BY: DR. DAVID BASSIOUNI
Ukraine is of deep interest to Russia due to their shared history. Ukraine was a territory in the Russian empire since the 1600’s, only separating in 1918 with the collapse of Czarist Russia. In 1921, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was established after Russia conquered two-thirds of the country. The third part integrating into independent Poland but once again becoming part of Ukraine in World War II. Ukraine was integral to the USSR during this time, serving as the granary of the Soviet Union and as its gateway to Asia and the Baltics vis-à-vis the Black Sea. It was also an important nuclear base for Russia. But the country was victim of the 1932-33 famine induced by Dictator Joseph Stalin and later, it bore the brunt of the April 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster that was underplayed due to celebrations around the end of the war, which undoubtedly resonated in the public memory since Ukraine was one of the first Soviet republics to vote for independence in 1991.
With the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Russia agreed to respect Ukraine’s borders in return for Ukraine transferring its Soviet-era nuclear arms to Russia. However, Russia kept control of a Sevastopol Naval Base in Crimea – home of the Black Sea Fleet – and Ukraine’s Orthodox Church also remained tied to Russian Patriarchate.This contributed to continuing tension in Ukraine’s political alliances and democracy resulting in the country experiencing many challenges with allegations of corruption and rigged elections. When protests against President Yushchenko erupted, the government was accused of bowing to Kremlin pressure and backtracking on plans to sign an EU trade deal. The protests prompted unrest in Russophone areas of Ukraine which Russia claimed on the excuse of protecting ethnic Russians from far-right extremists. Ethnicity is complicated further as the two countries share a language and family ties; popular Russian culture and media being popular across Ukraine; many Ukrainians work in Russia; and, Russians have billions invested in Ukraine.
The crisis in Eastern Ukraine was triggered by several factors. Politically, Russia’s annexation of Crimea prevented Ukraine from joining NATO and allowed them to keep their Sevastopol base. They see their actions as a “reunification” and the respect for the right of self-determination, but the West views it as a threat to European security and a violation of territorial integrity. As discussed, the roots of the problem and the source of the distinction can be traced back, particularly to the Cold War which ended without fully establishing a new system to replace the bipolar one. The absence of a peace treaty meant that no new rules for the great powers were established, creating “a gray area” which serves as grounds for the existing contradictions and escalation of conflict.
The crisis in Eastern Ukraine created a dire humanitarian situation faced by 4.4 million conflict-affected people. After four years of conflict, 3.4 million people in Ukraine are still struggling to cope with the impact of the humanitarian crisis and urgently require humanitarian assistance and protection. Every day, the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine forces millions of civilians to make impossible choices whether they eat, have medicine, or their children go to school. Critical civilian infrastructure is severely impacted, as ceasefire agreements are consistently disregarded and violated. In 2018 alone, there were on average 40,000 violations per month. Several technicians were shot while trying to maintain critical water infrastructure along the “contact line” and over 130 incidents affected critical water infrastructure,” leaving the water supplies to over 345,000 civilians hanging in the balance.
Over 600,000 people, including 100,000 children, bear the brunt of the continued armed clashes along the 457 km ‘contact line.’ Every month, over 1 million people are forced to cross the “no man’s land” through checkpoints, many to simply access basic humanitarian and social services. More than 2,500 civilian men, women and children have been killed, and over 9,000 injured, since hostilities began four years ago. Explosive hazard contamination in eastern Ukraine is impacting 1.9 million people, including around 200,000 children. The use of landmines across urban areas, farmland and the checkpoints are a constant concern. The humanitarian community is committed to meeting the humanitarian needs of all conflict-affected people in Ukraine. In December 2017, humanitarian agencies launched a highly prioritized US$187 million appeal to reach over 2.3 million of the most vulnerable people in Ukraine with assistance and protection services. So far, despite extensive appeal by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, this appeal remains largely unfunded.
The first deal to end the crisis in Ukraine was signed in early September 2014. This agreement, known as Minsk I, soon broke down. By January 2015, full-scale fighting had broken out again. In February, Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s François Hollande stepped in to revive the ceasefire, brokering a “Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements,” known as Minsk II. The Minsk Protocol (later known as Minsk-1) with the Minsk Memorandum of September 2014 and the Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements (Minsk-2) constitute agreements between Ukraine and Russia to resolve the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The Minsk Agreements were first negotiated in a telephone conversation between Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko, and then in the Normandy Format, between representatives of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France. Later the Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE), drafted and signed them. There are only two parties to the Agreements, Ukraine and Russia. France, Germany, and the OSCE oversee the negotiations. In signing the Agreements, the basic intention of Ukraine was to de-occupy the uncontrolled territories and regain full control of them while Russia needed either another frozen post-Soviet conflict or for Ukraine to absorb the occupied regions on Russia’s terms. Hence the stalemate.
The breakthrough to the crisis in Eastern Ukraine lies in all the parties in conflict and their backers especially OSCE and USA, France and Germany to get involved seriously in removing the obstacles to the implementation of Minsk II and make it work. It may become necessary to attract and draw in a third-party country, e.g. Germany, that enjoys the respect and trust of both Russia and Ukraine to mediate the de-freezing of the relationship between them to move forward with a robust implementation of Minsk II. Unless and until this is done, the crisis in Eastern Ukraine is frozen in inaction and a wait-and-see stance! This and the occupation of Crimea are the two raw wounds that will test the patience and power of restraint of the two super powers, USA and Russia and either hold them back from the brink of a World War III or at best, ensure the return of the Cold War!
Dr. David S. Bassiouni is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Bassiouni Group, where he leads the company’s mission to empower global institutions and communities in the developing world through Sustainable Development, Strategic Public/Private Partnerships and Socially Responsible Investment. Dr. Bassiouni is also a United Nations Veteran, having served in the UN system for over twenty years in leadership roles with UNICEF, OCHA, DHA, UNDGO.
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