Eastern Ukraine: A Dangerous Winter

Europe Report N°235 18 Dec 2014, icg


Winter in Ukraine is injecting further uncertainty into an already volatile conflict. Concerns are increasing about the strong risk of a humanitarian crisis in the south-eastern separatist-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. The separatists have a rudimentary administrative structure, few competent administrators, ill-trained militias and little in the way of a long-term strategy. They will be hard pressed to survive the winter without major Russian aid – financial, humanitarian or military. Ukraine, meanwhile, is dragging its feet on implementing reforms to address its manifold economic problems. Both Kyiv and the separatists are under pressure from their war lobbies. The near-term risk of further hostilities is high. There is an urgent need to halt the conflict, separate the troops, deploy substantially larger numbers of international monitors across the warzone and the Russian-Ukrainian border, as well as take immediate steps to assist civilians on both sides.

The separatists are clearly aware of their vulnerability, both in terms of security – their militias are a bewildering array of uncoordinated and poorly led military units – and in political terms – their inability to provide basic services for the population could seriously undermine their support base. They also admit an ambiguous relationship with Russia. They say that Moscow will intervene to avert major military or humanitarian catastrophes, but has no plans to recognise the separatist entities or provide major development or reconstruction aid. And they say that while Russia is playing a long game for the control of Ukraine, they are trying to stay alive for the next six months.

Renewed hostilities could take a number of forms. A Ukrainian offensive would almost certainly trigger a Russian military response, as Russian forces showed when in August 2014 they inflicted a devastating defeat on Ukrainian troops in Ilovaisk, near Donetsk city, stopping their hitherto successful offensive. The geographical status quo has prevailed since then. A ceasefire brokered in September has been largely ignored. A powerful group within the separatist leadership feels that they will not survive without more land, and clearly wants to resume offensive operations, in the belief that this would also bring in the Russians. Separatists are hoping for another “Russian Spring” – their term for Moscow-encouraged and fomented seizures of power in other south-eastern oblasts. And, should weather conditions impede resupply of Crimea by sea this winter, Moscow may intervene to open up a land route from the Russian border through Ukrainian territory. Either move would undoubtedly be viewed by the EU, U.S. and other supporters of Ukraine as a major escalation and lead to further sanctions.

EU and U.S. sanctions may well have deterred a further Russian advance along the Black Sea coast after Ilovaisk, and seem at the moment to be deterring any substantial separatist advance beyond the current frontline. They have also added to the pain of Russia’s economic downturn. The EU’s tough line on sanctions surprised Moscow, which assumed that consensus in Brussels would quickly disintegrate. But there is little sign that either the U.S. or the EU have thought about ways to de-escalate when the need finally arises. Russia is following a similar improvisatory path. It underestimated the implications of annexing Crimea or intervening in eastern Ukraine. It protects the entities from Ukrainian attack, but seems reluctant to do much more than that.

Improvisation needs to be replaced by communication between all sides. This would help defuse tensions, perhaps prepare the ground for consultations between the main warring parties, and allow all sides to concentrate on humanitarian assistance in the coming winter. Russia could confirm that it has no plans to recognise the separatists. It could reject the idea, often floated in Kyiv, of a major Russian offensive in the spring. Kyiv could similarly promise to refrain from offensive military operations during this period. It could spell out publicly and clearly to the people of the east what political solution it has in mind for their areas after the war, and offer a clear assurance that it will, with Western assistance, help rebuild the east. Such an approach by all sides would not only help Ukraine weather a dangerous winter, but also allow it to emerge in the spring with hope for the future.

This report concentrates largely on one of the lesser known aspects of the crisis – the thinking and capacity of the separatist leadership, their relationship with Moscow and their views of the future. It does not present an overall analysis of the U.S., European Union and member states’ policies on the crisis.


To stabilise the security situation in the east and start building confidence on all sides

To the Ukrainian government and separatist leaders:

1.  Open channels of communications on humanitarian, economic and social issues to reinforce efforts to achieve a political solution.

To Russia:

2.  Declare that Ukrainian predictions of a Russian or separatist offensive in coming months are baseless; spell out the exact nature of its political relationship to the separatist areas of the east, in particular that Moscow has no plans to recognise their independence.

3.  Propose negotiations with Kyiv to resupply Crimea by land during the winter, using the 2003 agreement with Russia and Lithuania as a precedent; and offer wholehearted support for a significant increase in the number of monitors on the ground in the south east.

To Ukraine:

4.  Announce that it will refrain from offensive military actions in the south east during winter.

5.  Agree to facilitate the delivery of emergency humanitarian assistance, if needed, to the separatist-held areas.

6.  Consult with the international community on ways to lessen the impact for non-combatants in Donetsk and Luhansk of presidential decree 875/2014, which declares illegal any bodies established by the separatists on the basis of their 2 November elections, and removes all Ukrainian government institutions from separatist areas.

7.  Reach out to the east, particularly Ukrainian citizens in separatist-controlled areas, and stress its abiding concern about their well-being; and address accusations that Ukrainian troops have shelled urban areas in Donetsk and elsewhere, and announce an open and transparent inquiry into such claims.

To Russia, the EU, U.S., Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other international actors involved in the peace process:

8.  Move urgently to demilitarise the conflict by substantially increasing monitors on the ground, both to separate the forces and closely observe the Ukrainian-Russian border; and declare the Donetsk airport neutral territory under international supervision.

9.  Draw up contingency plans for major emergency relief operations in Donetsk and Luhansk if the situation continues to deteriorate.

10.  Urge separatist and Ukrainian leaders back to the negotiating table.

11.  Continue to urge the Poroshenko administration to reach out to the population of the separatist-controlled areas.

To the EU, U.S. and other parties engaged in the peace process:

12.  Review sanctions policy to create incentives for Russia to de-escalate, and move away from a sanctions policy that is open-ended and does not identify trigger events specific enough to allow for their gradual removal.

13.  Declare a willingness to make significant financial support available for the speedy restoration of Donetsk and Luhansk once a solution to the conflict has been found.

Kyiv/Brussels, 18 December 2014