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Tackling the Syrian Refugee Crisis
Tackling the Syrian Refugee Crisis
Visualising the Dynamics of Combat and Negotiations in Donbas
Visualising the Dynamics of Combat and Negotiations in Donbas
Refugees walk near the border fence between Hungary and Serbia, 13 September 2015. AFP/Thomas Campean

Tackling the Syrian Refugee Crisis

In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Director Joost Hiltermann explains the root causes of the current refugee crisis. 

With the Syrian war raging on, and neighbouring states unable to cope with large refugee populations, millions of displaced Syrians are desperate and some are trying to reach a safe haven in Europe. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Director Joost Hiltermann explains the root causes of the current situation. He points out the political failures of the West, notes ways the world can really help Syrians, and what measures could contribute to bringing the war closer to an end.

Crisis Group: News and emotions about the migrant flow into Europe now dominates the European media and political agenda, and increasingly the U.S. one too. How does this look from a Syrian and Middle Eastern perspective?

Joost Hiltermann: Refugees reaching Europe are the ultimate result of massive policy failures: the failure to stop the Syrian war, and the failure to give adequate support to neighbouring countries. The Syrian war is dragging on with no end in sight. Some four million Syrians are currently living in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq; many others have been able to settle in the Gulf; and many more remain internally displaced inside Syria, ready to join the exodus. Sitting in a desolate camp in Jordan or northern Iraq, or living in cramped quarters in Beirut, Amman or any other town in the region, without services, seeing international aid dwindle and with no education for their children, the average refugee will soon start plotting a way out. Whether they move depends on a combination of resources (to pay people smugglers), connections (for example, a relative already living in Europe), and opportunity.

The current wavelet of refugees arriving in Europe – a very small number compared to the throngs scratching out a bare living in Syria’s immediate neighbourhood – suggests how close to full-to-capacity Syria’s neighbours are, absent a further major new injection of funds. If we can’t stop the war, for now, let’s at least do what we can: find ways to make life moderately bearable for these people in the safety of their countries of first refuge. I fear, however, that in the first panicked reaction, without a coordinated policy, and despite great efforts to save lives in the Mediterranean, European states will likely direct the bulk of funds toward better policing of refugee corridors, with the objective of deterring people from considering a move into Europe without at the same time making their current refugee situation in neighbouring countries more bearable. With public pressures and right-wing anti-migrant hysteria, there’s very little appetite to take a serious look at how the problem can be addressed at the source.

Should there be a no-fly zone or safe area in Syria? Would that help stop the war?

The creation of a no-fly zone over part of Syria is politically controversial. Long proposed by Turkey for the north, it has received no support from the Obama administration, which does not want to get dragged into a war with the regime and its external backers, Iran and Russia. In our most recent report on Syria, we took a different tack, focusing on the south, where the situation on the ground is quite different from that in the north. We think it might offer the opportunity for the U.S., in particular, to create a zone free of aerial attacks (which wreak the greatest destruction, especially through the use of barrel bombs). The U.S. has a range of means at its disposal; at its extremes stand diplomacy (which isn’t working) and a no-fly zone (for which it has shown no appetite for now). In between there are various options that haven’t been fully explored, and should be.

As for a safe zone, it raises a host of political and operational questions: the experience of Bosnia shows how hard it is to promise absolute security. And against which threats is safety to be provided? The Islamic State? The regime? Who will administer the zone? In July, the U.S. and Turkey reached an initial agreement to establish one in the north, though the Obama administration calls it an “IS-free zone” (referring to the Islamic State). Progress on implementing the plan is slow, mainly because Ankara and Washington still cannot agree on a joint strategy toward Syria in general – largely because they can’t fully answer the questions a safe zone raises. For a more in-depth look at this question, see blog posts by my colleagues Noah Bonsey, looking in detail at the hard choices for the U.S. in Syria, and Nigar Göksel, focusing on connections to the flare-up in Turkey’s domestic Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency.

If no-fly zones or safe areas are problematic, what can the world do to help Syrians then?

Unfortunately, the prospect of either a quick diplomatic, negotiated solution or an outright military victory by either side is currently close to nil. So what we are left with – as we continue attempts to feel out stakeholders’ evolving positions, hoping for a diplomatic breakthrough – is a three-pronged approach to the refugee crisis: we should pursue ways to lower the levels of violence in Syria (for instance by dissuading or stopping the regime from using barrel bombs); pour vastly more funds into efforts to help the displaced in Syria and refugees in neighbouring countries to sustain themselves where they are; and address the problem of desperate on-migration by accommodating refugees as they arrive in Europe, the Gulf and elsewhere.

