On 8 July 2019, the DOC Research Institute held a closed workshop in Berlin on the crisis in Eastern Ukraine. The workshop was part of a series of meetings of the DOC’s working group on the Ukraine conflict, an initiative established in 2018. The workshop brought together experts from Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and Austria. All meetings of the working group are held under Chatham House rule.
The workshop built upon two initial meetings of the working group, aiming to move further towards discussing possible changes at the macro-political level between all actors, as well as potential domestic and inter-regional developments after the Ukrainian presidential elections which took place in April 2019 and the parliamentary elections on 21 July 2019.
During the workshop, a variety of opinions and recommendations were brought forward. The main points that were presented are summarised below. The points do not necessarily reflect the opinion of all participants.
- The economic reconstruction of the Donbass. The crucial task is to make the Donbass economically attractive again in order to enhance efforts in negotiation from all sides. Currently, neither Kiev nor Moscow, nor the EU are really interested in resolving the Ukraine crisis, because rebuilding the country would involve high financial costs. The fact that the value of the Donbass is too low for Kiev to reintegrate it into Ukraine, is one reason it is not implementing the Minsk agreements.
- In order to raise the value of the Donbass, reconstruction through project-oriented foreign investment is necessary. The first task is to identify potential financial contributors. Involving Ukrainian NGOs in promoting this idea is essential.
- Economic reconstruction alone is not sufficient. Equally important are efforts towards reconciliation of Ukrainian society.
- The Minsk agreement has little chance of being implemented. Replacing it with a different document should be considered.
- There are spoilers within the Ukrainian elite who are not interested in settling the conflict.
- Political decision-making in Kiev is fairly independent from external pressure.
- Russia is in a wait-and-see position and will not take any decisions on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine until a government is formed following the Ukrainian parliamentary elections.
- The crisis in Eastern Ukraine is of higher importance to the EU than to the United States, due to their different geographic locations. However, the EU does not have a coherent strategy on the crisis.
- Implementing the idea of Core Europe could help the EU become a stronger actor on foreign policy and have more power in negotiations on the Ukrainian peace process.
- For the United States, China – not Russia – is the top priority at the moment.
- No change in the position of the US on the conflict in Ukraine should be expected.
- The majority of Ukrainian society wants to see an end to the conflict, but without Ukraine making substantial concessions to Russia.
- Neutrality as a possible scenario for the states located between the EU and Russia – including Ukraine – should be explored.
The guiding principle of the workshop was that it is crucial that all actors involved directly or indirectly in the conflict understand each other’s interests in the conflict, including the interests of stakeholders engaged in negotiations. This is key to making progress in the peace process.
As the conflict moves into its sixth year, the prospect for ending it anytime soon seems remote. Ceasefire violations, fighting, and shelling across the line of contact in Eastern Ukraine take place on a daily basis. The humanitarian crisis in Eastern Ukraine adds another layer to the difficulty of achieving stability and reconciliation of Ukrainian society. Meanwhile, the conflict has almost completely disappeared from international media, and does not receive sufficient attention from political elites either. Finding a way out of the deadlock in negotiations is compounded by widespread fatigue amongst all stakeholders, the consequence of which is a lack of political will.
Finding a common denominator for different positions
The Ukrainian and Russian positions – too far away to be bridged?
Knowing and understanding each other’s interests and the thinking that informs Kiev’s and Moscow’s decision-making on the Ukraine crisis is key to achieving a rapprochement of positions and making progress in negotiations.
Looking at how Russia and Ukraine each read the Minsk II agreement reveals that their approaches toward the conflict are wide apart. While Ukraine sees the conflict as an inter-state war with Russia as the aggressor, Russia maintains that it is a civil war. The diverging interpretations have far-reaching implications for their vision of settling the crisis, including the implementation of the agreement.
Since the Minsk agreement does not name Russia as a party to the conflict, in Moscow’s view, it is primarily addressed to Kiev. What follows from this for Moscow is that that responsibility for implementing the document lies with Kiev. As explained during the workshop, Moscow recognises the Donbass as an integral part of Ukraine. It is not interested in integrating the People’s Republics into the Russian Federation, and will not replicate the Crimean scenario in the Donbass. Escalation in the Donbass is still possible, yet it is not something Moscow strives for. While implementing the concept of Novorossiya was considered by Moscow a few years back as a potential scenario, today it is not an option anymore.
