Since 2014, a war with Russia-backed separatists has killed 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine, Russia has annexed Crimea and Ukraine’s relationship with the European Union has suffered due to corruption and failed political reform. Crisis Group supports and reports on implementation of the 2015 Minsk Agreement to turn a ceasefire between the warring parties into a peace deal. Through a network of contacts on both sides of the conflict divide, we assess the dire humanitarian situation and engage local and foreign actors to prevent clashes from escalating, facilitate conflict settlement and strengthen a reintegrated Ukrainian state.
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.
Originally published in ISPI
Despite hopes of ceasefire amid COVID-19 outbreak, deadly fighting in Donbas continued, while sides made limited progress toward political resolution to conflict. In conflict zone, fighting near standard hotspots along central part of contact line – near Donetsk, Debaltseve, Horlivka, and Mariupol cities – killed five govt soldiers and eleven Russian-backed fighters throughout month according to official and unofficial data; Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) reported four civilians injured and one killed. OSCE monitors reported consistent denials of access by authorities to so-called People’s Republics. Kyiv and de facto authorities 16 April swapped prisoners in “Easter exchange”; Kyiv received twenty prisoners for releasing fourteen separatist fighters. At 22 April meeting of Trilateral Contact Group (TCG), sides reportedly agreed to establish new working group – with representatives of border guard and customs services of Russia and Ukraine and OSCE mediators – to discuss compromise formulas for resumption of govt control of eastern border with Russia. Govt 6 April tightened COVID-19 restrictions, prohibiting outside meetings of more than two people and introducing large fines and prison terms for offenders; opposition members and human rights activists criticised measures. President Zelenskyy 13 April signed law allowing govt agencies to access and exchange citizens’ personal data without consent until end of lockdown, which govt 23 April extended until 11 May, as death toll in govt-controlled areas passed 260 end-April. In separatist-held areas, following closure of checkpoints for civilians in March, govt and Russia-backed forces allowed delivery of humanitarian aid; de facto authorities by 29 April announced total 229 cases and four deaths. Representatives of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France 30 April held virtual Normandy Four meeting, noting lack of progress on de-escalation measures agreed at 9 Dec summit; Moscow reiterated demands for Ukraine to negotiate terms of breakaway areas’ return to Kyiv’s jurisdiction directly with de facto leaders; Kyiv expressed readiness for dialogue with the areas’ residents, but not Russian-backed authorities.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.