Is peace in Donbas possible?

An ambitious international peacekeeping and transition operation is badly needed in the Donbas.

Suddenly there is new attention to crisis management in the eastern Europe after Russia accepted out of the blue the idea of a UN peacekeeping operation to augment efforts to implement the Minsk Agreement on the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

There is hardly any reason to expect a sudden political breakthrough on the issue. Positions on the scope and aims of such an operation are still wide apart. But after a lengthy period of de facto stalemate on Minsk implementation it looks as if we have entered a period of some movement.

In my view, the only realistic possibility of achieving implementation of the basic elements of the Minsk agreement, resolving the conflict between Russia and Ukraine in this area and the beginning of better relations between the West and Russia would be an ambitious international peacekeeping and transition operation in the area.

The Crimea success

The background to the conflict in the Donbas is important. After President Yanukovych fled Kyiv, having failed to use violence to suppress the Maidan protest, Russia launched a military operation to take over control of Crimea.

The Kremlin obviously made the correct assessment that the political turmoil in Kiev would minimise the possibilities of any serious resistance. Using forces already in Sevastopol under existing agreements and special forces speedily deployed from Russia, and initially denying any involvement, Russia was able to take over relatively smoothly.

Perhaps surprised by the relative ease with which the capture of Crimea was possible, the Kremlin evidently decided to go further and seek to unravel all of the east and south of Ukraine.

The key event was the seizure of the Crimean parliament in Simferopol in coordination with Russian special forces early in the morning of 27 February and the installing of new political leadership on the peninsula only hours later.

Thereafter, events driven by the use of “small green men” and paramilitaries from Russia, moved towards the triumphal 18 March speech in the Kremlin where President Vladimir Putin announced the formal annexation of Crimea by Russia.

At the time Russia denied any involvement in the events in Crimea. However, in a subsequent documentary on Russian TV President Putin was clear about what happened:

I gave the orders and instructions to the Ministry of Defense, why hide it, under the guise of protection of our military facilities in Crimea, to deploy a special division of the Main Intelligence [Directorate] (the GRU) together with naval infantry forces and paratroopers.”

These were the “little green men”.

The Novorossiya attempt

Perhaps surprised by the relative ease with which the capture of Crimea was possible, and assuming that Ukraine was on the verge of political implosion, the Kremlin evidently decided to go further and seek to unravel all of the east and south of Ukraine.

There was a belief that a combination of heavy information operations, selected use of both local and inserted volunteer forces, armed and equipped by Russia and augmented also by some heavy units of artillery and air defence, could easily roll up much of southern Ukraine and within a couple of months install a new Russian-aligned regime in these areas.

In his TV question and answer session on 17 April, President Putin was explicit in his questioning of the integrity of Ukraine also in these areas:

“I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya (New Russia) back in the tsarist days – Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa – were not part of Ukraine back then. These territories were given to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government. Why? Who knows.”

After initial attempts to take over administrative buildings in different cities in the region had been rebuffed, a new phase was initiated on 12 April. 

News agencies reported that “in what looks like a special Russian military operation that resembles the Kremlin's Crimean invasion, masked men in army fatigues and bulletproof vests, armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, seized the police station and district Security Service of Ukraine headquarters in Sloviansk, a Donetsk Oblast city of 125,000 people.”

It quickly become clear that the operation was led by a former GRU operative from Russia. Supported by a heavy information campaign in all Russian media, the effort to take control from the disorganised and demoralised Ukraine police and security forces then proceeded rather quickly.

Gradually, however, the Ukrainian authorities alongside volunteer units, managed to get their act together, and in spite of accelerated Russian deliveries of arms and soldiers managed to halt the Russian-initiated operation.

On 26 May, presidential elections were held in good order, and Petro Poroshenko was elected with a very clear mandate for finding a solution of the conflict from all parts of the country. The immediate political implosion of Ukraine had been averted, and this strengthened the Kyiv authorities’ efforts to restore control of the contested areas.

Although there was also some local support for the separatists, it was obvious that direct military support with recruitment, equipment, ammunition and petrol from Russia was crucial. One example was air-to-surface missile units that gradually denied the Ukrainian Air Force the ability to operate over the area. It was a Buk-launcher with personnel from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade from Kursk in central Russia that on July 17 downed the Malaysian airliner MH17. With the downing of the MH-17 the Russia backed separatists lost the strategic initiative and from there on they could gain no further international support.