In particular, we need to see dramatically stepped-up support for Syrian refugees hunkered down in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, as well as internally displaced persons (IDPs) still in Syria. States that are not in the immediate neighbourhood need to both provide many times the level of support to the neighbouring states’ refugee efforts and take in more refugees themselves. Gulf states have done quite well in this regard, contributing to making the situation of Syrians in Syria and neighbouring countries relatively sustainable through remittances and significant humanitarian aid, while also absorbing a lot of Syrians even if they do not accord them refugee status.

Crisis Group reports have set out ways in which host countries and the international community can do more for Syrians in areas that are controlled and safe in Turkey, where there are two million refugees, and in Lebanon, with 1.2 million, more than one fifth of the local population. The UN has rightly complained that its aid programs are badly underfunded. Why is this so? And then, why complain of refugees supposedly threatening the identity of European societies and undermining their economies – an argument that looks absurd seen from much poorer Middle Eastern countries buckling under the strain of much larger disruptions? And finally, if Europe does feel so threatened, why neglect to help mitigate the problem by ensuring that refugees have at least some prospect of a future in a place like Turkey, which could absorb more refugees if funds were available and could integrate them into its society?

This is not the worst moment for Europe and others to reassess their policies. The government of President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan has opened the doors to Syrian and other Arab arrivals partly out of a sense of Muslim solidarity, and in several ways Turkey’s generous welcome to the refugees has been exemplary. But there are domestic resentments in Turkey, too, and Ankara cannot continue to bear the bulk of the burden without more help from outside. There are similar needs to give more aid to Beirut, Amman and Erbil (for northern Iraq) as well. At the very least, an emergency donors session needs to be held at the same time as the UN General Assembly later this month with the clear objective of meeting the UNHCR’s minimal demands for resources to handle the near-neighbour immediate refugee humanitarian needs for at least the next year.

Is bombing the Islamic State (IS) bringing the end of the war closer?

Copying a U.S. preoccupation with IS, and seeing a jihadi threat emanating from chaos in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the region, and with considerable U.S. nudging, other Western states are jumping on the bandwagon of U.S. airstrikes against IS. These have done little more than contain the group so far, however, and we may be fooling ourselves if we believe that IS won’t be able to break out of its current static positions in search of new territory, resources and adherents. Of course it will face constraints, but there could be opportunities, given the right timing and weaknesses of its opponents. Bombing the group may be a necessary component of a strategy aimed at containing and perhaps ultimately defeating the group, but it’s very far from a sufficient recipe for success. And we haven’t really seen a political strategy fully articulated, much less implemented.

A more effective approach would have to be based on recognition of the core problem, which is that IS and kindred groups prey on deep-seated grievances among Sunni Muslim populations, not just in Syria in particular but throughout the region. These are based partly on perceived Western support of the Syrian regime – “support” in the sense of not making any serious effort to remove it – and partly on the growing Western rapprochement with Shiite-Persian Iran, an aspiring hegemon, and therefore a threat, in the eyes of many Sunnis. As more and more people are brutalised in this war – the main instigator of radicalisation – this perception further encourages support for Salafi-jihadi groups.

Bombing IS reinforces the perception of Western one-sidedness. It does nothing to help the imperative to stop the Syrian conflict as soon as possible, to end the immense suffering it has caused and continues to inflict, to stem the flow of refugees and allow people to go home, or to reduce the alarming levels of radicalisation and sectarian polarisation in the region. The U.S. and its allies in particular should put greater effort into rebuilding what remains of the Iraqi state – a gargantuan task, no doubt, but creating a more inclusive governance in Iraq could begin to reverse some of the deep Sunni resentment toward the centre on which IS feeds.

What is a conflict-resolution group like Crisis Group doing about all this?

Our priority is to find ways to save Syrian lives. In pursuit of this goal we consider both diplomatic and non-diplomatic means, and look for solutions that are implementable because they would safeguard core interests of all protagonists, regardless of any moral judgment on their respective positions.

Moreover, in the face of a diplomatic and military deadlock, our role is to bring clarity, fresh perspectives and new ideas to those governments, officials and actors who genuinely seek a negotiated solution, and to give evidence to those who believe they are on the verge of victory that this is not actually the case.

