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Donbas is on its way to become another frozen conflict at Europe’s backdoor

With the Russian and Ukrainian positions too distant from each other and little significant progress in implementing the Minsk agreements, Europe is likely to have another unresolved conflict on its eastern fringes.

February 27, 2020 - Yegor Vasylyev - Articles and Commentary

Leadership course at Ukrainian National Academy of Land Forces. Photo: Press Service of the Ukrainian National Academy of Land Forces (cc) flickr.com

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claims that the country is not corrupt anymore. He asserts that there is an avalanche of foreign investment coming and that the country is making great strides on a steady road to peace. However, the confrontation between the Ukrainian army and Moscow-backed separatists has recently flared up, raising questions about how much the peace process has actually achieved.

Minsk agreements: an impasse?

The sides of the conflict in Ukraine have approached a new milestone.

Oleksiy Reznikov, one of Ukraine’s representatives in the Trilateral Contact Group and soon-to-be Minister of Occupied Territories, made a statement in late January that made headlines east of Warsaw.

According to Reznikov, Ukraine is going to review the Minsk Agreements and insist on demilitarisation of the illegal armed formations first, as well as restoration of Ukrainian control of the border with Russia in Donbas. Only then will the Ukrainian government allow elections to be held in the regions now under the control of the separatists.

Meanwhile, the lives of 16 Ukrainian soldiers in Donbas and 27 ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ militants were claimed in January while ceasefire violations continue to occur daily.

The shelling, which continued into February, is a constant reminder that the agreements have only halted the active phase of the war, not ended it.

The events of January 18th, which according to Ukrainian sources, saw one Ukrainian soldier and four Russian-backed militants being killed, shows that a hot phase can erupt anytime.

Ukrainians say that a skirmish took place when the rebels tried to break through the delimitation line. The separatists claim it was an Ukrainian sabotage group that approached their territory with the aim of infiltrating it and came upon a minefield. The accident was accompanied by intense shelling from 120 mm mortars in addition to the firing of grenade-launchers and heavy machine guns.

Supposedly authorised by Russia, the accident, which resulted in Ukraine losing its observation point, might be an echo of what is to be expected in the peace process that is stalled.

No way to break the deadlock – time for Europe to speak again

Back in 2015, Ukraine was forced into the Minsk Agreement to stop escalation of the war. A Ukrainian call to review Minsk, if it becomes official – and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko’s statement on February 20th, confirmed that Ukraine is working on the amendments to the agreements, might trigger remarkable consequences.

According to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who is known to have decisive influence over the stance of the unrecognised ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’, the review of Minsk will halt the whole peace process. Putin argues that Ukraine is not doing enough to implement it and has directly asked Zelenskyy during a recent phonecall whether he is inclined to fulfill the agreement. With no more progress (as Russia sees it), there will be no Normandy meeting in April.

The newly appointed deputy head of Putin’s administration,Dmitriy Kozak, remembered for his efforts to solve the Transnistrian conflict through the federalisation of Moldova, has taken the lead on Ukraine in the Kremlin. There should be no doubts though that the core position is delineated by Putin himself.

Putin’s brash tactics will see no change apart from small adjustments, in terms of POW swaps for example, not affecting the staple parts of the agreements and the peace process. However, while Vladislav Surkov, who has resigned from the presidential administration and was previously responsible for Ukraine, is known for creating conflicts, Kozak is known for freezing them up. There are rumours that it will be much easier now to find a common language because Kozak is on good terms with the newly appointed head of Zelenskyy’s office, Andriy Yermak. It is important to remember, though, that there is speculation on various Telegram channels; the two men are not the ones who call the shots.

Therefore, the geopolitically sensitive process, mediated by France and Germany with the United States carefully watching, calls for a loud European voice. It will affect the global standing of the Europeans.

Angela Merkel, who argues that Europe has to take more responsibility in its tense relationships with the United States, is also unwilling to come to loggerheads with Putin. She is nonetheless flexible on Minsk and does not rule out the possibility of making adjustments, which signals indirect support for Zelenskyy at the last Normandy summit.

Emmanuel Macron, who is vigilant about United States policy in Europe and argues for the geopolitical autonomy of the European Union, is consonant with Vladimir Putin, ruling out the amendments. For Macron, there is Minsk and only Minsk.

