with 90 per cent of the problem”, but added things had spun out of control again in the second half of 2016, when the oblast police force suffered a leadership gap of nearly two months. Crisis Group interview, Rivne, February 2017.Hide Footnote A high-ranking interior ministry official said the operation broke the back of the trade,[fn]Crisis group interview, interior ministry official, September 2017. The official noted that hardly any illegal Ukrainian amber was currently being sold on the Polish market – yet traffickers regularly bribe customs officials to receive certificates for “legal” export. Crisis Group correspondence, 26 September 2017.Hide Footnote but many locals claim little has changed on the ground. A Sarny village leader said miners simply find new ways to avoid authorities’ attention.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sarny, Rivne oblast, April 2017.Hide Footnote Miners themselves claim to have worked profitably both during and after the raids, even if they had to adjust schedules to avoid run-ins with law enforcement.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Obishche, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017; Sarny, Rivne oblast, April 2017.Hide Footnote A Rivne journalist who has reported extensively on life in amber mining villages called the arrests “a joke”, claiming new local and Kyiv-based officials continue to operate government-run protection rackets in the vacuum left by their predecessors.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rivne city, February 2017 and Crisis Group correspondence, journalist, December 2017. This account was corroborated in Crisis Group online correspondence during June and December 2017 with an anti-mining activist in Olevsk. Several amber miners shared this view in Crisis Group interviews in April 2017 and November 2017, but were unable or unwilling to cite specifics.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, efforts to regulate the trade by 2018 – one of the conditions for Kyiv’s future International Monetary Fund (IMF) funding – have gone awry.[fn]IMF Country Report No.17/83, April 2017, p. 84. Available at Footnote A bill that would have facilitated mining licencing for individuals, as well as companies, and mandated creation of communal enterprises overseen by oblasts, failed to pass its second parliamentary reading in February 2017.[fn]“Проект закону про видобування та реалізацію бурштину” [“Bill on the extraction and processing of amber”], 1351-1, 26.12.2014, National Parliament of Ukraine.Hide Footnote In theory, the state geological service issues permits to companies based on a rigorous application process that includes an environmental impact assessment; oblast authorities then oversee the distribution of land parcels. In practice, the process is opaque and licenses are widely believed to be given out based on personal relationships.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, journalist, Rivne city, February 2017; miner, Kyiv, February 2017; local parliamentarian, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017; miner, Kyiv city, September 2017.Hide Footnote One school of activist thought is that making licencing easier for individuals and small cooperatives would limit potential for large bribes and thus incentives for officials to engage in corrupt practices.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, journalist, Rivne city, February 2017; miner, Kyiv, February 2017; local parliamentarian, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017; miner, Kyiv city, September 2017.Hide Footnote

Not only did the legalisation effort fail; it was discredited by explosive corruption allegations against a central figure. After the bill sank in the Rada, Boryslav Rozenblat, a national deputy from the president’s party and one of the bill’s co-authors, accused powerful officials involved in the trade of working behind the scenes to undermine reform.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Boryslav Rozenblat, Kyiv, February 2017. Rozenblat later accused deputies who voted against the law of “state treason”. “Провал законопроекта о добыче янтаря – это госизмена, – Розенблат” [“The failure of amber mining legislation is state treason – Rozenblat”],, 7 February 2017. Opponents of the law, including some supporters of regulation, argued it was shoddily written and failed to specify clear procedures for issuing mining licenses. Crisis Group interview, Rivne city, February 2017.Hide Footnote Then the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) accused him and his co-authors of accepting bribes to revise the draft; they also accused Rozenblat individually of improperly influencing officials to approve mining licenses on behalf of an offshore company.[fn]“Розенблат и Поляков: что известно о новом коррупционном скандале” [“Rozenblat and Polyakov: what we know about the new corruption scandal”], Liga.Novosti, 20 June 2017.Hide Footnote While he insists the charges are fabricated, he has been stripped of parliamentary immunity and may face up to twelve years in prison.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Boryslav Rozenblat, Kyiv, October 2017. See also “Розенблату грозит до 12 лет тюрьмы” [“Rozenblat faces up to 12 years in prison”], Ukrayinska Pravda, 22 June 2017.Hide Footnote

While some anti-mining activists welcome these actions as a sign that authorities are getting serious about cracking down on the amber mafia, others remain unconvinced.[fn]For example, journalist Denis Kazansky wrote, “I welcome NABU’s strike against the amber mafia – by all appearances, a real strike, not the shameful imitation we’ve observed before, where they detained miners and low-level officials in Volyn for several years in a row”. Denis Kazansky Facebook post, 21 June 2017, Footnote A deputy from the presidential bloc argued that the charges continued a post-Maidan trend of catching relatively small fish while freeing bigger ones.[fn]Crisis Group interview, national deputy, Kharkiv, July 2017.Hide Footnote A prominent activist asserted that NABU was simply pretending to fulfil its mandate while serving Kyiv’s goal of discrediting any attempt to regulate the trade, highlighting the cynicism many citizens feel toward state anti-corruption initiatives.[fn]“Some provincial deputy could not have organised this scheme”, the activist said, insisting that the president must have been aware of it. Crisis Group phone conversation, June 2017.Hide Footnote

Efforts to regulate the [amber] trade by 2018 – one of the conditions for Kyiv’s future Inter-national Monetary Fund (IMF) funding – have gone awry.

