The conflict in Ukraine over the Donbass region lumbers on, generally unnoticed unless there is a spike in the violence, as was the case earlier this year with Avdiivka. While this is clearly a battle over the future status of the Donbass region in the east and there is a genuine will amongst the separatist leaders for independence, the influencing hand of Putin’s Russia is also unmistakably present. The ceasefire agreement from the Minsk II talks exists in name only and the protagonists continue to fight on across fixed lines. Despite consistent denials from the Kremlin of Russian involvement the United States, Canada and the EU are sufficiently convinced of this that sanctions still remain in place. These date back to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, a territory that is considered to be lost to Ukraine.
Ukraine had problems with corruption and effective representation that remain to be resolved as wars seldom resolve underlying differences and generally solidify and entrench opposing views. This means that the root cause of internal political problems remains as strong as ever but any chance of resolving them through negotiation is hamstrung while an outside power maintains an influence. Ukraine’s deadlocked civil war will not be resolved either by the separatist east being propped up by Russia, nor by a government victory over the rebels. Much of what can be achieved in the future is in the hands of the Kremlin, whose hand in exploiting discontent in eastern Ukraine has been blatant, and from where contradictory signals have been sent. On the one hand there has been a major joint exercise with Belarusian forces, on the other an acknowledgement that UN troops could be deployed in eastern Ukraine alongside the existing OSCE monitors. The first can be read as a wider message to the West of the renewed capability of reformed armed forces, the second as a concession that the situation in Donbass is proving detrimental to Russia in economic, political and military terms. These tie in with Russia’s investment in the Assad regime in Syria, which has also drawn sanctions and where Russian military capability is also being demonstrated. Behind this is geopolitics and if the message being sent by the Kremlin is not clear then it should be: Russian security and prestige is the priority and everything else is secondary.
This message had been delivered clearly in 2008 when Russian forces entered Georgia and put a stop to any consideration of Georgia joining the EU. While no responsible power should cave in to force they should at least read the signals that have been sent. There are strict criteria for EU membership, which neither of Georgia or the Ukraine met, and the question of EU membership was a divisive issue in Ukraine at the time of the Euromaiden revolution. From the Russian perspective, both the EU and NATO were encroaching steadily towards Russian borders and even absorbing countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. That this was occurring because of previous Russian dominance and the security that NATO membership offers was a message that Putin’s Russia either failed to hear, or chose to ignore. This may be because their sphere of influence was under threat from the military alliance of NATO and the socio-economic power of the EU, both of whom were expanding aggressively, with the potential for the ill-qualified Ukraine joining either the final straw. If it looks like a new Cold War then that is because it is either part of a new global rivalry or unfinished business from the Cold War that was supposed to have finished in 1989. Whichever is the case, the outcome bears a striking resemblance to the proxy wars that were present throughout a Cold War that saw a lot of fighting but in which the two main protagonists managed to avoid fighting each other. Throughout Asia, Africa and Central America, the Cold War was decidedly hot. If this smacks of the power relations of global politics and international rivalries then it should, for this is a world where two nations still retain vast stocks of the most abhorrent and unusable weapons invented.
So where does this leave Ukraine? To be clear, Ukraine had its own internal problems, but these would not have led to armed conflict without outside involvement, for which there is a strong argument that the Kremlin holds responsibility. The border between Ukraine and Russia is a porous one and in name only, and the separatists are backed by Russia. Understanding the geopolitical pressures does not excuse the supporting of insurgency or interference in a neighbouring country, a contagion which is far from limited to Russia. Yet, the current state of the geopolitical rivalry in Eastern Europe is fundamentally unnecessary and detrimental to all. It is also dangerous and driven by fear. The EU is right to stand up to such aggression, but it also needs to work alongside the US in defusing the current rivalry and engage proactively with Russia. This starts with halting the violence in Ukraine and if both sides can be persuaded to stop fighting and be provided with truly impartial mediators without a predetermined political outcome in mind there will be a pathway out. The political damage that has already been done cannot be repaired, but it can be mitigated. The separatists are unlikely to want the forces of the Ukrainian government in their territory and the provision of UN troops would allow the re-establishment of normality to the areas of fighting, meaning that it would not be necessary to provide troops for the entirety of the disputed Donbass region. Of the armed conflicts in the world today, that in Ukraine is amongst the most accessible to UN intervention and could prove to be one of the shortest. Peace in the Ukraine is both possible and overdue.
Next week we return to our series on African conflicts with a focus on the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator