Conflict Resolution In The Donbas: What Has Changed?

On April 26th, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky proposed the cancellation of the Minsk agreements, established in 2014, which regulate conflict resolution in eastern Ukraine. According to Zelensky, the clauses no longer reflect the state of current relations and need a comprehensive update – if not tout-court revision. Zelensky invited the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada to actively participate in the diplomatic process. Meanwhile, numerous violations of the ceasefire continue to be recorded.

Russia did not welcome the proposal to amend or cancel the Minsk Agreements. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the requests “alarming.” Moscow said it would oppose the possible participation of foreign countries in the Russo-Ukrainian negotiations, reminding Zelensky that the Normandy Quartet, which establishes Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia as overseers of the negotiations, is still in place.

The Minsk Agreements are composed of two regulations: the Minsk Protocol and the Minsk II Agreements. The first, a peace plan, was signed on September 5th, 2014 by Ukraine, Russia, the Donetsk People’s Republic, and the Lugansk People’s Republic, under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Security (O.E.C.D.). However, the obligation for a ceasefire was not met and the fighting never ceased. Therefore, on February 12th, 2015, the leaders of the Normandy Quartet agreed on a new ceasefire. They also signed a new package of measures for implementing the Minsk Protocol, the Minsk II Agreements.

Despite Russia’s announcement on April 22nd that it would withdraw 100,000 troops from the line of contact with eastern Ukraine, it should be emphasized that Kyiv and Moscow still seem far from a real solution. Many Ukrainian officials welcomed the troop withdrawal, believing such a move would greatly reduce the risk of escalation. Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba and former Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk, as well as the leaders of the Trilateral Contact Group, all subscribe to this opinion. Although the threat of war seems to be averted, the O.E.C.D.’s Special Monitoring Mission report reveals that there were a total of 276 ceasefire violations in Donbas on April 22nd – only three cases less than the previous day.

Or course, the Donbas crisis has significantly worsened Russo-Ukrainian relations, but this conflict is just the tip of the problem. International cataclysms like the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed U.S. interventionism impact significantly more. This crisis is tied with simultaneously emerging power distribution imbalances across Eurasia, with vaccine diplomacy, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, and Turkish assertiveness combined to push Russia and the West closer and closer to each other.

However, it is obvious that Moscow does not want to give up the Donbas. This is because Russia’s broader goal is to curtail any Western support for anti-Russian uprising movements (as in Belarus) and discourage further sanctioning. Putin, for example, certainly did not appreciate Ukraine granting authorization to N.A.T.O. to carry out exercises – more than two thousand US soldiers involved – on its territory in 2021. In the meantime, Washington did not hesitate to fire up the Ukrainian population. American president Joe Biden, after calling Putin a killer, asked the Russian president to hold a bilateral meeting to discuss all their various conflicts of interest. Allegedly, a meeting between the two superpowers would smooth tensions and foster some kind of dialogue.

But other players are also active on the scene. There is Zelensky, down in votes following allegations of corruption and bad pandemic management, who has now definitively turned his back to the Kremlin and is trying to find support in the West. But there is also the European Union, which is trying to maintain a common line of firmness to balance keeping the U.S. calm, its business with Russia going, and the security of its eastern border unbreached. It is not indeed a case that mounting tensions are following Germany’s involvement in the construction of North Stream 2. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the project “a Russian geopolitical project intended to divide Europe and weaken European energy security,” with a postilla that sounds like a threat: “Any entity involved risks U.S. sanctions and should immediately abandon work on the pipeline.”

Divided in this way, we would not have two completely different, opposing poles, with the West on one side and Russia (and China) on the other; but rather a more fragmented representation of regional dynamics. All considered, it seems as if Biden intends to mark a clear dividing line between friends and foes, fomenting social cohesion between the allies in a less important battleground than that of the Chinese Sea. However, this renewed interventionism is rather alarming for countries in Europe. The situation turns on what America and Russia want, to the detriment of the European Union.

On one side, the U.S. needs this conflict to scapegoat the international community’s attention on an easily recognizable enemy. On the other, Russia needs to advance its claims on Ukraine and make Russia relevant in an area where his old friend Erdoğan is beginning to assert sovereignty.

“I do not see anything that the Kremlin can achieve from direct military engagement in the Ukrainian crisis,” Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council says. “I think that Russian politics is more focused on maintaining the status quo.” The most likely scenario is “permanent instability, a frozen conflict,” Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean, an expert on Russia at the Institut Français des Relations Internationales, surmises.

Frozen conflicts get more useful the longer they are protracted. In this case, the stalemate in the Donbas allows two superpowers to keep the public and the media talking about them. Boosting their relevance in such a tremendous moment allows them to inflate their importance in their allies’ eyes. In reality, both sides are evaluating Turkey, China, and the E.U. – read Germany – as powers that can truly manage to rival them and undermine the polarity of the current world order. This fear shows in all minor conflicts around the world. Those the U.S. and Russia can still manage to control are publicized internationally to hide the ones they’re losing territory in. This goes to show that open conflict in Ukraine will not be possible as long as the E.U. allows the U.S. and Russia to agree to keep the continent divided in two.

Luca Giulini

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