Earlier this week, Assistant Secretary-General Miroslav Jenca spoke before the UN Security Council and stated that negotiations “appear to have lost momentum,” referring to unwillingness from both Russian and Ukrainian delegations. Jenca went on to say that “there is an urgent need to agree on the additional measures that would make the ceasefire sustainable and irreversible.” The negotiations are chiefly aimed at creating permanent and workable ceasefire conditions build on the Minsk II agreement, which was signed in 2015. The agreement outlined 13 measures including the prohibition of heavy weapons within a security zone of 50km between front lines, the withdrawal of foreign military forces, and local elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. It is safe to say that all the outlined conditions have been violated, with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) concluding that violations occur almost daily. Following the political turmoil in Kiev in late 2013 and early 2014, Russia took advantage and annexed Crimea. In April 2014, pro-Russian separatists seized the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, and since then separatists and Ukrainian forces have been locked in an ongoing conflict that has resulted in over 10,000 deaths. As both sides continue to desecrate the Minsk II protocols, it is difficult to see an end to the conflict.
The Ukrainian crisis was caused by a lack of consideration for public opinion and it should have come as no surprise that Ukrainians took to the streets in the same spirit as they did in 2004 during the Orange Revolution. On 21 November 2013, then-president Viktor Yanukovych suspended preparations to sign an association agreement with the European Union, which would have worried Russia. Resulting mass protests known as Euromaidan took place mostly in Kiev and other western oblasts. The government responded brutally by sending the now disbanded ‘Berkut’ special police units, that gradually moved from crowd control to lethal force. Though Yanukovych was ousted as president officially on 22 February 2014, the revolution had weakened Ukraine and essentially separated public opinion into either pro-Ukraine or pro-Russia, especially with large populations of ethnic Russians living in Crimea and in the east. Anti-revolution activists began demonstrating in Crimea, as well as in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv and Odessa, with the Russian annexation of Crimea following in early March. These protests in the south and the east escalated to what continues today as the war in Donbass between the two parties. Russian involvement in both Crimea and Donbass remains controversial, especially as most suspected Russian military activity is carried out by unmarked vehicles, equipment and men, who are commonly referred to by locals as ‘Martians.’ Russia was also allegedly indirectly involved in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, as the Dutch-led joint investigation team concluded that the plane was shot down by a BUK missile system belonging to the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade but operated by pro-Russian rebels. Russia continues to deny any involvement in the incident and in late 2014 even produced ‘satellite imagery’ of a Ukrainian warplane attacking the airliner.
The primary reasons for the continuing conflict are historical events and sentiments, as well as Vladimir Putin’s intentions to increase his influence in the region. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union from its inception in 1921 until its dissolution in 1991. The man-made 1932/3 Soviet Famine or Holodomor killed up to 7.5 million people, most of them Ukrainian, and the state also found itself in contention and in collaboration with both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Ukraine has been a self-governing autonomous state for less than 30 years. With 17% of the population being ethnically Russian, it is clear why issues such as the choice of key economic partners divided opinion so greatly.
In terms of Putin’s intentions for Russia in Ukraine, he remains determined to continue his current policies. Putin partly attributes his decision to annex Crimea to the unconstitutional removal of former President Yanukovych, which compelled him to intervene. Ukraine has also played host to the brunt of new Russian military ‘grey zone’ strategies which capitalize on ambiguity around international law and protocols. The fact that Russia backs the Donbas pro-Russian separatists and only annexed Crimea also suggests that Russia is attempting to influence, not destroy Ukraine. In the past, there have been murmurs of Russian troops massing on the border, but this would likely provoke the international community to intervene. For now, influence seems to be the main goal and Putin continues to hold Ukraine in a vice that is tight enough to exert control, but not so tight that the international community is compelled to escalate the situation.
UN top officials are merely echoing what is already assumed by most – that the Ukrainian crisis today will continue for the foreseeable future. With both sides unwilling enough to make concessions and follow ceasefire agreements, further escalation is always a possibility. The protests and later ousting of former president Yanukovych offered an opportunity for major reform for Ukraine but was ultimately taken advantage of by Russia, who has since played a game of deception and division to bolster its regional influence.
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