With Ukraine’s “anti-terrorist operation” gradually shaping up, the Russian-backed and supporter efforts started to lose ground.

The August collapse and army intervention

By late August the entire Russian-initiated effort, which had been presented as a fight against resurgent Ukrainian fascists, was about to collapse, with the real possibility of the Ukrainian army regaining control of the critical segments of the state border. In mid-August there was even an article in Jane’s Defense Weekly foreseeing the upcoming Ukrainian Armed Forces victory in Donbas. 

This was obviously something the Kremlin was not prepared to accept. Russia had already built up a massive military presence along the borders with Ukraine, and on 24 August several regular battalion battle groups were sent in to prevent the entire effort from collapsing.

The effect of this decisive transition from “hybrid” to conventional warfare was immediate. At Ilovaisk, Ukrainian forces were surrounded and suffered a decisive defeat, and Kyiv realised the necessity of finding some sort of negotiated arrangement.

The agreement concluded in Minsk on 5 September, with the Presidents of Ukraine and Russia as well as the Chancellor of Germany as the key negotiators. They decided that there should be an immediate cessation of hostilities, a military disengagement, and a political process aimed at a resolution of the conflict.

Implementation of the Minsk agreement has effectively stalled.

But implementation of the agreement did not work, and towards the end of November full-scale fighting resumed, with the Russian-supported forces first seeking to capture Donetsk airport, which they succeeded in doing on 21 January, and then launching a large offensive against the important communications hub of Debaltseve.

The rapidly escalating fighting, with reported Russian threats to launch a larger invasion of Ukraine, led to a new round of all-night political talks in Minsk, resulting in a more elaborate and detailed version of the original agreement on 12 February.

During these Minsk talks Russia was clear in wanting to delay the implementation of the new ceasefire until its regular forces had captured Debaltseve. This, however, failed, and fighting continued for some days there until the regular Russian Armed Forces with units from Siberia had met their objective and Ukrainian Armed Forces had been driven back.

Since then, implementation of the Minsk agreement has effectively stalled, in spite of a long series of meetings on different levels trying to first secure the effective ceasefire including the withdrawal of heavy arms from the line of contact and then the gradual implementation of the more political parts of the agreement.

“Hybrid war”?

Looking back on the dramatic developments between February of 2014 and February 2015, the failures of Russia are as obvious as the successes.  In contrast to what has become conventional wisdom, the Russian effort did not demonstrate the success of a new concept of “hybrid warfare”. Rather the contrary.

With the “hybrid effort” visibly failing in the summer of 2014 it was deployment of regular formations of the Russian army in regular battles that was the decisive element both in August/September 2014 and January/February 2016.

A detailed study by RAND Corporation accordingly concluded that “Ukraine is a case study not in pioneering new nonlinear approaches but in the failure of hybrid warfare to deliver the desired political ends for Russia.” The regular army had to be sent in to rescue the failed efforts.

The post-Minsk stalemate

After concluding the February 2015 agreement Russian efforts shifted from relying primarily on its regular forces to prop up the two “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk to initiating a massive “train and equip” program to set up two army corps − first in Donetsk and second in Luhansk − in the separatist areas.

These forces are equipped, trained, commanded and, when it comes to all key positions, manned by Russian army officers, falling under overall command of the 12th Reserve Command of the Southern Military District in Novocherkassk by in Rostov Oblast.

Governance of the separatist areas has by all accounts been a problematic enterprise. Initial efforts to set up a new governance structure to cover all of the envisaged Novorossiya were quietly shelved as the wider effort crumbled, and neither have attempts been made to set up a consolidated structure for the area as a whole. The two “Peoples Republics” remain different political entities.

Governance of them has obviously been challenging, with considerable turmoil, frequent personnel changes, and indications that Moscow is also killing people that fall out of line.

Gradually, a “Russification” of the separatist controlled area started and Russian rouble has replaced the Ukraine hryvina as the currency of the area, and economic links with the rest of Ukraine were gradually severed. Key industries in the areas have now formally been taken over by the separatist authorities, and documents issued by them are formally recognised by Russia.

