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Peace in Ukraine: opportunities and risks

The war in the Donbas region , in eastern Ukraine , will soon enter its fifth year. In September 2017 rumors of a possible agreement gained strength after Russia circulated a draft resolution proposing a deployment of United Nations forcesalong the war front, separating the forces of Kiev, on the one hand, and the separatists supported by the Kremlin, on the other. Moscow had ignored Kiev’s requests in this regard, made since early 2015, so its proposal was viewed with suspicion by both Ukraine and its Western allies. Most felt that a small force deployed along the front would be a failure, more likely to freeze the conflict than to end it. However, the proposal has stimulated creativity around new ways of getting out of the current stalemate.

The special US envoy for Ukrainian negotiations, Kurt Volker , has met several times with Vladislav Surkov , an adviser 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 the initial aspects of the composition and deployment of the force. In February, former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen , whose political advisory group runs a strategic campaign called the Ukrainian Initiative , presented a detailed proposal for a peacekeeping force.

While skepticism about Moscow’s intentions is justified, the Kremlin’s willingness to discuss the maintenance of peace has meant a shift in the tone of the Donbas dialogue, as Crisis Group argues in its December report: “Can the Peacekeepers break the stalemate in Ukraine? “. If the change in tone achieves changes on the ground, it remains to be seen. The evolution of the debate on the maintenance of peace, and the fact that it still remains on the table, suggest that it should be taken seriously. The impact within Ukraine should also be taken seriously. As the country prepares for the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2019, Moscow peacekeeping proposals – authentic or otherwise – can fuel political internal struggles motivated more by competition to establish patriotic credentials than by efforts to reintegrate the Donbas region.


Perspectives in struggle

Since separatists supported by Russia conquered parts of Donbas in early 2014, the fighting has left more than 11,000 people dead and thousands wounded. Millions of civilians are displaced in Ukraine or live as refugees in Russia. The Minsk II Agreement of February 2015 establishes a framework that both Russian and Western allies in Kiev see as the only way to end the conflict. This agreement provides for the withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons from the region, and the restoration of control of Kiev on its side of the border between Ukraine and Russia. It also establishes political provisions for the reintegration of separatist regions in Ukraine, including local elections, self-government and amnesties.

Kiev maintains that the struggle continues and that Russia’s financial and military support for the separatists prevents Ukraine from taking steps to implement Minsk II. But, above all, the majority of Ukrainians see the agreement as favorable to Moscow and the separatists. Kiev regards war as an inter-state conflict involving Russia, rather than a civil war. A new law of reintegration signed by the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko,in February 2018 he makes this vision explicit, labeling Russia as an aggressor state and the Donbas region as an illegally occupied territory. The political and civil society actors in Kiev insist that this designation is necessary to place total responsibility for the conflict in Russia – its cost, as well as the protection of the human rights of those living in the Donbas under rebel control – and so on. prevent him from participating in the peacekeeping operation, since the Ukrainian side formally considers Moscow as part of the conflict. The President of Parliament, Andriy Parubiy, says that the next step is to enact a law of unemployment. In this climate, Ukrainian leaders are likely to accept peacekeeping personnel but only if they believe that the mission would safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, at least by monitoring the Russian border.


Kiev regards war as an inter-state conflict involving Russia, and not as a civil war


For its part, Moscow blames the blockade on Kiev’s inability to implement the political provisions of the Minsk II agreement. The Kremlin also expresses its fear of reprisals against the inhabitants of the regions controlled by the separatists if the Ukrainian forces return. In principle, Russia can win with its exit from the east of Ukraine, where its interference has had financial costs – due to the sanctions of the US and the European Union, as well as the expenses derived from keeping the regional administration afloat – and reputation costs More spacious. But despite the Volker-Surkov talks, it is unlikely that Moscow is looking for a way out. And less before the Russian elections of March 18.

At this stage, Putin’s peacekeeping proposal and his participation in subsequent dialogues are likely to aim to measure the reactions of others; possibly, to explore under which conditions the Western powers could lift the sanctions, and calculate in what situation could be placed to Kiev before the 2019 elections to reintegrate the Donbas region by implementing unpopular policies. It is not clear if Moscow is more willing to find a constructive solution after its elections. His degree of openness will depend on the nature of Putin’s internal and external policy calculations after his almost guaranteed re-election. An optimistic scenario is that of a Russia committing to peace in the Donbas region to help rethink relations with the West and promote the lifting of sanctions. But some Western diplomats in Kiev fear that Moscow can make proposals that do not guarantee the sovereignty of Ukraine, while leaving to Kiev the task of implementing the most divisive political aspects of Minsk II.

