The implementation of the ceasefire accords, aimed to resolve the Ukraine crisis and known as the Minsk 2 agreements, Moscow announced recently. However, while full-scale fighting in the war between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists died down in 2015, true peace remains a distant prospect. Shooting and shelling erupts sporadically despite repeated cease-fires called under an internationally mediated peace agreement. The latest truce was declared last week by the Contact Group negotiators from Ukraine, Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), but the antagonists each have claimed violations by the other side since then.
Even if the fear abates for a few hours or days, the region’s economic difficulties make life a constant grind. The Ukrainian government has halted payment of pensions and social stipends to the rebel-held areas and cut off business contacts. The isolation brings both high prices for scarce goods and high unemployment.
If the fighting is less intense than it was a year ago, the issues behind it remain just as passionate and resistant to resolution as ever.
The fighting began after separatists in the primarily Russian-speaking Donetsk and Luhansk regions seized government buildings, saying they wanted no part of the new government formed after Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych fled in the face of mass protests in the capital Kiev. The separatists alleged the new government was so Ukrainian nationalist that it was effectively fascist and would run roughshod over the east.
The Minsk peace agreement signed in February — a second try after the first agreement of five months earlier failed to get traction — calls for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to remain part of Ukraine, but with ill-defined “special status.” That lack of clarity obstructs real resolution, and the continuing fighting and economic suffering only reinforce the stalemate.
“To return to what existed before — to a unified Ukraine, etc. — is already impossible. You can’t wash away our citizens’ memories of what Ukraine did in this period,” said Denis Pushilin, the head of the rebel parliament in Donetsk.
For Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, the situation is equally difficult. Granting amnesty to the separatists and giving them special status, as envisioned by Minsk, could be politically ruinous, angering nationalists who reject any concessions to the rebels.
Ukraine also remains extremely corrupt. On a trip to Kiev, United States Vice President Joe Biden said in a speech before Ukraine’s Parliament that corruption was eating Ukraine “like a cancer,” and warned Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that Ukraine had “one more chance” to confront corruption before the United States cuts off aid. But Poroshenko himself needs to sell all of the assets in his multi-billion dollar business empire. When campaigning for president last year Poroshenko promised to do just that, saying “As president of Ukraine, I only want to concern myself with the good of the country and that is what I will do.”
Poroshenko is the only one of Ukraine’s 10 richest people to see his net worth actually increase in the past year, and his bank continues to expand while others lose their licenses. One of his industrial companies also won a large shipbuilding contract — a clear conflict of interest with Poroshenko’s role as president.
Russia, which Kiev and the West allege is supplying troops and weapons to the rebels, has brushed off the separatists’ drive to be annexed by Moscow and says it is committed to fulfilling the Minsk agreement. Russia last week announced that a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, former parliament speaker Boris Gryzlov, had been named the new Russian representative to the Contact Group.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the appointment of such a prominent figure indicates Russia is intensifying its commitment to the Minsk agreement “despite the fact that efforts to implement this document now unfortunately are in a pretty deplorable state.”