The conflict in Eastern Ukraine has been exceptionally resistant to resolution, with numerous mediation attempts resulting in broken agreements which have at best de-escalated the most intense fighting while failing to address underlying issues. Major obstacles to resolution are those core elements of grey zone conflict which we identified in our CGAI commentary of last month. These include situational ambiguity regarding the techniques utilized by belligerents against each other, as well as the uncertainty associated with the perception of the point of victory.
A second obstacle is recalcitrance towards implementing the main provisions under the Minsk Agreements. For example, a recent law passed by Ukraine’s parliament serves as an impediment to multilateral negotiations because it makes no provision for granting autonomy or holding elections in the Donbas region, both of which are part of the Minsk Agreements. The law unilaterally redraws Ukraine’s position on Russia’s involvement, the status of the two separatist territories and discounts previous mediation efforts and agreements facilitated by the OSCE, Germany and France.
The complexity of this grey zone conflict is reflected in a number of important ways. Both the West and Russia have personnel on the ground. By some estimates there are 1500-3000 Russian advisors in Eastern Ukraine compared to the estimated 35,000 separatist forces representing the LNR and DNR. Alongside the 200 Canadian forces in Ukraine proper, there are an estimated 400 American soldiers. 1300 British advisors been deployed in support of Operation ORBITAL since 2015. There are an estimated 300 foreign fighters on each side of the conflict. An increasingly active organised criminal network controls trafficking and smuggling along the line of separation as a result of the blockade Kyiv has imposed on the Donbas. Regularised paramilitary forces such as the notorious right-wing Azov Battalion, intermittently funded by the Americans, fight along side the Ukrainian army.
In addition to war by proxy, both sides are engaged in cyber and information warfare to undermine the opponent’s political narrative. These techniques are difficult to attribute to specific actors as they rarely cause immediate damage. Their purpose is to gradually, and fundamentally, revise the regional and ultimately the global system of alliances and norms of international conduct. This transformation is clear when we consider Russia’s efforts to form exclusive relationships with states within the EU.
Concurrently, NATO is attempting to pull Ukraine from Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, an approach that is consistent with the current US administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) that puts geopolitics ahead of terrorist threats as the number one security issue facing America. Given the NSS’s focus on the challenge of great power rivals including China and Russia it makes sense why the US would be concerned about a more unified Europe. On the one hand, a Europe that is on good terms with Russia would be a significant challenge to American influence there and elsewhere.
On the other hand, it is difficult to predict Kyiv’s long-term future. For weak leaders, such as President Poroshenko, who is desperately trying to avoid political loss, there are domestic benefits associated with intransigent behaviour and strategic bargaining. A major constraint on compromise includes outbidding among a broad spectrum of political parties, pushing Poroshenko’s government to more extreme positions. There are benefits in other words for Kyiv to ensure a long, low intensity conflict as it maximizes Western interests, ensures continued pressure on Russia and help keeps political extremism at bay.
In a conflict driven by the machinations of great power rivalry, geopolitics and domestic pressures, mediation, it would seem, does not stand much of a chance. One way to boost the prospects of resolution is to reduce the number of veto actors by excluding them from a final settlement. We have seen this exemplified by recent direct talks between Russia and the US, essentially circumventing Ukraine and the separatists. It is likely that bilateral negotiations like this will become an increasingly dominant strategy as the conflict enters its fourth year. Most recently a channel between the U.S and Russia on UN peacekeeping options has opened. Some of the details about those talks are being presented at the Munich Security Conference this week.
This shift to bilateral dialogue is consistent with what we know about mediating complex and protracted conflict. The conflict in Eastern Ukraine with its multiplicity of veto actors could be moved to the verge of settlement by removing chains of intermediaries; with track-two diplomacy often preceding track-one diplomacy. As time progresses, the chains that produce results, become shorter as intermediaries are dropped from the negotiation. Key among the players in this dialogue are France and Germany who were instrumental in initiating the OSCE Minsk agreements and who have a stake in Ukraine’s future, not only as a European nation but as a potential member of the EU. The Normandy format which they lead remains a crucial part of the mediation process.
In sum, gray zone cases such as the one in Eastern Ukraine pose a challenge to mediation because of the difficulty in assigning culpability to specific acts, discerning belligerent intentions and enforcing agreements. We argue that, lacking full information regarding belligerent intent and resolve, US and Russia are augmenting mediation through alternative strategies consisting of positive and negative incentives that strengthen their broader strategic objectives (for example supplying weapons, training and personnel as well as imposing economic sanctions). All this makes mediation success less likely and increases the prospects for frozen protracted conflict.
Moving forward, we envision three possible scenarios for Ukraine.
Scenario One: Frozen Conflict
In this scenario, Ukraine joins the club of former Soviet republics with unsolved territorial issues, such as Moldova (Transnistria) and Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia). Both tilted towards European integration initiatives and both ended up in similar situations as de-facto uncontrolled territories. In all of these cases, Russia became the geopolitical beneficiary. The prolongation of the Eastern Ukraine conflict, as opposed to the return of Eastern Ukraine to Kyiv, would be the best possible solution for Russia, notwithstanding the burden of sanctions and the court of public opinion in Russia. The Russian public continues to support the Donbas separatists, but much less vigorously than at the beginning. Mitigating circumstances include upcoming elections in Russia in advance of which Putin may extend an olive branch to Ukraine in exchange for the dropping of sanctions or less likely political pressure from within.
