Resolving the War in Ukraine - Impediments to Peace and the Role of the EU

21 April, 2020

With more than 2 million infected and 15000 dead in the current pandemic, EU has focused its attention on hemming the spread while tackling the vast socio-economic impact caused by the current situation. This focus was visible when the six-year mark of the war in Eastern Ukraine passed almost unnoticed. In a crisis like this, it is understandable that the attention might be elsewhere. It is however crucial not to lose sight of conflicts that continue to affect everyday lives of millions. One of the main security challenges that the von der Leyen Commission will have to address in the near future is the on-going war in Ukraine. The war in the Donbas region, involving the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, has been the bloodiest conflict in Ukraine since 2013 when the widespread Euromaidan protests began, claiming over 13 000 lives and leading to the displacement of millions. It has been going on for six years without a durable solution and, in light of this devastating situation, it should be a priority for the Commission to promote a common EU position where member states are united on how to move forward. This is however made particularly difficult as member states continue to have a fragmented approach towards Russia, the main actor upholding the war. French President Macron has approached Russia in an attempt to negotiate on a new European security order of which Russia would be part of. During the 2020 Munich Security Conference, this idea was once again presented as an appropriate strategy for Europe’s future relations with Russia. However, many other member states, and the Eastern European states in particular, remain wary of Russia’s intentions and conceive it unthinkable to include Russia as a security partner. It would indeed be careless to form a partnership with an actor that continues to act against European interests, not to speak of the values that the EU is set to uphold. The situation in Ukraine is a case in point where Russia’s continued involvement has threatened the principle of sovereignty and hindered the development of a durable conflict resolution from taking shape, thereby maintaining instability in the EU’s neighbourhood. Member states should not bend to the appeal of appeasement with this eastern neighbour before conflicts like the one in Ukraine are solved. In order for the EU to address this precarious situation and the Donbas conflict, it must consider the internal challenges to peace and how the influence from Russia affects the peace process, while evaluating its own attempts at fostering a sustainable settlement.

Military conflict in Eastern Ukraine: From tensions to war

The crisis in Ukraine started with the Euromaidan protests in 2013 in response to the Ukrainian retreat from the Association Agreement with the EU, the escalation of which led to the ousting of the pro-Russian President Yanukovych. Only some weeks later, Russia annexed Crimea in response to the so-called revolution, claiming to protect Russian citizens from what the Kremlin saw as fascist tendencies. This allowed for internal divisions to increase and shortly thereafter in April 2014, fighting erupted in Donbas and separatist movements declared the creation of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk on May 11. 2014, sparking a bloody war between the self-proclaimed republics and the Ukrainian government.

The war was caused by both internal and external factors and shaped by a complex web of interests with historical roots. Tensions had been boiling for many years between the involved actors, which where Ukraine and its people, Russia and the EU. Ukraine’s long historical ties with the Soviet Union and Russia had made Ukraine’s multifaceted identity-composition possible, which enabled internal tensions to grow. Russia has long tried to keep Ukraine in its orbit and its reaction to the Association Agreement revealed its increased fear of Western influence in the post-Soviet sphere. The EU-Russia dynamic that developed after the Cold War has been characterised by misconceptions and a lack of understanding for each other’s place in the new era of Western dominance, enabling such power struggles to take root. Furthermore, the EU’s problem with defining a common policy towards Russia has made it appear incoherent and weak. This dynamic undoubtedly contributed to the current conflict and all present tensions would eventually enable the war to break out in the Donbas region. To find a way to resolve this war, it is necessary to have a holistic perspective that considers and analyses the history of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, internal challenges beyond the Donbas conflict, as well as external influence and the existing peace measures.