Since the February failure of Rozenblat’s proposal, no bill on regulation has been active in the Rada. Officials have instead opted for a controversial process of issuing licenses for private companies to mine large tracts of land in the absence of national legislation regulating and opening the industry to independent miners. Defenders of this process characterise it as a stopgap measure to achieve benefits of the failed legislation – job creation, environmental accountability, reduced child labour and tax revenues – while Kyiv comes up with something better.[fn]“В.о голови Держгеонадра: легальний видобуток бурштину – це робочі місця, податки та рекультивація” [“Acting head of Derzhgeonadr: legal amber excavation means jobs, revenues, and recultivaton”], Business Censor, 13 April 2017.Hide Footnote Opponents argue it is aimed at benefitting politically connected investors while freezing villagers out.[fn]See “В Ровно раздавали янтарние земли – со скандалом и проклятиями” [“Scandal and curses as Rovno hands out plots of amber”], Zik, 9 November 2016.Hide Footnote As of late 2017, merely four private entities had been licensed, and reports concerning their ownership suggest sceptics’ concerns may be warranted.[fn]“В Україні лище дев’ять підприємств легально працюють на ринку бурштину” [“Only nine legal companies working in the amber market”], State geological service, See also “В.о голови Держгеонадра: легальний видобуток бурштину – це робочі місця, податки та рекультивація” [“Acting head of Derzhgeonadr: legal amber excavation means jobs, revenues, and recultivaton”], Business Censor, 13 April 2017. See also, Michał Kozak, “Ukrainian amber is a problem, but it could be an opportunity”, Central European Financial Observer (, 3 July 2017.Hide Footnote

There are strong, competing views as to who is ultimately to blame for, and to benefit from, the stalled legislative efforts and ad hoc interim measures.[fn]For instance, some anti-mining experts and miners themselves – as well as actors like Rozenblat – place the blame on members of the prosecutor general’s office and interior ministry. Crisis Group interview, Boryslav Rozenblat, Kyiv, February 2017; Crisis Group interviews, Obishche, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017; Sarny, Rivne oblast, April 2017; Crisis Group correspondence, Kyiv/Rivne, September 2017. Representatives cite lack of evidence. Crisis Group interview, interior ministry official, September 2017.Hide Footnote The bottom line, as several officials point out, is that a government widely perceived to be looting the state cannot credibly tell citizens to stop doing the same.

C. Local Impact

The environmental consequences of amber mining are catastrophic and well known: miners have felled large tracts of forest, pumped water out of wetlands, and washed away fertile top soil. The barren spaces left behind are bereft of traditional forest products, such as berries, and vulnerable to flooding. As of early 2017, the total area of devastated land is estimated to range anywhere from 2,600 hectares to more than 10,000.[fn]“Пілотний проект із рекультивації земель дозволить за 5 років відновити пошкоджені нелегальним видобутком бурштину землі лісового фонду – голови ОДА (відео)” [“Pilot project to recultivate land will allow for the renewal of forest fund lands damaged by illegal amber mining within 5 years – oblast administration heads (video)”], Unian, 15 February, Footnote Moreover, corruption allegations have marred a February 2017 plan to recover 6,000 hectares of destroyed forest.[fn]“Rozenblat and Polyakov”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The trade has also greatly reduced the appeal of formal work in Polissya. While villagers generally play only supporting roles – as knights or brigade leaders – profits from the rise in amber prices have indeed trickled down. At the start of the amber boom in 2013, knights made about $12 (100 hryvnia) a day – three to four times normal daily earnings in these districts.[fn]At the time average monthly salaries there hovered around $100-120. “Середна заробітна плата в 2013 році” [“Average salary in 2013”], Main statistical headquarters of Rivne oblast, Footnote In 2016 and 2017, someone in the same position could expect to earn about $20-$40 a day, while average monthly salaries in Polissya rarely clear $200.[fn] See “Round Table on Illegal Amber Mining”, op. cit. For monthly salaries in amber-mining districts, see “Новини у листопаді 2017 року” [“November 2017 news”], available at Footnote

The former forest in Ukraine’s region of Polissya now known as the Korabel (“Ship”) tract for amber mining was cut down and devastated by thousands of people digging for the valuable fossilised pine resin. Shebedykha, Ukraine. June 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Oleksandr Nikolaychuk

Local economic benefits have been mixed. One anti-mining activist argued that amber money only has a superficial effect on villagers’ living standards: “People are buying iPhones and using them to light the way to their outhouses”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local parliamentarian and activist, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017.Hide Footnote Anecdotal evidence suggests the new income has in fact been a boon for previously impoverished families, allowing them to afford essential goods.[fn]Lyubov Velichko, “Лихорадка” [“Delirium”], Argument, 9 July 2016.Hide Footnote But the under-the-table nature of these earnings still limits the trade’s long-term positive impact on communities. Villages flush with new amber money have next to no tax base. Rivne oblast generated a mere $8.5 million in tax revenue for the state budget in 2016, most of it thanks to industry located outside of the amber belt.[fn]Budget of Ukraine 2016, infographics, 2016, Footnote An official responsible for oblast-level decentralisation in Rivne pointed out that the dearth of taxes is a crucial obstacle to these reforms, which envision municipalities using locally generated taxes to pay for their own infrastructure needs.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rivne oblast self-government official, Rivne city, February 2017.Hide Footnote This is particularly unfortunate given that decentralisation was conceived, at least in part, to revitalise depressed rural areas like Polissya.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kherson oblast self-government official, Kherson city, March 2017; village head, Sarny district, Rivne oblast, April 2017.Hide Footnote

The trade has also had dire effects on education. So many children skip class to help families extract amber that a Rivne school deputy head said secondary classes are often half-empty during fall and spring; mining only stops when the ground freezes in winter.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rokytne, Rivne oblast, February 2017. This source, it should be noted, saw this as a tendency that had begun well before 2014, and attributed it not only to amber mining but to corruption. Students regularly have to pay bribes to get in to universities or pass routine exams.Hide Footnote The head teacher said many students see little need for a university education, since they already make more money than teachers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rokytne, Rivne oblast, February 2017. A district head in Rivne oblast and a village head in Sarny district, Rivne oblast, concurred in two separate April 2017 interviews.Hide Footnote

The environmental consequences of amber mining are catastrophic and well known.

