Implementation of autonomy in Donbass is impossible due to current security situation

  • Roksolana Dryndak
  • 13.4.2017 14:34

The establishment of a buffer zone should have calmed the situation in Eastern Ukraine and pave the way for implementation of autonomy. But the fighting continues and the resolution of the conflict is nowhere in sight.

The high-ranking officials of the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, France, Germany and Donbass separatists signed on 21 September in Minsk an agreement on demarcation of the buffer zone – a 30 km wide strip of land between the two struggling sides. It is a move that should lead to stabilisation of the security situation and allow the problematic implementation of autonomy. Not only that the autonomy for Donbas might bring more problems than benefits, but it is also unimaginable in the current situation. The establishment of a demilitarised zone had still not happened.

The first 2 km wide buffer zone was established near the village of Zolote, but in the following weeks, the fighting significantly intensified, by as much as 40 percent. The OSCE monitoring mission reports a daily average of 100 explosions in the front line. The situation can be called neither an open war nor a frozen conflict. New soldiers, rations and ammunition keep flowing to the front lines. Aside from guns, artillery, mortars, rocket launchers and anti-tank missiles are being regularly used as well.

Although in February 2015 Minsk agreements were signed in order to calm the conflict, their fulfilment is not actually enforceable and these agreements do not provide any security guarantees. For now, none of the twelve points of the agreements was fulfilled entirely to the liking of Western powers. While the agreed truce has been formally established in the territory (Art. No. 1), gunfire and explosions are still being reported from the region. Heavy weapons should have been permanently withdrawn in November 2015 (Art. No. 2), but their presence was registered several times in Mariupol. Although there is the OSCE monitoring mission (Art. No. 3), its members do not have access to all locations where operations take place. International law organisations confirm that prisoners of war are being hidden and tortured by both struggling sides. Fulfilment of other points of the agreements has not even started yet. In order to resolve the long-standing conflict, the Western countries put pressure on Ukraine to continue the decentralisation of the country and grant autonomy to the occupied territories.

At the summit of the "Normandy four", which took place on 19 October in Berlin, the issue of deployment of the OSCE armed forces in the area of the conflict has been discussed in connection with the security situation, which is a demand that Kiev called for several times already. However, the German Chancellor said after the meeting that a military mission can be considered only the preparations for regional elections in the occupied territories begin. She spoke in similar terms of the Russian-Ukrainian state border, the control of which should Ukraine assume at the very end of the process, which however presents a big issue to the Ukrainian side. The Ukrainian intelligence service still reports regular "humanitarian" convoys that are being strongly suspected of carrying weapons and ammunition. If this is not stopped, the ceasefire will remain uncertain. Although the permanent OSCE monitoring mission should have access to all of Donbass according to the agreements, its members report that often they are denied access or their safety is not guaranteed. They are not allowed to the locations of heavy weapons, ammunition depots, and the mission has no mandate to stop the convoys.

The truce in Eastern Ukraine is very fragile, almost illusory. The Ukrainian state as a sovereign can be, to some extent, compelled to adherence to international agreements and promises. But as for the separatists, there are no ways to make them abide peace agreements. Negotiations with these groups are mostly mediated by the Russian side, that also defends them and, according to reports of international security services, also controls them. The de facto anything could serve as a pretext for a renewal of the conflict. For instance, on October 16, Arsen Pavlov, infamously known as "Motorola", a close friend of Alexander Zakharchenko, who admitted to murdering 15 Ukrainian soldiers held hostage, was killed in the territory of the People's Republic of Donetsk. Zakharchenko immediately accused the Ukrainian president of violation of the ceasefire and promised retaliation. Thus, there are doubts whether the death of the terrorist wasn't orchestrated by an internal separatist group or Moscow, for which the death of a soldier is a tool for undermining the newly established buffer zone.

From this perspective, the international pressure on Ukraine to immediately implement constitutional reforms is very doubtful. For the international community is certainly easier to put pressure on Ukraine than a military superpower such as Russia. Especially now, when the conflict in Syria is escalating and a common dialogue cannot be found even in the so-far non-issue questions, like utilisation of plutonium. But perhaps that is why it is necessary to intensify talks with Russia. If we look at the eastern border of the occupied territory, we can only guess what future course of action the Russian Federation will choose with regards to the Donbass issue.

The adherence to Minsk agreements is closely related to economic sanctions that significantly harm the Russian economy. However, according to some experts, the sanctions are one of the few barriers that prevent the superpower from re-escalating the conflict. The Russian Federation is working hard to abolish them and some European countries significantly help it in this endeavour, as the government of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Matteo Renzi in Italy, Robert Fico in the Slovak Republic, as well as governments of Austria, Greece and Cyprus. These countries are committed to the common European Union policy on this issue, if this unity should be disrupted, which the Russian Federation tries to achieve, the sanctions could be prematurely lifted. The long-term supporters of the sanctions are the Baltic States, Poland and, with some reservations, also Germany. Sanctions are being extended every six months and it has become a norm that a considerable portion of Petro Poroshenko's foreign visits is dedicated to reminding the EU member states about the need for their extension.

For now, though, Russia has adopted a waiting strategy regarding Donbass, since the conflict slowly but surely exhausts both the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian state budget. Russia has long since abandoned the idea Ukraine joining the Eurasian Union because, after the Euromaidan and start of the conflict in the east of the country, there is no real possibility of Ukraine becoming in any way involved in a geopolitical group of countries supporting Putin's Russia. Subsequently, Donbass could become a Russian Trojan horse that will deplete the strength of its home country, while at the same time threatening with a new, if not worse, war, when the time is right.

From the outline of the situation, we can conclude that the most appropriate step seems to be continuing with the establishment of the demilitarised zone, which would reduce the number of casualties to a minimum. Also, a plan of implementation of the Minsk agreements should be created. However, the essential step is to stop the flow of weapons to the territory, on both sides, including the so-called humanitarian convoys. An armed mission would be particularly helpful with this step, whether realised by the United Nations or the European Union. Only after reaching a permanent ceasefire, the issue of regional elections should be addressed. However, all the displaced persons should have the right to vote as well and the spectrum of candidates should not be limited by separatist groups. International tools to ensure the transparency and fairness of elections should be guaranteed in advance. The passivity of both the EU and the Ukrainian government, together with Russia's destabilising efforts, make the conflict resolution a long-term problem.

About author: Roksolana Dryndak

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