International Crisis Group (Autor)
The war in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas between Kyiv and Moscow-backed separatists will soon begin its sixth year. Its resolution seems ever further away. While death counts and civilian casualties in Donbas are down, a new flashpoint in the Sea of Azov adds another potentially explosive layer to hostilities between Ukraine and Russia. The Minsk II agreement that sets forth a way out of the conflict and which both sides signed in 2015 remains unfulfilled, with Moscow unwilling to withdraw its troops and material from separatist-held areas of Donbas, and Kyiv seemingly uninterested in devolving power to those areas or taking other steps that could prepare for the reintegration of the territory it has been battling for.
The standoff presents numerous risks. Russian authorities continue to restrict Ukrainian access to shared waters off of Crimea, and the parties have taken no measure to prevent a repeat of a November 2018 incident in which Russian security forces opened fire on a Ukrainian naval boat and took 24 of its sailors, who remain captive. Any further confrontation in these waters could prove deadly, open up another front in the war and increase pressure on NATO to respond. Even absent further incidents, the Azov crisis distracts from Donbas, where despite reduced casualties, military action regularly exposes civilians to the threats of death, injury and property loss. The Moscow-backed armed groups have worsened the situation by drastically reducing humanitarian access, but some of the blame lies with Kyiv, which has been dragging its feet on measures to soften the humanitarian impact of hostilities.
After Russia’s November 2018 attack in the Azov Sea, Ukraine’s Western allies may understandably be hesitant to press the Ukrainian government on adhering to the ceasefire, which has been violated by both sides, and proactively addressing humanitarian concerns. While Ukraine is indeed the victim of Russia’s aggression, Kyiv should take these steps, which are critical for the future reintegration of areas of Donbas outside the government’s control and Ukraine’s overall stability.
The EU and its member states should:
A confrontation on 25 November 2018 in waters off Crimea marked Russia’s first acknowledged use of force against Ukraine since the peninsula’s annexation. As three Ukrainian naval boats headed through the Kerch Strait to the Sea of Azov, Russian security services rammed one boat, then opened fire on another before seizing all three and their 24 crew members. The attack, which violated a 2003 agreement between the two countries, marked the culmination of a months-long Russian effort to assert ownership of these shared waters, involving regular, costly detentions of Ukrainian commercial boats as well as foreign vessels corresponding with Ukrainian ports. It signalled Moscow’s resolve to consolidate its control of Crimea. It was also met with calls from Kyiv among others for some form of NATO response in support of Ukraine. Further incidents remain a real possibility, as neither side has shown any inclination to seek ways to prevent a repeat – or worse – of November’s spat, and would likely increase the volume of such calls.
If the clash illustrates Moscow’s increasing assertiveness and belligerence in the Azov Sea, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s response hardly helped. No evidence supports Moscow’s assertion that Poroshenko engineered the incident to bolster his ratings ahead of March’s coming elections and prevent his opponents from campaigning by declaring martial law. But Poroshenko has attempted to harness events to his advantage – most blatantly by proposing 60 days of martial law, which would have undermined his opponents’ ability to campaign for the March 2019 presidential elections. (Martial law was only imposed for 30 days, thanks in part to EU pressure). The prospect of his seeking to capitalise on another confrontation cannot be ruled out.
While Kyiv and Moscow are unlikely to make progress toward resolving the Donbas conflict this year, 2018 offers lessons as to how parties can reduce harm to civilians and lay the groundwork for Ukraine’s future reintegration – or at least avoid further undermining it. Civilian casualties in Donbas more than halved in 2018 compared with the previous year. The steepest month-to-month reduction in casualties occurred between June and July with the start of the “harvest ceasefire” agreed upon by the Trilateral Contact Group, showing that Contact Group negotiations can have a real impact even when the larger peace process has stalled.
Despite the overall decrease in casualties, the occasional flare-ups that still occur entail high costs for civilians. These clashes are mainly linked to advances by the Ukrainian army and National Guard in the so-called grey zone between the two sides’ front lines – and the responses by rebels and their allies to those advances. The government describes its actions as means to lift troop morale and “liberate” the civilian population. Military analysts mostly dismiss the moves as public relations ploy with negligible on-the-ground effects. Both interpretations are misleading: the military dividends from the operations may be minimal but their effects are real enough, given the resulting civilian casualties. Injuries and deaths peaked between April and June 2018, coinciding with Ukrainian troops’ moves into the Horlivka suburb of Chyhari (Pivdenne), as well as Zolote-4 (Partizanske), a settlement that is part of greater Zolote, near the disengagement zone of the same name.
Apart from increased exposure to shelling and live fire, civilians in these areas, who are disproportionately elderly and female, often suffer destruction or military appropriation of their homes. The financial costs of these losses, as well as those of any serious injuries, may be severe. While local authorities have made efforts to house families evacuated from Chyhari, the state still has no legal mechanism for restitution for property damaged as a result of hostilities, nor has it followed through on February 2018 legislation that provides for regular financial assistance for civilians injured. The overall impact of grey-zone incursions is to harm civilians and their trust in the Ukrainian state.
For Europe, the priority should be to reduce risks of further incidents in the shared Russian and Ukrainian waters of the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait while signalling to Moscow that it should not use its de facto control of Crimea to hinder Ukrainian or international shipping or strangulate Ukraine’s economy. European governments and Western powers more broadly are caught between, on one hand, needing to hold the line as Moscow (having illegally seized Crimea and backed Donbas separatists) again appears to be probing to see how far it can push and, on the other, avoiding further militarising the crisis or incentivising Kyiv to engage in risky behaviour in response to Russia’s aggression.
The EU should continue to offer mediation to help prevent another incident; it should also follow through on recommendations to appoint a special envoy for Ukraine. This envoy would spearhead EU efforts and stand ready to oversee some form of investigative commission comprising representatives of both Russia and Ukraine. Prospects of either side agreeing to such a commission for now appear slim, particularly during the Ukrainian election season: Kyiv will be loath to appear conciliatory toward Moscow, while Moscow may wish to hold out for what it hopes will be a friendlier president and/or parliament. Calling for a commission would signal that Moscow cannot indefinitely deny its actions, whether in the Azov or Donbas. At the same time, it would remind Kyiv that its own behaviour is also open to scrutiny.
The EU should also ensure member states stay focused on the search for medium-term solutions to the humanitarian crisis in Donbas. Even before the 25 November events, any progress on negotiations during Ukraine’s 2019 election season was highly unlikely. Talks over a potential peacekeeping mission for Donbas, which proceeded sporadically throughout 2018, have largely petered out with little progress made. After the Azov Sea incident, any further implementation of the Minsk deal appears even less likely. Ukraine’s partners therefore need to keep up pressure on the sides to agree, through the Trilateral Contact Group, to observe the ceasefire, renew it when necessary, and cease grey zone incursions. They should also encourage Kyiv to lay the possible groundwork for the future reintegration of separatist-held areas by cushioning the humanitarian impact of continued violence and signalling to people in areas affected by the conflict along both sides of the front lines that it prioritises their well-being – even if they are unlikely to vote for those in power. On these topics, too, a European envoy could help deliver messages to Kyiv.