Scenario Two: Separation
With prolongation of the negotiations and Kyiv’s unwillingness to consider decentralisation and autonomy, Donbas will continue to build up its pseudo-state structures, drifting away from Ukraine with its “russkiy mir” (“Russian world”) ideology. Our CGAI commentary noted the extent to which Eastern Ukraine’s economy is dependent on Russia given the Kyiv blockade. Recent developments in Luhansk, where LNR leader Plotnitsky resigned in favour of leaders more loyal to Moscow could be interpreted as a unification of the two republics under one leader. Potentially this will provide Donbas with more leverage in ongoing negotiations, with a large unified territory and a population around 3.5 million people. The end goal could be the formation of an independent breakaway state (and possibly its eventual incorporation into Russia).
Peaceful partitions have conflict management potential. By separating the belligerent groups, partition provides security and a decrease in the need for interaction between groups that do not get along. When domestic and international violence is considered, a partition’s consequences largely depend on the timing of partition. It must be done quickly rather than dragged out. Partition of a state is not the only solution to protracted ethnic wars, but it is often preferable to intense fighting. Over 10,000 people have died in this conflict. The UN estimates 24,000 casualties on both sides since the conflict started.
Unfortunately for a partition settlement to succeed, it is not enough for the opposing sides to resolve the underlying issues behind a protracted war. The opposing sides must also meet the much more difficult challenge of mutually designing (and enforcing) credible institutionalised guarantees to a long-term agreement to end the violence. Mutual agreement is difficult without outside pressure that is applied equally on both sides. Settlements that are highly institutionalized; that is, they provide long and abiding guarantees for the security, economic and political well being of all parties, are most likely to be enduring.
For the partition scenario to unfold, both the West and Russia must be supportive of providing credible assurances to the people of Eastern Ukraine and in return obtain assurances that fighting on both sides will stop. Given what we now know about Kyiv’s interest in strengthening its military capacity, its willingness to impose martial law if necessary and the US’s stated goal of arming Kyiv with lethal aid, any kind of separation is more likely to be de facto than de jure. In today’s geopolitical climate any perceived “win” by Russia has a lower probability of success, so this scenario would certainly be unpalatable for many in the West.
Scenario Three: A Return to Ukraine with Peacekeeping and Autonomy
A third option, presented at the Munich Conference, would see the deployment of peacekeepers beyond the unarmed OSCE observers scattered throughout the country already. Such a mission would be large, expensive and fraught with political roadblocks, notwithstanding the obvious veto that UNSC permanent member states can exercise over missions they don’t agree with. Using an accepted ratio of 20 peacekeepers per 1000 residents, an estimated 60,000 peacekeepers would be needed to stabilise the region. The major impediment to peacekeepers is the disagreement between Russia and the U.S over the deployment location of the peacekeeping force.
The U.S wants peacekeepers throughout the separatist territories, thereby having the ability to intercept war material which Russia has purportedly been supplying the separatists. Russia argues that peacekeepers should only be deployed on the border between Ukraine and the Donbas region where the fighting takes place. For its part, the OSCE’s primary responsibility is to monitor the line of separation between the two sides. By the end of 2017, the OSCE recorded almost 400,000 ceasefire violations and close to 4,000 instances of proscribed weapons in violation of the agreed withdrawal lines. In December 2107 alone, there were an estimated 1,700 violations. The scattering of peacekeepers throughout the Donbas would likely make them more targets rather than intermediaries. That is why on January 26, 2018 in Dubai, the U.S and Russia discussed a possible multi-phased approach to peacekeeping deployment which could reconcile their individual positions.
An armed (or “robust” as some would call it) peacekeeping capability helps ensures a level of third party credibility and commitment to a peace process currently absent. However, as Russia and the US have now discovered, that peace process needs to be sequenced out with a clear and mutually supported political objective foremost in the minds of its implementers. The crucial next step is to look beyond the cessation of violence towards political compromise by placing the burden of implementation on the conflicting parties themselves. To that end, a UN supported peace process must consider Eastern Ukraine’s long term political prospects as an autonomous entity free to choose its own political path through free and fair elections.
So far Kyiv has shown it is not open to that option until it has regained complete control from the separatists. If it is President Poroshenko’s hope that the people of Donbas will return to Ukraine with open arms, he is sadly mistaken. The conditions for the peaceful reintegration of Eastern Ukraine’s Russian speaking people into Ukraine do not currently exist. Not only is Eastern Ukraine exercising more independence, Kyiv does not have the resources to match those of Russia. Kyiv’s political and economic capacity is below any acceptable level necessary for governing a hostile breakaway region and its refusal to transfer social benefits to the residents of Luhansk and Donetsk has only made matters worse. Without access to health care and social benefits, the region is beset by a massive humanitarian crisis largely ignored by the West.
Apart from the implications for Canada’s halted efforts to reinvigorate its peacekeeping agenda and its multilateralist credentials, there are important lessons here. For Canada, a country caught up in the geopolitical manoeuvrings of its neighbour to the South, mediation presents itself as a useful, more cost-effective alternative to expensive military missions. Given that close to 50% percent of crises in the post-cold war era are mediated, it seems likely that strategies for mediating gray zone conflict will be needed even if the probability of success is lower than desired. Moving ahead Canada ‘s best strategy in contributing to resolving the Ukraine conflict is to be both forewarned and forearmed.
David Carment is a full Professor of International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University and Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI). He is also an Editor or the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal and a NATO Fellow. In addition, Professor Carment serves as the principal investigator for the Country Indicators for Foreign Policy project (CIFP).
Milana Nikolko is a Professor at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Carleton University
Dani Belo is a Ph.D. student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University.
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