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.
As fighting continued in Donbas and civilian cross-line movement ceased due to COVID-19 restrictions, creation of Minsk Trilateral Contact Group advisory council (which Kyiv said would give residents of conflict-affected areas opportunity to input into implementation of 2015 Minsk II agreements) led to split within ruling party, potentially derailing conflict-resolution process. In conflict zone, eleven govt soldiers reported killed and seven Russian-backed fighters killed according to unofficial data. Two civilians were killed in shelling, gunfire and landmine incidents per Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). In unprecedented move, head and deputy head of Ukraine’s and Russia’s presidential administrations respectively 11 March signed working protocol for new advisory council within Minsk Trilateral Contact Group for Donbas negotiations; council will adopt non-binding recommendations on implementation of 2015 Minsk II agreements; OSCE, Russia, France and Germany will have consultative powers; representatives of non govt-controlled areas identified as “plenipotentiary”. Decision divided ruling party: 50 MPs from President Zelenskyy’s “Sluha Narodu” party signed appeal to retract agreement. Kyiv police say 1,000 protesters 14 March marched against what organisers called Zelensky’s “capitulation” to Russia. Amid spread of COVID-19, military 16 March stopped movement at all civilian entry-exit checkpoints at contact line in Donbas for two weeks, except permanent residents; Russia-backed fighters took same measures starting 21 March. Kyiv closed its state borders 27 March. Zelenskyy 4 March replaced his cabinet. Parliament 31 March passed laws forbidding past owners of insolvent banks from regaining assets; permitting sale of land, paving way for $8bn in credit from International Monetary Fund.
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.
Rivalry persists between Russia and Turkey in their shared neighbourhood of the Black Sea and the South Caucasus. But Moscow-Ankara relations have warmed overall. Building on their wider rapprochement, the two powers can work together to tamp down flare-ups of regional conflicts.
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.
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.
After three years of conflict and 10,000 deaths, Russia has shown it can destabilise and dominate Ukraine. The Kyiv government may still prevail, but only if it uproots corruption and if the U.S. and EU maintain sanctions until Russia’s complete withdrawal from the country’s east.
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.
Amid expectations that Russia will test Ukraine’s new president with escalatory actions, it appears that its calculus is to wait for Kyiv’s administration to make the first move – while quietly helping the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics entrench themselves economically.
The front lines in eastern Ukraine are slowly freezing in place, as is civilian deprivation in the conflict zone. An embargo, bureaucracy and distrust conspire to keep humanitarian aid out. Russia and Ukraine should find politically neutral ways to unblock the flow of assistance.
With Ukraine’s establishment forecasting doom after the presidential runoff, the far right’s influence on politics is impossible to ignore. Its resurgence is both a symptom and a cause of the country’s ills: there is less daylight between it and the political mainstream than either admits.
A confrontation in the Azov Sea in November 2018 exacerbated hostilities between Russia and Ukraine and dashed hopes for an early resolution to the six-year war. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to continue its support for a negotiated settlement and pressure Kyiv to protect civilians.