While Ukraine insists that the annexation of Crimea was illegal, and therefore must again become an integral part of Ukraine, for Moscow returning Crimea is out of the question. With regard to Ukraine’s future orientation in politico-security and economic terms, from a Russian point of view, the best scenario would be a Ukraine that is federalised and not oriented towards the West. For Russia, the conflict remains the easiest way to prevent Ukraine joining NATO.
Managing the crisis from Western perspectives
There is a broad consensus that resolving the conflict in Eastern Ukraine matters more to the European Union than to the United States. Due to Ukraine’s geographical proximity to the EU, the crisis is considered by the latter as a direct threat to the stability and security of Europe. Washington’s interest in the conflict in Ukraine, on the other hand, is best understood in the context of its objective of keeping Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence.
The lack of considerable attention by the US towards the Ukraine crisis is compounded by the fact that dealing with China is currently at the top of the list of US foreign policy priorities. Russia, on the other hand, is considered a declining power with nuclear capabilities that acts as a spoiler and a disruptive force in countries such as Syria and Ukraine. Based on this logic, the US strategy towards Russia is above all containment. Since resolving the Ukraine crisis is not a top priority for the US, the US will not soften its stance towards Russia with regard to Ukraine for the sake of finding a compromise. Hence, it will not accept the annexation of Crimea, nor will it loosen the sanctions it has imposed on Russia. However, there is a debate on whether or not to follow a policy of dialogue and economic trade with Russia, through linking it to Europe.
What follows from the different degrees of importance the EU and the US ascribe to the Ukraine conflict is that it is there is no unified Western position and that there are different levels of engagement in the peace process. The widening gap between the US and the EU in their approach towards Ukraine has potential implications for negotiations, and will have to be addressed by Kiev sooner or later. This might entail having to choose between the EU and the US at some point – something Ukraine has been avoiding so far. Developing one coherent strategy towards the EU itself is also difficult for Ukraine in the face of the different stances of member states.
Despite the importance the EU attaches to the situation in Ukraine, it lacks a clear strategy on the Ukraine conflict, which makes negotiations even more complicated. The Normandy format, in which the EU has been a visible actor in the negotiation process through the participation of Berlin and Paris, has become hostage to the EU’s individual states’ shift of focus in foreign policy. A possible option referred to during the workshop is that of a ‘Core Europe’. This concept rests on the argument that closer cooperation between few EU states in certain areas, including foreign policy and defence, would allow the EU to become a more serious and efficient player on the international scene.
Prospects for moving further in the peace process are not only dim due to the lack of an EU strategy towards Ukraine, but also due to the fact that the Ukraine crisis has remarkably dropped down the political agenda of individual states, most notably Germany and France, both of which had been actively involved in the mediation process within the Normandy format since the outbreak of the crisis. Apart from being in an overall weak political position to play an active role on Ukraine, Berlin – similarly to Paris – has shifted its priority in foreign policy towards other regions of the world, most notably Africa, as a result of migration.
With ruptures emerging in the EU position on sanctions towards Russia, the question that is being discussed progressively within political and academic circles is whether such differences might eventually lead to a breakup of EU unity on Ukraine. An argument raised in the workshop was that a change in the policy of the EU or Germany in this regard should not be expected anytime soon. Regardless of voices in the West advocating a removal of sanctions and an easing of the position towards Russia, the West will remain united in its policy towards the Kremlin.
Prospects for moving ahead: Opportunities and impediments
The debate on resolving the conflict in Eastern Ukraine lacks a common vision of what an end to the conflict would actually look like. It is unclear against which criteria success could be measured. Would success mean the cessation of shelling? Or can one only speak of success in case of a return to the status quo ante, which would entail returning Crimea to Ukraine?
A crucial question that the discussion on ending the conflict needs to address is whether Ukrainian society is actually ready and open for a rapprochement with Russia. Despite wishing for an end to the conflict in the Donbass, the majority of the Ukrainian population supports a tough foreign policy towards Russia and objects to Kiev making major concessions towards Moscow.
