What will happen with Eastern Ukraine?

The situation in eastern Ukraine is only a temporary stalemate

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Europe needs a clearer and more unified strategy for promoting a diplomatic settlement if Ukraine is to avoid becoming a frozen conflict, according to a policy paper published by the European Council on Foreign Relations. The analysis ‘What Will Happen With Eastern Ukraine?’ says the EU’s chief goal should be the return of Donbas to Ukraine by implementation of the Minsk agreements and suggests that the EU can help prevent Moscow controlling Kiev’s geopolitical choices by ‘converting Russia’s pain from sanctions into a tool for diplomacy’. The authors, ECFR Senior Policy Fellows Kadri Liik and Andrew Wilson, believe that – with the ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine teetering on the brink – the status quo is unstable and will lead to an escalation of the conflict. They examine future scenarios for Ukraine and identify four potential outcomes:

  • Donetsk and Luhansk return to Kiev’s control following a transition period with no right of veto over Kiev. The best hope for this would be by implementation of the Minsk agreements. Crimea would remain an unresolved issue but this outcome would allow Ukraine independence through economic and political reforms. This is unlikely to happen through a sudden diplomatic breakthrough and Ukraine is unlikely to try to achieve this by military means.  
  • A frozen but ‘insulated’ conflict allowing the creation of an enclave with border monitoring but with no agreed roadmap for the return of the territories. The EU could seek a mandate for a border monitoring mission or the current OSCE-led mission could be expanded. Neither Russia nor Ukraine wants this outcome but both might accept it as a lesser evil.  
  • Further Russian conquest in which Russia could attempt to take over all or most of ‘Novorossiya’ – the whole of the east and south of Ukraine. To prevent this scenario Europe should use the deterrent of sanctions and the threat of further sanctions while keeping open the option of dialogue.  
  • Federalisation under which the eastern regions are returned to Ukraine but remain under Moscow’s de facto control. This would provide Moscow with leverage over Kiev’s decision-making, hinder much-needed domestic political and economic reforms and impede the development of Ukraine’s relations with the EU and NATO. 

The ECFR paper concludes the return of Donbas to Ukraine as envisaged by the Minsk agreements (outcome 1) should remain the EU’s chief demand. The authors warn that Europe should also prepare for the frozen conflict scenario (outcome 2) while ensuring the conflict is ‘insulated’ as failure to do so is likely to lead to the chaos of a Russian-controlled Ukraine (outcome 4). Kiev’s ability to reform and provide rules-based governance remains crucial. The authors suggest that EU member states will need to remain united, engaged and potentially willing to commit significant border missions if Kiev is to have any chance of resolving the chaos in eastern Ukraine.

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

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