This means we need to explore positions locally, regionally and internationally. These undergo constant adjustments both as a result of developments in Syria and of events quite distant from the Syrian theatre, for example in Ukraine or Yemen. We also need to identify areas of common ground among key stakeholders’ core interests and to reframe the discourse on the war from mutual denial and sectarianism. We need a common framework that will allow for an inclusive, political approach – an outcome many Syrians long for.

The conflict’s intensity colours the information and analysis provided by many, both participants and observers; at Crisis Group, we try to take a step back and provide an independent, non-partisan, dispassionate analysis – despite the great emotions whipped up by the daily horrors we are witnessing. It’s this kind of analysis that governments need if they are to find a negotiated way out; it’s an indispensable building block for a peace that ultimately will have to come about.

In our work, we talk to all the parties – to the extent that we can do so safely – and in all cases reflect their viewpoints accurately in our reports and advocacy. Misunderstanding or misrepresenting a side’s positions is not going to contribute to a peaceful conclusion of the conflict.

What are you advising Western foreign ministries to do?

We are advising all stakeholder governments to escalate diplomatic efforts to reach out to each other and discuss both differences and commonalities of interest, but also to create through concrete actions the conditions on the ground that will open a space for diplomatic action. So long as all parties believe they can win, war will continue. There are plans afoot for an international contact group on Syria, to be coordinated by the UN, including all the key regional and neighbouring states. Assuming such an assembly can actually be convened, that would be an important first step.

Staffan De Mistura, the UN Envoy, in particular, needs to continue to speak to his interlocutors in Moscow, Tehran, Ankara, Riyadh, Washington and elsewhere (Doha and Cairo spring to mind), and find ways of encouraging them to speak to each other as a lead-up to the establishment of a contact group or another workable arrangement. The priority should be to explore ways to construct a viable transition in Syria, but premised on the acknowledgment that little progress will be possible if key stakeholders do not have some guarantee that their core interests in a future Syria will be safeguarded. That’s no easy task, but this research must be done, and Crisis Group is intent on doing it in support of international efforts.

The sad reality is, we all appear to be treading water until something “gives”, whether in Syria or elsewhere, forcing some of the parties to recalculate their roles and positions, and precipitating a shift in the overall balance. That’s why senior Western envoys privately admit that they are simply waiting for conditions on the ground to change, which will require actions their governments have been reluctant to take thus far, before they expect diplomatic progress toward a political transition. In that case, we need to be ready and prepared for such an event: seize the occasion and push the matter forward. Now is the time to create the conditions for diplomacy to work.

Boys stay on top of the war memorial complex Savur-Mohyla, damaged in the recent conflict, outside the rebel-held city of Donetsk, Ukraine 8 September 2020. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Visualising the Dynamics of Combat and Negotiations in Donbas

Efforts to bring peace to Ukraine’s Donbas region have been deadlocked for years. The steps the belligerents take to de-escalate violence can save lives, but people still die on the front lines and beyond. Crisis Group’s new visual explainer puts these dynamics in stark relief.

The war in eastern Ukraine began in March 2014. It pits separatists backed by Russia against the Ukrainian government in two industrial regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, which are part of an area known as Donbas. The war was ugliest in its first year, when battles raged for territory and strategic position. Two peace agreements – known as the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 – put an end to the major fighting. They also laid out a roadmap for the reabsorption of the separatist-controlled regions into Ukraine, which calls, among other things, for Kyiv to grant these areas limited self-governing status. Implementation has stalled, however, and in the meantime some 75,000 troops – mostly Ukrainian citizens on both sides – still face off along a 450km front that cleaves Donbas in two. Some 800,000 civilians also live in the line of fire, while several million others reside in areas ridden with mines and unexploded shells. The death toll for the conflict creeps upward nearly every week and is now over 14,000.

Crisis Group’s new interactive feature, “Conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas: A Visual Explainer”, maps both military and civilian casualties and illustrates the links between ceasefires and lulls in combat. It shows that ceasefires work – until they crack under the weight of deadlocked negotiations. It further shows that civilian casualties from live fire clearly correlate with intense combat in urban and suburban areas, falling to almost nil when ceasefires are in place. Civilian casualties from mines, however, do not correlate with whether or not a ceasefire is in place and have lately risen, likely due to increased foot traffic through heavily mined areas.

Taken together, the data presented by this new explainer indicate that in the absence of a durable political solution, if the parties want to honour their stated intent to limit civilian casualties, they should commit to disengagement from high-traffic areas and to comprehensive demining. Both of these steps are hard sells to field commanders, for whom holding territory generally takes precedence. But disengagement is the only way to bring casualty rates reliably down, short of the impractical exercise of relocating civilians away from danger.

