The conflict in Donbas is not frozen and may soon require more attention

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Arkady Moshes
Arkady Moshes

Director of the Research Programme on the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

The Minsk II agreement was signed in 2015 with the intention of settling the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas. Yet, it was doomed from the outset as it was founded on false pretences. Russia pretended it was not a party to the conflict. Europe pretended it agreed. And Ukraine, at that moment cornered militarily and diplomatically, pretended it was going to implement the deal.

Today, more than five years on, it should come as no surprise that any attempts to achieve progress on the ground, based on the Minsk accords, have little prospect. There is simply no incentive to carry them out.

Moscow refers to the letter of the document and insists that Ukraine could restore its sovereign control over the breakaway territories only after elections are held there and a special status is established for those territories within Ukraine. Not overly concerned with Western economic sanctions, which do not hinder energy trade with Russia, nor with the relatively minor costs of supporting separatist entities, the Kremlin sees no need to alter its approach.

It must also be considered that an escalation of the conflict is a possible scenario

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s position is very well-reasoned. Although not formally in conformity with the sequence of steps as defined in Minsk, its stance is based on common sense. Kyiv argues that fair and free elections in accordance with Ukrainian legislation are impossible unless security, safety and transparency of the electoral process can be guaranteed in the area, which implies Ukraine’s control beforehand. Also, the country has long learned to live with the conflict and is certainly not willing to make concessions that could potentially undermine its very statehood in order to formally declare its territorial integrity restored.

A common misperception, especially in the West, is that the conflict in Donbas could eventually be frozen following the scenario of several other conflicts in the post-Soviet sphere. Unfortunately, this is not the case. None of many ceasefires negotiated so far have held, and people are still regularly dying on the frontlines. For Moscow, a sustainably frozen conflict would cease to be a leverage the Kremlin rightly or wrongly believes it can use vis-à-vis Ukraine and the West. Moreover, the international impact of Russia’s actions in Donbass and Crimea has been so significant that freezing it would require at least a minimal level of mutual trust as well as an understanding of what will happen next in European security at large. Both are currently absent.

Furthermore, it must also be considered that an escalation of the conflict is a possible scenario. A combination of several factors currently at works could trigger this. First, Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings are declining and will only further shrink amidst the corona-induced recession. In such a situation, Moscow might use renewed hostilities in the east of Ukraine as a tool to boost Putin’s domestic support.

Hopes that the conflict can freeze by itself are as unrealistic now as they were five years ago

Second, the period of Russia’s benevolent attitude towards Ukraine’s President is coming to an end. Volodymyr Zelensky was initially treated differently than his predecessor Petro Poroshenko as he placed more blame for the conflict on Ukraine’s own leadership and its alleged unwillingness to negotiate, than on Russia. For this reason, the Kremlin expected to draw concessions from him. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that Zelensky’s room for maneuvering is very limited and that he cannot deliver what Moscow wants without facing mass protests.

Third, after one year in power, Zelenskiy’s ‘honeymoon’ period in Ukraine is over. His political positions are less solid and the opposition is becoming more active on all flanks – including the pro-Russian political forces, which makes applying pressure on him more tempting.

Finally, it is far from obvious whether the West, still coping with COVID-19, would have the energy and resources required to treat another would-be crisis in Donbas as a priority.

Yet Western policymakers should pay attention to this risk and ensure that it does not materialise. To this end, European capitals should signal in advance that – if need be – they stand ready to act firmly and vigorously. Ruling out the escalation scenario, however hypothetical it may seem, would already contribute to the peace process in Donbas. Hopes that the conflict can freeze by itself are as unrealistic now as they were five years ago.

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