The last best chance for Donbas and peace in Europe?
- The Euromaidan building in Kiev was on fire in 2014 – six years of civil conflict have followed, with little end in sight
By MATTHEW ROJANSKY, SABINE FISCHER AND OLEKSIY SEMENIYWASHINGTON/BERLIN/KIEV, TODAY, 12:18
The costs of the continuing war in Ukraine are unacceptable not only for those who have borne them most directly—the people of Ukraine—but for the entire Euro-Atlantic community of nations.
Since 2014, over 13,000 have died in the fighting, over 25,000 have been wounded, and some 2.5 million have been forced from their homes.
The economic, environmental and psychological impacts of this destruction will linger for decades. Even now, the fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region underscores broader conflict between Russia and the West, deepens distrust, and raises the very real risk of escalation, including to potential nuclear war – a danger that many hoped had been left behind with the end of the Cold War.
Yet this year offers the last best chance to contain and manage the fighting in Donbas, and to begin the process of conflict resolution for the longer term.
In 2019, the Ukrainian people voted overwhelmingly for new and bold leadership, in both presidential and parliamentary contests recognised by the international community as free and fair.
Since then, president Volodymyr Zelensky and his government have taken vital steps to advance the cause of peace and conflict resolution, including conducting direct talks with Russian leaders, and reviving the dormant ‘Normandy Format’ of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France at the summit-level in December.
So far, these talks have yielded real progress: reduction in ceasefire violations, evacuation of heavy weapons, and the start of prisoner exchanges on the basis of “all-for-all.”
Whether the leaders meet again this year, and whether more can be achieved, depends to a great degree on continuing support from the wider international community, including European Union and the United States.
That is why at the Munich Security Conference this weekend the Euro-Atlantic Security Leaders Group (EASLG) have released a statement, Twelve Steps Toward Greater Security in Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic Region, endorsed by nearly 50 distinguished current and former senior officials, military officers, and experts.
This statement recognises the drivers and costs of the current conflict in Donbas, and sets forth a dozen practical, concrete steps that can be taken now to address urgent security, humanitarian, economic, and political concerns around the conflict.
First, we recommend restoring the Joint Center for Control and Coordination with full Russian and Ukrainian participation -this body, which is charged with stabilising the ceasefire line and implementing ground-level security aspects of the 2015 Minsk agreements, has been dormant since 2017.
Second, we call for a military-to-military dialogue in the so-called N4 format of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France, as a means of linking the N4 political process with the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM), and other regional security forums, such as the Nato-Russia Council.
With these safeguards in place, the next essential step in implementing the Minsk agreements must be a full, lasting and verified ceasefire, with enhanced freedom of movement for all civilians, but especially the SMM throughout the region now controlled by the armed forces of the conflicting sides.
The population on both sides of the conflict line is suffering a humanitarian catastrophe, thanks not only to continued fighting, but to difficulties accessing individuals and communities in need.
Two concrete steps should be taken with the support of Russia, Ukraine and the wider Euro-Atlantic community: the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Commission on Missing Persons should be granted full access and cooperation by local and national authorities in their essential work, and Ukrainian and international authorities should expand de-mining in and around the conflict zone.
With damage from the fighting measured in tens or perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars, a credible comprehensive strategy for reconstruction of the region and its further sustainable development will be essential to any durable conflict settlement.
International actors, especially the European Union, could take the first essential step by supporting a needs assessment for Donbas reconstruction, a topic to be discussed at the Delphi Economic Forum in March.
In addition, to support restoration of economic linkages between Donbas and its neighbours on all sides, and to incentivise future international investment, Ukrainian, EU and Russian authorities should examine the possibility of a special industrial, investment or free trade zone status for the region.
European Union and the United States should also clarify to Russia the conditionality of current sanctions, perhaps via a “roadmap” for sanctions relief in exchange for full Minsk implementation.
The United States and Russia can reprise successful cooperative threat reduction efforts from the past by working together to remove industrial and research related radiological materials from the Donbas.
Broader political steps may be the most difficult, but they are necessary to transform the current situation of escalating conflict and declining trust into one of stability and mutual security.
The EASLG itself provides a platform for renewed dialogue among Euro-Atlantic states about the fundamental building blocks of security for the region, however it is up to governments to take steps to restore productive official dialogue.
One example could be the EU-Russia “selective engagement” process, including through regular exchanges at the highest political level.
In US-Russia relations, a restoration of regular “strategic security” dialogue and meetings between senior uniformed and civilian security officials are needed.
Finally, within Ukraine, president Zelensky has embraced principles of inclusivity, pluralism and tolerance, and these should be reflected as well in dialogue between Ukraine and its neighbours on all sides, including on the most difficult themes of history and national memory, language, identity and minority experiences.
The steps outlined above and in the EASLG statement will not alone resolve all challenges related to Ukraine, let alone broader regional security.
For example, the difficult but vital issue of Crimea was beyond the scope of our current effort.
Progress on this and many other challenges will to a large degree depend on Russia’s future actions and policies.
Yet the steps outlined here represent an essential beginning, and in view of last year’s progress, we believe now may be the last, best chance to get Donbas conflict resolution – and therefore European security – back on track