Internal challenges: Creating the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and the Ukrainian response

The history of Ukraine reveals a long trajectory of external influence that has hindered the country from developing a united national story or a common identity. In contrast to the case of Crimea, ethnic Ukrainians largely populated the Donbas provinces. However, the majority still saw Russian as the native language. This shows signs of a hybrid identity that was cemented during the Soviet period when the region was portrayed as an exemplary industrial region embodying the soviet ideals. The region has held on to its Soviet glory, building up an own cultural sphere enabled by its place in history. But, this meant that the region’s identity has been mainly Soviet, not Russian. President Yanukovych and the Party of Regions would enable the affinity for Putin’s Russia. He consolidated the idea that democracy and civil society was connected with Ukrainian nationalism and that the protection of Russian culture dominating in Donbas is linked to the support for a paternalistic state that Russia embodied[1]. The Party of Regions therefore enhanced internal identity divisions, which could later be used by Russia to legitimise its involvement, promoting separatist forces despite the fact that the majority of the Donbas population did not want to separate from Ukraine.

The biggest losers in this conflict are the people of the two non-government controlled territories. Due to the escalating situation, the Ukrainian government was compelled to recognise a special status for the Donetsk and Luhansk republics with the signing of the second Minsk agreement in February 2015. The agreement did indeed make fighting decrease, but ceasefire has not been upheld. Ukraine has answered to the situation by cutting off pensions and economic ties, imposing an economic blockade in 2017 that contributed to the hardship and poverty that hit the region. The growing negative sentiment towards the Republics from the side of Ukraine has also pushed the actors further away from a possible united solution. The Ukrainian government has an important role to play for improving relations with the people of the Republics, resuming economic and social ties, while trying to improve the sentiments towards Donbas. If they continue to be isolated and excluded, it will draw them further in the arms of Russia, which bears the risk of making the current stalemate permanent. The population of Donbas is however getting tired of the conflict and is slowly losing its patience with Russia, which has not improved the economic situation or recognised the two republics, leaving the people continuously vulnerable in the hands of repressive authorities. This could give the Ukrainian government a chance to reach out to the population and try to reintegrate the republics socially and economically. The 2019 presidential election in Ukraine was won by comedian and political satirist Volodymyr Zelenskiy. One campaign promise was to end the war in Donbas, which comes timely. The election indicates the public’s desire for political restructuring, as Zelenskiy promotes reform, political change and economic renewal. The Ukrainian government will need to tackle corruption and socio-economic instabilities that continue to impede a stable resolution. This could lead to a more active involvement of civil society, fostering an inclusive bottom-up approach to conflict resolution. When successful, this path might help build up the lost trust between the Donbas population and the rest of Ukraine, which is needed if any solution is to be long-term.

External influence
Russian involvement

One of the main actors affecting the development of the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the Donbas region has been Russia. Russia mobilised radical forces through funding and was quick to send weapons and so-called Russian volunteers, helping rebels get the upper hand in the war with Ukraine. Two interconnected aspects of the Putin regime’s approach to foreign policy can explain their involvement. First, the Putin regime views the use of force as a legitimate and normal aspect of world politics. This is illustrated by the way the government enforces the second aspect – the responsibility to protect (R2P). Instead of seeing it as a moral responsibility to protect people in times of violence, it is connected to the concept of sovereignty and the protection of Russians or Russian speakers, which according to Kremlin legitimises foreign intervention. This logic was also used to justify the intervention in Georgia. An important difference to the case of Georgia is the nature of Russia’s involvement. In Donbas, Russia’s has applied unofficial hybrid warfare techniques. Russia has not recognised the People’s Republics, has not officially intervened militarily and does not have official economic ties. The use of propaganda worked to enhance resentment towards the Ukrainian government and pushed separatist sentiments. Russia could subsequently install proxies loyal to Moscow in the de facto government of the Republics while building quasi-state structures. This unofficial involvement suits Kremlin since it can be exempt from extensive responsibility and economic obligations in possible peace agreements.

