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Donbas: Ukraine's continuing predicament

Paul Ivan

Date: 17/04/2020
On top of having to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, Ukraine also continues to wrestle with the ongoing war in its Donbas region.

As the rest of the world, Ukraine is currently fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the state of its economy and healthcare sector, the weakness of its institutions and the size of its diaspora, the country is among the EU’s eastern neighbours most vulnerable to the pandemic.

However, COVID-19 is not Ukraine's only challenge. In the country’s east, six years after its start, Europe's only ongoing war continues to claim lives. Solving the Donbas conflict has been a top priority for Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy since his election last year.

While some progress has been made, recent developments have raised new questions on Ukraine's conflict resolution strategy. Ukraine will need to clarify its approach, maintain a consistent position regarding Russia's role in the conflict and in ongoing negotiations, and focus on ending the war. Meanwhile, Ukraine should also redouble its efforts on internal reforms, which are necessary to enhance its resilience and reinforce its relations with its Western partners. Given the multiple challenges that Ukraine faces, the EU's active engagement and support are essential.

A non-frozen conflict

During Zelenskyy's first months in office, his administration registered several achievements related to the conflict with Russia. In the autumn of 2019, several prisoner swaps took place, Ukraine regained three ships which had been captured by Russia during the November 2018 Kerch Strait incident, conditions for civilians crossing the line of contact were improved, and troops and weapons were withdrawn from several locations along the frontline.

However, despite several successive ceasefire agreements, fighting continued, with recurrent military activity from the Russian-backed separatists and daily exchanges of fire, as confirmed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) monitors. Furthermore, since 21 March 2020, armed groups in the non-government-controlled areas have restricted the movement of said monitors, citing COVID-19 measures as the reason. This further complicates the security situation.

On the international diplomatic front, after a break of over three years, a summit of the Normandy Four (i.e. Ukraine, Russia, France, Germany) took place in Paris on 9 December 2019, without any substantial progress. Meanwhile, talks have continued under the Trilateral Contact Group (TGC).[1]

Shifting positions?

Ukraine has repeatedly rejected negotiating with the separatist Donbas 'republics'. However, in spring 2020, the envisaged establishment of a new dialogue format created some uncertainty about this position. During a TGC meeting in Minsk on 11 March, Zelenskyy's chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, and Dmitry Kozak, Deputy Head of Russia's Presidential Administration and plenipotentiary for the Donbas conflict, agreed to create a new format of talks as part of the TGC's political subgroup process.

The new Consultative Council would comprise of 10 Ukrainian representatives; 10 representatives from the occupied districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions; and one observer each from Russia, Germany, France and the OSCE. The Council's main goal would be to "to conduct and develop proposals for political and legal solutions towards the settlement of the conflict."[2]

The agreement immediately triggered controversy in Ukraine, with many critics arguing that the new format would replace Russia as the negotiating counterpart and grant equal status to the representatives of Donetsk and Luhansk. That the agreement was reached without prior public debate and the text only became public once it was leaked by journalists have added to criticism, including from various political forces, Ukrainian civil society and even a part of Zelenskyy's Servant of the People party.

The new agreement was due to be signed during the following 24-26 March TGC meeting. The fact that the meeting took place online given COVID-19 restrictions allowed the Ukrainian side a (temporary) way out.

The apparent concession to the Russian position, which has long been that the conflict is an internal Ukrainian matter and that Kyiv needs to negotiate with Donetsk and Luhansk, was not the first move of the new administration to puzzle Ukraine observers. In autumn 2019, Zelenskyy accepted the so-called 'Steinmeier Formula', a 2016 proposal of the then German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The Formula calls for the organisation of elections in the occupied territories, followed immediately by the introduction of a special self-governing status for the territories, and the re-establishment of Ukraine's control over its eastern border with Russia.

President Vladimir Putin made Ukrainian acceptance of the Steinmeier Formula a condition for his participation in the Paris summit. While President Zelenskyy rejected the idea of organising elections in the separatist territories as long as (Russian and pro-Russian) troops are still present, the mere acceptance of the Steinmeier Formula, favoured by Russia, reduced Ukraine's space of manoeuvre.

A looming risk

Kyiv should maintain a consistent and clearly communicated position regarding what the sides are in the conflict. Ukraine's Presidential Administration has denied that the new agreement would lead to negotiations with the separatists, arguing that the Consultative Council would be a platform for dialogue between citizens. However, there is a risk that this process could fuel a different perception.