Of the Western allies of Ukraine, the US has been most active in exploring options for peace, mainly through the bilateral channel between Volker and Surkov. The talks between the Normandy Four – the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany – complemented by more frequent exchanges between their respective advisers, and the Trilateral Contact Group formed by representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, will proceed in parallel with the Volker-Surkov route.

Volker’s diplomacy continues to eclipse any European role. In 2018, however, the leaders of Germany seem to have found their voice again. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel called for a UN peacekeeping mission in early January and the parliamentary commissioner of the German Armed Forces, Hans-Peter Bartels , announced on February 15 that Germany is ready to provide troops.

It might be useful to renew European attention to Ukraine, in particular from the EU itself. The close political ties of the EU with Ukraine and its substantial assistance give it decisive influence in Kiev. A first step could be for Brussels to designate its own special envoy or representative with a mandate similar to that of Volker. According to an EU official, a former politician would have more opportunities to make an impact, particularly given the sensitivity of the agenda and the differences between the member states.

Including the EU and the US in an expanded format of Normandy could also make sense. For now, that course seems unlikely, but it would serve to keep all actors on the same wavelength and discourage both Moscow and Kiev from stirring rival forums.



Ukrainian resistance against Minsk

Russian interference in the Donbas region is not the only obstacle to ending the crisis. In Ukraine, resistance to the political provisions of the Minsk II agreement is growing and is already a central campaign issue for the 2019 elections. Except for the pro-Russian factions, President Poroshenko’s party is alone in backing the agreement. Even some members of the ruling coalition of the president reject it. Your junior partner, the Popular Front, openly declares that Minsk II is dead, says that Ukraine never approved its contents in the first place, and maintains that Kiev signed only to control the military impulse of the separatists backed by Russia and to buy time. In fact, even Poroshenko’s own commitment to Minsk II is not entirely clear. The vast majority of Ukrainian parties and civil society groups consider Kiev’s obligations under MinsK II unwanted concessions to the Kremlin, whose impact on the Donbas is destined to endure, even if Russia withdraws its forces.


With the exception of the pro-Russian factions, President Poroshenko’s party finds itself only in its support for the Minsk II agreement.


Apparently, the Ukrainian elites are realizing that implementing the most controversial provisions of Minsk II could provoke a new wave of anti-government violence, even if only the security provisions of the treaty are implemented. The provisions on amnesties and self-government for the regions now controlled by the rebels are particularly controversial. Many Ukrainians would see granting the special status stipulated in Minsk II to parts of Donbas as a reward for a separatist region whose privileges no other region in the country would enjoy. For now, however, there are few visible omens of mass civil disobedience. There are not many possibilities for Ukrainians to take to the streets in a crowded way, despite recent history. The failure of successive revolutions to eradicate widespread corruption seems to have caused both fatigue and anger among many citizens. In addition, Western diplomats have speculated since October 2017 that the government has been preventing meetings outside Parliament and in Maidan. The sudden license of these authorities so that there may be demonstrations in March could indicate that the government’s fears of public turmoil have greatly diminished. After the dismantling of the camp outside Parliament, some prominent reformers and influential people in social networks criticized what they called an aggressive surveillance reminiscent of the tactics of the old regime, but the immediate reaction in the street has been silenced.

Even so, hostility towards Minsk II fuels a pre-election campaign where speeches are hardening, with elites seeking to outdo each other in their expressions of patriotism. A diplomat from a country belonging to the G-7 commented privately: “Moscow knows very well how much damage it can cause in Ukraine by circulating more peace plans,” adding that he hoped it would be after the Russian presidential elections. The dialogue on peace should focus on the resistance and anxiety around the country about how the regions in dispute would be reintegrated. European powers could help Kiev explore how to enact Minsk II so that it does not challenge national cohesion and the sovereignty of Ukraine.


ukraine_control territory

Source: Al Jazeera



An expansive mandate for peacekeeping?

