Ceasefire pledges have surfaced and frayed repeatedly over the six years of war in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Ukraine Katharine Quinn-Judge joins Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope this week to explain why and at what socio-economic costs to civilians on either side of the front line.
Discord among Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) parties resurfaced over local election in Donbas, while July ceasefire held in Donbas conflict zone. Ahead of nationwide elections scheduled for 25 Oct, disagreement persisted between Ukraine, Russia and Russian-backed proxies in Donbas over Ukrainian parliament’s July decree that conditioned local elections in Donbas on region’s “deoccupation, demilitarisation and reintegration”; disagreement blocked discussions at 16 Sept TCG meeting on prisoner swap and disengagement along contact line; Russian TCG representative Boris Gryzlov 16 Sept said decree contradicts Minsk agreements, while Donbas proxies urged Kyiv to amend the decree. Reintegration minister 18 Sept called for parliament to amend decree, citing its impact on Minsk negotiations. President Zelenskyy 30 Sept dismissed first deputy head of Ukrainian delegation to TCG and former PM Vitold Fokin after Fokin 29 Sept stated that he “can see no evidence of war between Ukraine and Russia in Donbas”. In Donbas, 27 July ceasefire held but fighting 6 Sept killed one govt serviceman at checkpoint in Luhansk region, and both sides continued to sustain non-combat casualties mainly from explosives, including three Ukrainian soldiers and two Russian-backed fighters killed 1-23 Sept, according to pro-Ukrainian non-govt source. Advisers of Normandy Four (France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia) leaders 11 Sept met in Berlin, reached agreement to allow Red Cross to visit prisoners in custody of Russian proxies. NATO and govt 20 Sept began four-day joint command and staff military exercises, coinciding with Russian “Caucasus 2020” military drills. Ukraine 30 Sept reported record daily number of 4,027 new COVID-19 cases, prompting Kyiv to restrict entry to all foreigners until 28 Sept; de facto republics reported modest rise in cases. G7 member states 16 Sept urged Ukrainian authorities to support anti-corruption agencies, including National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, after Constitutional Court 16 Sept ruled that bureau was unlawfully established by presidential decree; vice chair of delegation to EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Association Committee 17 Sept stated govt “is jeopardizing visa-free with EU and further tranche of €1.5bn assistance”.
Years of conflict have exacerbated the economic woes of Donbas, once an industrial powerhouse. Authorities in Kyiv should take steps now to aid pensioners and encourage small trade while also planning ahead for the region’s eventual reintegration with the rest of the country.
Ceasefires in Ukraine's Donbas repeatedly fray because no side is fully invested in peace. Until the sides can agree on a long-term political solution, they should focus on protecting civilians through carefully targeted sectoral disengagements. If this facilitates peacemaking, so much the better.
The threat of coronavirus looms large in six self-declared republics that have broken away from post-Soviet states. War and isolation have corroded health care infrastructure, while obstructing the inflow of assistance. International actors should work with local and regional leaders to let life-saving aid through.
To help Ukraine find peace, the EU, NATO, and member states must seek new approaches to arms control discussions with Russia and European security as a whole. They should also consider a more flexible sanctions policy, such that progress in Ukraine may lead to incremental easing.
Russia and the separatists it backs in Ukraine’s east are no longer quite on the same page, especially since the Kremlin abandoned ideas of annexing the breakaway republics or recognising their independence. The rift gives the new Ukrainian president an opportunity for outreach to the east’s embattled population, including by relaxing the trade embargo.
With living conditions worsening, and crossfire still claiming casualties, people residing in eastern Ukraine’s conflict zone feel increasingly abandoned by the central government. Reintegrating the area requires Russian withdrawal, but in the meantime Kyiv can and should better protect civilians and meet humanitarian needs.
Maybe there’s a shift in thinking about war [in Ukraine]. What is the point of fighting now? Maybe it’s better to self-isolate, rather than sit in trenches.
Ukraine is really dependent on [U.S.] aid and support, and that makes it an easy country to influence, because of that, at least on paper.
Russia is intensely frustrated by the lack of movement on the February 2015 Minsk agreement, and has sought to put the onus for the lack of progress on Ukraine.
Last May, President Volodymyr Zelensky took office promising to end the then-five-year old war with Russia. As his administration approaches its one-year anniversary, however, Zelensky’s peacebuilding efforts face backlash in Kyiv, skepticism in Moscow, and hostility in the Russian-backed breakaways in Donbass.
Originally published in ISPI
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has embarked on an uncertain path to end the war in the region of Donbas, but his efforts have revived a process that had seemed increasingly hopeless. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support Zelenskyy’s efforts to end the separatist conflict in the east.
Kyiv has accepted the Steinmeier formula, a mechanism for jump-starting implementation of the peace deal for parts of eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists since 2014. This decision is welcome, but the Ukrainian government should step carefully to boost chances of a settlement.
A long-awaited prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia marks a positive development in their bilateral relationship. Both countries should now build on their recent progress to implement the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements, the surest path to ending the war in eastern Ukraine.