by David Carment, Miliano Nikolko, andDani Belo
February 9, 2018
On Jan. 18 Ukraine's parliament voted in a draft comprehensive law on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The law has gained a lot of attention because it identifies Russia as an aggressor and occupying state. The law makes no reference to the Minsk Agreements, the acceptance of which was provision for the lifting of sanctions against Russia. Nor does it recognize the Luhansk Peoples Republic (LNR) and the Donetsk Peoples Republic (DNR) as legitimate parties to the conflict. Indeed, there is no mention of the peace agreement brokered by France and Germany in 2015, which obliged Kyiv to develop legislation concerning autonomy and amnesty for its minorities. Instead Kyiv's trade and transport blockade will be reinforced. Most importantly the law realigns Ukraine's military by granting extra powers to the president of Ukraine, as de facto Commander of the country's United Forces without Parliamentary control.
The Russians have questioned Kyiv's motivation for this fundamental strategic change, suggesting that the United States stands to gain the most from the new law by selling even more arms to Ukraine while simultaneously making it more difficult for the separatists to abide by the Minsk agreements. The U.S.'s long standing strategy is to drive a wedge between Russia and Europe. Just last week, for example, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned an energy deal that would see even more Russian liquefied gas exports to Germany.
The Canadian government has been silent, reflecting its uncertainty on how the law could affect Ottawa's commitment to the Minsk agreements and to the OSCE's efforts there. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland's support will be tested as Ukraine moves to a more firm war footing. The most troubling aspect of the legislation is the right to impose martial law giving the president far reaching and unprecedented powers that are at odds with the country's constitution. Should the law be implemented, political and civil rights could be at risk. In that event, Canada's aid accountability act requires a parliamentary review of its development assistance to Ukraine. The free trade agreement (CUFTA) which was signed into force by the Liberals could also be cast into doubt.
The most ambiguous aspect of the new law is the assertion that Russia is an unwelcome occupant of Eastern Ukraine, which can and should be forcibly removed from Ukrainian territory. The reality is more complicated than the phrase "occupier" would suggest. On the one hand there are signs of Russia's deeper economic integration with Eastern Ukraine as Kyiv's embargo takes hold. When the Ukrainian government terminated all social assistance transfers to the Donbass region almost four years ago, Russia began sending Eastern Ukraine about $820 million annually to cover social benefits and pensions. In 2015, both the LNR and the DNR transitioned to the Russian rouble. Today about 90 per cent of all transactions are Ruble based.
On the other hand Russia is not the only unwelcome occupant. For example some of the most important players in this conflict are substate criminal elements who fight on behalf of one, or both of the conflicting parties. Considering that even prior to the conflict, 35 per cent of the Ukrainian economy was operating "in the shadows," the environment is set up perfectly for an underground economy, engaged in black market arms sales, profiteering, smuggling and trafficking.
Another unwelcome occupant are the private militias, many of them answerable not to Kyiv but to regional oligarchs. Oligarchs, though unelected, exercise a great deal of influence and power in Ukrainian politics. Unfortunately some of the militants they support, such as the notorious Azov Battalion, stand in the way of compromise.
Ukraine's new law can only add to the complexity and ambiguity of the situation making resolution an even more challenging task. The Minsk agreements are now cast in doubt. Should Ukraine's controversial law be fully implemented, the chances for peaceful settlement will decrease significantly. The next step is to keep a cautious eye on Canada and the United States whose unconditional commitments to Ukraine will likely embolden the lawmakers in Kyiv even more.
David Carment is a Professor of International Affairs, Carleton University, and a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Milana Nikolko is Adjunct Professor, Institute of European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies Carleton University. Dani Belo is a Doctoral student, Carleton University.
Image credit: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA/EFE