PGI INSIGHT: Ukraine – Conflict to continue amid limited progress in peace talks
- Talks between Kyiv and Moscow in Paris on 9 December failed to make significant progress over the Ukrainian separatist conflict.
- Differing strategic objectives, domestic opposition to perceived Russian influence in Ukraine and disputes over elections and border control make a peace deal unlikely in the near term.
- Domestic pressures on the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reduce the chances of Ukrainian concessions on these issues, while Russia also remains unlikely to back down.
- Conflict will continue in the near term with short-lived ceasefires failing to halt the fighting. A summit planned for Berlin in April will be the next indicator of any change in the prospect of a successful peace accord.
The first meeting between Ukrainian and Russian leaders for three years took place in Paris on 9 December attempting to end a protracted conflict in the disputed Donbass region. The level of conflict between Russian-backed separatists and government forces in eastern Ukraine has developed little since 2016.
A negotiated solution appears unlikely to end the conflict. Despite some agreements, including a ceasefire and prisoner swap, progress in the latest talks has been largely symbolic and does not indicate a meaningful transition towards a firm agreement. Prisoner swaps and temporary removal of frontline forces have been negotiated before. Since 2014, over 20 ceasefires have been signed. Any negotiated solution between Ukraine and Russia over Donbass is unlikely amid differing strategic objectives, domestic opposition to Moscow’s influence in Ukraine and disputes over elections and borders.
Barriers to peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia
Moscow and Kyiv have irreconcilable visions for the future of eastern Ukraine. The strategy of Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be to use Donbass to exert greater influence over Kyiv. Moscow wants to gain concessions from Ukraine that would turn Donetsk and Luhansk into semi-autonomous people’s republics, giving them veto powers in Kyiv. This could allow Russia long-term leverage over Ukraine’s Western-focused foreign policy and affect integration with the European Union. Such an agreement would be unacceptable to Ukraine, amid hostility to Russian influence.
President Zelensky is seeking to re-establish Ukrainian control over the border between eastern areas of the Donbass region and Russia and to achieve a demobilisation of separatist forces, both of which are unacceptable to Russia. Domestically, Putin has presented the conflict as protecting a Russian diaspora beyond its borders and will not back down on a conflict Russia is so invested in.
Zelensky is unlikely to offer significant concessions, due to strong domestic opposition to Russian influence. The 2015 Minsk Accord and subsequent agreements have been largely unpopular. Tens of thousands of protesters marched in Kyiv in October 2019 to denounce the signing of a framework agreement, causing Zelensky to backtrack. Similar protests occurred before the Paris summit. Given that Zelensky’s favourability rating has slipped from 73 to 52 percent between September and November, he will be even less likely to concede to Moscow in the near future.
Dispute over elections
A dispute over how elections will be held presents a major challenge to the success of a peace agreement. Both sides agree that elections in Donetsk and Luhansk are a crucial way towards deciding the political future of the Donbass region, but Russia wants these to occur under OSCE oversight under separatist control. Ukraine opposes elections under such conditions, fearing Russian interference. Similarly, Russia steadfastly opposes holding elections under Ukrainian law.
Control of borders
Ukraine seeks the return of control to its borders, but Russia will not cede on this issue. Separatist forces control entry points into the Donbass region from Ukraine and from Russia allowing them to closely monitor the movement of people in eastern Ukraine. Significant disagreements exist over demarcating the future Ukraine-Russian border and potentially those of an autonomous Donetsk and Luhansk, meaning the reinstatement of Ukrainian controlled borders is unlikely.
There is a diminishing prospect of progress in peace talks. Zelensky is increasingly unlikely to compromise amid concerns over domestic opinion. Russia appears to be entrenching its own position, offering passports to 125,000 Donbass residents moving it further away from Ukrainian integration. A planned summit in Berlin in April 2020 will provide another indication of the likelihood of progress. Only similar small gains are likely to be made, with no substantial movement towards a prolonged peace arrangement.
International powers are unlikely to exert successful influence on the peace talks. Western States will attempt to influence talks to further their own agendas, but none of these are likely to solve the conflict. Washington is unlikely to offer Ukraine much assistance as US President Trump faces impeachment proceedings linked to interactions with Zelensky. French President Emmanuel Macron has been a proponent of opening dialogue with Putin. It is possible that Macron might push Ukraine towards an unfavourable deal with Russia if it means further rapprochement with Putin.
As a negotiated settlement remains distinctly remote, cycles of escalating conflict around tenuous ceasefires will continue until a more concrete solution is found. The latest ceasefire is unlikely to hold until the proposed Berlin summit in April. Immediate reports from the Ukrainian Defence Ministry suggest the Paris brokered ceasefire has not been implemented and fighting is continuing at similar levels to before the summit.
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