The past seven months have been an interesting period for Ukraine and Russia, over the disputed regions of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. For once, it appears that while political and developmental stagnation may continue, the level and severity of conflict in this protracted international dispute may begin decreasing. Conflict between Russian-backed forces and Ukraine had appeared to be accelerating in magnitude prior to early 2019, with the Kerch Strait incident of November 2018 being one prominent illustration of the existing critical tensions. The occurrence climaxed with the seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels, Russia blockading the strategic Kerch Strait, the imposition of martial law in 10 eastern and southern Ukrainian oblasts for a period of thirty days, and the largescale ban of Russian males between the ages of 16 and 60 entering Ukraine.
However, the 2019 Ukrainian presidential election was the beginning of change and ideological transformation within the nation. The election of 41-year-old Volodymyr Zelensky of the Servant of the People Party signalled a transformation rolling over Ukraine. Zelensky ran under a banner of change, tapping into the increasing public demands for a break in the status quo, and adjustments to tackle the crippling political issues gripping the nation – particularly the Crimea and Donbass political impasse. At the time of his election, 70 per cent of Ukrainians believed the nation was heading in the ‘wrong direction’. A new approach was being demanded over the previous formula which, in many regards, had not succeeded over the past five years. Surging to power with 73.22 per cent of the ballot in the second round of voting, Zelensky set about instituting a new and refreshed political, economic and social order. President Zelensky took office in May, and his Servant of the People Party then took control of the Verkhovna Rada following the July 2019 parliamentary election, winning 254 of the 424 available seats.
The first major development in the current stalemate occurred on 7 September 2019 when Russia and Ukraine exchanged a total of seventy Russian and Ukrainian nationals. Following a series of closed-door negotiations, Russia agreed to release thirty-five Ukrainian prisoners – which included the twenty-four military personnel stationed on the three Ukrainian naval vessels seized during the Kerch Strait incident, Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko who was jailed in 2016 for supposedly ‘conducting espionage activities’ in Moscow, and Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov who, in 2015, was jailed for twenty years for supposedly plotting terrorist acts in Crimea. Ukraine simultaneously agreed to release thirty-five Russians taken prisoner during the past five years of conflict. Both Moscow and Kiev hailed the exchange as important step towards the peaceful conclusion of conflict within the region. President Zelensky observed the exchange as ‘the first step’ to overcoming the impasse, and the Kremlin echoed this sentiment. However, the two opposing parties differed in their appraisal as to which direction this ‘step’ was heading.
President Zelensky and his government were publicly welcoming the exchange as a movement towards a return of the areas annexed by Russian-backed forces to Ukraine. While Russia, on the other hand, was firmly of the opposing view. The Kremlin hoped and believed that this may have been a passage towards Ukrainian acceptance of Crimean independence. Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that it represented a major step forward towards ‘normalisation’. This ‘normalisation’, within the Russian political psyche, is Ukraine implicitly accepting Crimean autonomy. However, this prisoner exchange was nevertheless a promising sign of improvements of dialogue and relations between the two nations.
The second noteworthy development within the Crimea and Donbass impasse relates to the current impeachment proceedings against United States President Donald Trump, and the preceding events which led to the tabling of the two articles of impeachment against him. Currently, the situation is leading to Ukraine and its leadership feeling increasingly isolated in its struggles in its east. The inquiry and now successful impeachment of Trump commenced following the filing and public exposure of an anonymous complaint, filed in August, which critically alleged that during a 25 July 2019 telephone call between President Trump and President Zelensky, Trump had potentially used “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election”.
The concerns were raised specifically in regard to a supposed quid pro quo arrangement which was apparently sought by President Trump. In exchange for President Zelensky pressing for further investigations into the son of 2020 US Presidential candidate Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, Trump would ensure the passage of US$400 million of military aid to Ukraine which had been halted by Trump in mid-July this year. The second element of the supposed quid pro quo arrangement is allegedly that in exchange for Ukraine publicly committing to reopen investigations in Hunter Biden, a White House meeting between the two presidents would occur.
The issue surrounding the Bidens relates to Hunter Biden assuming a board position within Ukraine’s largest natural gas producer, Burisma Holdings, in 2014. Some commentators and US government officials had expressed concerns at the time regarding the son of the then Vice-President of the US holding such a position, however, no action was taken. In December 2015, Vice-President Biden had informed the then President, Petro Poroshenko, that if the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, Viktor Shokin, was not dismissed, the US would withhold one billion US dollars in loan guarantees. Then in 2019, President Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, claimed that Joe Biden had sought the dismissal of Shokin in order to protect Hunter Biden and his son’s interests in Burisma Holdings.