Russia’s involvement cannot be discussed in isolation from its relations with the EU. The Association Agreement that sparked the conflict was promoted through concepts such as democracy and freedom, concepts that according to Kremlin have been utilised to intrude in the sphere of influence of other great powers such as Russia. The distinctive foreign policy approach of the EU promoting positive-sum policies that favours cooperation is perceived as a zero-sum game by Russia. It illustrates the post-imperial complex haunting Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This geopolitical tension has been building up for years and was exploited in the case of Ukraine where Russia’s actions were portrayed as crucial in the struggle against the West. An instable Ukraine has a lesser chance of getting integrated into the West, which is an important motivator for Russia’s continued involvement. However, if Russia’s cost-benefit analysis would shift, it could mean that Russia would reduce its economic and military support and advocate a sustainable agreement. There are indications of a shift in Russian public opinion, showing a greater scepticism towards the costs of the outdrawn conflict in Ukraine. This vulnerability should be utilised to make the costs appear greater than the benefits of keeping the conflict alive. There is nevertheless a realistic risk that the Russian involvement will deepen even further. Recent escalations shows that Putin continues to apply destabilising war tactics that now aims at delegitimising Zelenskiy’s peace attempts. The sustained normalisation of conflict makes the prospects for peace seem more like a distant dream than a burgeoning reality.

EU’s response, the Minsk Agreements and continued challenges

One of the main players responding to the Ukraine crisis has been the EU, and its relations to Russia has affected their involvement in various ways. Geopolitical tensions had been boiling between the EU and Russia since the end of the Cold War and both sides have been reluctant to acknowledge the ambitions and interests of each other. The EU underestimated the possible reaction from Russia to the Association Agreement and its fear that the EU could incorporate most post-Soviet states into its sphere of influence, which illustrates the lack to communicate and acknowledge the intentions of the two actors. Russia’s reaction was further enabled by EU’s incoherent stance towards Russia, making it grow a feeling of a weak and indecisive EU. The problems with establishing a united EU policy towards Russia and the inability to respond with resolve to previous Russian interventions in for example Georgia and Moldova has undoubtedly affected this growing feeling.

In an attempt to tackle Russia’s involvement and respond to the escalating situation in Ukraine, the EU imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014, targeting the energy, finance and defence industries. However, it was not until 2015 when Russia’s GDP plummeted that the sanctions would prove effective. In an attempt to ease the economic blow, negotiations were taken up by Russia, leading to the second Minsk peace agreement, Minsk II, signed in February 2015. The first Minsk agreement was supposed to lead to ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons, but it was swiftly broken. The second Minsk agreement was set to address previous shortcomings, outlining clearer timelines for implementation. Only a month after the involved parties signed the agreement, the European Council decided to connect the EU sanctions to the implementation of the agreement. Sanctions have now been prolonged until mid-2020 due to Russia’s failure to comply with the Minsk agreement, meaning that the EU has managed to uphold a joint approach towards Russia. The sanctions showed greater unity between the Member States and it was a step towards a common EU approach. But this merely led to a partial improvement of EU’s incoherency problem. The joint approach to sanctions has not fully lead to a common EU policy towards Russia and the continued shift between the more cooperative stance advocated by Germany or France and the harsher stance adopted by the central east European states will continue to undermine joint efforts.

As mentioned, sanctions are dependent on Russia’s implementation of the Minsk agreement. The agreement requires a ceasefire, but it has continuously been violated and people are still dying in this tense situation, revealing deep problems with Minsk II. The main issue is the disputing interpretations of the agreement by Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine is to accept decentralisation reforms for Donetsk and Luhansk and formalise their special status, allowing for local governing, and local elections are to be held under Ukrainian legislation. These conditions are highly contested in Ukraine because of fears that it would consolidate Russia’s influence over Ukraine. The reforms have therefore been stalled with Ukraine arguing that a ceasefire must be upheld first. Russia, on the other hand, claims that Ukraine must implement these changes before a ceasefire can be maintained. In addition to this, the agreement has put a lot of pressure on Ukraine, requiring them to open economic channels, while Russia is left without economic obligations as they are not officially involved in the conflict. Russia looks more like an outside mediator than an active party in the conflict. Another issue is that the calls for disarmament and pull-out of foreign fighters and military equipment has no time limit, meaning that foreign involvement could continue for years. As instability benefits Russia, it has not been too keen on adhering to Ukraine’s calls for de-escalation. The continued violation of the Minsk agreement keeps bringing all involved actors further from a durable solution and it has so far failed to serve as a roadmap towards peace. With the new Ukrainian President highly motivated to stabilise the situation in Donbas and a Russia that is slowly feeling the cost of the long war, there might be a window of opportunity where both could unite on a way forward to implement the agreement. However, recent escalations might be a sign of its unlikeliness.