Potential security concerns are also worrying. According to locals, a majority of families in amber-mining areas keep firearms, most of which are unregistered.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, law enforcement officer, journalist, Rivne, February 2017; local official/activist, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017; schoolteachers, Rokytne, Rivne oblast, February 2017.Hide Footnote Officials say the number of firearms in Ukraine as a whole, and Polissya in particular, has increased in recent years, facilitated by smuggling that has taken off since the start of Kyiv’s operations against Russian-led forces in Donbas.[fn]Registering guns is an arduous process in Ukraine; statistics tend to be unreliable. According to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, the number of legally registered guns has grown to about one million nationwide, up from about 800,000 at the beginning of 2015. “В Украине на руках 1 000 000 единиц зарегистрированного оружия – Аваков” [“Avakov: there are 1,000,000 registered arms in possession in Ukraine”],, 13 March 2017. For a brief overview on the rise in demand for firearms in Ukraine, see “Ukraine, a ‘supermarket’ for guns”, The New Yorker, 17 January 2017.Hide Footnote Sources also say grenades are readily available in mining areas, where they cost between $50 and $150.[fn]Crisis Group interview, law enforcement officer, Rivne, February 2017.Hide Footnote

Crime – especially of the violent kind – has increased in amber areas much more rapidly than in the country as a whole in recent years. While the total number of crimes committed in Ukraine rose about 6.5 per cent from 2013 to 2016,[fn]“Правопорушення” [“Crimes”], State Statistics Service of Ukraine (, 21 February 2017; and “В Украине стремительно растет преступность: Луценко назвал причины” [“Crime is rapidly growing in Ukraine: Lutsenko names the reasons”], Segodnya (online), 15 February 2017.Hide Footnote crime in Rivne’s Rokytne district jumped by 40 per cent in 2015 alone. To cite the most extreme examples in amber areas over the past two years, violent crime has tripled in Rokytne,[fn]“Соціально-економічне становище Рокитнівського району за 2015 рік” [“Socio-economic conditions in Rokytne district as of 2015”], Rokytne district state administration (, 1 February 2016.Hide Footnote while rising just 18 per cent nationwide.[fn]“В 2016 году в Украине возросло количество преступлений, в том числе – тяжких на 20%. Подробная статистика” [“The number of crimes committed in Ukraine rose in 2016, while violent crime rose 20 per cent: in-depth statistics”], ASN, 19 January 2017; “Преступность на Украине. Статистика и динамика” [“Crime in Ukraine. Statistics and dynamics”], Narodnyi Korrespondent, 26 November 2016.Hide Footnote In neighbouring Volodymyr, crime has increased 22 per cent, while violent crime has more than quadrupled.[fn]“Соціально-економічне становище Володимирецького району за 2015 рік” [“Socio-economic conditions in Volodymyrets district as of 2015”], Volodymyrets district state administration (, 8 February 2016; “Соціально-економічне становище Володимирецького району у січні-липні 2016 року” [“Socio-economic conditions in Volodymyrets district as of January-July 2016”], Volodymyrets district state administration (, 8 September 2016.Hide Footnote Local leaders say most violence is linked to turf wars and financial disputes. Even without police corruption, any further increases could stretch local law enforcement’s limited capacity to the breaking point.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local parliamentarian, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017; district officials, Rokytne, Rivne oblast, April 2017; village official, Sarny district, Rivne oblast, April 2017. Crisis Group correspondence, police official, Rivne city, July 2017.Hide Footnote

D. Outlook

While the amber trade currently shows few signs of sparking large-scale violence, Kyiv is not considering any viable long-term solutions to the structural problems it represents – namely a widespread loss of faith in the rule of law. An anti-mining activist in Olevsk, who was an active supporter of the Maidan revolt, compared the situation in his region to 1990s Donbas, when coal and steel barons presided over a subculture largely divorced from the laws of the land, laying the groundwork for some locals eventually to decide that they should split from Kyiv.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017.Hide Footnote Other liberal, Maidan-supporting Polissians find themselves, in spite of their core beliefs, looking enviously across the border at autocratic Belarus, where strict laws on soil usage and draconian enforcement have helped preserve the forests.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rokytne, Rivne oblast, February 2017.Hide Footnote Kremlin-affiliated media have devoted substantial space to the state’s supposed collapse in Polissya, relying primarily on concerned, pro-Maidan locals to make their case.[fn]“Янтарная народная республика” [“The Amber people’s republic”],, 19 March 2016. This article cites a Kyiv-based blogger and passionate Kremlin critic at length.Hide Footnote

Kyiv can work toward restoring citizens’ belief in the rule of law by following through on long-pledged reforms. It needs to build on modest successes in police reform as well as carry out pledges to raise salaries for police and prosecutors – a move experts agree will not automatically lead to more effective law enforcement, but will reduce incentives to take bribes from organised crime.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, police official, Rivne city, February 2017; human rights activist, Kharkiv city, July 2017.Hide Footnote Criminal justice reform is also key: as long as Polissian miners believe prosecutors are sheltering organised crime, they will see little reason to obey the law themselves. Finally, Kyiv should create its promised Anti-Corruption Court, without which NABU’s investigations of high-level corruption in the amber trade may have little consequence.

Kyiv, crucially, also should take steps to convince Polissians that the state can in fact be trusted to provide public services – and that taxation is key to this function. One step could be to pass legislation that would facilitate licencing of local cooperatives – including for amber extraction and processing. These enterprises could be managed on the oblast level, as suggested by the Rozenblat draft, or at the level of sub-oblast municipalities, which may now levy and collect their own taxes under decentralisation reform.[fn]Crisis Group interview, village head, Sarny district, Rivne oblast, April 2017. Prospects for cooperatives are also addressed in Denis Kazanskiy, “Мафія бессмертна, або хто саботує легалізацію видобутку бурштину?” [“The immortal mafia, or, who is sabotaging the legalisation of amber mining?”], Tyzhden, 7 July 2016.Hide Footnote Of course, such an arrangement would need to be handled carefully, so as not to merely reinforce local entrenched interests. When Polissians see their tax money going to tangible improvements in local infrastructure, they may stop thinking of the state as something to be looted before it has a chance to steal from them.

