by David Carment and Milana Nikolko
The Hamilton Spectator
March 14, 2017
As Western defence ministers and heads of state gathered in Munich last month for their annual security conference, the situation in eastern Ukraine and sanctions on Russia were among the topics of discussion.
Clashes in the eastern industrial town of Avdiivka between Ukrainian and pro-Russia separatist forces in the first two months of 2017 saw some of the deadliest violence since 2015. As has been the case since the conflict started, both sides blame each other for violating the Minsk ceasefire agreement.
It is clear that the sanctions regime is having little short term effect on Russian behaviour and only a marginal effect on its economy. But for Ukraine, a country that has received over half a billion in loans and aid from Canada, there are real benefits to having the West exert continued pressure on Russia.
For one, Kyiv cannot afford to have the West lose interest in eastern Ukraine in the same way they have lost interest in Crimea. Nor can Kyiv afford to have the sanctions regime crumble amid their own stalled reforms at home. Owing billions of dollars in loans, Kyiv needs all the attention and resources it can muster to avoid economic and political collapse.
Under recently departed Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, it appeared the White House understood correctly, that a lifting of sanctions should not come free of obligations, but should be tied directly to real commitments from Russia. These may have included collaboration in fighting ISIL. Even with Flynn gone, there remains little indication that sanctions on Russia are the kind of leverage the Americans need to satisfy their own foreign policy objectives. If sanctions are relaxed, Kyiv should be concerned because that would signal a departure from the status quo.
Indeed, Ukraine stands to gain the most from a "frozen" conflict in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine's army is not strong enough to continually antagonize the 35,000-40,000 military forces that are now part of the separatist states of Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People's Republic (LNR). Nor is Kyiv prepared to absorb the political impact of an aggressively pro-Russian population. Any shift toward reclaiming eastern Ukraine, now or in the near future, would easily weaken an already unstable government in Kyiv.
Ukrainian public opinion is clearly divided on whether a clean break or renewed hostilities are warranted, making any shift from the status quo further unlikely. On the one hand, according to a Razumkov Centre survey, 42.1 per cent of Ukrainians support suspension of economic ties between Ukraine and the DNR and LNR (including payments of social benefits, energy supply and coal exports) until the Ukrainian government restores full control over the Donbass. On the other hand, 36 per cent of Ukrainians are not in favour of breaking completely from the region despite the possibility of ongoing hostilities. About 500 Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer fighters have lost their lives over the past year. More than half in noncombat situations.
The war also offers a beleaguered government a convenient diversion from problems at home. Ukraine continues to suffer from a series of corruption scandals, not the least of which is President Petro Poroshenko's own "Panama dossier." But other problems persist: the departure of former finance minister Natalie Jaresko, who failed to modernize a corrupt financial system, endemic corruption in the health system, weak regulations on small businesses and growing nationalism among the country's right are all significant. Public trust in government institutions and elected leaders is low and falling. About 24 per cent of Ukrainians support Poroshenko, while only 17 per cent have confidence in Ukraine's parliament.
The work of the Trilateral Contact Group on the implementation of the Minsk agreements has been rather slow and has not shown any progress on key issues, including planned elections in the Donbass, and border controls with Russia.
Canada, which has strongly come out in favour of the Ukrainian government despite concerns of corruption and rule of law, is in no position to offer its services as a mediator. Under the Harper government, Canada was instrumental in drafting the original OSCE agreement that became the Minsk Agreements. There is even less room for Trudeau to manoeuvre. Renewed commitments to training Ukrainian soldiers and deploying several hundred of our own in the Baltic states under NATO command are clear indications of Canadian bias.
The best that can Canada can do is work with the Ukrainian government to ensure it doesn't collapse and support the OSCE in its effort to monitor the situation. Should the sanctions regime hold, we can expect a frozen conflict for quite a while.
David Carment is a CGAI Fellow, Editor, Canadian Foreign Policy Journal at Carleton University. Milana Nikolko is Adjunct Professor, Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University.