Perspectives on the situation in eastern Ukraine

Craig Oliphant

1 May 2017

When conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine in 2014, there was a view at one stage that this might be a short-term crisis, and that it would be dealt with quite quickly. From the perspective of early May 2017, over three years on from the start of the conflict in Donbas, that notion has now been firmly dispelled and people understand that they are in this situation for the long term.

While movement at the political level and in the Track I process (Minsk process and Normandy format) has occurred at a glacial pace, this should not be allowed to derail attempts for a practical focus on the many complications and challenges at the local level and in various communities, particularly in Government-controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

Since the outbreak of the conflict, the biggest impediment to peacebuilding in Ukraine has been, and remains, security – or rather, the lack of it.  There has to be a Contact Line as there are still some in the breakaway areas — the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (‘DNR’), and Luhansk People’s Republic, (‘LNR’) — who aspire to taking the city of Mariupol, for example, the working port on the north coast of the Sea of Azov. Ceasefire violations, as monitored by the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM), continue unabated in the vicinity of the Contact Line on a daily basis despite the Minsk-I and Minsk-II ceasefire agreements in place from September 2014 and February 2015, respectively. Serious fighting again erupted in January and February 2017 and concerns persist that the current uneasy standoff, with a ‘blockade’ in place, could possibly presage a further deterioration in the situation this summer. The death of a US paramedic in a SMM patrol vehicle struck by a mine on 23 April 2017 near the Contact Line with LNR – the first time anyone from the mission has been killed since it was set up in 2014 – underscores the increasingly dangerous security environment.

NGOs and local networks, notwithstanding the disconcerting context, are right to focus on practical possibilities at the local level. That is not to ignore the political level. But there are other mechanisms, as alluded to above, for exploring what can or (more to the point) what cannot be done at the political level. Gridlock still persists at the Track I level, and shows no signs of shifting. On the one hand, there is an integration strategy adopted and signed off by the Cabinet of Ministers in Kyiv in January 2017, although there is also a sense that only political lip service is paid to that strategy (which was developed by the Ukrainian Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons). Furthermore, basic humanitarian aid is needed on the ground to help make lives more tolerable. But key impediments to that include embargos in place – and the recent grabbing of assets belonging to Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov which are located in DNR and LNR, not least the Donbas Arena stadium he owned which hitherto served as a site for collecting and despatching local humanitarian supplies.

The scale and diversity of Ukraine are such that the approach adopted by international NGOs working with local partners has to be nuanced: inclusive but differentiated. The same approach cannot be employed across different oblasts in the east. And even within, for example, Donetsk Oblast, in Government-controlled areas, it would be wise and would make sense to adopt a differentiated and tailored approach between communities, whether urban or rural and whether in the north or south of the oblast.

There is a crucial need for dialogue at different levels – and in many respects it is sensible not to label the work undertaken as ‘dialogue’, but rather as practical engagement, ‘experience-sharing’, finding local solutions, and so forth. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) represent an essential constituency to work with in the crisis that has unfolded. IDPs are all over Ukraine so there is a lot of interaction, which at times is good but often is less so. But these exchanges constitute the beginnings of a building block and an important platform for developing practical initiatives that can have an impact people’s lives in positive ways. On the theme of differentiation, the constituency of IDPs themselves is a multifaceted and numerous grouping (1.7 million people).  It is a grouping that shares a common identity stemming from displacement, whether including registered or unregistered IDPs, whether they are ethnic Ukrainians, Russians or minorities, of whatever gender identity and sexual orientation or none, and whether vulnerable, unemployed and elderly, or robust, resourceful and earning a satisfactory wage, as opposed to being dependent on a paltry pension or allowances.

Two key points are worth highlighting:

  • Firstly, the circumstances in which dialogue (or however named) occurs will be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. The process is only likely to be incremental—or indeed for long periods even static—and is highly unlikely to see breakthroughs.
  • Secondly, the longer dialogue takes, the harder it becomes. There are long-standing differences and distrust between Kyiv and Donbas. The problem, too, is that ‘dialogue’ can only take the parties so far: it will not get them around the geopolitical rift. It is a truism in protracted conflicts that engagement in itself will not resolve conflicts. Another truism is that for resolution, crucially, there must be political will.

So, the question for donors is: What beyond humanitarian aid is there to invest in a situation where no resolution is in sight, and where the situation is strategically stuck? Ukraine wants its sovereignty. Russia wants to limit that sovereignty. Where is the middle ground?

Furthermore, on the issue of Donbas: Who wants it? Is it perhaps the case in all of this that Donbas is the ‘unwanted child’? Kyiv might want the territory back, but it is unclear how things would then stand with regard to the local population. Moscow does not want the long-term drain on its budget, but it wants to maximise the ‘leverage’ that such an unresolved situation provides in weakening Kyiv’s position.

Some commentators observe that Kyiv’s problems would really only begin in the event of a settlement (however unlikely that looks at present) which delivers ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ back to the fold. The most likely outlook is that the situation remains unresolved and the one relative certainty is that Ukraine is never going to get Crimea back.

But if Kyiv does decide that it wants Donbas back, it really needs to focus on people rather than turf, and therefore on hearts and minds. That said, one can understand Kyiv’s dilemma. The country has been invaded and challenges such as reintegrating the rest of the country—not to mention other key challenges such as decentralisation, judicial reforms, the drive against corruption, and economic problems, among others—all tend to take priority over the situation in Donbas.

The OSCE-led National Dialogue initiative has been underway since mid-2014. In one sense, it has been doing some valuable work, in the context of constitutional reform and in order to promote social cohesion and tolerance amid an ongoing crisis. But on the other hand, it has not really been sufficiently invested in from the official side and has been dependent on certain proactive individuals. Kyiv could more actively take ownership of the National Dialogue and try to make Donbas a more important component of that process. The ‘red line’ may indeed remain a reluctance to get into a dialogue with Moscow’s ‘proxies’ in DNR and LNR.

An important point to keep centre focus on in all of this is that there is (and should be) no equivalence. Ukraine has been invaded. It did not start this conflict. Whatever mistakes Kyiv has made, it is entitled to make those mistakes within its own territory. And, as in all such situations (protracted conflicts), there are grievances. Local voices need to be heard. And that should be the governing principle or steer for NGO engagement with local partners: in other words, to try and ensure that local voices are heard, and that local concerns and perspectives are shared.

In conclusion, there are those who say that the situation in eastern Ukraine will not be solved until Ukraine decides what kind of country it wants to be. The more salient factor to add here is that that point will not come until Moscow is prepared to start backing a political settlement. Moreover, and further complicating the situation, there remain far more questions than answers about a broader context issue: the direction of Russia-US relations under the Donald Trump presidency. So, none of that assists in the drawing of early insights or conclusions on what this all might mean for Ukraine. The dispiriting outlook, as aforementioned, is that Ukraine clearly faces a long-haul challenge before it will see any palpable change on what is set to be a protracted conflict. All of that, though, serves to underline the key purpose of reaching out in small but practical ways to engage with people at the local level and in vulnerable areas, in otherwise admittedly raw circumstances. That is crucially important to show that Kyiv takes an inclusive approach towards its different communities and should recognise the potential of tapping into, for example, the ‘connectivity’ of the regular daily flow of people back and forth across the checkpoints (often as many as 30,000 or more per day) between DNR, LNR and the rest of Ukraine, and as a possible platform for future, although as yet elusive, confidence building.

About the Author

Craig Oliphant

Craig Oliphant is a Senior Adviser in the NGO sector, at the London-based Peaceful Change Initiative (PCi).

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