The whole impeachment issue has certainly had a large impact upon Ukraine by diverting attention away from the Crimea and Donbass impasse. Ukraine is front and centre in a massive geopolitical struggle and a key element of the current US domestic politics, yet attention has moved from Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. This has been compounded by other co-existing events. The April 2019 recall of the then US Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yavanovitch – which occurred within a storm of controversy – and President Trump not yet appointing a new ambassador has created simultaneous and overlapping issues.
A member of the Ukrainian parliament, speaking under anonymity to Associated Press in late 2019, argued that the US has been showing increasing indifference to Ukraine, especially following the resignation of US Special Representative for Ukraine, Kurt Volker. It is necessary to note subsequently, that while the US is currently occupied by internal pressures, Moscow is increasingly showing its willingness to attempt to fill the void.
This then leads the third development, which is certainly the most progressive sign which has emerged over the past seven months. On 9 December 2019, President Putin and President Zelensky agreed to “commit to a full and comprehensive implementation” of a ceasefire within the Donbass region by the end of 2019. Following discussions held in Paris between the Ukrainian and Russian presidents, Kiev and the Kremlin committed to a cease fire, while also aiming for an ‘all-for-all’ prisoner exchange by the end of this year, purportedly set to take place on 24 December. The parties will also seek three additional disengagement areas by the end of March 2020. Despite these talks certainly not being all encompassing in nature, and while the wording of bilateral communiqués should not be interpreted as the reality of situations, the meetings did positively address a considerable portion of key issues which currently grip the Donbass region.
Certainly, this last occurrence is a positive gesture and it most likely represents a movement towards some form of peace in the region. However, the entire issue around eastern Ukraine remains extremely contested, and the path forward still remains unclear.
First and foremost, while there is somewhat of a thaw of relations, in some respects, the key issue remains. That problem is that Ukraine and Russia still hold steadfast positions regarding the annexation of Crimea and of the current conflict in Donbass. It is highly unlikely that, even under the new Ukrainian leadership of President Zelensky, that Ukraine would ever accept the actions of Russian-backed separatist forces or be willing to legitimise the annexation of any Ukrainian territory.
While some commentators now claim that Crimea and Donbass are beyond the point of ever ceding back into Ukraine, it is debatable whether Ukraine would ever voluntarily permit them to become independent. Similarly, it is not at all likely that Russia would ever remove the federal subject status of Crimea or Sevastopol.
The second consideration is specifically in reference to the Donbass region, comprised of the Ukrainian oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk, which are both currently claiming sovereignty under their own proto-state structures – the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, respectively. While the agreement sought between Russia and Ukraine will fix some complications, it will not necessarily stabilise the crises within and between Luhansk and Donetsk. The two proto-states have a ‘love-hate’ relationship. Naturally, one would assume that the two entities – being neighbouring bodies which both hold similar autonomist aspirations – would support one another and have amicable relations. The reality is not so clear-cut, nor rosy. As recently as early December 2019, Donetsk imposed a hard restriction on all goods imported from Luhansk, irrespective of the country of production of the products. In response, the ruling authority of Donetsk noted that “if prohibitions and restrictions on the importation of goods from the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic, analogous prohibitions and restrictions…will be established”. And this kind of policy is just one of many instances of tension between the two proto-states.
Unfortunately, in regard to the situation in Crimea and Donbass, it does not have any clear resolution within sight. While this month’s dialogue and agreements between Ukraine and Russia were a major step in the direction towards positive change within the region, they do not represent a golden solution to everything. Rates of poverty and crime within Crimea and the Donbass area continue to grow, and political and social freedoms are extremely limited. For instance, the United Nations Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonović, made very specific reference this year to widespread electoral-related intimidation and abduction occurring in the Donbass region. Tragically, even children and youth are not immune from the tragedy engulfing the region. The UN Children’s Fund estimates that approximately half of all children and adolescents between the ages of seven and eighteen within the region have been subject to “adverse or threatening events”.
To say the situation in Donbass is devastating would be an understatement. It is critically important for the lives of all those within the region that a solution to the seemingly impassable stalemate be found. This will certainly take time – especially given the current rate of progression through the impasse – but it is imperative that negotiations, and potentially concessions, be made by all concerned parties to ensure the end of violence, and a future for the culturally and socially rich region of eastern Ukraine.
Words by Thomas Paparo
Image by Oleksandr Klymenko