Limited peacekeeping operation?

In September, the Russian Federation suggested launching a limited UN peace-keeping operation (LPKO) along the line of contact in eastern Ukraine, with a limited mandate to protect the OSCE monitors. But doing so – would, in all probability, achieve little beyond fully freezing the conflict, as was seen in Cyprus. It would thus make full implementation of the Minsk agreement even less likely.

The initial Russian suggestion was that the LPKO would also be operational in the “disengagement areas” along the line of contact. That means it would cover only some 6 km out of the 400 km plus line of contact, since only three areas for disengagement so far been agreed upon by the parties.

Russia later suggested that the operational area of OSCE SMM would be included, but that would most likely only add some 25 km depth from the line of contact to where rocket-artillery should be withdrawn, according to the Minsk agreement. It would mean that an LPKO would not operate over the whole area controlled by the Russian backed separatists which is crucial in order to stop the supplies of ammunition and fuel.

A limited U.N. peacekeeping operation would, in all probability, achieve little beyond fully freezing the conflict.

There seems to be a hope among some in Europe that Russia’s agreement to a peacekeeping force should make it possible to start to lift sanctions on Russia.

But this is unlikely too. Although the key sectoral sanctions were originally tied to the Russian activities in eastern Ukraine in general, they are now linked to full implementation of the Minsk agreement.

The March 2015 conclusions by the European Council state, that “the duration of the restrictive measures against the Russian Federation, adopted on 31 July 2014 and enhanced on 8 September 2014, should be clearly linked to the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements”, and recent G7 summit in Taormina also recalled that “the duration of sanctions is clearly linked to Russia’s complete implementation of its commitments in the Minsk Agreements and respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

A PKO that does little more than seeking military disengagement, which should have taken place years ago, and which probably would delay full implementation of the Minsk agreement even further, would hardly qualify. Russia is likely motivated to support an LPKO in Donbas because it would remove the burden of responsibility from Russia for not solving the Minsk implementation problems and shift it onto the LPKO.                     

Discussions about a possible peacekeeping operation should keep in mind that the aim is to encourage and ensure the full implementation of the basic elements of the Minsk agreement. It is indeed very doubtful that full implementation will ever be possible without an international effort.

Elections are critical

While much immediate attention has been paid to the security and military aspects of resolving the conflict, the political aspects of the Minsk agreement are arguably the most important and difficult when it comes to ensuring implementation.

While it is possible to freeze the conflict without implementing the political provisions, it is unrealistic to believe that the more far reaching military aspects of the Minsk agreement will be implemented if the political points aren’t first addressed.

The tension that has prevented any progress on the political part of the agreement is that while Moscow insists that there must be agreements on different issues between Kyiv and the separatist authorities, Kyiv rightly refuses to deal with them, and insists on the holding of elections before such talks can be held and agreements concluded.

The main goal of a peace operation in Donbas must therefore be to lay the ground for free and fair local elections in the region.

The Minsk agreement states that the local elections should be held according to “the relevant standards of the OSCE”, as well in accordance with Ukrainian laws.

Kyiv has stated that it is not ready to discuss any aspect of devolving powers to the separatist areas until these elections have been held. Moscow has objected to this, but the sequencing suggested by Kyiv is not incompatible with the Minsk agreements, and indeed very logical from a conflict resolution point of view.

The holding of these elections is the key to implementing the political provisions, which, according to the sequencing in the Minsk agreement is a prerequisite for full implementation of the core military provisions.

The main goal of a peace operation in Donbas must therefore be to lay the ground for free and fair local elections in the region.

A number of conditions must be in place for elections to take place. There has to be a safe and secure environment for everyone, and this has to be in place for some time before the actual poll is held. There must also be a free and fair environment for all political forces, including access to the media, for a considerable period of time.

In accordance with the OSCE’s standards in previous post-conflict situations, all those living in the conflict area prior to the onset of the conflict should be able to take part in the elections. Pre-conflict electoral rolls should be used. This would entail the setting up of arrangements for absentee voting both for the very considerable number of displaced persons in the rest of Ukraine, estimated at 1.7 million, and for the refugees who fled into Russia.