If Ukraine were to embark on a path in which the separatist regions, as opposed to Russia, become its negotiating partners, its negotiation position would inevitably be weakened. For one, there are currently no independent civil society representatives in occupied Donbas that can act freely. For another, Russia has long insisted on the need for direct dialogue between Ukraine and the separatist 'republics'. Moreover, Russia is experienced in dealing with similar situations. Moscow has in the past extricated itself diplomatically from other protracted conflicts in the region, such as in Transnistria, so that it is no longer seen to be one of the conflicting parties. This allows Moscow more space for diplomatic manoeuvre and shields it from international criticism and pressure to resolve the conflicts. Meanwhile, Russia maintains control over its proxies and military pressure on the ground. In such a scenario, the conflict is framed as a local one, between a national government and separatist regions, as Russia has repeatedly stated is the case in Ukraine.

If Russia were to transition from being a conflict party to an observer in the settlement process, the arguments for maintaining sanctions on Russia would be severely weakened. Moreover, Ukrainian cases against Russia in various international courts (i.e. International Court of Justice, European Court of Human Rights) could be potentially affected and international attention towards the conflict would likely further decrease.

Setting realistic goals

What has been evident over the past years is that Russia and Ukraine are not ready to make substantial concessions. Moscow has not shown that it is interested to solve the conflict and to return the Donbas to Ukraine. To the contrary, the continuing breaches of the ceasefire, the concession of Russian passports to citizens in Donbas, economic support for the region and hybrid campaigns in Ukraine indicate that Russia is planning long-term engagement in the protracted conflict.

Kyiv's concessions, like accepting the Steinmeier Formula but rejecting its sequence, have been limited. They are likely to remain so given the views of the Ukrainian population: opposition to the federalisation of the country, which they consider to be an instrument for Russian control. Reacting to the public outcry, the Ukrainian executive backtracked on the Consultative Council idea and stated that its position regarding the conflict, and Russia as a party to the conflict, have not changed.

Thus, given that it is unlikely that a political solution to the conflict will be achieved anytime soon, Ukraine should focus on trying to stop the military confrontation and seeking to improve the humanitarian situation in the affected areas. With a view to that, negotiations on new crossing points and prisoner exchanges, like the one that took place before Orthodox Easter, are steps in the right direction and should be followed by the further withdrawal of forces from both sides of the frontline. Ukraine should continue to negotiate with Russia, but a political solution will likely require stronger international engagement, not least to keep pressure on Moscow.

Meanwhile, achieving a lasting ceasefire should be the first priority for all the parties involved. Though Kyiv should talk to Donbas representatives, it should carefully consider the format of this dialogue and the risks for Ukraine described above. Kyiv should also better manage communication about this type of processes.

Understandably, the immediate priority of Ukraine's leadership today is to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and deal with its health, economic and security consequences. For this, Ukraine will need the full support of its external partners.

In parallel, however, Ukraine must also focus on its unfinished internal reforms and economic development, to put itself in a better position to solve the Donbas conflict. The recent governmental reshuffle, including the replacement of a respected prosecutor general and several reformist ministers, has not inspired confidence among Ukraine's Western partners and investors and raised questions about Kyiv's commitment to reform. Renewing the drive to reform will be essential to strengthen Western support, which is crucial for Ukraine's future.

Whereas the EU is not a party to the Donbas negotiations, it does play an important role. The EU should continue to clearly support Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, the discussions in the Normandy format and the Trilateral Contact Group and the activity of the OSCE's Special Monitoring Mission, including its unhindered access in the conflict area.

The EU is also the framework under which sanctions on Russia have been adopted. As Russia adapted to the sanctions, their effects decreased over time. In order to maintain the credibility of EU support and uphold international rules and its message to Russia, the EU member states should properly enforce the sanctions regime and reinforce the sanctions lists periodically. This would need to be done in a measured way while maintaining the option of adopting a stronger regime in case of an escalations of fighting.

At the same time, EU leaders should recognise the need to invest more in the security and increase the resilience of one of its biggest neighbours. Focusing only on soft policy areas will not be sufficient. The EU's Eastern Partnership policy has long been criticised for not giving proper attention to the security challenges that its neighbours face. While this has somewhat improved over the last years, for example through support to Ukraine's civilian security sector reform, there is still reluctance in some EU corners to invest in strengthening the security of EU’s neighbours, even in critical areas like cybersecurity. This must change, as insecurity in the neighbourhood can quickly lead to insecurity inside the Union.

Paul Ivan is Senior Policy Analyst of the Europe in the World programme.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

[1] The Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine is a group of representatives from Ukraine, the Russian Federation and the Organization for Security and Co-operation that has met since June 2014 to facilitate a diplomatic resolution to the war in the Donbas.
[2] Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, “Нові мінські протоколи. Документ”, 13 March 2020.

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