Conflict Resolution in Ukraine: Which Scenario to Choose?

  • Valeriia Krykhta
  • 22.7.2020 09:21

Since 2014, the conflict in Ukraine has remained an unresolved security challenge for actors in Eurasia and beyond. It has created repercussions for interstate relations in the region and worldwide, led to some economic fluctuations and endangered human security. This article elaborates four potential scenarios of conflict resolution and concludes on their probability depending on the basic dilemmas, or “red lines” of the Ukrainian conflict.

The Toxic Dilemmas of Conflict Resolution in Ukraine

The Ukrainian context is filled with conditions that preclude the conflict from a faster settlement. All these dilemmas (that very often tend to transform themselves into “red lines”) have some considerable motives behind them, and they result in a very low possibility for compromise. These motives are of vital importance for the main actors involved: Ukraine, Russia (together with the leaders of proxy entities in Donbas), and the European Union represented by Germany and France.  

  • direct dialogue of Ukrainian authorities with the so-called representatives of DPR/LPR

It is unacceptable for the Ukrainian side for the purpose of not legitimizing the Russian proxies (moreover, DPR/LPR are recognized as terrorist organizations under Ukrainian legislation). At the same time, it is highly desirable for the Russian side and seems as a necessary step from the perspective of European states that base their considerations on previous experience of conflict resolution in Europe.

  • “security first, politics later”

The dilemma is about the possibility of having local elections only after Ukraine gains total control over its borders to prevent influence operations from the Russian side. At the same time, Russia insists on holding elections first, referring to the Minsk agreement`s provisions.

  • amnesty for the members of paramilitary forces

The problem with this issue stems from the alive grievances in the Ukrainian society and the approach on the selection of persons that would be subject to amnesty. 

  • representatives of former DPR/LPR running for legislative and executive power

This turn of events may become a threat of further destabilization of Ukraine, as soon as pro-Russian political forces establish themselves in power.

  • autonomy for Donbas

Together with the previous dilemma, the change in the administrative geography of Ukraine may create additional centers of tension in other regions of Ukraine. Again, it is a desirable turn of events for Russia that would be able to have additional leverages on Ukrainian decision-making through the autonomy. 

  • separation of Donbas and Crimea issues

Having Crimea off the table in this conflict`s resolution would mean its loss for Ukraine in the long-term perspective, and would require very strong political will of the Ukrainian authorities. In addition, disregarding the occupation of Crimea would question the credibility of European powers` policy.

  • asymmetric potentials of Ukraine and Russia

Incomparability of the actors` military forces has considerably limited Ukraine`s chances for a rapid military offensive, which in the event of failure could have led to the loss of territories previously in control. 

  • Russia`s refusal to recognize its participation

This Russian approach disrupts some possible measures of post-conflict settlement (such as damage compensations).   

  • continuous violations of ceasefire that lead to casualties

In this issue, the dilemma lies in the possibility for Ukraine to go for a painful compromise under the Russian terms in exchange of termination of armed hostilities.

  • incompatibility of interests laid down in Minsk agreements – a standoff with no alternative formats

For both Ukraine and Russia, pursuing the implementation of Minsk agreements to the full would mean some concessions the actors are not willing to make. At the same time, all existing suggestions towards de-escalation include Minsk provisions, leaving open the question of their possible interpretation.

As we try to project international experience of conflict resolution on the Ukrainian case, we see that the majority of these dilemmas happen to be at the core of the scenarios suggested by Ukrainian and foreign analysts to end the conflict. Thus, the possibility of applying them to the conflict correlates positively with their ability to cope with the dilemmas.


Most Widely Referred Models for Donbas

Scholars and political analytics both in Ukraine and worldwide suggest the following resolution scenarios in the context of this conflict: Croatian scenario, Pakistani scenario, Bosnian scenario, and German scenario.

         Croatian scenario: solution by force / UN interim administration

The Croatian experience of conflict resolution is usually distinguished between unilateral use of force and the UN Transitional Administration in eastern Slavonia, Baranja, and Western Syrmia (UNTAES).

The first one refers us to the subsequent military operations (Operation Flash and Operation Storm) carried out by Croatian army on 4–7 August 1995, which resulted in the elimination of Srpska Krajina. The similarities with the conflict in Ukraine are usually drawn due to the similar confrontation with a proto-state created and sponsored by Serbia. In fact, this scenario has been employed during the first offensives in 2014, but resulted in substantial defeats.   

