Ukraine: Fighting On

In Ukraine the bitter conflict between the government and separatists in the east of the country grinds on. The means by which the fighting can stop has been agreed in 2015 but the two sides seem incapable of maintaining a ceasefire beyond the length of a day. They have a common understanding of the importance of elections but seem incapable of disengaging their forces and creating the conditions where voting can take place.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has remained relatively static since the last major battle for the town of Avdiivka in 2017. To all intents and purposes it is treated as one that is frozen but while the frontlines don’t move there are multiple ceasefire violations every week and  civilians remain displaced and at risk. The casualties continue to mount up, but at a slow pace. This is a situation where the conflict has become normalized and in which the warring parties appear to be incapable of ending a grinding slog. The fight for the Donbass is a bitter one with differences between the sides dating back long before the beginning of fighting in 2014.

There has been no shortage of ceasefire agreements but they have a track record of being broken quickly and the only real measure of their success is in the reduction of violence as opposed to their ending it. This said, there has been a significant improvement since the signing of a ceasefire agreement on the 27th July 2020. According to ACLED (via Reliefweb) in the three months that preceded it there were 3046 ceasefire violations, in the three months that followed there were 542 ceasefire violations. In the Ukrainian context this counts as a major success. It was the eighth ceasefire agreement since the beginning of 2018. We do not know if this is the beginning of a change in which the number of conflict events (registered as ceasefire violations) gradually whittles down to zero or it is a temporary dip followed by a return to a higher number of events. As it stands, the fighting continues, talks take place, ceasefires are agreed and then broken, but the conflict stays at a relatively low level of intensity. Talks take place through the Normandy Format and the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG).

The Normandy Format was set up on the 6th June 2014 and includes representatives of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, occasionally joined by representatives from Belarus, Italy and the United Kingdom. The TCG was also created and consists of representatives from Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE maintains a monitoring mission that reports daily. Extensive TRG talks in 2014 led to the signing of the Minsk Protocol by representatives from the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine and the two separatist regions, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). This failed to stop the fighting at the time and was followed by a follow up memorandum and the 2015 Minsk II agreement, under the auspices of the Normandy Format. The result of extensive negotiations, the Minsk Protocol and Minsk II are comprehensive, covering conditions for ceasefires, the banning of offensive operations, the withdrawal of heavy weaponry, pardon and amnesty for actions in the separatist region, monitoring by the OSCE, release of prisoners of war, the restoration of the Russia-Ukraine border, and constitutional reform in Ukraine. In 2019 there were prisoner exchanges and an agreement was signed at a Paris summit to follow the ‘Steinmeier formula’. This envisaged the holding of elections in the DPR and LPR under the supervision of the OSCE, to be followed by their reintegration into Ukraine. The various agreements set out a path to peace between Ukraine and the separatist oblasts but despite the reduction in fighting, both sides remain entrenched and the benefits thus far are that the frontlines are stabilized and the casualty rate has been significantly reduced.

The core incompatibility that separates the government and the separatists is the future governance of the regions that are currently controlled by the separatists. The solution to this would appear to be included in the Minsk Protocol and Minsk II: the holding of local elections that are monitored by the OSCE. They also include the provision that there be a temporary decentralisation of power while the elections take place. This would appear to be simple, except neither party is really willing to countenance a scenario where the other actually wins the elections. A 2019 survey reported in The Conversation produced results that indicated a majority of 55% of people living in the LPR and DPR wanted the separatist areas to be part of Ukraine, there were strong personal linkages across the frontline, and an absence of a clear cut identity (in terms identifying as Russian or Ukrainian). The 55% were split over the issue of autonomy within Ukraine but 45% favoured being part of the Russian Federation. While this is the outcome of a survey it indicates problems for both the government and the separatists. A key argument of the separatists and their supporters in the Kremlin is that the Donbas is ethnically closer to Russia and that they would favour being part of it. A free and fair election monitored by the OSCE could result in a win for the government and would be a disaster for the separatists and the Kremlin. From the government’s perspective the recovery of a territory that has a significant minority whom would actually prefer to be in Russia and identify as ethnically Russian is a problem also. This would not be a return to the status quo before 2014 but to a divided society living in an autonomous region. The current President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected in part due to the electorate’s wish to bring the conflict in the east to an end but this does not mean they will accept concessions that could mean autonomy for the DPR and LPR. This scenario assumes that the voting would go the government’s way and that it would actually be from elections that were held in a legitimate manner. Neither are guaranteed.

The problem of an unfavourable outcome from elections (recognised as legitimate or not) is only one problem that besets attempts to transform the conflict to a condition where the disputes are addressed through political competition. The status of Crimea and the wider geopolitical environment are also major spoilers. For progress to be made a lot has to give: the government of Ukraine needs serious reform and the separatists have to relinquish their pseudo-nationhood, both of which are big asks. The political solution to Ukraine’s tragedy also lays in repairing the badly damaged relationship between Russia and the West, an even bigger ask that requires competent and pragmatic statecraft towards scaling back an unnecessary confrontation that affects Eastern Europe in general and has raised tensions to an unacceptable level. For now, the focus needs to be squarely on ending the violence in eastern Ukraine.

The way forward continues to be dialogue through the Normandy Format and the TCG as this is the path to a compromise solution has already been set out in Minsk II. The emphasis should be on the local interests over the international interests that contributed to the escalation of the conflict in 2014. Two obstacles to this are the willingness of the interested parties to put the question of who governs the separatist areas to a free and fair vote and for there to be trust in the process. There is also the far from trivial matter of selling this to their constituents. The only people that should decide who represents the population in the separatist areas is the people who live there or have been displaced. A key aspect of this is that both sides realise that this is not the end of the matter and that there will be future votes: winning elections is only a temporary gain and the losers need to be able to contest them again at regular intervals. One positive observation of Minsk II is that its signatories appear to have a solid grasp of the important of elections. They have proved incapable of actually implementing a ceasefire though, which was scheduled for the 15th February 2015.

Work also needs to be done on the normalization of politics after the fighting actually ends. Again, Minsk II has provisions for demilitarization to take place but it only gets the participants to the stage where their differences are being handled through political means. It does not provide a framework that ensures that disputes do not mean a return to violence. There is mention of ‘constitutional reform’ and ‘decentralisation’ but no real plan as to how this is achieved or conflict resolution mechanisms. The most proven method for this is the democratic process, which ensures representation, but this also requires trust in the political system and between the protagonists. In effect, this means more talking and the development of a political system that is participatory and reflexive.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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