Combat Kills Civilians

The geography of the Donbas war all but guarantees civilian casualties. The front, known as the line of separation or line of contact, runs right through what was once the most densely populated part of Ukraine. Its central segments curve around coal mines, coke foundries and steel plants, while the southern and northern ends cut through farmland and picturesque meadows previously used for recreation. Dotting the combat zone on either side of the front are apartment blocks and weekend homes with garden plots. Today, industries are functioning at a fraction of their former capacity. Fields lie fallow, littered with mines and shells, while fighters on both sides have taken over vacation and retirement homes. Most families with the means to do so have left.

But some have stayed. Roughly 200,000 residents remain within 5km of the line of separation on the government-controlled side, while their neighbours just over the trenches number roughly 600,000. Any exchange of fire endangers the lives and disrupts the livelihoods of large numbers of people, a significant portion of them elderly.

Crisis Group’s visual explainer tracks civilian and combatant casualties, differentiating them by cause. It shows, for instance, that the vast majority – roughly 80 per cent – of live-fire (shelling and gunfire) civilian casualties occur in areas controlled by Russian-backed separatists. The ebb and flow of civilian casualties in these areas largely tracks with those of military casualties. The higher civilian casualty rate in non-government-controlled areas is due to the fact that these places are more urban and populous. Users of Crisis Group’s map can see that these casualties are concentrated around the front’s central section near the separatist-controlled cities of Donetsk and Horlivka, but also bleed across the line into the former Donetsk suburb of Mariinka, which Ukrainian government forces hold. Horlivka and the Donetsk suburbs are fairly densely populated. The high civilian casualties there may also be related to the position of combatants: troops on both sides are posted in residential streets or very close to them.

Civilian casualties are heavily concentrated in the most populous, urban areas of the front line, near Donetsk and Horlivka.

In Hirske and Kadiivka districts, where combatant deaths since the start of 2020 have been highest, civilian casualties from live fire also closely track combatant casualties, in that they go up and down in tandem. But civilian casualty numbers are also lower than in Donetsk or Horlivka, likely because most troops are dug in farther away from large towns. Together, the numbers suggest that neither side is trying to hit civilians but also that combatants are not doing all they can to avoid collateral damage.

Ceasefires Save Lives

To assess the impact of ceasefires on casualties, Crisis Group charted the latter over time, noting each ceasefire agreement on a line graph. This simple analysis indicates that whatever else they do, and however short-lived they may be, ceasefires do save lives: each ceasefire is closely correlated with a reduction in casualties, and the stricter its provisions, the fewer the casualties.

Levels of violence in the combat zone drop after ceasefires are in place.

The most recent ceasefire, which had particularly strict provisions, had the greatest effect. Commencing in July 2020, it banned combatants from initiating firefights for any reason and imposed strict limitations on return fire, as well. In the seven months that followed the agreement, combatant fatalities dropped to less than half the number in the seven months prior (82 killed by live fire between January and July 2020, and 36 between August 2020 and February 2021), while civilian deaths and injuries from live fire fell from 50 to 5 in the same period, with almost no civilians hurt from August 2020 to 30 January 2021 (two civilians suffered hearing loss due to an explosion on 12 November). As further evidence of the agreement’s effectiveness, in comments to Ukrainian media and to Crisis Group, front-line dwellers spoke of improved security after it was signed.

Although the visual explainer covers only the period from January 2020 to the present day, data from 2019 tells a similar story. Then, too, a ceasefire went into effect in July. Of the 56 casualties from live fire that UN monitors recorded between 16 May and 15 August 2019, all but one occurred before the ceasefire.

New Casualty Trends

The data breakdown also shows that while both civilian and combatant casualties from heavy weaponry in the past seven months remain lower than before the July 2020 ceasefire, small arms fire during this period accounts for a larger portion of casualties. The use of heavy weaponry like artillery and mortars is prohibited by the Minsk agreements and has in fact declined.

But both sides are still using these weapons on occasion, so the reduction of casualties also suggests that they have been able to better calibrate their fire using drones and other modern equipment in order to lessen collateral damage. Civilian casualties from heavy weapons declined fivefold year-on-year in the first six months of 2021, while casualties from small arms held steady. Combatant casualties from heavy weapons also fell, albeit less dramatically, even as deaths among Ukrainian government troops from small arms – and sniper fire, in particular – have risen from eighteen in 2020 to 24 in 2021 to date. This uptick is consistent with Crisis Group interviews and Ukrainian media reports pointing to increased activity by Russian-backed (and allegedly Russian) snipers.