A prompt elimination of separatist entities could ease conflict resolution for Ukraine, as it would capture the disruptive elements and continue the peaceful dialogue with local population. At the same time, it is questionably beneficial for other actors involved, as it obviously means a failure for the Russian strategy in Ukraine, and ensues high levels of casualties undesirable for the European approach in this conflict`s settlement.

In sum, perils of this model`s application in Ukraine outweigh the possible benefits for several contextual reasons. First of all, as it has been proven by the events of summer 2014, Ukrainian`s army potential should have been considerably higher to oppose the enemy. Furthermore, unlike Srpska Krajina, the so-called DPR/LPR have been receiving strong Russian injections of military equipment through numerous border sections with Russia. This can be put down to the dilemma of asymmetric potentials, which has not been resolved by now even with numerous reforms of Ukrainian military forces. Finally, Ukraine lacks social consolidation over a decision to renew an offensive (supported by only 18% of Ukrainians) and risks to suffer from reputational losses in the eyes of its Western partners.

Another conflict resolution experience from Croatia is the UN interim administration, i.e. UN Transitional Administration in eastern Slavonia, Baranja, and Western Syrmia. Eventually, this approach made the reintegration with Croatia possible, and is considered to be one of the most successful UN operations in Eurasia. First steps included the withdrawal of Serbian armed forces, disarmament of local militias, and formation of special police forces. They opened the way for local elections under Croatian constitution and partial amnesty.

As we can see, the application of this model to Donbas could resolve several dilemmas stipulated above, such as the long-lasting ceasefire (which the UN forces would guarantee positioned on the frontline), “security first, politics later” issue (as peacekeepers would monitor the Ukrainian side of the border preventing any arms supplies or provocations from Russia), and finally, amnesty process (by providing unbiased conclusions on the selection of persons to be subject to it). In sum, this scenario seems highly beneficial for both Ukraine, Germany, France, but also the US, as the United States Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker has been the active supporter of the idea.

Nevertheless, the main drawback of this scenario for Donbas lies in its dependency over the Russian stance, and its ability to use veto in the Security Council respectively. For Russia, total control of the administration over the conflict area would mean losing the leverages to influence the subsequent political developments. In addition, the momentum for the implementation of this scenario has been lost by Ukrainian authorities in 2018 in the eve of the upcoming elections.


         Pakistani scenario: complete separation

This scenario traces back to the independence of Bangladesh after a long-lasting uprising against Pakistani authorities. Even though the Donbas context is different due to the absence of distinct ethnic or religious features of the region, this model has been on the table, in particular with the “wall project” suggested by some Ukrainian officials.

The certain attractiveness of this scenario lies in a possibility to resolve the dilemmas of DPR/LPR “representatives” affecting the Ukrainian political agenda. In an event of a complete separation, the problem of a direct dialogue would disappear, as well as the threat of these forces being integrated into the parliament. However, it is to bring huge side effects like further polarization of the society (only 5% of Ukrainians support this idea), loss of valuable resource deposits and infrastructure in Donbas, but also tacit consent to Crimea occupation. Moreover, such readiness of Ukraine and the West to tolerate separatist sentiments could lead to a risk of “separatism spillover” in Ukraine and further Europe. Nor it is acceptable to Russia, which needs its proxies to influence Ukrainian politics. In sum, one may conclude that despite the attractiveness of this scenario in the short-term, it could bring serious additional security challenges in the long run.


         Bosnian scenario: painful compromise

In other words, this scenario means a federalization model based on three ethnic groups that was established in Bosnia and Herzegovina under 1995 Dayton accords. The similarities are drawn with the conflict in Ukraine predominantly due to the provisions of the Minsk agreements. Even though they do not stipulate federalization directly (and Ukrainian authorities have been stressing that this option is unacceptable), the agreements do presuppose elections with DPR/LPR representatives participating, and, most importantly, specific governance mode and status for the areas previously controlled by DPR/LPR. Thus, the Bosnian scenario in Ukrainian reality would mean negotiations under the existing agreements leading to some changes in the administrative mode of Ukraine and conflict-torn areas.

