Ukrainian And Russian Attempts At Peace In The Donbass Region

In a conflict where new ceasefires are broken within minutes, recent peace talks between Ukraine and Russia – one of the many – seemed overly pessimistic. However, since initiating these peace talks in August 2019, both parties have made significant efforts in reducing conflict in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine. Such efforts involve an exchange of prisoners in September 2019, a Donbass semi-autonomous deal and the withdrawal of Ukrainian and Russian-backed troops in October 2019, and later the Russian return of captured Ukrainian ships. Some, however, aware of the long-rooted history of the conflict, are critical of these recent, albeit its recently significant developments.

Divided opinion remains when it comes to the prospects of peace in Ukraine. Despite many previous peace talks and ceasefires, Russia has maintained an aggressive stance in the conflict both militarily and through exerting influence on the Ukrainian population. In June 2019, Russia began the procedure of implementing Russian passports for separatists in the Donbass region – “another attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty by Russia”, as argued by Federica Mogherini, a spokeswoman for the EU. A few months later, amid peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, a report from an independent research group in the UK documented Russia’s deep involvement in the Ukrainian conflict. Hence, when a controversial peace deal was proposed to grant separatists a semi-autonomous Donbass region, Petro Poroshenko, former Ukrainian president, described the efforts to peace as “capitulation to Russia”. Despite such criticism, Putin has called for a continuation of peace talks, claiming that they “provide some cause for optimism”.

Indeed, since the latest round of peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, the latter of whom Zelenskiy participated in a record-breaking 14-hour press conference, diplomacy has proven key in reducing conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Although the proposed semi-autonomous Donbass deal met criticism from previous presidents and the Ukrainian population – of which resulted in thousands of people protesting in Kyiv – dialogue has resulted in the withdrawal of troops from the Donbass region, further exchanges of prisoners, and the return of Ukrainian ships. One, however, cannot help but remain critical in light of such recent developments. Critically, history has shown sporadic acts of aggression by Russia followed by temporary peace – think here of Russian attempts to exert influence by granting passports to Ukrainian separatists and, more generally, the controversial annexation of Crimea. Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin describes this as the process of restoring Soviet hegemony, one that, according to Taras Kuzio of Atlantic Council, has contributed to the degradation of the Ukrainian identity. The continuation and effectiveness of peace talks will also be determined by outside external events, such as the gas crisis between Russia and Ukraine, the former of whom must pay the latter $2.6bn.

Conflict in Ukraine has displaced over 1.5 million people and has left over 3.5 million in need of assistance. Attempts have been made between both parties to end the conflict in what historically and currently is rooted in a ‘West-Russia’ divide. Russia’s continual expansion into Ukraine via Crimea and now the Donbas has been confronted with Western and NATO aid to Ukraine, reverberating this division.

The historical dynamics of the West-Russia conflict makes it difficult to offer and deliver credible peace talks. However, consistent dialogue must remain a key priority not only between Ukraine and Russia but also between European powers. Western sanctions on Russia prevents this and impacts the Russian population disproportionately. With the documented positive impacts of continued dialogue, compromises could later be given to reintegrate Russia into political systems such as the G8 and subsequently support European solidarity, peace, and harmony.