It’s simply inconceivable that all of this could be entrusted to the existing separatist governance structures, no matter how extensive the monitoring mechanism is. The conduct of the elections must be a core task of an international operation. Within the framework of an overall operation mandated by the UN Security Council, the responsibility for the elections could be entrusted to the OSCE. The organisation has extensive expertise from conducting post-crisis elections in the Balkans.

A peacekeeping and transition operation

While a limited peacekeeping operating (LPKO) along the line of contact could freeze the conflict and delay Minsk implementation, only a larger operation covering the entire area will be able to ensure a political transition takes place so that free and fair elections can be carried out and representative governance structures set up, to which powers than then be transferred.

The only real possibility for implementing the core provisions of the Minsk agreements, would thus be a Peace Keeping and Transition Operation (PKTO) with the task of securing the ceasefire, organising the local elections, facilitating the setting up of legitimate governance structures, supervising Russian military withdrawals and ensuring that Ukraine can exercise full sovereignty over Donbas.

There are different possible models for how this can be done. The United Nations Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium, to use its full name, or UNTAES for short, is one such model. Based on an agreement between Belgrade and Zagreb in 1995 it facilitated the demilitarisation of the previously Serb militant-run region and its transfer to overall Croat sovereignty over a period of two years.

The UN had asked for 9,300 soldiers for the mission, but UNTAES ended up with a total closer to 5,000 civilian and military staff, including military batallions from Belgium, Russia, Jordan and Pakistan. Of particular importance was the civilian police component.

The separatist areas of Donbas are considerably larger than that covered by UNTAES. The UN estimates that approximately 2.8 million people live in the region, which is more than half of the pre-conflict population. And the separatist areas cover approximately one third of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, which makes up roughly 15,000 square kilometres and is 2.5 percent of the territory of Ukraine.

Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts make up an area roughly the size of Kosovo but with a substantially larger population and much more elaborate economic infrastructure.

A peacekeeping and transition operation (PKTO) would have to have a sizeable military component, but even more critical from the security point of view would be different civil police functions, ranging from Carabiniere-type units to regular and possibly armed police. To this should of course be added the international civilian staff necessary for preparing and eventually holding elections.

To fully man and staff such an operation would, by all reasonable standards, be a demanding task. The political issues and sensitivities involved in selecting troop contributor nations and other key personnel would also be substantial.

It is of course unrealistic to envisage a military force that could entirely dismantle Russian opposition forces in the region. The success of any such PKTO will depend on the political will of Russia.

This being said, the military/security side of a PKTO would be important for supervising these efforts, maintaining links with all relevant forces, as well as dealing with different rogue actors that may attempt to disrupt efforts.

It would also be important for dealing with a Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programme of the existing more or less local forces in the area and/or, as appropriate, helping them to integrate into future Ukrainian structures in the area.

The Minsk agreement mentions “the creation of people's militia units to address local councils in order to maintain public order in certain areas of Donetsk and Lugansk regions,” but free and fair elections will be virtually impossible with militias roaming the streets. There should be legitimate and locally credible security structures in the area. The PKTO could play a critical role in assisting and safeguarding progress towards this end.

“Local self-government”?

Russia’s priority is to set up some sort of arrangement for devolution for the area. The Minsk agreement talks about “temporary procedures of local self-government in some districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions”, but there are no provisions more specific than this, and public discussion on the subject has been very limited.

Talk of forming some sort of federation have ceased, and are anyhow unacceptable to the rest of Ukraine. The only issue mentioned in the Minsk agreement is the safeguarding of the right to choose language. This has never been a controversial issue, with Russian having been the dominant language in these areas before, and the overwhelming majority of the population being fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian.

Ukraine is in the process of implementing a far-reaching devolution of powers to the local authorities, and this would, of course, eventually apply to these areas as well. Whether there will be the need for special provisions on the language issue should be discussed, as well as the question of language in education.

But the fiscal relationship between Donbas and Kyiv is key. The region is unlikely to be able to provide for its needs solely out of its own tax and other income, but will be highly dependent on transfers and different forms of subsidies from Kyiv. The days when Donbas was the powerhouse of the Ukrainian economy, or indeed of the Soviet Union, are long gone. It has more in common with declining old industrial and mining regions in other parts of Europe.

