It has been nearly a year since Russia forcibly annexed Crimea, and yet tensions remain extremely high in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbass region. Since fighting began in April 2014 between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian army, more than 5,500 have been killed and nearly a million people have been displaced. On February 12th of this year, a Franco-German proposed ceasefire known as Minsk II was reached between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Despite the recent detente, the fragility of the agreement and the future of the provinces remains uncertain.
In September 2014 the Minsk Protocol (or Minsk I) attempted to broker a ceasefire between the Ukrainian army and separatist units, but it failed to properly quell the conflict and soon after effectively broke down. A heavy rebel offensive in January of this year resulted in the separatists gaining control of the highly symbolic Donetsk airport, prompting the need for a renewed halt to the fighting. Minsk II called for an immediate and full bilateral ceasefire, the withdrawal of all heavy weapons, the release of hostages, and allowing the restatement of Ukrainian government control. It also calls for constitutional reform in Ukraine with the adoption of a new constitution by the end of the year. Although Minsk II has thus far slowed fighting, the battle for the city of Debaltseve left approximately 500 civilians killed after the institution of the ceasefire. The strategic city of Mariupol similarly falls under a gray area within the agreement, and sporadic fighting has persisted on a small scale in pockets throughout the Donbass.
Russia has repeatedly denied its direct involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but it is clear the Kremlin is more connected than they are letting on. Separatists have been confirmed as coming from Russia, but Putin refers to such combatants as ‘volunteers’. The true extent of Russian material support and their level of military engagement has been shrouded in uncertainty due to Russian interference, though it is clear a weakened Ukraine is beneficial to Russia’s regional aims. Amnesty International has cited growing war crimes and rising Russian involvement as destabilizing to the situation.
Outside of the Donbass, Russia has greatly increased its military capacity in Crimea and the Black Sea, moving mobile ballistic missile systems to the Crimean peninsula and expanding its surface ship and signals intelligence ship deployments. General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme commander in Europe remarked, “What we’ve seen is easy to describe as the militarization of Crimea … Crimea has become very much a power projection platform.” In response, NATO nations have stepped up their presence in the Black Sea region and have been conducting joint military exercises. While tensions seem to be growing, the actions are largely posturing and not necessarily indicative of impending conflict.
Further recent revelations have shown just how far Putin may be willing to go to get his way in the region. Putin admitted that he ordered the Russian defense ministry to deploy elite units to Crimea “under the cover of strengthening the protection of our military facilities,” and he was preparing to arm the nation’s nuclear weapons.
The Minsk II agreement came at a surprise to many, and if it can successfully be carried out it would mark the first significant step towards ending the crisis. While the West has hesitated at escalating the conflict by militarily backing Ukraine more directly, it should further pursue the diplomatic route so long as military conflict remains at a minimum. Future internal political questions will remain for Ukraine ahead as it considers federalization and decentralization, which should also be monitored with respect to the will of the Ukrainian people, especially the 5.2 million living in the zone of conflict.