How could the EU approach the conflict?

The conflict in the Donbas region has not only led to the loss of lives and a worsened socio-economic reality for millions of people. It has also created deep feelings of mistrust among the population in Donbas. Russia failed to deliver on its promise of prosperity, Ukraine’s policies further pushed the regions away and the EU has not been able to push the involved parties towards a direction of long-lasting peace.

The European Commission has made it clear that the EU should become more geopolitical and promote unity in its approach to foreign affairs. Fostering a stronger Europe in the world will be one of the Commissions main agendas, in which multilateralism is a guiding principle. The goal is to strengthen the EU’s responsible global leadership, by taking a more active role in the world, working closer with neighbours and partners. The Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has rightly noted that “Europe should have a stronger and more united voice in the world”, which can be directly connected to EU’s problem in its response to Ukraine. Von der Leyen will also seek to speed up foreign affairs decisions through a push for qualified majority voting, which could bypass internal bickering and make the EU react faster as a united actor, something that further deals with the problems of member state’s preferred bilateralism in foreign affairs.

There are several ways in which EU’s relation to the war in Ukraine can work to foster or hinder this geopolitical approach from consolidating. First, economic and political ties with Russia should not take precedence over important geopolitical standpoints in EU’s neighbourhood that work to defend the principle of solidarity, democracy and freedom. France’s recent statements on Russia as a future security ally might prove dangerous as it fails to address how Russia continues to act against Europe’s interests, destabilising a country because of its movement towards the west. The French approach comes at a very wrong moment in history. Germany’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project is also a crucial issue that can have important geopolitical implications and undermine a coherent stance, furthering the dependence on Russian gas. This increases the likelihood of Russia’s continued understanding of the EU as incoherent with a lack of resolve, which might provide incentive for sustained escalation as it allows Russia to have continued its influence in Ukraine. Seeing that Russia has used the lack of unity to its advantage in the past, pulling strings to broaden the divide between member states, countries such as Germany and France should be careful not to go to far in its cooperation with Russia until the on-going war finds a solution. The EU must also acknowledge that Russia’s approach to foreign intervention differs from its own and develop a coherent Russia policy that seeks to understand this approach and Russia’s interests in Europe. Russia provides the existential lifeline for maintaining the conflict though its vital economic and political ties to Donbas. It is therefore a key actor that has to be on-board if the conflict is to find an ending. At the moment, Russia still favours an unstable and divided Ukraine, but if this cost-benefit analysis would shift, it could mean that Russia would reduce its economic and military support and advocate a sustainable implementation of the Minsk agreement. A multilateral approach should therefore favour extended sanctions while coordinating military power using tools such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Defence Fund, with the goal of building up joint strengths that shows a united stance while increasing resolve. This could make the costs of continuing the war appear higher. With the current budget negotiations for the next Multiannual Financial Framework taking place between the EU institutions, it will therefore be crucial for the Commission to highlight the continued need for extensive funding of EU Security and Defence. Finally, to promote a long-term solution, the EU must help Ukraine with the required structural reforms to tackle corruption and increase welfare, helping it on its way to create a united and inclusive society that acknowledges the multifaceted identity-composition.

[1] Yekelchyk, S., 2015. The Conflict in Ukraine : What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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