III. Zakarpattya

Zakarpattya – known to the West as Transcarpathia – is one of Ukraine’s most diverse oblasts.[fn]The oblast’s roughly 150,000 Hungarians are concentrated along the border. Rusyn community leaders estimate their population at about 600,000. There is also a smaller Romanian minority in the south, and a substantial Roma population. State Statistics Service of Ukraine (, 18 October 2016, op. cit.Hide Footnote Located in the far south west, it shares a border with four European Union (EU) countries. The region is also poor relative to the rest of Ukraine, largely rural, and most of the population lives in villages surrounded by mountains and dense forests.[fn]Salaries in Zakarpattya fall slightly below the national average: as of March 2017, the average monthly salary was roughly $225 compared to the national average of $260. Per capita income in 2016 was $963, less than 80 per cent of the national average. At least 63 per cent of the population lives in villages, where jobs are scarce. “Обсяг реалізованої продукції (товарів, послуг) підприємств за їх розмірами за регіонами у 2015 році” [“Sales of products (goods and services) by enterprise, size, and region in 2015”], State Statistics Service of Ukraine (, 18 October 2016.Hide Footnote Many of its 1.2 million inhabitants understand at least three languages and have lived and worked in the EU. Ukrainian nationalists, as well as external actors, regularly warn of – or incite – separatist tendencies among the oblast’s two major ethnic minorities: Hungarians and Rusyns.[fn]Kyiv does not recognise Rusyns as an ethnic minority. Ukrainian elites often argue that Rusyns are simply Zakarpattian Ukrainians with a distinctive regional dialect – and that Russian propaganda is responsible for the view that they are a separate ethnos. However, Rusyns are recognized as an ethnic minority in other countries where they live in large numbers: Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, and Croatia. For a discussion of controversies surrounding Rusyn identity and the way Moscow has used it to stoke regional tensions, see Alexandra C. Wiktorek, Rusyns of the Carpathians, unpublished thesis submitted to Georgetown University. Available at There is some history of Zakarpattian Rusyns possibly furthering Kremlin propaganda: see Pavel Korduban, “Is Yushchenko’s Top Aide Backing Ruthenian Separatist Movement?”, The Jamestown Foundation, 5 November 2008.Hide Footnote Both communities were key constituencies behind a failed 1991 bid for autonomy, whose stubborn legacy earns frequent, if misplaced, comparisons to Crimea. Yet the most immediate problem facing Zakarpattya is not active separatism, but something more banal. Its culturally agile population, fed up with corruption and the anaemic local economy, might simply drop out of civic life – either by retreating into a state of permanent circular migration, or by leveraging family ties in EU neighbours to emigrate altogether.

A. Separatism in Zakarpattya: A Phantom Threat?

History shows that separatism in Zakarpattya is more bark than bite. When Ukraine voted to leave the Soviet Union in 1991, the local governments of two territorial entities – Crimea and Zakarpattya – held parallel referendums on self-rule.[fn]In 1990, the Soviet Supreme Court approved a law specifying that should a constituent republic leave the Union, any section of the republic that had not been part of its territory upon accession must be allowed to vote on its own status. Having been transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic from Czechoslovakia in 1945, Zakarpattya joined Crimea in making use of this provision. The oblasts of Ivano-Frankiivsk, Lviv, Rivne, Ternopil, and Volyn did not use it despite meeting the requirements. See Article 14.7 of “Закон СССР от 03.04.1990 No. 1409-1” [“USSR Law No.1409-1 from 3 April 1990”].Hide Footnote Nearly 80 per cent of Zakarpattians voted for autonomy within Ukraine. Yet unlike Crimea, Zakarpattya never went ahead with self-government, and only marginal local politicians continue to call for the referendum’s implementation. Many Zakarpattians insist oblast residents are too pragmatic and concerned with household economics to bother with separatism or even federalism. While reassuring, this also holds the key to a more real threat Kyiv faces in Zakarpattya and other western peripheries whose populations have extensive cross-border ties in the EU: the same pragmatism that militates against active separatism is also eroding citizens’ respect for – and perhaps loyalty to – a state that refuses, in their eyes, to give its constituents a chance to achieve dignified living standards.

Where Zakarpattya is concerned, Kyiv’s separatism fears revolve around the oblast’s roughly 150,000 ethnic Hungarians. Zakarpattian Hungarians were a major driver of the 1991 referendum, for which Budapest actively lobbied. In 2010, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán introduced a law guaranteeing Hungarian passports to anyone who could pass a language test and offer proof of ancestors “deprived of Hungarian citizenship” during 20th century territory shuffles.[fn]“Почти 100 тысяч жителей Закарпатья сменили паспорт на венгерский” [“Almost 100 thousand inhabitants of Zakarpattya have switched over to Hungarian passports”], Zerkalo Nedeli (online), 27 February 2015.Hide Footnote

[Zakarpattya's] culturally agile population, fed up with corruption and the anaemic local economy, might simply drop out of civic life.

