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20 November 2019updated 02 Sep 2021 5:12pm

Why Russia and Ukraine are still at war

By Lawrence Freedman

Can there be peace in Ukraine? This was the question facing foreign policy experts at the annual Security Forum in Lviv, Western Ukraine at the end of October. The answer was hardly encouraging. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and actively supported separatists in Eastern Ukraine with men, money and materiel. Since then some 13,000 people – both civilians and soldiers – have died in a conflict that has exerted huge pressures on Ukraine’s economy and infrastructure.

Ukrainians take pride in their resilience in the face of their more powerful Russian neighbour. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the country has been geopolitically torn between East and West. But it now looks decisively to the latter. The European Union has maintained economic sanctions on Russia since the annexation of Crimea, while on 31 October the Nato Secretary-General Jan Stoltenberg reaffirmed the alliance’s solidarity with Ukraine.

There was, however, a palpable sense of anxiety running through the conference that international support for Ukraine may be waning. Russia is not a major economic power, but countries in the West find it difficult to avoid political and diplomatic engagement with Moscow, owing to its vast energy reserves and geostrategic prominence in the Middle East after it backed Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war.

At the conference, Ukraine’s former president Petro Poroshenko insisted that the country was a vital bulwark on Nato’s eastern border and deserved to be given full member status.

But he also noted the changing diplomatic climate that may hamper these ambitions: French president Emmanuel Macron’s talk of Europe needing to improve relations with Russia; Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s political affinity with Vladimir Putin; and Denmark’s decision on 30 October to authorise the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will carry gas from Russia to Germany, which Kiev regards as an economic and security threat.

In the background of these concerns is Donald Trump. He may yet be impeached for threatening to withhold US military and economic assistance in order to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating Joe Biden – a potential rival in the 2020 presidential elections – and his son Hunter Biden over their involvement in a Ukrainian gas company.

Indeed, Zelensky would almost certainly have agreed to do Trump this “favour” had it not been for the ensuing political scandal that has engulfed the White House.

Trump’s request to investigate the Bidens has caused Ukraine great embarrassment and painted the country as politically subservient and rife with corruption. Ukrainians are especially vexed about gaining attention in the Western media only as a source of a US scandal.

Given the perceived fragility of international support for Ukraine, Zelensky made peace with Russia a key plank of his campaign in the presidential elections of April 2019. But for many of those I spoke to in Lviv, peace with Russia is a naive aspiration.

Debate rages in Ukraine over the advantages and disadvantages of the so-called “Steinmeier formula” (named after the president of Germany, who was foreign minister at the outbreak of the Crimea conflict). This proposed a road-map for implementing the 2014-15 Minsk protocols that were signed by representatives of Kiev and Moscow to stop the war in the Donbass region of Ukraine. The protocols called for a ceasefire and confidence-building measures, including military withdrawals and exchanging prisoners of war.

Such measures are seen as controversial on both sides of the conflict. Getting prisoners home is obviously welcome, but withdrawing forces has led to concerns about Ukrainian defences being weakened and towns on the country’s eastern border becoming vulnerable to Russian military advances.

If fully implemented, the Steinmeier formula would conclude with elections in the contested territories of Eastern Ukraine. Moscow is determined to legitimise the separatist movements in Donetsk and Luhansk through elections, while separatist leaders themselves have little interest in being re-integrated into Ukraine; their preference has always been to follow Crimea into the Russian Federation.

The Ukrainian position, reaffirmed by Zelensky, is that elections can only take place after Russian forces have retreated across the international border and separatist militias have disarmed and disbanded. If Zelensky agreed to elections before these conditions were met, Ukrainians would accuse him of capitulation. On the other hand, if Putin accepted these conditions for an election then it would be regarded in Russia as a defeat.

This is why a resolution to the conflict seems unlikely in the foreseeable future. There is little prospect of the Ukrainians taking back Crimea by force: this would lead to a direct and almost certainly unwinnable clash with the Russian army.

It makes more sense for Zelensky to explore a diplomatic solution with Moscow even if elections and military withdrawals remain intractable issues. But without a diplomatic solution the risk is that the ceasefire, which has been in place (though not observed) since 2014, will quickly unravel – this is one reason why Zelensky’s critics have urged him not to weaken Ukraine’s defences in the east.

The country has slowly adjusted to the loss of separatist enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk. This has led to the widespread notion that the best plan is to wait until Russia tires of having to politically manage and economically sustain the enclaves, while Ukraine pursues a reform programme that transforms the country into a modern, more dynamic economy.

There are indications that progress towards a settlement is being made. Preparations are under way for the return of three warships that the Russian navy captured from Ukraine in 2018. Meanwhile, peace talks between Zelensky and Putin are set to take place in France this December, in which Macron has promised that Ukraine “could count on France’s support in all matters”. That remains to be seen.

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This article appears in the 20 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over