Fears have been expressed that some sort of devolved powers would limit the sovereignty of Ukraine when it comes to its foreign and security policies. But decisions on matters like these must rest with the central authorities, much as is the case in the “federation” of Russia which include areas with considerable formal autonomy.

Humanitarian, economic and ecological issues

By all accounts the humanitarian, economic, and ecological problems and challenges are very grave in the separatist areas. Any PKTO must have as part of its mandate to at least oversee efforts to help in these areas as well.

It should not be forgotten that the direct human cost of the conflict has been immense. UNOCHA reports that since the beginning of the conflict and until mid-August this year nearly 35,000 people have been wounded and 10,225 people killed. But they add that “these are conservative estimates by OHCHR based on available data; the actual number of casualties is believed to be higher”.

If an operation deploys, one of its key tasks should be to facilitate the return of those displaced or refugees who so wish. Slightly more than half of the approximately 1.7 million displaced in Ukraine are now residing in government-controlled parts of Luhansk and Donetsk region, and it can be assumed that those are the ones most likely to seek to return when conditions allow.

The economy of the separatist region is severely dysfunctional. Reintegration into Ukraine, as well as an open trading regime with Russia is important, but there will also have to be substantial reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts due to the impact of the conflict. A substantial operation on clearing the area of deadly remnants of war will be needed.

Attention must also be given to the alarming ecological situation associated with chemical facilities, the flooding of deep coal mines, deteriorating water quality and numerous related issues. Some observers have described them as so grave that “part of the Donbas territories may become uninhabitable within 5-10 years due to the impossibility of its economic exploitation.”

Is it all realistic?

An ambitious operation along these lines is clearly well beyond what is envisaged in the present Russian initiative for a very limited UN operation along the line of contact.

The intentions of the Kremlin are far from clear. It might be that there is considerable uncertainty in Russian leading circles over how the conflict should be handled. But the fact that the idea of some sort of UN-sanctioned or UN-run operation in order to resolve the conflict has been accepted also by Moscow has given a new impetus to efforts to move the issue forward.

At some point in time the Kremlin ought to be interested in starting to move this conflict towards a solution since there is such a direct Russian involvement compared with other already frozen conflicts. The separatist areas and their leaderships are certainly not an asset for today’s and tomorrow’s Russia, and a semi-criminalised hotbed of nationalist adventurers, living on the money of Russia and more interested in plotting schemes in Moscow than in Kyiv will over time be an increasing burden. Not to mention that this sort of situation will block any normalisation of relations with Ukraine, the EU, and the West.

But I doubt we are there yet. We might have seen the first signs of a process that will take us there, and that’s interesting enough.

Russia faces presidential elections in 2018 and Ukraine will have parliamentary elections in 2018 and presidential elections in 2019. At best, after substantial diplomatic wrangling in the months ahead, the UN Security Council could decide on an operation along the lines suggested here after the presidential election in Russia, with deployment happening before the presidential election in Ukraine, and step by step implementation in the years thereafter.

A resolution from the UN Security Council would effectively transform the Minsk agreements into a more operational plan for the transition to full Ukraine sovereignty that should take place according to a step by step schedule.

It should, of course, be added that a resolution of the conflict with Russia in eastern Ukraine in no way resolves the conflict over Crimea.

Where is the EU?

The EU has been a remarkably passive actor in the most serious conflict we have had on our borders for years. The Foreign Affairs Council has not put forward any conclusions on the issue for years and political efforts by the EEAS have been virtually nonexistent.

Part of this can of course be explained by the role played by Germany and France in the Normandy format talks. But the Normandy format has not prevented the United States playing a distinct role. Recently, with the appointment of a Special Representative on the issue, and direct talks between him and a Russian delegation headed by Presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, the US seems to be taking the lead on the diplomatic efforts.

While US engagement should be welcomed, any realistic attempt to reach a durable solution to the conflict will have to involve the EU nations and their resources in multiple ways.

This, if not the fact that we are talking about a serious threat to the security order of Europe, argues for a much stronger EU role in the efforts to seek a resolution.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Co-chair of ECFR’s Council
Former Prime Minister and Former Foreign Minister of Sweden

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