Kyiv at the time paid little attention, but Ukrainian nationalists – both officials and activists – have grown increasingly nervous about cross-border interference since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Many point to the increase in Ukrainians obtaining Hungarian passports: according to statistics cited in a March 2017 news report, there are now over 118,000 Hungarian citizens in the oblast, and other sources put the number at over 200,000.[fn]“План створення угорської автономії на Закарпатті (Документ)” [“The plan to create a Hungarian autonomy in Zakarpattya (Document)”], Informator, 11 March 2017. A 2017 news report, viewed side-by-side with an announcement by Hungarian authorities’ that about 94,000 Zakarpattians had received Hungarian passports since the policy took effect, suggests that the number of Hungarian passports issued in 2016 exceeded the total number issued between 2010 and 2015. “Tavaly több mint 103,5 ezer útlevelet adtak ki Kárpátalján” [“More than 103.5 thousand passports were issued in Zakarpattya last year”], KarpatHir, 8 January 2017. For the estimate of Hungarian citizens in the oblast, see “Cамоопределение от ‘йоббиков’ и ‘великая венгрия’ от орбана” [“Jobbiks say ‘self-determination’, Orban says ‘great Hungary’”],, 18 October 2017. Lviv Mayor Sadoviy has stated that 30-40 per cent of Zakarpattya residents have dual citizenship. This allegation was quickly picked up by pro-Kremlin outlets, turning into the headline. “Тризуб не нужен. 40% жителей Закарпатья имеют венгерские паспорта, 80% буковельцев уже румыны” [“No more need for the [Ukrainian] trident: 40% of Zakarpattya residents have Hungarian passports and 80% of Bukovelians are now Romanians”], Antifashist, 19 March 2017.Hide Footnote Critics also call attention to inflammatory statements by both Orban and members of the far-right opposition party Jobbik, calling for autonomy for Hungarians in neighbouring states.[fn]“Rumblings in the West: Ukraine’s other ethnic quandary”, Radio Free Europe, 6 June 2014.Hide Footnote In the most extreme analysis, Orbán’s ostensible Russian President Vladimir Putin alliance is seen as evidence of shared tactics of hybrid warfare, and that Budapest is grooming its Hungarian minority for a Crimea-style annexation of Zakarpattya.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Svoboda and Azov members, Kyiv, October 2017.Hide Footnote

In practical terms, Hungary’s EU membership would preclude any such ambitions, yet political forces in Ukraine regularly take the bait. Nationalist activists from the right-wing Svoboda party and Azov civil corps have now held several torch-lit marches protesting the use of the Hungarian language and other markers of Hungarian ethnic identity in the quiet Zakarpattian town of Berehove.[fn]“Бабяк про марш Свободи: спільнота Берегова засуджує єктримістський видступ” [“Babyak on Svoboda march: the population of Berehove condemns extremist demonstration”], 14 November 2017.Hide Footnote Officials in Kyiv – including the president – have also called for banning dual citizenship to stem the tide of Hungarian “passportification”, drawing ire from the oblast’s vocally anti-separatist governor.[fn]“Что ждет жителей Закарпатья, имеющих второе гражданство?” [“What awaits Zapkarpattians with dual citizenship?”], BBC Ukraine, 31 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Separatism fears have already had a palpable impact on governance in Zakarpattya. Decentralisation reform, in which sub-oblast municipalities form new units called hromadas that levy their own taxes and manage their own budgets, has offered a lifeline to some poorer Ukrainian villages since the process began in 2015, increasing the funds at their disposal by orders of magnitude. Yet in Zakarpattya, the process has ground to a halt. Some barriers are technical: many small municipalities need to amalgamate with neighbouring ones to form electoral units with a viable tax base, a difficult task in an oblast where many poorer villages are surrounded by mountain and forestland. Yet the key obstacles may be political: authorities are loath to allow hromadas to form in majority-minority areas, lest this encourage ethnic divisions, and their concerns have only grown amid recent tensions between Kyiv and Budapest.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, head of oblast local decentralisation office, March, December 2017.Hide Footnote This impasse comes at considerable cost to ordinary Zakarpattians, who are hungry for more control over how they are governed.[fn]A 2016 IRI survey of residents of oblast capitals found that Uzhhorod residents overwhelmingly rejected the idea of presidential, gubernatorial, or ministerial involvement in local decisions. At the same time, Uzhhorod was the only oblast capital in which zero per cent of respondents supported a role for the president and/or governor on decisions regarding decentralization. See “Ukrainian municipal survey 20 January – 8 February, 2016”, International Republican Institute, March 2016.Hide Footnote

The clearest example of Kyiv’s misbegotten response to concerns about cross-border influence is the September 2017 education reform package, which included a law that requires minority-language schools to begin transitioning grades 5-12 to Ukrainian-only curricula starting in 2018, and grades 1-4 starting in 2020. This has presented moral and logistical dilemmas to Zakarpattya’s over 100 minority-language schools, which include over 50 Hungarian ones.[fn]“Про освіту” [“On education”], Supreme Rada of Ukraine, Law from 5 September 2017, No.2145, Footnote The initiative is tied to Kyiv’s ongoing Ukrainianisation campaign. Motivated largely by Putin’s claim that Russia annexed Crimea to protect Russian-speakers, Kyiv has sought over the past three years to ensure predominance of the Ukrainian language in public life. While Ukrainianisation focuses largely on reducing the prevalence of Russian, supporters of education reform present it in part as a way to counter so-called Magyarisation of primary and secondary education in Zakarpattya.[fn]Crisis Group interview, oblast education official, Uzhhorod, March 2017.Hide Footnote

