The conflict in Ukraine began in 2014 and affects an estimated 4.4 million people, with the UN recording over 10,000 deaths. Of these 2,530 were civilians and another 9,000 civilians were injured. According to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, thirty-seven civilians have been killed this year so far and another 163 injured. While the conflict is generally seen as ‘frozen’ due to the lack of major assaults or campaigns by either side, the civilian deaths indicate otherwise: the conflict may be ‘paused’ and out of the headlines, but the consequences continue as displaced civilians from the conflict number over 2.5 million and the OSCE continues to report ceasefire violations along the frontline between Ukrainian forces and the separatists. Between the 17th and 30th of September monitors reported almost 9,000 ceasefire violations, a reduction of 10,000 on the previous two-week reporting period. The ‘contact’ line between government forces and the separatists cuts through the south-eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and the separatist controlled area is generally referred to as the ‘Donbass’. In a throwback to Cold-War conflicts, the 500 km contact line is riddled with mines.
Despite reports of deliveries of ‘defensive weapons’ by the United States, prisoner exchanges and the ceasefire agreed at the Minsk II talks, the fighting in south-eastern Ukraine is continuing with sporadic exchanges of fire and no end in sight. The separatists of the Donbass remain entrenched in an enclave that is dependent on Russian support, while the government is unable to defeat them and continues to have its own problems with corruption that date back to before the Maiden protests. It has had its credit cut off by both the EU and the IMF and is unpopular amongst the electorate. While this blog maintains that the origins of the conflict lay in internal division over whether the Ukraine leant to the west, with membership of the EU and NATO, or to the east with Russia, the hand of the Kremlin was blatantly present in the fostering and support of the separatists in the east and the annexation of Crimea. The latter has been treated as a fait-accompli, of which little can be done except for strong international protest and sanctions. An unspoken yet consistent rule of international relations is that the US and Russia never confront each other directly on the battlefield, preferring to support proxies and supply weapons to client states. While this has the undeniable benefit of preventing a cataclysmic major war, it also allows for such actions as the annexation of Crimea, or to call it as it was, the occupation of sovereign national territory by another government. This broke another all-too frequently broken rule in international relations: international borders are deemed to be inviolable.
There is also the matter of trust, a commodity in business and politics that when abused is quickly lost. Largely forgotten in the case of Ukraine is the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which guaranteed the territorial integrity and independence of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. This allowed them to give up former Soviet nuclear weapons on their territory and was signed by the Russian Federation and the UK and US. The agreement was a boon for nuclear non-proliferation but its violation sent a signal to any countries considering disarmament in the future that guarantees of territorial integrity cannot be taken at face value.
Such concerns may be lost on the victims of a conflict that was utterly avoidable and is currently deadlocked. While future escalation cannot be ruled out, a major military campaign by the government carries the hazard of harming a population it considers to be Ukrainian and the separatists are more concerned with holding the line and state-building. The latter are also heavily dependent on the reluctant support of the Kremlin to survive, as even with the government’s problems in raising troops its forces are stronger than those of the rebels. The way forward is in dialogue and pursuing the fruits of Minsk II further, while tackling the wider geo-political situation that has enabled the conflict in Ukraine in the first place. For progress to be made a lot has to give, the government of Ukraine needs serious reform and the separatists have to relinquish their pseudo-nationhood, both of which are big asks. The political solution to Ukraine’s tragedy also lays in the badly damaged relationship between Russia and the US and EU, to which Ukraine has fallen victim spectacularly (see earlier blogs for more on this). This is an even bigger ask that requires competent and pragmatic statecraft towards scaling back a confrontation that affects Eastern Europe in general and has raised tensions to a level not seen since the 1990s.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.