Ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine

On Friday September 5, a ceasefire between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatist rebels in the east of the country (mainly Donestk and Luhansk oblasts) went into effect, following the meeting in Minsk of a “contact group” representing Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and Russia. 

Q1: Why did the two sides agree to a ceasefire? Why now?

A1: In the weeks leading up to the Minsk agreement, Ukrainian forces’ gains against the rebels in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk (a region collectively referred to as the Donbas) were rapidly reversed after Russian troops began intervening directly in the conflict. Russian military forces advanced in the direction of Mariupol, a major port on the Sea of Azov in southeastern Ukraine, opening up a new front even as additional Russian assistance allowed the rebels to push the Ukrainian army back from Donetsk and Luhansk, which had been on the verge of succumbing just weeks before. Meanwhile, the lead-up to the NATO summit, which convened in Wales September 4-5 made clear that, despite President Poroshenko’s request for assistance and a path to membership, the Alliance was not prepared to provide Kyiv with significant military aid that would allow it to change the balance of forces on the ground (the summit agreed to provide $20 million of non-lethal aid as well as a commitment to expand training of Ukrainian forces, but neither NATO nor its individual members have offered Kyiv weaponry).

Ukraine’s economy is also deteriorating rapidly. The IMF estimates that Ukraine’s economy will shrink by 6.5% this year, and warned that Ukraine requires an additional $19 billion just to cover a shortfall in the central bank’s reserve (in addition to the $17 billion already provided by the IMF this past spring). Allowing the conflict to stretch on into the winter threatens Ukraine with a gas crisis as well, since Russia has halted shipment of gas though Ukrainian pipelines since the start of the conflict. The situation on the ground in Donetsk and Luhansk is also becoming increasingly dire. Over 3,000 people have been killed and at least another 5,956 wounded since mid-April 2014, and more than 200,000 others have fled to Russia.. Kyiv cannot afford to see the Donbas completely devastated if it harbors any hopes of maintaining control of the region over the longer term.

For the rebels, the ceasefire creates an opportunity to pursue their political aims from a position of relative strength. These aims include greater autonomy from Kyiv and closer ties to Russia, though some rebel factions continue to advocate for outright independence. The ceasefire also allows Moscow to insert itself as a direct participant in the process of determining the future status of Donetsk and Luhansk—as well as of Ukraine itself. Moscow’s push for a ceasefire last week was also likely motivated by a desire to affect NATO summit discussions of assistance to Kyiv as well as limit the impact of additional sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU. A new round of EU sanctions, targeting the Russian oil and gas sectors in particular, is slated to come into effect on Tuesday September 9, but EU officials have stated that these sanctions could be suspended or extended depending on developments on the ground in Ukraine.

Q2: What are the terms of the ceasefire?

A2: The ceasefire agreement, which was signed in Minsk by former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, the Russian Ambassador to Ukraine, and the OSCE Permanent Representative, contains twelve points. Rebels from the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” participated in the Minsk talks but did not sign the final peace plan.

The twelve points of the ceasefire agreement include:

  1. An immediate cessation of hostilities by both sides;
  2. Deployment of an OSCE monitoring and verification mission to ensure compliance;
  3. Kyiv’s agreement to decentralize power to “certain regions of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts” under a law on special status for these regions;
  4. A permanent OSCE monitoring team along the Russo-Ukrainian border and creation of a “security zone” on both sides of the border;
  5. Unconditional release of all prisoners and detainees;
  6. Kyiv’s agreement to pass a law granting amnesty to those who took up arms against the government in Donetsk and Luhansk;
  7. Agreement to conduct an inclusive national dialogue in Ukraine;
  8. Agreement to take steps to improve the humanitarian situation in the areas where fighting has taken place;
  9. Immediate elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts under the law on special status;
  10. Removal of “illegal armed formations, military equipment, as well as fighters and recruits” from Ukrainian territory;
  11. A program for the economic rehabilitation of the Donbas;
  12. Guarantees for the personal security of those engaged in peace talks.

A working group is set to begin meeting on Monday, September 8 to begin discussing the conflict’s underlying political issues.

