Tension and escalated fighting have once again risen on the outskirts of Donetsk. Separatist forces from the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic, backed by Russia and the Ukraine government blame each other for the surge in military fighting. Many inhabitants of this area have already fled to other parts of Ukraine, Russia or Europe. This has left the most vulnerable, including the elderly, to survive on international donations.
Freezing temperatures, intermittent heating, and inconsistent power and water makes daily life difficult. This conflict has been ongoing for more than two years. As time passes, each side is becoming more entrenched in their stance. In 2014, the President of Ukraine rejected a European Union (EU) economic proposal. The proposal included an association agreement opting for a Russian deal of $15 billion in aid with some economic benefits. This enraged Ukrainians who wanted links with Europe and protestors seized the capital, leaving President Yanukovych to flee to Russia. Russia viewed the protest actions as illegitimate and annexed Crimea to protect its interests. Political divisions surfaced in eastern Ukraine when the new leaders in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, decided to remove the status of Russian as a second language. Those sympathetic to Russia who did not want reform and Ukrainian patriots who wanted to align themselves with the West started to oppose each other.
The latest escalations have produced responses from many countries and groups calling for a cessation to the fighting. Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary, has called for restraint from both parties and voiced concern about “the worsening humanitarian situation.” Russia has expressed concern over the deteriorating situation in Donbass, while the United States has spoken of the recent spike in violence in eastern Ukraine. The EU, wanting peace and stability in the region, articulated similar concerns and called on all involved to “pull back immediately so urgent infrastructure could begin.” These responses demonstrate considerable restraint, as the international community does not want to provoke those directly involved and incite violence.
People in the buffer zone, like inhabitants of Avdiivka, an embattled town on the outskirts of Donetsk, experience the fight first hand on a daily basis. These people feel forgotten and believe the international community will do little to stop the present fighting as support in the past has been minimal. Western countries have been cautious with their actions and appear to not notice these hostilities. This suggests they are experiencing conflict fatigue. One needs to ponder why this has occurred. German and Finnish governments continue to pursue a gas pipeline project with Russia to obtain much needed supplies. Many other countries in Europe are keen to resume full trade with Russia, although some hold an opposing perspective.
Several rounds of peace negotiations between the Ukraine government, separatists, France, Germany and Russia have produced agreed upon outcomes. However, these outcomes have not been put into practice. Those monitoring the situation from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) state clearly that both sides repeatedly blame each other for ceasefire violations and prevent monitoring access. Such behaviour highlights the disconnection between negotiators and frontline practices. Unless negotiated agreements are adhered to, conflicts tend to continue over long periods of time. With these prolonged conflicts, military means become more appealing to extremists involved. According to Deputy Chief of OSCE, Alexander Hug, “…a lack of trust hampers any lasting peace.” Each side in the conflict is fearful the opposition will gain advantage and too much energy is devoted to preventing this. Shortcomings discovered in the first negotiated agreement were supposed to be resolved at the second meeting. Lack of trust between the groups involved prevented Debaltseve, an area in the buffer zone, from inclusion in the deal. This occurred due to the fact that neither side could reach agreement on who would control the region. Lack of compromise provides additional challenges for those facilitating peace negotiations and ensures the conflict drags on. It also raises questions about levels of engagement and willingness to resolve the conflict.
Both the Ukraine government in Kiev and the Russian-supported separatists appear to be pursing diametrically opposed plans for elections in the Donbass region of Ukraine. According to negotiated peace talks and the Ukraine government, elections must follow Ukrainian law. Aleksandr Zakharchenko, leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, refutes this and believes elections must follow the Republic’s law. Each side is entrenched in its own position and blames the other party for the lack of progress. Much of the western world perceives the separatists as warlords allowing underground markets to flourish and produce huge profits.
Since the emergence of this conflict in 2014, contextual changes have occurred. Earlier economic sanctions imposed on Russia by some western countries have worked, but not to the extent hoped for. Russia and the outside world are economically interdependent. As a result, substantive moves to curb oil and gas exports from Russia could negatively impact the health of the global community. China has taken an ambivalent stance on this conflict. Still, China opposes sanctions and sees them as a form of interference. China also sees an opportunity to give diplomatic space to Russia, providing the opportunity for closer links and increased trade. European countries, especially Greece, Hungary and Italy oppose these economic sanctions. These countries want the sanctions removed so a rapprochement can be negotiated. President Trump has suggested lifting the economic sanctions. This approach differs markedly from previous policy. Uncertainty remains in this sphere until President Trump’s policy is made clear. Brexit, Britain’s exit from the EU, is scheduled to start in 2017. Ukraine will lose some support when this is completed. As the EU focus will be on this matter, Kiev and its conflict will be given a lower priority and significantly reduced time. France and Germany will both be holding elections and it remains to be seen if current strategies will continue. In 2018, President Putin will face elections in Russia. The Russian economy has contracted and inflation has hit double figures. This is not a helpful position for Putin’s re-election. With all the distractions occurring in Europe, Putin has no need to change his stance on Ukraine. Furthering the division in the EU ranks, emphasizing Russia as a formidable world power and focussing on nationalism are likely to assist him with gaining approval in the elections. His popularity increases when there is conflict. Also, he has already signalled that the peace talks have reached an impasse and cannot last forever. All these factors are unhelpful to Kiev. The city desperately needs to engage with the United States and European governments to regain eastern Ukraine.
European countries thought international law created a mutually beneficial order in Europe. It was thought that soft power and diplomacy had replaced hard power aggressive methods. The new norms were based on the peaceful resolution of disputes and respect for each country’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia challenged these norms. In 2016, the International Criminal Court endorsed Ukraine’s claims of acts of aggression from Russia. Russia’s response was to cancel its membership. Since there is no higher authority, Russia’s de facto control over Crimea remains. Turning the crisis into a power struggle between Ukraine and the Russian-supported separatists only deepens the internal divisions within Ukraine. It also entrenches the positions of each party.
Future stability and prosperity in the Donbass region, Ukraine and Europe rests on managing and resolving this conflict through peaceful means. The West sees the negotiated talks as the most viable way to peace in eastern Ukraine. Kiev must show that it also has a commitment to keep the peace conditions negotiated, regardless of the separatists’ behaviour. With the way Russia is behaving, the country cannot blame Kiev for the failure of the Accord. At the same time, Kiev must accelerate the rate at which it is making economic reforms and develop anti-corruption measures to enhance its image. Kiev will then demonstrate to the world that it can initiate and implement decisions of a challenging nature to reform itself economically. Those living in the Donbass region need to be given immediate consideration so their quality of life can improve. Although this is a challenge, improving infrastructure is a must as these people are highly vulnerable to disease and poor quality of life.