Ukraine wants and needs Western support, but will that help end the conflict?

Despite this recent commitment to provide military support in Ukraine until 2019, the conflict is likely to remain frozen.

By: , /
March 9, 2017
Ukraine
A Ukrainian serviceman looks at a wall with portraits of his comrades killed in fighting with pro-Russian rebels, at a position on the frontline at the industrial zone of government-held town of Avdiivka, Ukraine, March 7, 2017. REUTERS/Oleksandr Klymenko

Following meetings on Ukraine last month in Europe, Canada announced March 6 it is extending military training in the country until March 2019. 

When Western defence ministers and heads of state had gathered in Munich last month for their annual security conference, the situation in Eastern Ukraine was among the topics of discussion, with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland holding bilateral discussions with Ukraine’s president and minister of foreign affairs.

For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was also in Europe to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the focus was on Russian sanctions and the Ukrainian military training programme that Canada is running in partnership with the Americans and the British.

As a result, this week’s announcement may not come as a surprise. But it does come at a time when the conflict in Eastern Ukraine shows no sign of easing; on the contrary, it has recently taken a turn for the worse.

Clashes in the industrial town of Avdiivka between Ukrainian and pro-Russia separatist forces in the first two months of 2017 saw some of the deadliest violence since 2015. The importance of Avdiivka lies in its location — it is a major connector between the eastern city of Donetsk and neighbouring cities. As has been the case since the conflict started, both sides blame each other for violating the two-year-old Minsk ceasefire agreement.

That the conflict has re-escalated while the West deliberates is no coincidence. Ukraine did the same thing two years ago in an effort to focus Western attention when G7 leaders met in Munich. In response, Western leaders strengthened sanctions on Russia in the belief that Russia had direct influence over Russian separatists. It is clear that the sanctions regime is having little short-term effect on Russian behaviour and only a marginal effect on its economy.

But for Ukraine, a country that has received over half a billion dollars in loans and aid from Canada, there are real benefits to having the West exert continued pressure on Russia.

For one, Kiev cannot afford to have the United States, Europe and Canada lose interest in Eastern Ukraine in the same way the West has lost interest in Crimea. Nor can Kiev afford to have the sanctions regime crumble amid its own stalled reforms at home. Owing billions of dollars to the West, Kiev needs all the attention and resources it can muster to avoid economic and political collapse.

Similarly, if the U.S. relaxes its criticism of Russia, Kiev will be greatly concerned. Under recently departed Trump advisor Michael Flynn, it appeared the White House understood correctly that a lifting of sanctions on Russia, however ineffective they may be, should not come free of obligations but should be tied directly to real commitments from Russia. Those obligations might have included support for the American war against Islamic State. Now there remains little indication that sanctions on Russia are what the Americans need to satisfy their underlying foreign policy objective beyond horse trading with the Russians. If sanctions are relaxed, that would signal a departure from the status quo. Kiev cannot afford reconciliation between Russia and the West.

Indeed, Ukraine stands to gain the most from a “frozen” conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Simply put, the Ukrainian army is not strong enough to continually antagonize the 35,000-40,000 military forces that are now part of the self-proclaimed separatist states of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). Nor is Kiev prepared to absorb the political impact of an aggressively pro-Russian population. Any shift towards reclaiming Eastern Ukraine, now or in the near future, would easily weaken an already unstable government in Kiev.

Nor is it clear in which direction Ukrainians want their government to go. Ukrainian public opinion is clearly divided on whether a clean break or renewed hostilities are warranted, making any shift from the status quo unlikely. On the one hand, according to a survey from Ukrainian think tank Razumkov Centre, 42.1 percent of Ukrainians support suspension of economic ties between Ukraine and the DNR and LNR (including payments of social benefits, energy supply and coal exports) until the Ukrainian government restores full control over these territories. On the other hand, 36 percent of Ukrainians are not in favour of breaking completely from the region, despite the possibility of ongoing hostilities.

The war also offers a beleaguered government a convenient diversion from problems closer to home. Ukraine continues to suffer from a series of corruption scandals, not least of which is President Petro Poroshenko’s own “Panama dossier.” But other problems persist: the departure of former Minister of Finance Natalie Jaresko, who failed to modernize the country’s corrupt financial system, which was a blow to Poroshenko’s reforms goals; endemic corruption in the health system; weak regulations on small businesses; and growing nationalism among the country’s right are all significant. Public trust in government institutions and elected leaders continues to be very low and is falling. About 24 percent of Ukrainians have expressed support for Poroshenko and his policies, while only 17 percent have confidence in Ukraine’s parliament.

Until Ukraine shows some economic stability and its leaders reasonable political legitimacy and effective authority, inertia, if not a frozen conflict, is the most likely scenario. The work of the Trilateral Contact Group on the implementation of the Minsk agreements has been rather slow and has not shown any progress. The group’s last meeting in September accomplished little and a follow-up discussion was cancelled because of the Avdiivka situation (though talks via telephone reportedly took place on March 3).

As a result, there has been no real progress on key issues, including planned elections in the Donbass and border controls with Russia. Both sides had blamed each other for the breakdown in talks until now. For almost a year the international media has not paid much attention to the ongoing confrontation, despite the fact that around 500 Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer fighters have lost their lives, with more than half of them in non-combat situations.

Canada, which has strongly come out in favour of the Ukrainian government despite concerns of corruption and rule of law, is in no position to offer its services as a mediator. Under the Harper government, Canada was instrumental in drafting the original Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) agreement that became the Minsk agreements, despite its vehement anti-Russian stance. There is even less room for Trudeau to manoeuvre due to this week’s renewed commitments to training Ukrainian soldiers and deploying several hundred of our own in the Baltic states under NATO command.

Such policies are at odds with the Trudeau agenda to rejuvenate multilateralism. Indeed, despite the Liberal government’s desire to seek a seat on the UN Security Council, there are countries such as Ireland and Norway who have done more of the kind of mediation that would justify Council membership. And if peacekeeping was the path that would put Canada back on the Council, then that strategy also appears to now be on hold.

The best that can Canada can do is work with the Ukrainian government to ensure it doesn’t collapse and support the OSCE in its effort to monitor the situation. Should the sanctions regime hold, we can expect a frozen conflict for quite a while. A UN peacekeeping mission could one day be deployed in Eastern Ukraine, but that is unlikely today or in the near future.