At the political level, the situation in the Donbass remains deadlocked, with little readiness on all sides to put more effort into settling the crisis. Workshop participants had little hope that the Minsk agreement will be implemented anytime soon. The reasons for the stalling implementation of Minsk are several. One is the logic that guides the thinking of political elites in Kiev, according to which Ukraine does not get anything out of complying with the Minsk accords. Contrary to the situation in 2014/2015, when Ukraine was in a too weak political and military position to withstand pressure from the international community to sign the agreements, today, Ukraine does not feel that it must give way to external pressure. One argument that was raised was that replacing the Minsk agreement with a different agreement might be the only way to break the stalemate.
Nevertheless, the change in the Ukrainian political establishment that came with Volodymyr Zelensky’s victory in the presidential and parliamentary elections gives some reason for – albeit cautious – optimism that progress could be achieved in negotiations. Indeed, Zelensky’s presidential campaign promise to end the conflict in the Donbass was one of the main reasons Ukrainians voted for him. Yet, as was pointed out during the workshop, most people want the conflict to be settled without Ukraine making substantial concessions to Russia.
Prospects for a breakthrough notwithstanding, the changing political situation in Ukraine will impact any future developments in one way or another and will affect decisions of all actors directly or indirectly involved in the conflict. For now, as the political setting in Ukraine has only begun to unfold, possible developments in the peace process – even in the short term – are mere speculation. One factor that contributes to the unpredictability of the situation is the fact that people with no political experience will be in charge of decision-making, including decisions on the strategy for the east of the country.
Even if current developments provide grounds for hope, breaking the stalemate in negotiations might prove difficult for several reasons. One is that there are actors within the Ukrainian political elite and business community who will do everything possible to disrupt Zelensky’s eventual efforts to settle the crisis. There are indeed a significant number of spoilers who are not interested in ending the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
This brought the workshop discussion to the open question about the real power of Zelensky, his actual freedom to take decisions, and his ability to control the parliament, in the case that he receives the majority of votes in the Rada elections.
With regard to eventual attempts by external actors to put political pressure on Ukraine, it was argued that the level of Kiev’s independence in decision-making is fairly high. In fact, this is exemplified by some of the decisions that have been taken by Kiev in previous years, which were not necessarily in line with what external actors would have aimed for, including implementing strong measures to fight corruption and the country changing its position on the conflict in the Donbass. The financial aid Ukraine receives is also not as high as it could be leveraged to induce a change in course in Ukrainian politics. In this sense, despite its financial support, the influence of the United States on Ukraine is limited.
Making progress in negotiations on the Ukraine crisis is further complicated by contentious issues between Russia and Ukraine, and Russia and the West, including energy. The Nord Stream 2 issue is likely to impact regional dynamics related to energy. Efforts by Ukraine and some Western states to prevent the realisation of the project have not succeeded.
Since everything points to the fact that the project will be implemented, the question is what will come next and how the situation can be best managed. The future of Russian gas supplies to the European gas market and the role of the Ukrainian gas transit corridor are still to be determined.
One opinion expressed during the workshop is that it is unlikely that the transit of gas through Ukraine will stop after the current contract terminates. After the current gas transit contract between Ukraine and Russian Gazprom expires by the end of 2019, the most likely scenario up until the construction of Nord Stream 2 is completed will be a series of short-term contracts. Russia will insist on adopting a one-to-two-year agreement, which could then be renewed. The most favourable option for Ukraine, on the other hand, would be to get a long-term contract. For now, Russia is in a wait-and-see position carefully watching political developments in Ukraine, as well as in the EU until the union’s top positions have been filled.
After 2022, Ukraine will lose its significance as a transit country. Naftogaz will aim to receive compensation for gas not being supplied through Ukraine if the contract is not extended. Another workshop participant emphasised that a proposal from 2002 would have worked: the idea was to build an international consortium to use Ukraine’s transit gas pipelines and ensure uninterrupted gas transit to Europe. Gazprom would own some pipelines, but other companies would too. The gas conflict started after the idea was dropped.
Resolving the Ukraine crisis in the long-term involves not only settling the conflict in the Donbass but addressing issues related to the future of the European security order.
