On November 14, 2016, the International Criminal Court issued a preliminary finding endorsing Ukraine’s claims that Russia had committed acts of aggression against its territory, citizens and infrastructure. Ukrainians, who for more than two years have called on the international community to condemn and punish Russian aggression, were heartened by the finding. Russia canceled its membership in the court. Whatever legal, political or diplomatic weight the court’s finding may carry, it nonetheless cannot change the reality of Russia’s de facto control over Crimea or the seemingly intractable conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region.
There simply is no “higher power” in international law or geopolitics that can rescue Ukraine from its predicament. Thus, the future stability and prosperity of Donbass, Ukraine and Europe still rests with the difficult task of managing and resolving the conflict through negotiations among the key actors involved—which is why Washington must pay attention. The United States has a vital interest in the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty and the resolution of its conflict with Russia, a key to deescalating growing tension across the wider European and Euro-Atlantic space. What follows is a closer examination of the conditions and steps necessary for Washington to promote more effective management—and potential resolution—of the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
State of the Conflict
More than two years since the Russian takeover of Crimea and the subsequent outbreak of fighting in Donbass, the conflict in Ukraine’s east has settled into a largely recognizable pattern: a new and very large “frozen conflict” in the post-Soviet space. The situation on the ground in Donbass is increasingly reminiscent of that in Moldova, Georgia and Armenia/Azerbaijan, where intense fighting at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse was halted by de facto cease-fires, but no effective long-term conflict-settlement mechanism was found. As a result, in all three of these so-called “frozen” conflicts, relatively low-level hostilities persist between two heavily armed camps, even as international monitors and negotiators discuss the intricacies of conflict management in a seemingly endless loop—just as is now increasingly the case in Eastern Ukraine.
In Donbass itself, the local civilian population and economy have been badly depleted. As is often the case in armed conflicts, many of the best educated and most capable citizens have departed the region altogether—some going to Russia, others to Ukraine and Europe—leaving behind an increasingly vulnerable, elderly population, with little means of restoring basic economic life, let alone rebuilding the region’s destroyed infrastructure. Providing for social welfare and restoring conditions for economic growth should be the responsibility of local authorities, ideally in partnership with international experts and donors. However, the failure so far to broker internationally recognized elections has meant that much of the world perceives the de facto Donbass authorities as little more than warlords and criminals. The region’s current economic limbo, in between Russia and Ukraine, also empowers black marketeers and blockade runners, who can make enormous profits trafficking in everything from cigarettes and medicine to weapons.
Since the fall of 2014, the only formal framework for managing and resolving the Donbass conflict has been the Minsk Agreements, brokered between the Ukrainians and Russian-backed separatists, with Russia, Germany and France as guarantors. The United States has played a de facto guarantor role, but has remained outside the so-called Normandy format. The Agreements were revised and updated through a second round (“Minsk II”) following the outbreak of heavy fighting in February 2015. Since that time, the conflict has settled into a low-intensity war of attrition, with near-constant violations of the cease-fire provisions. The OSCE’s Ukraine Special Monitoring Mission, in place since the summer of 2014, has confirmed many of these violations, and its ongoing presence and real-time response capability is thought to help prevent further escalation of hostilities.
The heads of state of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France met in the Normandy format in Berlin in October 2016, instructing their negotiators to work toward a “road map” for implementation of Minsk II. Since that time, domestic political developments on all sides may have substantially altered the incentives for pursuing concrete progress. Russia is under intense pressure from an economy that contracted almost 4 percent in 2015, plus double-digit inflation, which has left the average Russian household about 15 percent poorer over the past year. Western financial sanctions, coupled with Russia’s own counter-sanctions regime, have severely constrained investment and consumer spending, deepening a recession brought on by structural weaknesses and persistent low global energy and commodity prices.
Yet Moscow has shown no signs of compromising on the West’s terms, perhaps in part because it perceives political developments in Europe and the United States to be breaking in its favor. The result of the UK’s “Brexit” referendum, elections in Poland and continuing developments in Hungary have all underscored a deepening anti-EU trend in European politics, while elections in Bulgaria, Estonia and Moldova have brought leaders to power who advocate more conciliatory approaches toward Russia. In France, where presidential elections are scheduled for April 2017, both center-right and far-right candidates have spoken favorably about improving ties with Russia. Although leading voices from both parties in the United States remain hawkish on Russia and supportive of continuing the coordinated Western sanctions regime, President Donald Trump spoke about restoring productive U.S.-Russia relations on the campaign trail, and has already held an initial short discussion with Vladimir Putin to that end.
Ukrainian politics has witnessed dramatic and potentially destabilizing change over the past year. The government formed under Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk following parliamentary elections in October 2014 pursued major reforms, demanded by international donors who have supported Ukraine through tens of billions of dollars of loans and grants. While Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, appointed by President Petro Poroshenko to replace Yatsenyuk in April 2016, seems committed to continuing the reforms, the broader political context is not favorable. A sense of deep cynicism and anger pervades, as few ordinary Ukrainians are seeing direct benefits from the painful and slow-moving reform process. With near constant reports of cease-fire violations and Ukrainian casualties streaming back from the war in Donbass, the popular mood favors those who promise decisive action over talk—a rallying cry for Ukraine’s own populist demagogues and far-right nationalists.
In this context, there is an increased risk of conflict escalation from both sides. Both Russia and Ukraine have arrested the other side’s nationals on charges of espionage, sabotage and terrorism. These actions seem designed to underscore the popular perception of the other side not as legitimate combatants, but as traitors or terrorists—a dehumanizing trope that could be a prelude to further provocations, or even renewed heavy fighting in the winter or spring. Russia has already acknowledged its infiltration of Ukrainian territory with special operatives, so-called “little green men,” while the Ukrainian side can justify almost any operation in Russian-held Crimea, in Donbass, or even over the Russian border as an enforcement action against Russian-backed terrorists.
U.S. Interests in Managing and Resolving the Conflict
By far the most compelling U.S. national interest at stake in the Ukraine conflict is the maintenance of stability and security across the European and Euro-Atlantic space. While Russia has argued that U.S.-led bombing of Serbia in 1999 and subsequent support for Kosovo independence violated international norms, especially the principles of state sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes enshrined in the 1990 Charter of Paris, its own actions in Ukraine now risk the total breakdown of that very order.
Europe’s security is an obvious and vital concern for U.S. national security, as world wars that began in Europe have dragged Americans into bloody conflict twice in the past century. Moreover, U.S. NATO allies, especially those bordering Russia and Ukraine, have become understandably nervous, welcoming increased reassurance measures from the United States and western Europe, while undertaking self-help measures of their own. These developments are viewed with deep skepticism by Moscow, which continues its own substantial military buildup in the Baltic and Black Sea regions, including forward deployment of sophisticated air defenses and nuclear-capable missiles.
A further concern for Washington is the intersection of mounting humanitarian and economic costs of the Ukraine-Russia conflict. The United States does more bilateral trade with European countries than with any other region, and European economies stand to lose the most from a Ukrainian and Russian economic collapse precipitated by the one-two punch of the global financial crisis and the military conflict in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the migration of more than a million displaced persons from Donbass to other parts of Europe and Russia simply reinforces the crisis triggered by ongoing violence in the Middle East and North Africa, which has unleashed a flood of desperate refugees on Europe’s southern borders. The current situation amounts to the largest concentration of displaced persons in Europe since the decade after World War II, and it is doubtful whether even the wealthiest and most stable European societies are prepared to manage its short- and long-term consequences.