A breakdown of civilian casualties by cause and type. Casualties from live fire have decreased, while those from mines and explosive objects have increased.

Additionally, as civilian casualties from live fire have fallen in the past year, deaths and injuries from mines and unexploded ordnance have crept up: these accounted for one fourth of casualties in 2020-2021, but doubled year-on-year in the first half of 2021. Throughout the eighteen-month period, the bulk of such casualties have occurred along the banks of the Siversky Donets river, which divides the government-controlled part of the Luhansk region from the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic. The forests through which the river runs are heavily mined but see almost no live fire. More people than usual may be tramping through the forests because economic decline associated with COVID-19 is forcing them to collect firewood for fuel. Many are also fishing in the river for sustenance. Reports also suggest that residents are smuggling food and other goods across the river, which puts them at risk, though it is not clear whether they have stepped up this activity recently or not. Meanwhile, in other areas, the drop-off in live fire may simply mean that residents feel comfortable wandering farther from home, increasing their chances of tripping mines.

Map showing the geographic distribution of mine-related incidents over time. The worst-affected areas flank the Siversky Donets river in Luhansk region.

Why Do Ceasefires Fail?

The July 2020 ceasefire was perhaps the sole diplomatic success in a period otherwise marked by deepening acrimony between the two sides. Throughout 2020 and 2021, the parties undertook a series of tit-for-tat measures that have made the Minsk agreements’ eventual implementation look less and less likely. In June 2020, the parliament in Kyiv passed a decree stating that Ukraine would recognise elections held in areas controlled by Russia-backed separatists only after the government had regained control of the eastern border, contradicting a controversial provision of the agreements. The separatist regions’ de facto authorities retaliated by holding up progress in fulfilling commitments to prisoner exchanges, sectoral military disengagements and enhanced civilian freedom of movement. In September 2020, the sides fell into a bitter dispute over an attempt at joint inspection of troop positions near the city of Horlivka, as well as later efforts to establish a joint mechanism for monitoring ceasefire violations. Three months later, in December, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at his annual press conference that Kyiv had almost given up on the Minsk accords – and promised to increase Moscow’s support for the de facto republics, which also undercut the deal.

From that point onward, violence increased steadily. From August through November 2020, the average day saw fewer than ten explosions along the front, but December saw several days with more than 100, with the total sometimes nearing 200. At least eight combatants were killed that month, followed by another seven in January and 21 in February. April 2021 was the deadliest month for combatants since January 2020, with 22 fatalities on both sides combined.

Combat casualties declined in the first months of the July 2020 ceasefire.

That month, Russia massed troops near Ukraine’s border in numbers not seen since 2015, when its forces had helped wage a series of devastating battles on Ukrainian soil. It did so on the pretext of a spike in ceasefire violations at the front, although the separatists it backed were just as responsible as Ukrainian forces for the infractions.

Increasing violence does suggest ... that when peace talks lose momentum, both parties see diminishing incentives to exercise restraint

Moscow’s troop build-up was likely about geopolitical signalling rather than a prelude to a possible incursion. But if, on this occasion, violence in Donbas provided the Kremlin with a convenient, if dubious, alibi for its aggressive behaviour, it does not follow that every uptick in fighting stems from a particular side’s pursuit of political goals. Increasing violence does suggest, however, that when peace talks lose momentum, both parties see diminishing incentives to exercise restraint. As a Ukrainian commander told Crisis Group in 2020, the army needs to either fight or disengage: along the Donbas front lines, troops can hold their fire for only so long in the absence of steps toward peace. Yet, as the April scare demonstrates, any escalation at the front risks handing Moscow an excuse to further threaten Kyiv.

Obstacles to Protecting Civilians

Both sides claim to be defending the lives of their Ukrainian compatriots, suggesting that they should be motivated to agree to better protect civilians. In practice, however, things are not so simple, and military calculations generally prevail over humanitarian concerns.