The essence of the situation is that the Russian president is reluctant to recognise Ukrainian sovereignty as it is. He sees Ukraine as a collection of lands, brought together under the aegis of the Soviet military machine. For Russia, Ukraine’s Black Sea and eastern parts are known as New Russia, lands populated, cultivated and industrialised during the times of the Russian Empire, and later, Soviet Union.

Putin’s view is that even if these lands are formally independent from the modern Russian Federation, they are still intrinsically Russian and should be associated with Russia as much as possible. This view will not change, of course, and is going to be inherited by his presidential successor in 2024. Putin’s plan is to incorporate the rebel regions back into Ukraine with a special status, essentially, transforming it into federation.

The Ukrainian president was voted in as a result of the political technology invented on the order of the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. Zelenskyy has a penchant for strident pledges, but he does not have the political capacity to bring his promise of peace into reality. This is despite his current strong standing at home, where his exceptional public relations skills make sure his ratings are still to suffer from looming domestic problems. The experts, unlike Zelenskyy’s electoral base, which is prone to TV-shows, increasingly see his presidency as an endless PR-stunt, maneuvering between the interests of the oligarchs and skillfully acting in the manner his fans enjoy. In fact, those well aware of the giblets of the Ukrainian judicial system, which hatched Andriy Bohdan, Kolomoyskyi’s lawyer and first head of Zelenskyy’s office, knew what to expect from the very beginning. Such an appointment at the most crucial time was a sure sign that the new president is indeed not to be taken seriously as a reformer and a corruption-fighter. Moreover, there is no sign that Ukraine’s dysfunctional anti-corruption system will become more apt.

Polls indicate that the Ukrainian public opposes the readmission of the regions into a new Ukrainian federation. At the same time, the so-called ‘DNR/LNR,’ according to other polls, want to become part of Russia. Neither will change. Federalisation of Ukraine is impossible and the ‘DNR/LNR’ parts of Donbas will not return to Ukraine because they just do not want to.

It’s geopolitics, mate

Ultimately, it is the geopolitics that matters most. Zelenskyy is accustomed to political gimmicks, like his plea at Davos for the European Union to accept Ukraine instead of the United Kingdom, that are oriented more for domestic consumers rather than serious international reflection. This is another reminder that he often blurs the lines between the burden of the presidency in a deeply-troubled country and the balderdash of a stand-up show.

Such statements are likely to further unnerve European Union heavyweights, who, led by France, clearly articulate that the post-Soviet states are partners – not future members. But this also means that European leaders are the ones who can make him listen.

It is a time, though,when France and Germany are increasingly interested in opening to Russia, and the pressure is piling up in both countries to end the confrontation.

Thus the situation is that the Russian and Ukrainian positions are too distant from each other and there is little flexibility for significant progress. Unless the European Union’s ‘big two’ propose a new format, the attention to the conflict will diminish and with it the prospects of a viable solution.

The voice of European Union mediators might significantly increase the withering geopolitical profile of the Europeans. Although, there is risk to be seen coalescing with Russia, as was the case with the ’Twelve Steps Toward Greater Security in Ukraine and Euro-Atlantic Region’ Initiative that was presented by mostly European experts and spurned by both the Americans and Ukrainians.

The new initiatives, proposed by France and/or Germany, can shape new geopolitical contours, and with them, the possibility for Europe to shine. That is, if there ever can be one, since the current initiatives are being hampered by the lack of capacity of the Ukrainian President and reluctance of the Russian one.

Otherwise, the best scenario, provided that Moscow miraculously gives its consent – and it is highly unlikely to – can be for the shootings gradually to stop. Playing games with Russia, as he is used to with the Ukrainian public, a conceited Zelenskyy may end up in a severe escalation and a hot conflict. So, hot at worst, or frozen but unresolved. For the moment, it looks like Europe should brace itself for this daunting reality.

Yegor Vasylyev is an analyst and political consultant specialising in politics and governance of post-Soviet states. He holds an LLM in European Law from the London School of Economics, where he was a British Chevening Scholar, following five years with the Ukrainian civil service.

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