The law’s passage drew a swift, angry response from neighbours; Hungary led the charge. In October, Budapest initiated an EU-member review of Ukraine’s EU Association Agreement, fully in force since 1 September 2017.[fn]Krisztina Than, “Hungary asks EU to review Ukraine ties over language row”, Reuters, 10 October 2017.Hide Footnote Budapest also promised to block Kyiv-led initiatives in multilateral organisations, including the UN and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Foreign ministers of Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania – there are over 90 Romanian-language schools in Zakarpattya, Chernivtsi, and Odesa oblasts – also asked Kyiv to reconsider.[fn]“Четыре страны ЕС просят Киев не ограничивать языки нацменьшинств” [“Four EU Countries ask Kyiv not to limit ethnic minority languages”], BBC, 15 September 2017.Hide Footnote Moscow’s response was slow and subdued; some Kyiv-based experts speculate it was sparing itself the effort as Ukraine’s western neighbours were making enough noise on their own.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kyiv, September 2017.Hide Footnote Political observers see the row as proof of Kyiv’s proclivity to further divide Ukraine through heavy-handed measures to strengthen national cohesion, as well as neighbours’ eagerness to take advantage of its weakness.[fn]Crisis Group interview with senior statesman, Kyiv, November 2017; see also Mustafa Nayyem Facebook post, 26 September 2017, Footnote

The new education law has some valid goals in terms of better integrating residents of the country’s south-western oblasts into civic life. Zakarpattian schoolchildren, along with their heavily Romanian-speaking neighbours in Chernivtsi, consistently have the country’s highest failure rate on university entrance exams, which revolve around Ukrainian-language proficiency. In both 2016 and 2017, roughly 27 per cent of college-bound Zakarpattians failed the state exam; some estimate that this included over half of Hungarian-language high schoolers.[fn]“Викладач: 40% студентів-закарпатців через незнання української не змогли б викликати швидку” [“Professor: 40% of Zakarpattya university students wouldn’t be able to call an ambulance”], Zik, 10 November 2016. See “Регіональні дані ЗНО-2016” [“Regional EIE (External Independent Evaluation) data, 2016”], Ukrainian Center for Education Quality Assessment (, 2007-2016. Another 27 per cent of the oblast’s test-takers did not pass the 120/200 point threshold, and students from Hungarian-language schools are overrepresented within this group.Hide Footnote Ukraine’s Education Minister Liliya Hrynevych lobbied for the bill partially because low Ukrainian fluency limits minority students’ prospects at home. In late 2016, she said reform is aimed at “integrating these children and giving them a chance to continue their education in Ukraine, not Hungary or Romania”.[fn]“Лілія Гриневич: МОН підготувало пропозиції щодо вирішення мадяризації освіти на Закарпатті” [“Liliya Hrinevich: Education ministry has prepared proposals to solve the Magyarisation of education in Zakarpattya”],, 4 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Separatism fears have already had a palpable impact on governance in Zakarpattya.

However, even harsh critics of Budapest in Zakarpattya oppose the new law, which contradicts international best practices on minority language education. The OSCE high commissioner on national minorities recommends minority children be given the opportunity to develop literacy in their native language, and states that this goal is best met when countries guarantee access to primary school curricula taught mostly in that language – a guideline that the law violates by calling for grades 1-4 to transition to Ukrainian only.[fn]OSCE Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities, The Hague Recommendations Regarding the Educational Rights of National Minorities, October 1996, pp. 6-7.Hide Footnote The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, while characterising state language knowledge as an essential pillar of national cohesion, stated that it “deplores the fact there was no real consultation with leaders of minority communities in Ukraine” when preparing the law.[fn]“The new Ukrainian law on education: a major impediment to the teaching of national minorities’ mother tongues”, Parliamentary Assembly Resolution 2189 (2017), Provisional Version, 10 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Zakarpattya Governor Hennadiy Moskal, known for his vocal distaste for any discussion of regional separatism or autonomy, denounced the law as showing zero appreciation for conditions in multi-ethnic regions. He said Zakarpattya’s minorities are “law-abiding citizens of Ukraine, striving to master the state language”.[fn]“Москаль: Новий Закон про освіту суперечить Європейскій хартії региональних мов, Закону ‘Про національні меньшини в Україні’ та міжнародним договорам, укладеним Україною із сусідніми країнами” [“Moskal: the new law on education contradicts the Europe Charter on regional languages, the ‘law on national minorities’ in Ukraine and international agreements concluded with neighbouring countries”], Hennadiy Moskal, official website (, 8 September 2017.Hide Footnote A Kyiv senior statesman, after voicing concerns that Budapest has designs on the oblast, called the law an “idiotic” move tailor-made to alienate Zakarpattians.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, October 2017.Hide Footnote Berehove’s town head condemned discussions of autonomy in Budapest and called for improved Ukrainian-language instruction in Hungarian schools – while stressing the right of Hungarians to study in their native language: “We would like to be considered full-fledged members of society, having lived for centuries at the foot of the Carpathians”, he wrote, adding: “It’s not our fault that the border changed several times in a single decade”.[fn]Zoltán Babják Facebook post, 25 October 2017, Footnote

There is still time to defuse tension the law has provoked. In response to the uproar following its passage, Kyiv submitted it to the Venice Commission, which partially endorsed “the strong domestic and international criticism [of] provisions reducing the scope of minority language education” – while noting that these provisions were vague enough to offer “space for an interpretation and application which are more in line with the protection of national minorities”.[fn]The commission also raised concerns that while the law at least provides flexibility regarding the teaching of EU languages, no such provisions are made for Ukraine’s second-most commonly used language, Russian. “Ukrainian Education Law: sufficient minority language teaching needs to be maintained, and unequal treatment of non-EU languages problematic, says Venice Commission”, Council of Europe press release, Strasbourg/Venice, 8 December 2017.Hide Footnote Ukraine has promised to consult with minority community leaders regarding the legislation’s most controversial components. These are positive signs, but a longer-term solution to challenges of minority integration will require Kyiv to address deeper structural problems.