Notably, after months of denying that it was a participant in the conflict and demanding that Kyiv negotiate directly with the rebels, Russia participated directly in the Minsk talks, and signed onto the contact group’s plan for ending the fighting. The Minsk plan also includes the seven points laid out by Russian President Vladimir Putin during a telephone call with Poroshenko on Wednesday September 3 and announced at a press conference in Mongolia later that day. Russia’s participation in the Minsk talks and co-sponsorship of the ceasefire agreement suggests that Moscow is keen to assert itself as the primary interlocutor between Ukraine and the rebels, signaling that any lasting peace requires Russian assent.

Q3: Does this mean the fighting in eastern Ukraine is over?

A3: Obviously it is still too early to say for certain, and there were reports over the weekend of artillery fire near Mariupol and the Donetsk airport, but the ceasefire is only the first step in seeking a political solution to the conflict. Negotiations for a more lasting resolution will follow, starting with the September 8 working group meeting, but for now the positions of the different sides remain far apart. The Ukrainian government has accepted the need to de-centralize power, giving Ukraine’s regions (including Donetsk and Luhansk) greater control over their budgets and the choice of local executives. The rebels do not even have a common position among themselves, with some factions continuing to speak of independence as the ultimate goal, while others discuss federalization of Ukraine, which would go far beyond what Kyiv is offering and which some observers fear would give Moscow too much influence. Disagreements have already broken out, for instance, over what constitutes an “illegal armed formation.”

Since the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” were not signatories to the ceasefire agreement negotiated in Minsk, it is unclear to what extent they even consider themselves bound by its terms. Moscow can continue to use the “people’s republics” to put pressure on Kyiv, but it remains unclear if Moscow can compel all of the rebel factions to go along with any peace deal. The leader of the Luhansk “people’s republic” claimed that the law conferring a special status on “certain regions of Donestk and Luhansk oblasts” would allow the “people’s republics” there to maintain their own armed formations and to organize the upcoming elections without the “military and informational pressure of Kyiv.” It remains to be seen whether the Ukrainian government will assent to the separatists organizing their own elections or maintaining armed forces.

Russia’s eventual endgame is also unclear at this point. From Moscow’s perspective, the conflict is about more than the status of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts—Russia wants guarantees that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO and that the recently signed trade agreement with the European Union will not adversely affect Russian interests. Ukraine, whose leaders recently spoke of removing the guarantee of Ukraine’s “non-bloc” status from the constitution to allow it to pursue NATO membership, may well balk at these conditions. Russia’s larger project to re-create the Tsarist-era territory of “Novorossiya” (including Donetsk and Luhanks oblasts as well as Russian-occupied Crimea and potentially other parts of southern and eastern Ukraine and Moldova’s disputed Transnistria region), which Putin has hinted at on numerous occasions, also remains in limbo. Having used the vision of Novorossiya to stir up nationalist sentiment and mobilize domestic support for intervention in Ukraine, Putin cannot easily walk away from the Novorossiya project, especially if Ukraine continues its path towards deeper integration with Europe.

Given the six month history of this conflict, including the failed ceasefire of June, the many unresolved issues noted above, and the suspicious timing of Putin’s proposal designed to impact NATO discussions last week and EU discussions this week, it is hard to be optimistic about the prospects for ceasefire. Nevertheless, with winter’s approach not so far off, Ukrainian economic challenges mounting, and Russia facing deeper economic sanctions from the West, the rationale for both Moscow and Kyiv to reach some kind of peaceful accommodation may seem increasingly compelling. Over the past three weeks Moscow has demonstrated clearly by bringing regular military forces across the border that it will not tolerate a total loss for the insurgents in eastern Ukraine. The West has demonstrated just as clearly that despite strong rhetoric it is not prepared to support Ukraine with lethal aid to confront Russia’s military escalation.

Still, the odds of success in the near term are daunting, as many hard issues remain unresolved. Additionally, neither Poroshenko nor Putin is fully in control of the military forces on their side of the conflict (while Putin clearly commands the Russian forces involved in Ukraine, his control over the “people’s republics” is less certain), even if one were to assume both leaders honestly intend to end the fighting--something that definitely remains a question mark in the case of Putin. It is also striking that, despite this conflict being potentially much more dangerous than, for example, the Yugoslav wars of succession in the 1990s, there remains no international figure or party ready to dirty their hands with the very difficult business of facilitating a negotiated settlement—nor is it clear that the parties (especially Russia) would be open to such external mediation.

Andrew Kuchins is the director of the Russia & Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Jeffrey Mankoff is a deputy director and fellow in the Russia & Eurasia program at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jeffrey Mankoff
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Andrew C. Kuchins