(Originally published by Project Syndicate.)
It is starting to look like a pattern. After painstaking talks, the parties in the Ukraine conflict come to an agreement – only to have it fall apart or fail to be fully implemented. At least three separate deals to resolve the crisis have been struck, and each has quickly unravelled. Even a unanimous vote in the United Nations Security Council condemning the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and demanding access to the crash site has failed to produce the desired results. Over three months later, Dutch investigators have still not been able to conduct all necessary visits.
The usual diagnosis for the repeated failure to forge a lasting agreement is a lack of trust on both sides of the conflict, for which the usual prescription is to introduce a series of confidence-building measures. If only the Ukrainian national government in Kyiv, its Western allies, Russia, and the Ukrainian separatists could learn to trust each other, the thinking goes, perhaps a settlement could be reached.
But confidence-building measures are not the panacea that they are so often portrayed to be. To be sure, there are cases where the absence of trust-building efforts could partly explain why a conflict drags on. The 25-year tug-of-war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh is a prime example. But there are also conflicts in which years of confidence-building measures have not only failed to produce a solution but have also prevented one from taking shape.
The parties tussling over Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia spent some 15 years taking part in confidence-building measures, before Russia upended the status quo in 2008 by recognizing both regions’ independence. Since then, confidence-building has continued in the form of regular talks in Geneva, but nearly 30 rounds of meetings over the past six years have yet to yield tangible progress.
Of all of the so-called “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet Union, the dispute over Transnistria, the strip of land between the Dniester River and Moldova’s border with Ukraine, was once considered the most amenable to resolution. And yet, even there, two decades of confidence-building measures have been unsuccessful.
Yes, such measures have helped to maintain open lines of communication, preventing small disputes from escalating into violent conflict. But, despite the best efforts of the OSCE, the European Union, the United States, Ukraine, and even Russia, the conflict is no closer to a settlement than it was when the process began.
There are three major reasons why real progress has failed to materialize in Transnistria. For starters, the confidence-building measures put in place lack local support. Neither the elite nor the public, on either side of the conflict, see a realistic chance for rapprochement in the near future.
Second, confidence-building, to some extent, has worked against an ultimate settlement of the conflict. Since the 1990s, the two sides have struck some 170 agreements. But, by making the status quo more comfortable and reducing the need for game-changing moves, these have been steps away from, not toward, a solution.
Finally, confidence-building does not happen in a vacuum, but within a specific regional and global geopolitical context. More often than not, the conflicting agendas of the great powers have stood in the way of a final settlement.
The lesson for Ukraine is that while building confidence may be necessary, it is not sufficient to resolve the crisis. If it is to help move the parties toward a final agreement, certain conditions must be met.
Technical expertise is needed to design and implement measures that are part of a strategic vision to end the conflict. But such measures will be effective only if the regional and global geopolitical environment supports the search for a resolution. Most important, local leaders must be genuinely committed to the process, rather than seeking to curry favour with donors.
The lack of technical expertise is not a major problem in eastern Ukraine. But, as in all of the post-Soviet conflicts, the search for a solution is not taking place in a favorable geopolitical climate. Nor are local leaders committed to building trust and confidence; indeed, separatists are engaged to just the opposite.
Confidence-building measures can help to stabilize a conflict, but the stability they generate is often fragile and temporary. In an environment like that in Ukraine, there is a risk that such measures will sustain, not end, the conflict.