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New ceasefire reached in Donbass, but for how long?

By Uriel Araujo | July 31, 2020

The war in Donbass (part of a broader Russo-Ukrainian conflict) is often called the “forgotten war” in Europe. It has killed over 13,000 people since 2014. The conflict has been described as “frozen” since Minsk II agreement (February 2015). Such did not put an end to war itself – periodic shelling and fighting along the line of contacts never stopped – but since then, the number of casualties decreased and no further territorial changes occurred.

There have been other ceasefires: 2017, for example, was a year of intense fighting and quite a few failed ceasefires. In 2019, an agreement (often described as the “Steinmeier formula” after its German proposer) was signed between the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, and both “rebel republics”: the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). It came of course after intense negotiation and it basically proposes that free election be held in the LPR and DPR territories – observed and verified by OSCE officials. Subsequently, these territories could be reintegrated into Ukraine with special “autonomous” status. Some Ukrainian and rebel troops did withdraw after this agreement.

Unfortunately the Coronavirus pandemic has caused the Donbass situation to go backward. However, on Sunday, a new ceasefire was decided by the Minsk Trilateral contact group (backed by Putin and Zelenskiy), starting on Monday and that has generated some hope. However, two breaches have already been claimed by the Ukraine military on Monday, minutes after midnight, involving grenades and machine guns (no casualties were reported). Besides, other issues still linger such as the situation of war prisoners.

It is indeed too early to speculate on what will be the outcome of it. For many Donbass residents, being once again a part of Ukraine became unthinkable. The Ukrainian government’s offensives did take a large toll on civilians in Donbass. Hospital, schools, the local energy company’s office and many other buildings in the city of Horlivka (Donetsk), for example, were destroyed or damaged by shelling (in 2014). Many struggled without electric power and water cut off. Such wounds take some time to heal. Furthermore, on February (2019), Ukrainian legislators repealed a bill which would have made it possible for people living in both rebel republics to get their pensions without needing to take difficult trips outside of the conflict zone and then back home.

On the other hand, experts have noted that after the hottest phase of the war, so far there have not been large-scale civilian atrocities. It could indicate neither side has an interest in further fomenting “ethnic” divisions for political gain: there have not been mass rapes, mutilations or other such type of civil war tactics.

According to a key Luhansk official, the main challenges of Donbass now are not of a humanitarian nature but rather mostly political. There is no hunger, but there are indeed economical problems, most of which would be at least ameliorated if it were not for the lack of recognition from the international community. Both rebel republics are currently recognised only by each other and by South Ossetia, which in its turn, is itself a partially-recognised state.

This being so, neither of the two republics have embassies abroad. However, some representation bureaus have been opened, in Russia, Italy, France and a few other European nations. Last year, the LNR opened its first bureau outside of Europe: a “Cultural Representation Office” in Congo. This was a “foreign policy” win for the LNR, which is increasing dialogue with Congo and seeking other potential interlocutors.

It is hard to tell whether either of the two republics would be “viable” (both are heavily dependent on Russia as of now) without gaining international recognition. And the Russian Federation in its turn shows no intent of integrating Donbass into its territory – Donbass is not Crimea.

Professor Jesse Driscoll at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego sees the conflict as a civil war and not merely as a proxy war between Russia and Ukraine. In his view, describing it as a “civil war” – thus emphasizing internal Ukrainian political problems – should not be confused with a “capitulation to Russia” of some sort. It is rather about recognizing some of the valid concerns of the Russian-speaking and pro-Russian Ukrainian population (this region after all has historical and cultural ties to Russia).

To further complicate things, one should not think of the Donbass war as an ethnic conflict plain and simple. Ukraine is of course a strongly bilingual society (both Russian and Ukrainian, with a high degree of intermarriage). Furthermore, many people may declare themselves ethnically as either Russian or Ukrainian, depending on context. In fact, many self-declared “ethnic Ukrainians” are Donbass separatists (“pro-Russian”) while there were and are “ethnic Russians” fighting on the Ukrainian side – on the Azov battalion, even. The truth is that one’s political stance is often a better predictor – regarding one’s attitude towards the conflict – than language or ethnicity. And the main dividing issue was and is of course Maidan. It is about 2 possible Ukraines: one is an European nation, closer the West and the US. The other is a natural ally of Russia and part of the “Russian world” (culturally) and is also proud of its Soviet heritage.

These are the two world-views currently clashing in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the plight of the civilian population of Donbass remains.

Uriel Araujo is a researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts.

July 31, 2020 - Posted by | Aletho News | , ,

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