US Policy and Civil War in Ukraine: What Will It Take to Bring Peace?

In a surprising turn of events, the Trump administration recently stressed that Russia must deescalate violence in Ukraine and be held accountable for Crimea. The Russian government quickly responded, saying it doesn’t return its own territories. This exchange came amid a series of scandals around alleged connections of the Trump administration with the Russian government. Many have already interpreted this policy reversal as President Trump attempting to calm domestic tensions and “distance himself” from recent allegations.

Image Courtesy of OSCE, © 2015

Yet in this media frenzy we lost sight of another important problem at hand–the protracted civil war in Ukraine. The media and politicians’ attention to the war has been waning. Meanwhile, thousands of people in the country do not have access to heat, electricity, and basic services. Dozens were injured in the recent flare up of fighting in Avdiivka. And the peace process is failing.

The current conversation around the war focuses on Trump’s Russia policy. The primary concerns center on the role of sanctions, the possibility of lifting them, and the future of general diplomacy. These tools can help alter the incentives of Moscow in Ukraine. However, these tools alone will not resolve the conflict. Here I argue that regardless of pressure applied on Russia, the war will not end without Ukrainian commitment to resolution. To address the war, President Trump needs to revise how the United States can incentivize progress in the peace process in both Kiev and Moscow.

Why is the peace process failing?

The Minsk II agreement, signed in February 2015, was supposed to stop all fighting in the region and pave the way for a political solution to the conflict. Namely, Ukraine was supposed to pass a constitutional reform allowing for decentralization and to hold local elections. Russia was supposed to withdraw all armed formations from the Ukrainian territory. Neither of the parties has kept their promises.

But, without the implementation of these political commitments, the end of conflict is nowhere in sight. Recent research tells us that cease fires without political settlements and mechanisms for implementation tend to fail. Robust designs of peace agreements, in turn, tend to increase the durability of peace. Components such as cease fire monitoring, peacekeeping presence, and sequencing of implementation steps are particularly important.

Lack of a robust agreement design was precisely the problem with Minsk II. The agreement laid out a detailed plan for conflict resolution, but the sequencing of implementation was convoluted. While constitutional reform was supposed to be passed by the end of 2015, no deadlines and steps were set for the withdrawal of armed formations, provision of amnesty, elections, and other stipulations of the agreement. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observation mission received a weak mandate to monitor the cease fire and no peacekeepers were invited.

As a result, Russia has accused Ukraine of failing to move forward with constitutional reform. Ukraine, in turn, has accused Russia of not withdrawing all of its forces from Ukrainian territory. Which one was supposed to come first is not clear from the agreement. The semblance of trust between the countries that led to a successful negotiation of Minsk II seems to have vanished. In this environment, the peace process desperately needs to be bolstered by credible commitments from both sides to move ahead with a political solution to the fighting.

What can the United States do?

There is widespread agreement in the European Union, NATO, Ukraine, and Russia that Minks II should be implemented. The problem is reaching consensus on how current failures can be addressed and how both parties can be incentivized to comply. This is the question that the Trump administration together with E.U. allies should prioritize in working with both Kiev and Moscow.

In terms of Russia policy, the future of sanctions needs to be explicitly tied to the progress in Minsk II implementation. The effectiveness of sanctions in affecting Russia’s Ukraine policy has been hotly debated. But, sanctions were not built to deal with the failure of the peace process. To be more effective, they should be tied to progress in resolving the war, rather than serve as continued punishment for Russia’s actions. Given Trump’s overall stance on improving U.S.-Russia relations, sanctions could be gradually alleviated in case of compliance with Minsk II.

Kiev has to genuinely commit to its side of the Minsk II bargain as well for the war to stop. Right now the United States provides Ukraine with economic and military aid and political recognition, enabling Kiev to not implement the agreement and not fear any repercussions amid widespread western support. Symbolic acts and diplomatic relationships are some of the most effective tools in encouraging peace processes. Given Kiev’s Minsk II failures, the United States must use diplomatic tools to sanction non-implementation as well as to encourage progress. Continued political, military, and economic aid to Kiev should be contingent upon measurable progress in political reform, including constitutional changes and local elections.

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