Centrifugal powers – implications for Ukraine

The Ukraine crisis is a complex, multi-level conflict which involves a geopolitical confrontation over control and influence in the shared neighbourhood between Russia and the West and territorial contestation between Ukraine and Russia (over Crimea) and between the Ukrainian government in Kiev and Moscow-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Drawing on recent research on power sharing and territorial self-governance, this paper focuses on the options available for dealing with the territorial contestation between Kiev and the separatists in the two eastern regions of Ukraine. I first review relevant findings from three different sets of data and then outline their implications for moving towards a sustainable arrangement for relations between Kiev and Donetsk and Luhansk.

As a possible way forward, negotiations on a permanent special status of (parts of) the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, apart from the necessary implementation of substantive TSG measures, could be focussed on specific (hard) power sharing measures for an interim period and on improved enabling (soft) measures beyond such an interim period. This would address the current lack of trust between the conflict parties, not create unrealistic expectations of likely negotiation outcomes, but equally leave a degree of flexibility as to the way in which more inclusive institutions of government may be implemented in Ukraine in the longer term. It would also be in line with research findings that power sharing is not a sine qua non ingredient of successful peace agreements (Ottmann and Vuellers 2014) and offer an “exit” from more entrenched forms of power sharing (Horowitz 2014, Sisk 2008).

These arrangements will need to be accompanied by proper international and domestic guarantees and take account of the broader complexity of this particular dimension of the wider Ukraine crisis. This latter point presents a significant caveat to the suggestions above: at present, the territorial contestation in eastern Ukraine has all the ingredients of becoming yet another “frozen conflict”. Such a scenario may well be considered to serve the short-term interests of both Kiev and Moscow, as well as the separatists: Kiev’s limited economic capacity to re-build Donetsk and Luhansk and its fear of “institutionalising” the Kremlin’s influence on Ukrainian politics, as well as the traumatic legacy of a violent conflict on relations between people on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine will be significant obstacles on the way to a conflict settlement. Based on recent research into such conflicts, as outlined above, this, however, need not be a foregone conclusion.

The full paper can be downloaded as a PDF.

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