Foreign Policy Blogs

No end in sight for conflict in Eastern Ukraine

The last year has seen a period of deadlock in Eastern Ukraine. As the armed conflict continues into 2018 amid fruitless attempts to reach a stable ceasefire, should we expect a flare-up in the Donbass region?

Permanent ceasefire remains beyond reach

The progress on Minsk II – the key agreement that was supposed to put end to the war in Donbass – has so far been minimal. While the original text of accord stipulated an “immediate and full ceasefire” in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine starting from 15 February 2015, skirmishes and occasional heavy artillery exchanges are still taking place. In 2017, there have been at least six attempts to negotiate a truce linked to a specific time of year.The beginning of the harvest season or the school year have been used to time such attempts. Each of those ceasefires, however, could not hold more than several hours – typically with both sides accusing each other of multiple violations.

Truce initiatives are often negotiated at a high level, as was the case in February during the Russian, Ukrainian, French and German foreign ministers’ meeting at the Munich Security Conference. However, political support does not translate into an improvement for the security situation on the ground. One of the main reasons is that the independent monitoring of the ceasefire violations is still far from perfect. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) observers do not have direct access to many areas, primarily those under rebel control. Under such circumstances, it is very hard to identify who violated ceasefire first.

The events during the recent de facto coup in the breakaway Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) suggests that the level of mutual trust between fighting sides will remain low for the foreseeable future. When factional fighting broke out in rebel-held Luhansk in late November, the Ukrainian government forces took advantage of the chaos and recaptured several villages in the “grey zone” near the dividing line. Kiev stressed that these actions did not violate the status quo prescribed by the Minsk accord, but the breakaway republicsinterpreted them as a sign that Ukraine is prepared to launch a full offensive if given a chance. The bar for credible commitment to peace is set quite high in Donbass. It is unlikely that we will see a permanent ceasefire here any time soon.

Agents getting out of hand

The November coup d’etat in the LPR came as a culmination of the conflict between the LPR’s security forces led by interior minister Igor Kornet and the head of unrecognized republic Igor Plotnitsky. The coup d’etat revealed an important piece of information about the power dynamic in the rebel-held Donbass and risks for possible escalation. As the situation unfolded, both rival factions employed information warfare to accuse each other of conspiring with Kiev. Meanwhile, the officials in Moscow  refrained from commenting on the events for several days, which suggests that this took the Kremlin by surprise.

It would thus appear that while the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine do enjoy the Kremlin’s support, they also possess a certain degree of independence. At the same time, the events in the LPR have shown that the rebels are a heterogeneous group prone to internal rivalry. While building his case against Plotnitsky, the coup leader Kornet appealed to the Kremlin and claimed that he exposed a pro-Kiev group within the LPR administration that was allegedly preparing the republic to be taken over by Ukrainian forces. This tactic proved to be successful for Kornet. Other competing factions on the ground might also try to manipulate the Kremlin’s concerns about any change to the status quo – possibly through brinkmanship – and thereby increase the likelihood of escalation.

In the new year, the decision by the Trump administration to approve lethal weapons saleto Ukraine is likely to become a source of risk in Donbass. While the weapons themselves are not likely to change the balance of power in the region dramatically, their presence will undoubtedly increase the perceived risk of conflict flare-up which might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Moscow still focused on freezing the conflict?

As if confirming this hypothesis, the peace agreement has come under immediate threat after Ukraine’s parliament passed a law on 18 January that defined Russia as an “aggressor country” and emphasised Ukraine’s intention to take back control over the “occupied territory” in Donbass. The Kremlin called this a “preparation for war” and an abandonment of Minsk II.

Despite the escalating rhetoric, and the ambiguity in interests of the players on the ground, it’s likely that Moscow’s primary objective remains freezing the conflict in Donbass. From a strategic viewpoint, the most desirable outcome for Russia is to prevent Ukraine from joining the EU and NATO, an extremely unlikely event if the conflict in the east remains unresolved. At the same time, the Western sanctions regime against Moscow is closely tied to the security situation on the ground so Russia is hardly interested in any escalation. Therefore, the Kremlin’s diplomatic efforts will focus on maintaining the status quo in Donbass.

On the Ukrainian side, it’s important to note that President Poroshenko commented on the 18 January legislation by emphasising “political and diplomatic” means of regaining centralised rule over Donbass. An outright military aggression would carry enormous costs for Ukraine and may not have popular support, judging from media reactions to the law. It would be a risky gamble in the leadup to next year’s elections.

The high-level discussion in 2018 is thus likely to focus on negotiating a potential UN peacekeeping mission deployment in Donbass. While all stakeholders share the belief that the presence of blue helmets in the region would reduce violence, the exact placement of the peacekeepers remains a contentious issue. Ukraine argues that the troops need to be placed at the official Ukrainian-Russian border. In contrast, Moscow claims that the mission should monitor the situation at the current dividing line. A potential compromise could be spreading the peacekeepers across the rebel-held Donbass. However, this approach could be costly and, according to Poland’s foreign minister, even politically unacceptable as it would give too much legitimacy to breakaway republics. Crucial meetings between Russian and US representatives in the coming weeks – the first since 2013 – will give a useful indication of the direction the conflict is likely to take.

 

This article was first published on Global Risk Insights, and was written by Yaroslav Makarov.