Separatist leaders have shown themselves more than willing to use civilian casualties for propaganda purposes. Noting that the de facto republics’ constituents make up the majority of live-fire casualties, they cite the numbers of dead and wounded as proof of Kyiv’s villainy. They have also been known to spread highly dubious reports of civilian deaths, possibly to garner greater support from their patrons in Moscow. For example, in April 2021, as Russia was deploying troops to areas bordering Ukraine, they announced that a Ukrainian drone strike had killed a five-year-old boy in a Donetsk suburb. In fact, the boy had died some 15km from the front, out of the Ukrainian drones’ range, possibly by setting off an unexploded shell he found in his yard. (Indeed, Crisis Group data shows that 75 per cent of incidents in which children were killed or injured by unexploded ordnance in 2020-2021 occurred in separatist-held areas, pointing to a genuine problem that de facto authorities should confront.) Meanwhile, de facto officials tend to be unwilling to admit that shooting from positions in areas like the Donetsk suburbs can provoke return fire and lead to civilian deaths. They have baulked at suggestions that they move their troops to keep locals out of the line of fire.

On the other side, public figures in government-controlled Ukraine sometimes overlook or minimise the problem of civilian casualties from live fire. Losses among civilians frequently do not make it into Ukrainian news reports, partly due to journalists’ lack of access to reliable sources in areas across the line; media tends to focus on the heroism of government troops. Some Ukrainians sticking up for the military imply that civilians, particularly in the separatist-controlled areas, are themselves to blame for their fate, having stubbornly remained in their homes while soldiers, as the troops’ defenders see it, are risking life and limb for a greater cause. “Do you think we didn’t have grandmothers when we went off to die? Maybe these are people, but they are not citizens”, a renowned veteran told Crisis Group in 2019, while expressing frustration at President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s promises to wind down combat in Donbas.

Efforts to limit civilian casualties through stricter ceasefire provisions have also triggered backlash against Ukrainian officials. In mid-2019, Kyiv proposed a ban on return fire. President Zelenskyy’s press secretary defended the proposal, arguing that when government troops shoot back at opponents positioned in populated areas, “our people die, our Ukrainians”. Opposition politicians accused Kyiv of ignoring the imperatives of fighting an invading force; high-ranking military personnel accused the press secretary of defamation, activists said she was echoing Russian propaganda and Ukraine’s prosecutor general summoned her for questioning on the grounds that she was assisting the enemy. The proposal was dropped for the time being, and the sides struck a more lenient agreement. But that 2019 agreement proved weaker, shorter-lived and less clearly beneficial for civilians than the one that followed in 2020, which did integrate a ban on return fire. If avoiding the issue of return fire may have short-term tactical and political benefits, the consequences of doing so deepen resentment among civilians on both sides and only make Kyiv’s climb toward reintegrating its lost territories steeper.

What to Do

The steps that would save lives are evident but difficult. Crisis Group has in the past recommended pursuing mutual disengagement in areas of high civilian traffic. Demining would also help. But international observers with knowledge of the negotiations say combatants are unlikely to disengage from high-traffic areas – which happen to be where the worst fighting of 2014-2015 occurred, as both sides consider them strategically and symbolically significant – without a comprehensive peace settlement. Nor do specialists think that either side – particularly not the de facto republics – will pursue demining as long as fighting continues.

As neither disengagement nor demining is likely, and neither military will move the trenches away from inhabited areas, a few Kyiv lawmakers have proposed relocating inhabitants of those areas as a way to save civilian lives. The idea has many downsides, among them its impracticability in the highly populated non-government-controlled areas. In government-controlled Ukraine, it may be more feasible, and perhaps more acceptable to the population. According to aid workers and staff at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe ceasefire monitoring mission, more front-line dwellers are seeking to move away than in previous years. Those who stayed to be closer to loved ones on the other side of the line of separation can no longer see them anyway, due to COVID-19 restrictions, even as lockdowns have deepened the economic woes of cities and towns along the front.

The two sides will need to decide that costs of a simmering conflict outweigh the risks of compromise

In any case, none of these measures – disengagement, demining, or relocation – will bring the region the peace that it truly needs. For peace to come, the two sides will need to decide that costs of a simmering conflict outweigh the risks of compromise and an imperfect solution. Crisis Group has developed the visual explainer to illustrate the costs both sides are incurring, as well as the unpredictability and volatility of military activity at the Donbas front lines. The explainer also demonstrates that diplomacy – including that aimed at ceasefires – reduces the level of combat and saves lives. Breaking ceasefires, conversely, gives no one an advantage. In 2020-2021, a period during which a ceasefire was instituted and then fell apart, the two sides appear to have suffered a comparable number of deaths – 146 among the separatists and 112 in the Ukrainian army. Collapsed ceasefires favour neither side; they just lead to a bloodier stalemate.