Ukraine’s conflict with Russia

By Rev. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor, Pax Christi International

Despite its central role in European politics and East-West relations more generally, the war in Ukraine has largely disappeared from public and political view. We must be aware that we face the real prospect of “the mother of all frozen conflicts” on our doorstep.

In international relations, a frozen conflict is a situation in which active armed conflict has been brought to an end, but no peace treaty or other political framework resolves the conflict to the satisfaction of the parties involved. A “frozen conflict” also means that there is no daily fighting but the situation remains permanently tense and a local outburst of violence is possible at any time. Therefore, legally the conflict can start again at any moment, creating an environment of insecurity and instability. The de facto situation that emerges may match the de jure position asserted by one party to the conflict; for example, Russia claims and effectively controls Crimea following the 2014 Crimean crisis despite Ukraine’s continuing claim to the region. Alternatively, the de facto situation may not match either side’s official claim.

The war in eastern Ukraine is also rapidly slipping off the political agenda in those countries tasked with brokering and ensuring peace and conflict resolution. The EU lost its dynamic and remains inwardly oriented for the time being. Ukraine will hold in 2019 both presidential and parliamentary elections and that is casting already a shadow over the domestic politics.

Whereas three-quarters of the population are ethnically Ukrainians, around 17% – mainly in the east of the country – are ethnically Russian and around 30% of the population say Russian is their first language. Ukraine is a country of more than 40 million people with very diverse views.

Some 2 million of these Russian-speaking Ukrainians instantly became Russian citizens on 18 March 2014 when Crimea was formally annexed by Russia. The loss of Crimea was compounded by a well-armed pro-Russia separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, which has led to months of heavy – but inconclusive – fighting with government forces.

High number of displaced

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed over 10.000 lives and more than 24.000 wounded and constitutes a grave ongoing humanitarian crisis. About 1.8 million have been displaced internally or are affected by conflict in Ukraine, and an estimated 1 million have fled to Russia. At the end of 2017, the UN estimated that almost 4.4 million people are affected by the conflict, with 3.4 million of them in need of humanitarian aid and protection.

Mother Russia is alive again!

It was and still is the ambition of President Vladimir Putin to restore Russia’s status in the world. That meant for instance in 2014 the threat of military force to help local pro-Russian forces accomplish the annexation of Crimea – a majority of whose population are ethnically Russians – from Ukraine.

The Crimean parliament hastily organised a referendum on independence under the watchful eyes of growing numbers of still unidentified soldiers! The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of independence. On 17 March 2014, the Supreme Council of Crimea declared the Republic of Crimea an independent nation. The republic then renounced its independence and requested admission into Russia. President Putin granted the request and declared that the proper conditions are ensured for the people of Crimea to be able to freely express their will.

Crimea also contains the port of Sevastopol, a base for Russia’s Black Sea navy giving it access to the Mediterranean. Moscow is or has been planning either a direct bridge or a road from Russia to the Crimean Peninsula. At the same time, most Crimeans did want to join “mother Russia” as the Russian writer Fjodor Dostojevsky (1821-1881) described it earlier in the 19th century. Tsarism, nationalism/patriotism and the orthodox religion were the bounding foundations of this concept of “mother Russia.”

It is the first time since the Second World War that a European country with military force has changed its borders and annexed part of another European country. The EU will extend the sanctions against Russia, but the annexation of the Crimea will silently be accepted.

In April 2014, pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine could rely on the political backing of Russia in their effort to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, although not all people in the region prefer this scenario. Pro-Russian separatists declared the People’s Republic of Donetsk and the goal of unification with Russia. Later in that month, separatists declared the People’s Republic of Luhansk, which in May merged with its Donetsk equivalent to form the confederation of Novorossiya. However, the lack of unity and control remains in the occupied territories.

These events created serious tensions because in 1994 in the Budapest memorandum the USA, UK and Russia agreed to be joint guarantors of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The memorandum confirmed also to remove the (former Soviet Union) nuclear warheads stationed in Ukraine back to Russia.

A regional solution?

The consequence of the crisis in and around the Ukraine is the threat of a renewed cold war, and the possibility – if only by accident – that it might become hot. Moscow tries to freeze the conflict as much as it can. The UN Security Council was not able to settle the dispute because the Russians intended to make use of their voting right.

A UN backed military response was impossible, because Russia holds a permanent seat on the Security Council and thus is in a position to veto any authorisation. Russia is also a nuclear power, and its military strength is second only to the USA. The only option for the international community was to outcast Russia with economic sanctions. The EU decided to do this because the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine must be respected. The EU cannot accept the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol to the Russian Federation. Russia was excluded from the major industrialised countries, the Group of Eight – G8 (and became consequently only G7). Russia responded with sanctions as well, which has consequences for some EU countries. Anyway, international law should be respected and a regional solution will have to be found in which all those involved must recognize themselves.

Is Ukraine part of Europe?

Possible European integration is a key discussion in the conflict. The majority of Ukrainians are in favour of being part of Europe via the EU. The country seeks a European future. If the majority of Ukrainians choose to also enter into close relations with Europe, and are willing to cooperate with Europe to this end and want to take over a lot of European values and regulations, then we cannot accept that another country, in this case Russia, which tries to stop that choice. On 27th of June 2014, the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was signed.

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko’s government has not addressed the systematic corruption at the root of many of the country’s problems. Many Ukrainians are losing faith in laws, institutions, and elites. Ukrainian society has a low level of trust in central authorities. Anger at the Minsk II agreement, which Ukrainians see as a concession to separatists and Moscow, is growing, even among reformists. The authorities continue to use the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine as an excuse for the slow pace of reform and to silence critical voices by labelling them as Russian agents.

Civic groups that work toward seeking dialogue, truth, and reconciliation in the context of the armed conflict are blamed by other civic organisations for being unpatriotic and influenced by Russia. Nevertheless, volunteer activities in Ukraine have decreased since 2014. While civic activists have not given up, serious concerns persist about its civil society’s impact. A culture of compromise and cooperation needs to be strengthened in the society that is more important in a context given the impact of radical nationalist and far-right groups that promote religious and ethnic intolerance.

UN Mission in Ukraine?

The UN Security council is discussing a possible UN peacekeeping mission to Ukraine. Some more political will on all sides is a condition in realising a peace keeping dynamic. Clearly, a UN mandate should cover the whole territory of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, including the Russian-Ukrainian border. At the same time, a UN mission should reinforce – not replace – the operations of the OSCE mission on the ground. The UN lacks practical experience in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and has been recently involved in peacekeeping operations mostly outside of Europe. UN peacekeepers should help the OSCE to maintain peace. It is expected to have some 20.000 peacekeepers, of course excluding Russian forces! Also important is that a UN mission should support the implementation of the Minsk agreements, not at least in monitoring local and parliamentary elections.

A UN mission creates a small window of opportunity for further diplomacy. Political will on all sides remains a prerequisite for keeping peace.

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