February 21, 2020

UKRAINE: New clashes expose limited progress in conflict resolution

BY Andrius Tursa

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The most recent escalation in fighting in eastern Ukraine is a reminder that key agreements reached during the December Normandy Summit (including a ceasefire) have not been fully implemented. Considering that the Minsk II framework has not brought conflict resolution any closer during the past five years, calls for amending or replacing these agreements will strengthen. Unless there are strategic or tactical shifts in Russia’s foreign policy towards Ukraine, however, real progress remains unlikely.

On 18 February, fighting along the contact line west of Luhansk saw a significant escalation, resulting in several casualties on both sides. One of the most intense days of clashes during the past few years saw nearly 3,000 ceasefire violations and more than 2,300 explosions along the frontline, including the use of heavy weaponry prohibited by the Minsk agreements. Despite Moscow’s denial of any involvement or knowledge of the attacks, these events have triggered vocal international condemnation of Russia’s role in eastern Ukraine.

Cyclical intensification and de-escalation have been a recurring feature of this conflict. However, the latest outburst shows that the renewed highest-level talks initiated by President Volodymyr Zelensky have not translated into tangible progress on the ground. In fact, none of the agreements reached during the Normandy Four summit in December have yet been fully implemented, while the latest round of fighting suggests that hopes of a lasting ceasefire remain unrealistic, at least at this stage.

Similarly, five years after the signing of the Minsk II agreements, both sides are not any closer to conflict resolution As noted previously, some of the key provisions outlined in the document, such as Ukraine’s decentralization or the timing of the elections in the Donbas region, are unlikely to be implemented in a way that would be acceptable to both sides.

The growing realization that the Minsk II framework has failed leaves two ways forward: amending the current deal or looking for a new plan. The first course of action includes attempts to revive the so-called Steinmeier Formula, which modifies the sequencing of steps outlined in the Minsk II deal, or the Zelensky administration’s pledges to propose new amendments to the original agreements by the next Normandy summit. However, progress has been limited to date, while the Russian side is unlikely to accept any modifications that would benefit Ukraine. As a result, various alternative peace plans are emerging, such as the controversial 12-step plan put forward by the Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group last week. Moreover, the recent replacement of Vladislav Surkov as Vladimir Putin’s chief representative for Ukraine policy with Dmitry Kozak, as well as the appointment of Andriy Yermak as Zelensky’s new chief of staff, could result in new ideas for conflict resolution.

Regardless of what the official plan is, the key question remains whether Russia has any political will and interest to move forward. The simmering conflict in Donbas effectively serves Moscow’s strategic interest in preventing Ukraine’s integration into the EU and NATO and allows Russia to destabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine at any time. In the meantime, the failure to stop the conflict is hurting Zelensky at home, with his approval rating dropping below 60% in January (down from 73% in September). Amid growing domestic and international pressure, Zelensky could become more inclined to make concessions.

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