Ukraine conflict

War Without End

Tank Russia Ukraine conflict AP
Armored personnel carriers belongign to Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The crisis in eastern Ukraine threatens to rumble on for years unless an agreement on the region’s future can be made between the warring parties.

  • Facts


    • One year ago, 298 people were killed when a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down over eastern Ukraine.
    • Crimea was seized by Russian last year and militants in eastern Ukraine say they aim to annex the territory they have captured to Russia.
    • Russian authorities describe the crisis as a civil war caused by mistreatment of Ukraine’s Russian minority.
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Every morning, observers in eastern Ukraine set out to supervise how the latest ceasefire is working.

Since March, monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – or OSCE –  have worked in areas contested by the Ukraine army and separatist forces supported by Russia. They see heavy weapons being brought to the front. They hear several hundred explosions daily.

All the observers have are radio devices, their armored cars and one working surveillance drone. The second drone is broken.

You might think that would be enough to monitor a ceasefire. Officially, they are not in a country where war is raging. But their logbooks read like journal entries from a front-line soldier:

July 1: 306 explosions, audible at the observation point in the vicinity of the train station in Donetsk, shelling of a municipality in Vuhlehirsk, in the People’s Republic of Donetsk. Now missing in the collective deposit, where the Ukrainians have brought their heavy weapons: Eight howitzers, two anti-tank guns, three rocket launchers.

July 3: 152 explosions  in the vicinity of the train station in Donetsk. 12 anti-tank mines on a street of the People’s Republic of Luhansk. Two new checkpoints of the Ukrainian armed forces near the front. Concentrations of military devices in the People’s Republic of Donetsk, among them nine tanks, four armed tracked vehicles, 28 transport tanks, 60 trucks.

July 5: Three combat tanks on the territory under Ukrainian control; 52 combat tanks, 58 transport tanks and five howitzers sighted on the other side.

That’s what the current ceasefire in eastern Ukraine looks like to observers. Thanks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, it was agreed between Russia, Ukraine and separatists from the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in Minsk, Belarus, on February 12.

The first ceasefire broke down little by little, with repeated violations on both sides, and collapsed in January 2015.

Three days later, the ceasefire took effect. The 13 points quickly became known as Minsk II because they replaced the earlier Minsk Protocol, which was signed in September 2014 to stop fighting in the Donbass region. The first ceasefire broke down little by little, with repeated violations on both sides, and collapsed entirely in January 2015.

German diplomats don’t like the Minsk II name because it sounds like a continuation of the first failed ceasefire. They prefer to talk about a new and improved Minsk, as if the agreement from September 2014 had not really failed, but rather been continued.

Minsk II had two goals. First, it would prevent the nervous Americans  from delivering weapons to the Ukraine government – a move that could have turned a European conflict into global war. Second, Ukraine wanted to avoid a disaster – the strategically important city of Debaltseve was heavily fought over and several thousand Ukrainian soldiers were trapped there.

But the agreement was broken when it was hardly in effect. The separatists took Debaltseve, killing hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers who couldn’t get out of the cauldron. How many died is not precisely known, and some say the Ukrainian side has inflated the number.

From the beginning, the agreement suffered from defects. The defeated Ukrainians agreed to Minsk II because they hoped to catch their breath. The Russians agreed because the treaty confirmed the division of Ukraine and created a front. Where single hotspots blazed before, they were now linked in an official battle line. The division of the Donbass was virtually cemented.

Russia could also destabilize Ukraine through the political process that Minsk II provided. The political goals of the agreement were formulated vaguely enough in order to negotiate details later – or to allow room for wishful thinking.

For example, under decentralization Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko envisioned something far different from what the Russians did.

Mr. Poroshenko does not want to hand over powers to separatists on questions of security and foreign policy any more than wanting a special status for the occupied parts of Donbass.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, wants virtual autonomy for areas controlled by the separatists. The tactics of Russia and separatists imply revoking the Donbass completely from Ukrainian sovereignty – except that Kiev would still be responsible for economic costs.

In October, local elections are supposed to be held in Ukraine – including the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk – free and fair, observed by the OSCE and organized by the Ukrainian government. And yet that is unimaginable. The separatists have already announced elections under their own direction.

In the beginning Minsk II seemed to work. Although the fighting continued, fewer people were killed and battle zones were confined to two main areas – the area around the Donetsk airport, as well as 120 kilometers to the south, near the port city of Mariupol.

By early May, however, both sides began to lay mines and dig fresh trenches that furrowed the flat, fertile land like in wars from long forgotten times. Bases on both sides were no longer so easy to pass. Heavy weapons that had been removed were brought back into position.


Tank Novorossiya flag Russia Ukraine conflict AP
Russian-backed separatists fly the flag of the self-proclaimed Novorossiya, or New Russia. Source: AP


In June, fighters from the People’s Republic of Donetsk tried to occupy the small town of Marinka. Two dozen were killed, but Marinka held on.

