The prospect of a UN peacekeeping force in Ukraine's Donbas offers a rare opening to discuss how to resolve the conflict. But Moscow's diplomatic overtures also risk fueling political infighting in Kyiv in the run-up to next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.
The war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region will soon enter its fifth year. In September 2017, talk of a settlement picked up after Russia circulated a draft UN Security Council resolution proposing the deployment of UN forces along the front line separating Kyiv’s forces, on one side, from Kremlin-backed separatists, on the other.
Moscow had ignored Kyiv’s calls for peacekeepers since early 2015, so its proposal was regarded with suspicion by Ukraine and its Western allies. Most saw the small force envisaged along the front as a non-starter, more likely to freeze the conflict than end it. Nonetheless, the proposal spurred fresh thinking about ways out of the stalemate.
U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker has now met several times with Vladislav Surkov, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, to discuss what a compromise on peacekeeping might entail. After their fourth meeting in Dubai in January 2018, both expressed cautious optimism regarding initial aspects of force composition and deployment. In February, former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, whose political consultancy group runs a strategic campaign called the Ukraine Initiative, floated a detailed proposal for a peacekeeping force.
While scepticism about Moscow’s intentions is justified, the Kremlin’s willingness to discuss peacekeepers marked a shift in the tenor of dialogue on Donbas, as Crisis Group argued in its December report Can Peacekeepers Break the Deadlock in Ukraine? Whether the change in tone brings a change in substance remains to be seen. The evolution of the peacekeeping debate, and the fact it even remains on the table, suggest it should be taken seriously. So too should the impact inside Ukraine. As the country prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019, Moscow’s peacekeeping overtures – genuine or not – risk fuelling political infighting motivated more by competition to establish patriotic credentials than by efforts to reintegrate Donbas.
Jonathan Brunson on Ukrainian Conflict and Donbas Reintegration
Jonathan Brunson, Crisis Group's Ukraine/Eastern Neighbourhood Senior Analyst, talks about the conflict resolution process, peacebuilding initiatives and policy recommendations relating to Donbas reintegration on Ukrainian state TV Ukrinform. CRISISGROUP
Since Russian-backed separatists seized parts of Donbas in early 2014, fighting has left more than 11,000 dead and thousands injured. Millions of civilians are either displaced in Ukraine or living as refugees in Russia. The February 2015 Minsk II Agreement sets out a framework that leaders both in Russia and among Kyiv’s Western allies say they view as the only way to end the conflict. That agreement foresees the withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons from the area and reestablishment of Kyiv’s control over its side of the Ukraine-Russia border. It also sets out political provisions for the reintegration of separatist-held areas into Ukraine, including on local elections in those parts of Donbas, self-governance of these areas and amnesties.
" Kyiv has long seen the war in Donbas as an inter-state conflict involving Russia rather than a civil conflict. "
Kyiv’s argument has been that continued fighting and Russia’s financial and military support for separatists prevent Ukraine from advancing the political elements of Minsk. But more fundamentally, most Ukrainians see the deal as generally favourable to Moscow and the separatists. Kyiv has long seen the war in Donbas as an inter-state conflict involving Russia rather than a civil conflict. A new reintegration law signed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in February 2018 makes this view explicit, labelling Russia as an aggressor and Donbas as an illegally occupied territory. Political and civil society actors in Kyiv insist this designation was necessary to place full responsibility for the conflict – its costs, as well as the human rights protection of those living in rebel-held Donbas – on Russia, and prevent it from participating in a peacekeeping operation, as the Ukrainian side formally considers Moscow a party to the conflict. Parliamentary Chairman Andriy Parubiy says the next step is to enact a de-occupation law. In this climate, Ukrainian leaders are likely to accept peacekeepers only if they believe the mission would safeguard Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, at the very least by monitoring the Russian border.
For its part, Moscow blames the deadlock on Kyiv’s failure to implement the Minsk agreement’s political provisions. The Kremlin also voices fears of reprisals against inhabitants of separatist-held areas were Ukrainian forces to return. In principle, Russia may gain from finding a way out of eastern Ukraine, where its interference has incurred both financial costs – due to U.S. and EU sanctions, as well as expenditures required to keep the regional administration afloat – and wider reputational costs. But despite the Volker-Surkov talks, it is unlikely that Moscow is seeking a way out, almost certainly not ahead of Russian elections in March 2018.
At this stage, Putin’s peacekeeping proposal and participation in subsequent dialogue probably aim to gauge reactions from others; possibly, to explore under what conditions Western powers might lift sanctions; and likely, to test how much pressure prospects of reintegrating Donbas by implementing the political provisions unpopular among most Ukrainians could put on Kyiv ahead of elections there in 2019. Whether Moscow is more willing to find a constructive solution after its elections remains unclear. Its degree of openness will depend on the nature of Putin’s domestic and foreign policy calculations after his almost guaranteed re-election. An optimistic scenario has Russia compromising on Donbas to help reframe relations with the West and prompt the lifting of sanctions. But some Western diplomats in Kyiv fear Moscow may float proposals that would stop short of guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty, all the while increasing the onus on Kyiv to deliver on the divisive political aspects of Minsk.....
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