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Reflections on the situation in eastern Ukraine-a 2017 perspective

Article by Craig Oliphant

January 14, 2017

Reflections on the situation in eastern Ukraine-a 2017 perspective

There are perhaps two key myths about Ukraine that need to be challenged and pushed back on:

  1. Firstly, that 2013 saw a sudden turn by Ukraine towards the EU, and marked a departure from what came before. Kyiv was focused under different presidents on its EU aspirations. The catalyst for Maidan in November 2013 was the decision by President Yanukovich (under pressure) to opt not to sign the Association Agreement.
  2. The second myth is that Donbas was the “powerhouse of Ukraine’s economy. In fact, that role fell to Kyiv and Dnipro. Donbas had increasingly become the rustbelt of Ukraine.

At one stage, when conflict erupted in 2014, there was a view that this might be a short-term crisis, and that it would be dealt with quite quickly. From the perspective of early 2017, and nearly 3 years on from the start of the conflict, that view 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 (the intergovernmental Minsk process and Normandy format) has been at a glacial pace1, that 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 Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

Since the outbreak of the conflict, the biggest impediment to peacebuilding in Ukraine has been and remains security – or rather 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 Special Monitoring Mission (SMM), continue unabated in the vicinity of the Contact Line on a daily2 basis despite the Minsk-I and Minsk-II ceasefire agreements in place, from September 2014 and February 2015, respectively.

NGOs and local networks 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, 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 from that.

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’.

Basic humanitarian3 aid is needed to help make lives more tolerable. The scale and diversity of Ukraine is 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 in different oblasts in the east. And even within for example Donetsk Oblast, in Government-controlled areas, it would be wise and make sense to adopt a differentiated and tailored approach4 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’. Rather as practical engagement, ‘experience-sharing’, finding local solutions, and so forth. 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, both good and less good. But that is the beginnings of a building block and an important platform for developing practical initiatives that can have an impact and make a change for the better to people’s lives. On the theme of differentiation, the constituency of IDPs themselves are a multifaceted and numerous grouping (1.7 million) – whether including registered or unregistered IDPs, whether5 they are ethnic Ukrainians, Russians or minorities, whether from a gender perspective, 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. Inclusive and tailored NGO approaches need to have a good baseline of preparatory research for the insights that provides into the areas and communities these focus on.

Dialogue & Breakthroughs.

Two key points are worth highlighting. Firstly, the context 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 – but highly unlikely to see breakthroughs. And, secondly, the longer it takes the harder it becomes. There are long-standing differences and distrust between Kyiv and Donbas.

The problem is that ‘dialogue’ as such can only take you so far. It will not get around the geopolitical brake. It is a truism in protracted conflicts that engagement in itself will not resolve conflicts. Another truism is that for resolution there, crucially, has to 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 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 not necessarily the people, lest that leads to undermining the cohesion of the state. 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.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Groysman speaks during an interview in Kiev
Ukraine’s Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman speaks during an interview with Reuters in Kiev, Ukraine, June 3, 2016.

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

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

A process that has been underway since mid-2014 is the OSCE-led National Dialogue initiative. In one sense, it has been doing some valuable work, in the context of constitutional reform and to promote social cohesion and tolerance amid an ongoing crisis. But, on the other hand, it has not really been sufficiently invested 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. 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 in all of this is there is no – 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 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 i.e. to try and ensure that local voices are heard, that local concerns and perspectives are shared.

There are those who say the situation in Ukraine will not be solved until Ukraine decides what kind of country it wants to be. The more salient point to add here is that that point will not come until Moscow is prepared to start backing a political settlement. How the Kremlin views and works with the advent to power of Donald Trump in the White House, and indeed Washington’s stance on the issue of Ukraine, is likely to have a key bearing on how the situation unfolds for Kyiv in 2017 and beyond. In terms of the role of external actors – and the broader role of the international community – the case of Moldova and the long-standing separatist issue of Transnistria, notionally less complicated than the Ukraine context, provides a sobering example. In 2016, under the German Chairmanship-in-Office, the OSCE decided to focus on small steps on Transnistria to nudge things forward in a constructive direction. But it concluded it could not get anywhere because Chisinau6 does not have a national strategy for resolving this conflict and there is still no political will, and arguably less so under the new pro-Moscow President Igor Dodon, elected in November 2016. However, a lot of money has been spent on practical local-level projects – with still nothing to show at the higher (political) level

It helps to look elsewhere.

Looking at other protracted conflicts in the eastern neighbourhood, there are many parallels between for example South Ossetia, the breakaway region in Georgia, particularly in its 1990s and early noughties context, and the situation now in Donbas. That can be seen, for example, in the number of mixed marriages (families of mixed ethnicities), and the extent of ‘trade’ across the ‘border’. In the South Ossetia context the Ergneti market was a vital safety valve and an organic peacebuilding project, until former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili closed it in 2004. Things sadly moved on in a very negative direction after the five-day Russia-Georgia war over South Ossetia in 2008 which has led to an incremental Russian-led ‘shut-down’ on South Ossetia. But the generic lesson to be drawn from the earlier South Ossetia experience is that any projects focused on keeping ‘borders’ or dividing lines open need to be actively supported – and that could yet be a way forward to be explored more in the Ukraine context.

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