“The mistrust on both sides is huge,” said Alexander Hug of Switzerland, deputy leader of the OSCE mission in eastern Ukraine.

He said the separatists and Ukrainian army are preventing his observers from doing their work. As the number of victims rise and fighting expands, residential areas are being shelled again. Mr. Hug fears the latest ceasefire could collapse.

The Joint Center for Control and Coordination, or JCCC, is another curiosity of this war, which is not supposed to be called a war. It was set up by Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE to implement the ceasefire and is based in the Ukrainian resort of Soledar. From there, JCCC officials leave daily to document ceasefire violations.

Although the Ukrainians and Russians are on the go together and see the same thing, each side keeps its own log of whom, when, how often and what is violated. Often the tallies deviate greatly, as if there were two realities – one for Ukrainian eyes and one for Russian.

On July 3, for example, the Ukrainian logbook records 15 violations by Ukrainian armed forces and 38 by separatists. The Russian log counts 27 violations by Ukrainians and 36 by separatists. The only certainty is that currently more than 10,000 ceasefire violations have been logged.

Although 1,147 people officially have been killed in fighting since the middle of February, no one wants to believe that Minsk II is not working. There is no plan B in case it fails, said German government representatives.

Stefan Meister, an Eastern Europe expert, said he has warned Germany’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about depending on Minsk II. But he said diplomats simply don’t want to hear.  Instead, there is a tendency to talk up Minsk II, said Mr. Meister.

For example, consider Item 13 in the agreement. It envisions four working groups in which representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE should negotiate over the economy, humanitarian questions, security and the political process. To the annoyance of the Ukraine government, the separatists also sit at the table.

There are many urgent topics to discuss. Whoever has not yet escaped from occupied areas has not received pensions or been paid. Ukrainian money is tight because banks no longer operate, but the Russian ruble is in circulation. Humanitarian aid only gets through with great difficulty. On both sides, schools and water pipes have been destroyed.

The working groups should discuss all of that. But how can they guarantee moving money when some of the separatists recruit criminals? How can they negotiate about building bridges, even while bridges are still being blown up? How can they renovate streets or organize elections if fighting and killing continue?

The Russians do not see themselves as a party to the war and want Ukrainians to negotiate directly with the separatists. The Ukraine government does not want to recognize the separatists and only wants to talk with the Russians.

“There is a tendency to talk up Minsk II.”

Stefan Meister, Eastern Europe expert

So they sit across from one another and discuss who gets a nametag and who doesn’t – instead of weapon disarmament and aid deliveries. Occasionally, the Russian side leaves the negotiations or does not even show up.

“With Minsk II, some time was won, but it is not being used,” said Mr. Meister.

That time could have been used to stabilize a country weakened by war and near bankruptcy. But something like the readily cited Marshall Plan – which helped rebuild Europe after the Second World War –  failed to materialize.

Not once did the European Union want to grant Ukraine a prospect of admission. Aid for the country remains tentative. The International Monetary Fund and E.U. promised billions in loans, but there are fears the money would disappear into deep holes of corruption.

Development and stabilization is one tool Europeans have. The other is sanctions on Russia – the Europeans have no other means of pressure. So Ms. Merkel tied lifting sanctions on Russia to progress in implementing Minsk II.

She also insisted on restricting the sanctions. In January 2016, the sanctions will automatically end, whether Ukraine is stabilized or not. All 28 E.U. members would have to agree unanimously on extending sanctions – not a likely outcome.

And if Minsk II goes down in war? If the situation escalates? Tougher sanctions on Russia are taboo – holding the status quo would be the maximum possible. So Minsk II must hold. Period.

There must be visible successes by the end of the year. Minsk II indirectly self-imposed that deadline: Item 11 calls for constitutional reform in Ukraine to be agreed upon in 2015.

So pressure for political reform is growing and time is pressing. Some German diplomats say it’s time to approach Russia again. Peace is ultimately only possible with Russia – and without Russia, there would be no war.

Recently an advisor to the Ukrainian president wrote an article in the Ukrainian newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnia. It sketched five scenarios for the country’s future. The first three are radical and unrealistic – loss of the Donbass region, “complete war” with Russia, or complete submission to Russia and all its conditions.

The fourth scenario seems possible – a frozen conflict with an autonomous Donbass inside Ukrainian borders, and an end to negotiations.

But the fifth scenario seems most likely – no war, no peace, with negotiations continuing endlessly.

Minsk II has already succeeded because it forced negotiations, say even diplomats who struggled with the agreement. As long as enemies speak with one another, as long as there are talks, all is not lost.

And yet when will the time come that negotiations become an end in themselves?

Consider the battle between the former Soviet Republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan, in the disputed Nagorny-Karabakh enclave. Like in Minsk II, both sides agreed with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to find a political solution.

That was in 1992. The OSCE is still there today – and the conflict too.


Susanne Petersohn contributed to this story. The article originally appeared in the German newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author:

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