Our Ukraine expert Beate Apelt and security expert Sebastian Vagt report on the Ukraine conflict, analyzing possible future scenarios
Europe is at war. This is often overlooked in view of the Corona pandemic and a recently renewed refugee crisis on the Greek-Turkish border. However, in eastern Ukraine, soldiers are still dying every week in an armed conflict that should have been resolved five years ago. A group of liberal defence experts has gathered a picture in Kyiv.
The representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk had already agreed on a peace plan five years ago with the mediation of Germany, France and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In the two so-called “Minsk Agreements”, they had committed to implementing concrete measures, such as maintaining a ceasefire, withdrawing heavy weapons and organizing elections in the occupied Ukrainian territories.
However, the implementation of this peace plan has largely failed. The parties to the conflict have so far been unable to agree on the order in which they should fulfil their obligations. For example, the Ukrainian Government understandably does not want to hold elections in the separatist areas until after the pro-Russian and Russian forces have withdrawn their troops and weapons. Against all evidence, Russia for its part denies the deployment of forces in Donbas. Without political progress, however, low-intensity fighting will continue. In the years 2018 and 2019 alone, more than 100 Ukrainian soldiers lost their lives.
At the end of last year, French President Emmanuel Macron and his newly elected Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Selenskyj initiated a revival of the peace process. After an interruption of several years, the heads of government of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany then met for the first time in the so-called “Normandy format” to discuss a settlement of the war. This gave hope for peace in Ukraine and in parts of Eastern Europe, but also gave rise to fears that Macron and Selenskyj could easily betray the interests of Ukraine and other sovereign states to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom took this development as an opportunity to invite the members of its network of liberal defence experts to Kyiv for an exchange with Ukrainian discussion partners. During a three-day visit, the guests from 12 Member States of the European Union gained first-hand information about the current challenges and needs of Ukraine and developed the positions of their parties accordingly.
The participants first learned to choose their words correctly. Former Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin urged them not to talk about the “Ukrainian crisis” in the future. Firstly, according to Klimkin, it could not only be a crisis if more than 13,000 people had already died in the conflict and Russia had kept several large military units available for years for deployment on the border with Ukraine.
Secondly, as Ukrainian President Selenskyj had already stressed in his speech at the Munich Security Conference in February, the war in Ukraine was by no means just a local war, but a European war. In fact, its effects affect the whole of Europe. This became particularly dramatic when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down, killing 298 people. The EU and its Member States are also affected when Russia obstructs civil shipping in the Black Sea, as has been increasingly the case recently. Furthermore, the EU’s credibility as a partner, in the eyes of those states that are politically and geographically situated between Russia and the EU, is in jeopardy.
The Ukrainian conflict can therefore be described with good reason as a “European war”. There are various scenarios for its continuation or resolution. Even if a major military escalation does not seem imminent, hardly anyone in Kyiv expects the fighting to end. It seems more likely that the current situation in Donbas will remain frozen indefinitely. However, according to observers, an extension of the fighting to other regions, especially to the Black Sea, is not unrealistic.
Mykhailo Samus of the Centre for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies pointed out in an interview, that Russia was showing increasingly aggressive efforts there. International attention was drawn to an incident in November 2018, when the Russian coast guard prevented three Ukrainian navy ships from passing through the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov and captured 24 sailors. The Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov are the only access routes to the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk.
According to Samus, Russia could apply a so-called “boa constrictor strategy” and also cut off access to the Ukrainian ports west of Crimea, e.g. to Odessa. For this purpose, it could use a number of former Ukrainian drilling platforms that it captured in the course of the annexation of the Crimea. In the worst case, Ukraine would then become virtually a landlocked state and be cut off from international maritime traffic. Against this background, the Ukrainian government is currently investing in its ailing navy.
Whether such developments can be averted at the negotiation table remains uncertain, especially since Russia has so far never acted as a warring party in the Normandy talks, but always only as a mediator. In the discussion with the guests, Anna Frolova, until recently Deputy Minister of Defence, accused Vladimir Putin of not being interested in the solution of the conflict. In her view, the Russian government is only interested in weakening Ukraine and preventing it from joining the EU and NATO.
The new Ukrainian President, Mr Zelenskyj, has promised peace to his compatriots. The experts in Kyiv disagree as to whether he can keep this promise. What is certain, however, is that the Ukrainians do not want peace at any price. When Selenskyj announced last week that he wanted to be the first Ukrainian president to negotiate with the rebel leaders from the separatist areas in Donetsk and Luhansk since the outbreak of war, thousands took to the streets in Kiev – despite the danger of infection by the corona virus, which incidentally also prevents the Normandy talks from continuing for the time being.
In this situation, the EU and NATO should maintain and extend their support for Ukraine. Both organisations reject direct military intervention for good reasons. However, they can also achieve a great deal through sanctions and military exercises.
The EU and its Member States have shown rarely observed unity and consistency in imposing and enforcing their sanctions against Russia. Nevertheless, they should not only maintain their clear stance, but also define transparent criteria for a tightening of sanctions in the event of further escalation by Russia.
NATO and its member states are running numerous projects to provide logistical and technical support to the Ukrainian armed forces. They could also demonstrate their willingness to protect the international maritime routes in the Black Sea by means of “freedom of navigation” exercises, i.e. peaceful passages by their own naval forces.
Last but not least, Ukraine’s international partners should support Ukraine’s insistence on the withdrawal of all fighters and weapons and the restoration of Ukrainian control over its border with Russia, before elections in the now occupied territories are considered. Anything else would not be a peace solution, but a direct gateway for Russian influence on Kyiv policy.
In addition, It remains to be seen what effect the corona virus as a new factor will have on the war in Ukraine. We can already observe a massive spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, which are largely spread from Russia. Some observers fear that the very strict measures to contain the pandemic in Ukraine and the associated ban on demonstrations could also be misused as a protective cloak for gradual concessions to Moscow. The coming weeks will show whether these fears are justified and what the epidemic means for the continuation of the fighting.
Project Director, FNF Ukraine and Belarus
European Affairs Manager and Head of FNF Security Hub, FNF Brussels.