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.
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.
July ceasefire wore thin following escalation of fighting along line of contact in Donbas conflict zone. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) recorded over 200 ceasefire violations in Donetsk oblast on three separate days – 11, 19 and 29 Dec – following months in which recorded daily ceasefire violations had ranged from single digits to just below 100. Areas around Donetsk Filtration Station in Avdiivka, Zolote and Popasna suffered shelling throughout month. Sniper fire and shelling injured seven Ukrainian soldiers; Ukrainian forces sustained one non-live-fire injury. Armed groups 17 Dec captured Ukrainian reconnaissance commander in Luhansk region; body of another Ukrainian soldier was passed to armed forces 17 Dec. Russian-backed forces said shelling killed four of its fighters 18 Dec and one 22 Dec. One civilian was injured 20 Dec after anti-tank missile hit his vehicle; govt forces said missile was launched from area of enemy control. Prisoner swap negotiations remained stalled. Chief OSCE representative to Minsk Trilateral Contact Group, Ambassador Heidi Grau, 16 Dec urged sides to finalise identification of new demining areas. Kyiv 16 Dec opened its second administrative centre for civilians at crossing in Novotroitske, south of Donetsk city, and reopened all entry-exit checkpoints; however, corresponding checkpoints in de facto republics remained closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. Representatives of so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics 2 Dec participated in informal UN Security Council meeting, proposing referendum on status of territories under their de facto control. President Zelenskyy 16 Dec stated that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s understanding of Russia-Ukraine dynamics would “add to resolving Donbas war”. President Putin 17 Dec blamed Kyiv for deepening stalemate in Donbas, warning Ukrainian govt against attempts to unilaterally revise Minsk agreements and promising greater infrastructure and economic support for so-called republics. International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda 11 Dec announced that following preliminary examination of “a broad range of conduct constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity […] statutory criteria for opening investigations into the situation in Ukraine has been met.”
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.