Turbulence has rocked Ukraine since the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution. In February of 2014, protesters took to the streets after then-President Viktor Yanukovych failed to sign an agreement that would fast-track Ukraine for European Union membership. The peaceful protests escalated to the ousting of Yanukovych. This revolution sparked a secession crisis in the Crimean Peninsula, which in turn generated conditions for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to deploy troops into Ukraine and annex Crimea in its entirety.
The annexation did not satisfy the pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine. Instead, conflicts arose throughout eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian military and separatists. While the official line from Moscow is that Russian troops are not present in the region, evidence indicates that the Russian military aids the separatists, through both manpower and resources. Regardless of whether or not the Russian military is directly involved, a war is raging in Ukraine and civilians are consistently caught in the crossfire.
As of early 2016, UN casualty estimates have climbed above 9,000. However, the total death toll of the conflict is difficult to assess with accuracy. The region is extremely volatile; reporters and human rights workers have been denied access to information, and refused entry into the region itself. In addition, Russia’s claims of non-engagement mean that any Russian casualties must be concealed from the general public in order to save face.
Although the crisis has been ongoing, attempts at peace have been made throughout the past few years. The first agreement, Minsk I, was signed in September 2014 by Ukraine, Russia, and the separatists. Unfortunately, the unstable deal collapsed by January of the next year. A second deal (Minsk II), brokered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, was a comprehensive thirteen-point plan implemented in February 2015. However, Minsk II similarly failed to quell the fighting. Both the Ukrainian military and the separatists have been accused by human rights activists of intermittently breaking the ceasefire over the past two years.
A month ago, a surge of hostility in eastern Ukraine prompted a State Department missive condemning the fighting. The increased violence also elicited a response from leaders in Ukraine and Russia. In mid-February, foreign ministers from Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France met and decided to reinstate the ceasefire laid out in Minsk II. As of February 20th, the agreement took effect, calling for the immediate end of heavy weaponry use in the conflict and the decentralization of power within the region and away from the military, among other things. According to rebel commanders in the area, the truce appears to be holding, although one military casualty and one civilian injury have been reported since. The question remains: will this ceasefire succeed where others failed?
Already, threats to the tenuous peace have emerged. A major stipulation of the ceasefire was the withdrawal of heavy weapons from both sides of the conflict. However, the Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) reported that there had been no sign of arms removal and that forces remain in battle formations on the front lines, increasing the likelihood of further flare-ups. If the two opposing sides have made no moves toward a lasting peace, it does not bode well for the future of the Minsk II agreement.
The international community as a whole is skeptical of the agreement’s strength. The nations who brokered the deal believe that such an agreement could work, in theory. However, few believe that its implementation in Ukraine would actually be successful. The two sides are emotionally and ideologically opposed to one another. Pro-Russia separatists believe that the region belongs to Russia, and that they are a part of the Russian people. The Ukrainian army (and volunteer forces) want independence from President Putin’s Kremlin. Ukrainian fighter Andriy Gergert reflected the sentiments of both sides when he said, “the only thing we can do is kill them. Write that down. We need to kill them all.”
The situation in Ukraine is extremely complicated. An agreement like Minsk II, while suitable in theory, cannot protect the civilian population of eastern Ukraine from ongoing skirmishes. The cultural tensions that grip the region are far too intense. In addition, direct military intervention from either Russia or the international community are also off the table. Overt Russian interference might further damage relations with the West, while an international peacekeeping force would be strongly opposed by the Russians. And if Ukraine hopes to ever regain control of their territories, they need a settlement that the Kremlin will approve. Ukraine’s proximity to Russia, both in terms of the location and nationality of its citizens, means that Russo-Ukrainian cooperation is essential for any kind of peace.
In the coming weeks, the world will have its eyes on Ukraine. While Minsk II seems destined to fail, there is a chance and hope that the fighting that has gripped the region for the past three years will finally come to an end.