B. Economics, Not Nationalism, Drive Cross-border Ties

Lost in conversations about language proficiency and the threat of separatism is the deeply pragmatic nature of many Zakarpattians’ ties to Hungary and other neighbouring states: residents opt for dual citizenship and Hungarian-language education not out of allegiance to Budapest, but to ease the process of labour migration. Officials and private citizens have made a strong case for the practical nature of dual citizenship. The oblast head for decentralisation reform called it “awful”,[fn]Crisis Group interview, Uzhhorod, February 2017.Hide Footnote but dismissed as absurd the notion it reflects residents’ loyalty to other states. Staff at an Uzhhorod visa agency asserted there is “absolutely no ideology” behind the choice to get legal documentation for Hungary or any neighbouring state, saying the decision is based on poor living standards, rising utilities prices and frustration with Kyiv.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, visa preparation agents, Uzhhorod, February 2017.Hide Footnote Pensioners crossing the nearby Romanian border echoed this sentiment, saying they had obtained EU residency to access better medical care and because post-Maidan leaders had “looted the country”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sighetu Marmației/Solotvino checkpoint, March 2017.Hide Footnote

Zakarpattya has traditionally had one of the highest rates of labour migration in Ukraine, and it shapes nearly every aspect of oblast life. Work opportunities are scarce, and much of the economy revolves around cross-border smuggling rings allegedly controlled by a political dynasty from the city of Mukachevo, the Balogas – who spend just enough of their vast wealth on infrastructure to retain local backing.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Uzhhorod, April 2017; Lisichovo, Mezhhirye, March 2017; Kyiv, December 2017. Rada Deputy Viktor, the family’s most prominent member, denies any illegal activity and attributes rumours thereof to Kyiv’s hostility toward the “Zakarpattian intelligentsia”. See “Виктор Балога, народный депутат. ‘Люди’. Hard Talk. LIVE” [“Viktor Baloga, people’s deputy. ‘People’. Hard Talk. LIVE”], video, YouTube, 4 February 2017, Footnote Remittances are the core source of income for many rural households, but do not produce tax revenue because they are neither passed through formal channels, nor reinvested in domestic business development.[fn]M.I. Petyulich and T.Y. Kovach, “Problems of transformation of money transfers by labour migrants into investment resources”, Ukrainian National Forestry University, 2011.Hide Footnote This dynamic has made Zakarpattya a place of dramatic contrasts, where Western living standards often exist in the home, but nowhere else. Many villages consist of half-destroyed roads lined with grand multi-story houses: a constant reminder to working-age Zakarpattians of the greater earning potential just across the border.

Zakarpattya has traditionally had one of the highest rates of labour migration in Ukraine, and it shapes nearly every aspect of oblast life.

Weak identification with the Ukrainian ethnos does not completely explain high out-migration: heartland oblasts, including largely Ukrainian ones like Vinnytsia, also have rural working-age populations abroad in large numbers.[fn]“Міграційний рух населення у січні-липні 2017 року” [“Migration dynamics in January-July 2017”], State Statistical Service of Ukraine.Hide Footnote What distinguishes Zakarpattya and neighbouring Chernivtsi, bordering Romania, from these heartland regions is the fact that residents leverage ethnic ties with neighbouring states to ease the process: Hungary is often not Zakarpattians’ final destination; instead, many labourers use it as a springboard to other EU states with stronger economies. A man from the majority-Hungarian border district of Berehove quoted in an October 2016 report spoke of using his Hungarian documents to find work in Spain, where he earned enough money to pay for a life-saving operation for his mother.[fn]“Сколько закарпатцев попадет за решетку … за двойное гражданство?” [“How many Zakarpattyans will be jailed … for dual citizenship?”],, 13 October 2016. A source in Berehove gave a similar account of leveraging ties to the Hungary community for migration purposes. Crisis Group interview, Berehove, April 2017.Hide Footnote An ethnic Ukrainian pensioner working at an Uzhhorod market, desperate for a Hungarian passport, said her daughter obtained citizenship after picking up the language from childhood friends. Unable to use her economics degree at home, she looked for work in Hungary before moving to Prague, where she finally found decent wages at a clock factory.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Uzhhorod, February 2017. The saleswoman said her daughter had left Hungary because “there’s nothing good on the horizon there either”.Hide Footnote Dual citizenship is pragmatic.

Language issues must also be viewed in the context of migration. One in five oblast schoolchildren has one or more parents working abroad, a factor that a January 2017 study linked to an average loss of up to eight points on state Ukrainian language tests,[fn]Igor Samokhin and Iryna Kohut, “Cоціально-економічні фактори у нерівності результатів навчання у середній школі” [“Socio-economic contributors to unequal educational achievement in high school”], CEDOS, 27 January 2017.Hide Footnote suggesting poor Ukrainian knowledge correlates to parental transience. Moreover, many neglect Ukrainian precisely because they plan to study abroad to increase future earning potential. An expert on education among ethnic Hungarians in the oblast noted that demand for slots in Hungarian-language schools has increased in recent years, saying this was likely because parents want to give their children a chance to obtain Hungarian citizenship, and the educational and earning opportunities that go along with it.[fn]“Pedagógushiánnyal küzdenek a magyar iskolák” [“Hungarian schools are suffering from a lack of teachers”], Karpatalja, 31 August 2016. A high-ranking oblast education official corroborated this analysis in a March 2017 interview with Crisis Group in Uzhhorod.Hide Footnote

As in other parts of the country, mass migration means shortages of qualified experts in critical fields – particularly teachers and doctors. A medical resident at Uzhhorod National University, who planned to move to Slovakia, said half of his graduating class left for the EU before even starting their residencies.[fn]“Медики Закарпатья массово выезжают работать за границу – больницы пустеют” [“Hospitals empty out as Zakarpattya doctors leave en masse to work abroad”],, 27 October 2016. The resident later confirmed his account in an April meeting with Crisis Group, by which point he was already living and working in Slovakia. Crisis Group interview, Uzhhorod, April 2017.Hide Footnote The head of a highly-regarded family clinic in Uzhhorod reported that 30 per cent of his residents had dropped out in 2016 to practice in EU countries: “They are never coming back”, he said. “We’re training doctors for Hungary and Germany”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Uzhhorod, March 2017. The doctor explained that while low salaries are a key push factor for young male doctors, fears of military conscription also drive them.Hide Footnote