To help resolve the conflict, any peacekeeping mission should include at least three elements. First, mediators should establish control over the front line, protect civilians, provide security in the conflict zone, verify the cantonment of weapons and the withdrawal of forces. A ceasefire (a lot to ask, since the registration, established in September-October 2017, is twelve days) should be a precondition for any deployment. Secondly, peacekeepers should have as their main task to monitor the Ukrainian side of the border, together with Russia, and thus prevent, as far as possible, infiltrations with the ultimate goal of restoring control of the border. Kiev. In third place,

The composition of a potential peacekeeping force – which countries would provide troops – has been a matter of debate in Kiev. The forces of NATO and Russia would probably be unacceptable: Russia is predisposed to reject the first, Ukraine and its Western allies, the second. Many military and civil society experts from Ukraine also postulate that members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization such as Belarus or Kazakhstan should be excluded. Other options could include troops from countries such as Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, which would probably be accepted by the majority of Ukrainians. Having said that, even if there is a consensus on the principle of peacekeeping, find a combination of troops that accept both Kiev and Moscow,

Another decision would be related to the number of troops required. Volker and some Ukrainian diplomats have dropped the possibility of a 20,000-strong coalition, a number now widely supported by Kiev and its Western allies, which see it as necessary to carry out a solid mandate in such a large and highly populated region. . That figure would border on the current maximum of existing UN operations, but a smaller force could not control the border or project its strength across the length and breadth of Donbas, where local elections are approaching. Many elites in Kiev contemplate a number that would exceed 30,000.


Even if there is agreement on the peace operation, finding a combination of troops that both Kiev and Moscow like will be a challenge


The deployment in phases – first around the front line, then within a wider radius, and finally across the entire disputed territory, including the Russian border – will almost certainly be necessary to dispel the double fear of non-compliance and reprisals. While Kiev may oppose such a proposal, given the suspicion that the Kremlin will block the last phases, a rapid deployment with clear deadlines could mitigate such concerns. Western officials say they are exploring options for a gradual deployment that would combine political and security steps: deployment along the line of contact followed by legislative adoption by Kiev to ensure greater autonomy for the regions in conflict; then, clear deployment to the border; and finally, local elections in the Donbás region. There are many obstacles to this scenario, which, however, would address the key points of the Minsk II framework.

Any mission should also facilitate the return of internally displaced persons, of persons who, for work reasons, continue to live on both sides of the front line, and of refugees. The internally displaced and those who travel daily could be a moderating political force for the reintegration of the Donbas society, which on the side controlled by the rebels is exposed to a siege mentality and a powerful anti-Kiev and anti-Western propaganda.

A final question is whether the Security Council should establish a temporary administration of the UN to govern the regions controlled by the separatists until the return of the Ukrainian authority. Some previous missions of the UN – Eastern Slavonia, Kosovo and East Timor – played this role. If that intrusive mandate is necessary in eastern Ukraine it remains a contentious issue for Kiev. The Ukrainian authorities could not return immediately, but many elites also resent the idea of ​​third parties meddling in their internal affairs. The current local authorities are out of the discussion; in fact, the US has long insisted on a change of leadership as a precondition in the negotiations with Russia over the Donbas, and Kiev would clearly prefer a temporary administration of the UN than one led by pro-Russian separatists. If the UN does not play an administrative role, it is not clear how a transition regime could be. At the very least, the Security Council should authorize a peacekeeping mission to help local state institutions carry out basic functions during the transition.


A rare opportunity

Ukraine’s Western allies must assure Kiev that any agreement on peacekeeping will be possible only if it addresses security concerns without further undermining the sovereignty of Ukraine. The country must not become a spectator of this process; opportunists on both sides could easily take advantage of the perception that Kiev can not influence the outcome. The West should continue to make it clear to Moscow that non-Crimean sanctions will be lifted only once the Minsk II agreement is fully implemented, or when Russia ends its interference in the Donbas region, and that the partial withdrawal will not lead to a lifting of sanctions.

A peacekeeping mission can still be a distant possibility. It is not very clear that Moscow is looking for an exit. The growing resistance of the Ukrainian leaders to the Minsk II agreement presents another challenge that Russia could take into account in its calculations. However, the current talks represent an exceptional opportunity to test ideas on how to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine and reintegrate the Donbas region. All parties should take full advantage of it.


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