In this context, one fundamental question that needs to be addressed is how Ukraine can resolve the security dilemma it finds itself in and be an independently acting state with robust security guarantees, immune to external pressure. The view that becoming part of the Euro-Atlantic community would best serve Ukraine’s security is opposed by those who believe that Ukraine’s closer move to the West would only exacerbate tensions with Russia, and further intensify the standoff between Russia and the West.
Following this line of thought, one argument brought forward during the workshop was that neutrality might be the best option for Ukraine, in order to allow for an independent foreign policy. This idea has been subject to debate within political and academic circles since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis. The argument goes that not only could neutrality resolve Ukraine’s security dilemma, but it could also ease the standoff between Russia and the West, both of which wish to keep Ukraine out of the other side’s sphere of influence. Permanent neutrality might be an option that could satisfy all parties: It would meet both Russia’s wish that Ukraine does not become a member of NATO, as well as the Western partners’ objective – most notably Poland’s and the Baltic states’ – of ensuring that Ukraine remains a buffer state between the EU and Russia.
Some participants acknowledged that a worthy discussion could take place on whether neutrality as a security model could also be applied to other ‘in-between-states’, which are landlocked between Russia and the EU. In the long term, this could help to resolve one of the most fundamental security issues that besets Russia-West relations and to prevent yet another clash between Russia and the West over the future orientation of states that today are neither part of Russian nor Western institutions.
There was no consensus among participants around the view that neutrality may indeed resolve the problem. One argument against this idea was that neutrality might not necessarily guarantee the security of ‘in-between’ states, and that all states should have the freedom to make their own decisions on their future orientation and must not be treated as third parties or as objects of negotiations of third states. One factor that makes the idea of neutrality as a security model problematic is that neutrality requires robust security guarantees, confidence, and trust, all of which seem to be have been lost. The neutrality or non-alignment of Ukraine is not supported by the majority of the Ukrainian population either. While the concept was discussed in 2014, today it is much less popular.
Pragmatism as a rule for action
It was acknowledged that building peace in Ukraine requires efforts on multiple levels. The political negotiation process must be accompanied by practical steps that will allow for an improvement of the daily life of ordinary people, allowing for a gradual normalisation of the situation.
One participant’s account of the daily work of the working groups of the Trilateral Contact Group made clear that practical steps – such as those facilitating the supply of electricity or water management – do matter significantly. Not only are they important because they improve the lives of people in the region, but also because they have the potential to deescalate the situation in the longer term.
The disengagement of forces from both sides from part of a section of the contact line near Stanytsia Luhanska in June this year – a position that both sides had held for more than four years – is a positive development that shows that coming to an agreement to implement practical steps is possible. The question of whether this development will lead to further disengagement remains open, yet any improvement of the humanitarian situation has a potentially deescalating effect on the whole crisis.
Re-establishing economic ties between Russia and Ukraine was named as a potential first step that could positively contribute to normalising relations between both sides. Despite the conflict, both countries remain economically bound to each other, hence restoring economic ties is in the interests of both. Moscow remains one of Kiev’s main trading partners, and labour migration from Ukraine to Russia – most notably of qualified workers – still exists.
One crucial task is to make the Donbass economically ‘attractive’ again for all sides. Currently, neither Kiev, nor Moscow, nor the EU are really interested in resolving the Ukraine crisis, because rebuilding the country and the region would involve high financial costs. The fact that the value of the Donbass is too low for Kiev to reintegrate it into Ukraine is one reason it is not implementing the Minsk agreements.
In order to raise the value of the Donbass, economic reconstruction through project-oriented foreign investment is necessary. The first task should be to identify potential financial contributors. Also, involving Ukrainian NGOs in promoting this idea of reconstructing the Donbass is essential.
However, improving the situation and building peace in Eastern Ukraine requires efforts beyond economic reconstruction. Equally important are steps towards reconciliation of Ukrainian society and other bottom-up efforts that are part of a broad post-conflict reconstruction process, and which should start as soon as possible.
 One of the first academics to raise this issue was Prof. Dr. Heinz Gärtner. See Gärtner, H. (2014): Neutrality for Ukraine according to the Austrian model. l. (Policy Paper / Österreichisches Institut für Internationale Politik, 1). Wien: Österreichisches Institut für Internationale Politik (oiip)