Zakarpattya’s shortage of expert professionals has an ethnic dynamic absent from other oblasts – again, due less to national allegiance than the fact that specialists who speak a minority language have an easier time finding work abroad. Teachers at Hungarian, Slovak and Romanian-language schools leave to fill vacancies in Hungary, Slovakia and Romania left by teachers who are themselves working even further west. In first stop Hungary, teachers already make up to six times more than their Zakarpattian monthly income of $150-$230;[fn]Crisis Group interview, oblast education official, Uzhhorod, March 2017. See also Mariana Semenyshyn and David J. Smith, “Territorial-Administrative Decentralization and Ethno-Cultural Diversity in Ukraine: Addressing Hungarian Autonomy Claims in Zakarpattya”, European Center for Minority Issues working paper #95, 2016.Hide Footnote this only increases going west. Within the past year, hospitals in the majority-Hungarian district of Berehove have had to bring in staff from neighbouring areas to work night shifts because so many staff have left the country.[fn]“Медики Закарпатья массово выезжают работать за границу – больницы пустеют” [“Hospitals empty out as Zakarpattya doctors leave en masse to work abroad”],, 27 October 2016.Hide Footnote Despite a 20-30 per cent salary hike at the start of 2017, a new Ukrainian doctor can still only expect to make roughly 2,500 hryvnia (about $90) a month,[fn]Crisis Group interview, oblast official, Uzhhorod, March 2017. “Salary more than 1 thousand euros: the top countries to which Ukrainian doctors go to work”, video, YouTube, 20 November 2017, Footnote compared to the $900 they can make next door in the EU.[fn]Crisis Group interview, medical professional working in Slovakia, Uzhhorod, April 2017.Hide Footnote In a hopeful step, the Rada passed a medical reform package in late 2017 that is due to raise the average doctor’s salary to $720 by 2020 – a plan that is naturally contingent on the state not losing critical amounts of money to corruption.[fn]“Просто про бюджет-2018: хто виграв, хто програв, а кому байдужне” [“Simply about the 2018 budget: who won, who lost, and who just don’t care”], Ekonomichna Pravda, 11 December 2017.Hide Footnote

Many ordinary Zakarpattians are deeply alienated from Kyiv, but this alienation should not be conflated with irredentism. Some describe the oblast as its own “separate republic”, referring to other provinces as simply “Ukraine”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, small proprietors in Lysychovo, Solotvino, and Mezhhirye, March 2017; Crisis Group interview, civil servant, Uzhhorod, April 2017.Hide Footnote Many express contempt for Kyiv officials whose professionalism falls far short of the EU standards with which they are familiar.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, oblast official, Uzhhorod, March 2017; border police, Solotvino, March 2017; police personnel, Uzhhorod, April 2017; city officials, Mukachevo, April 2017.Hide Footnote Others remark that given higher living standards in neighbouring states, life would be simpler had Zakarpattya joined one of them at the end of the Second World War.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, small proprietors in Lisichovo, March 2017, and Uzhhorod, April 2017.Hide Footnote Yet these casual references to Zakarpattian exceptionalism are best seen as a regional variation of an all-too-Ukrainian theme – anger at economic malaise and poor governance. Remarks by a hotel owner in Mezhhirye present an unusually hyperbolic example of this: “I’m basically against dividing Ukraine”, he said. Yet he predicted that Kyiv, Moscow, and Budapest would soon do just that, with Hungary taking Zakarpattya. Explaining his far-fetched prediction, he appealed not to widespread ethnic nationalism or historic cross-border ties, but to the everyday complaint that Kyiv lacks the will to fight corruption and put its constituents first.[fn]Crisis Group interview, small proprietor, Mezhhirye, March 2017. An Uzhhorod official took a similar tone when asked whether he thought federalization was possible in the near future. “No”, he replied: “If Ukraine falls apart, it will be completely”. Crisis Group interview, April 2017.Hide Footnote

IV. Conclusion

Ukraine has made significant strides since Maidan, in spite of enormous external challenges from Kremlin-backed insurgents in the east and inconsistent support from a troubled Euroatlantic world. Yet this is far from the whole story. Conditions in its western regions show that the state remains fragile, even beyond those parts of the country where Moscow is actively undermining sovereignty. In the years since Maidan, the Poroshenko government has not shown itself capable of admitting to – let alone addressing – the root cause of this fragility: leaders prioritising private wealth over public good. Instead, it attacks symptoms: mass participation in shadow economies or weak identification with markers of Ukrainian ethnic identity, such as language. Authoritarian neighbours are eager to provoke and capitalise on these missteps, as illustrated by the row with Budapest and Kremlin-affiliated outlets’ gloating coverage of the amber fiasco. But their predatory behaviour should not distract from Kyiv’s responsibility to correct its own mistakes.

Kyiv’s leadership cannot afford to deny its core weaknesses any longer. Ukraine needs the buy-in of all its citizens if it is to survive as a state. Three years ago, President Poroshenko promised to end the war in Donbas and confront corruption. Fulfilling the first promise would be hard enough on its own, as it requires major concessions from an intractable neighbouring great power and a watertight strategy to reintegrate a traumatised population growing used to living under separatist rule. Yet Kyiv cannot treat these challenges as an excuse to neglect inclusive governance or stop fighting corruption. If it does, the people of Donbas will not be the only ones Kyiv will have to struggle to win back.

Polissya/Zakarpattya/Kyiv/Brussels, 21 December 2017

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,; 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”],, 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

A. 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

B. 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.

C. 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.

D. 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’”,, 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.

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