This model is highly controversial as it involves the dilemma of implementing Minsk agreements and the question of autonomy for Donbas. Bringing these two conditions into life would be the most beneficial option for Russia, and it would probably be a middle ground option for the EU representatives in this conflict – Germany and France – due to its peaceful character, existing legal ground in the form of Minsk agreements, and an instrument of autonomy familiar to Europe in the context of separatism. Overall, going down this path in conflict resolution in Donbas would require minimum costs for these actors, in comparison with, for instance, the abovementioned peacekeeping mission and interim administration.  

The bone of contention lies in the fact that under this scenario, Ukraine finds itself suffering the worst costs and repercussions. From the very beginning, agreements concluded in Minsk presupposed dangerous concessions from the Ukrainian side. The model threatens Ukrainian national interests in several ways, starting with conflict preservation without eliminating hostile elements and sentiments. As admitted in the Bosnian case, even after resolution the state has remained in permanent crisis. Apart from internal frictions, the state remains restricted in its foreign policy steps due to its federal structure. Finally, in the event of holding elections previously to Ukraine gaining control over the border, there is a risk of establishment of a pro-Russian fraction in Ukraine.


         German scenario: magnet theory

This scenario for Donbas is a variation of Magnettheorie – a strategy first mentioned by Konrad Adenauer and subsequently implemented by West Germany. This strategy is usually credited for its decisive effects in the unification of the country, specifically through drawing human resources from East Germany with showing West German prosperity both symbolically and in practice (by granting financial loans and investments to the East).

In its application to Donbas, the scenario requires recognition of a chronic character of the conflict, as it presupposes long-term strategic planning. It may prove to be of the biggest utility to Ukraine, but also its European partners, which will escape continued bloodshed. Nevertheless, magnet scenario would require substantial successful reforms and economic breakthrough in Ukraine to maximize its value for the third actors. To be effective, it should include a comprehensive strategy on Donbas reintegration from the Ukrainian side.

Still, this model does not provide answers to the majority of essential dilemmas of the conflict in Ukraine. For instance, this economically-oriented scenario does not resolve the situation with casualties still happening among military and civilians. This way, it should rather be regarded as an additional scenario to be realized simultaneously with other conflict resolution efforts.


Which Scenario to Choose?

The options of a unilateral military offensive and separation of conflict areas seem to be the least applicable to the Ukrainian context. The moment for such decisions has already gone, the Ukrainian society is now willing to see peaceful integration of Donbas, and the Western partners have invested too many powers in negotiations to allow for escalation of violence or the legitimation of another “grey zone”. As we can see from the example of Pakistani scenario, even though it is able to resolve some basic dilemmas (such as direct dialogue with DPR/LPR and their engagement in Ukrainian politics), it is not always enough to outweigh the resulting security challenges. Next, the German scenario may look appealing for the situation, however, it is not realistic for the nearest future. Most importantly, divided Germany did not find itself in the state of war with casualties happening almost every day. That is why the situation in Donbas would require more immediate decisions to stop hostilities, with German scenario being implemented simultaneously to eliminate conflict potential in the minds of population (as the main accusations, leaving behind Russian propaganda, were economically motivated).

In sum, the most realistic scenarios for Donbas are the UN interim administration and a variation of the Bosnian model. With respect to the first one, it can be concluded that the scenario would be quite successful with its potential to resolve three basic dilemmas of the conflict and open the way for peaceful and legally grounded reintegration. Unfortunately, it seems that the model has dropped out of the limelight. Moreover, Russia has refreshed its most beneficial scenario with its own interpretation of the Steinmeier's formula that has been already encouraged by Germany and France. Finally, the option of peacekeepers and UN administration is not promoted by the Ukrainian authorities themselves.

All this leads us to the situation where the modified Bosnian scenario can become the basis for conflict resolution in Donbas. Ukraine has already prolonged the law on the special status of the conflict areas, which should regulate their subsequent reintegration. However, as can be concluded from the latest Normandy Summit, moving forward under this model has so far been possible only with respect to humanitarian issues, such as prisoner swap or the creation of humanitarian corridors after some troop withdrawals. The dilemma of “security first, politics later” remains unresolved, and in order to find the way out of this standoff, Minsk agreements would require modifications, and, respectively, the readiness of both Russia and Ukraine to accept them.

About author: Valeriia Krykhta


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