Since protests, separatism and foreign intervention began to break Ukraine apart in 2014, it has been struggling to stay in control of its future. And the struggle is far from over. No fewer than four peace agreements have been struck: the two Minsk agreements, the so-called Kyiv Agreement, and the Geneva Declaration.
This is worse than a stalemate: for all the attempts to reach a settlement, Ukraine is still in real danger of slipping back into violence.
The three-year-old ceasefire is already being violated almost daily. More than 2m people continue to suffer forced displacement within Ukraine and beyond the country’s borders, especially in Russia; the constitutional and institutional reform project supposed to resolve the country’s problems remains mired in a morass of corruption, poor transparency and popular disillusionment.
To add to the complexity, the two sides in Ukraine are internally fragmented. The eastern separatists are not one uniform force, as became obvious in an abortive coup in Luhansk in November 2017. Nor do political elites in Kyiv see eye-to-eye on how to deal with the conflict. At the moment, those who want to cut off the two separatist-controlled and arguably Russian-occupied territories in eastern Ukraine seem to have the upper hand. This is particularly evident from the passage of Law No. 7163 by the Ukrainian parliament on January 18, 2018, which fails to live up, by ommission, to Ukraine’s international obligations under the fourth Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.
And on top of all this, there are plenty of outside forces at work.
A toxic blend
The situation in Ukraine is a “blended” conflict, one in which multiple actors, structures and other factors are involved at local, national, regional and global levels. The Kyiv government’s conflict with separatists in the east has at various points involved both pro-Ukrainian militias and on the separatist side “little green men” and “vacationers” from Russia.
A conflict like the crisis in Ukraine that is “penetrated” by outside actors, becomes ever more complex if the outsiders are, or become, mutual antagonists with their own interests at heart. Many are willing to exploit and stoke local tensions, and are highly adept at leveraging their involvement in conflicts to bargain with other players, whether local, regional or global.
So it goes in Ukraine, where a local conflict has been turned into yet another arena where other regional and global conflicts can be played out. And it is against this background that we can “use” past conflict management efforts in eastern Ukraine as a prism on the future.
Back to square one
In our own recent research, based on extensive fieldwork, interviews and focus groups, we found that neither Russia nor the West have ceded any ground on the Donbas issue, and nor are they likely to. So long as Ukraine remains a significant prize for both sides in this contested neighbourhood, the volatile status quo looks likely to continue.
Suggestions of a “grand bargain” between the US and Russia involving Crimea and a range of other issues, including Syria, are unlikely to come to anything. So far, both countries and their allies have successfully compartmentalised their interactions in these different arenas, where they are variously cooperating and in confrontation.
Minsk II, at least in its political and constitutional dimensions, will remain unimplementable. The government in Kyiv has proved unable (and unwilling) to implement meaningful and sustainable reforms for the benefit of all its citizens, rather than for a powerful and wealthy few; it does not have the political will, capital or capacity to deliver on most of the agreement’s key points. The separatists in Donbas have no incentive to comply with a settlement that “promises” them far less than they currently have.
In Ukraine, both domestic conflict parties and their external allies are working to entrench the current situation, which assures them of at least some degree of control over parts of Ukraine and prevents the country as a whole from drifting completely into the orbit of either Russia or the West. That this approach has for the moment kept the country from collapsing into full-blown conflict apparently makes it a “success”, regardless of its true sustainability.
But the real problems are far too deep for these sorts of strategies to really work. The dynamics playing out in Ukraine are the result of three interconnected factors: Western overconfidence since the end of the Cold War, Russia’s increasing determination to reassert itself as a global superpower, and the inability and unwillingness of countries like Ukraine to reform and strengthen their fragile institutions, which might help insulate them from external interference. Almost 30 years after the end of the Cold War, it seems we’re back to square one – and yet again, the heavy costs of this geopolitical confrontation will be borne by the people living on either side of the front line.