Increased tensions in Ukraine: Call for sufficient political efforts by the international community

 

The attention of the world community these days is mainly on national issues related to terrorism, migration and radicalization, “to be or not to be in the European Union (EU),” or on the nationalistic rhetoric used in the USA presidential campaigns. Politicians who argue that the world is a threatening place and that building higher walls is the solution are increasingly popular.

As a consequence, conflicts around the world, in Somalia, Eritrea, Burundi, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, are not high on the agenda of many politicians, despite the relationship of these conflicts to many national challenges.

For example, Ukraine, a country on the European border, is not sufficiently at the top of Western political concerns. This is troubling. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated this month that “[t]he escalation of hostilities and the accompanying civilian casualties in eastern Ukraine over the last two months are very worrying.”[1]

Moreover, insufficient political efforts towards a solution can lead to further instability in the region, continued problematic relations between the EU and Russia, and increased military build-up by both parties and NATO. The international community should move quickly to take increased political action, as the costs for failing to do so could come at a very high price, a risk that is exceptionally unwise in these times of worldwide crises.

Another reason for immediate action is that Ukrainian Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and Ukrainian refugees are reaching catastrophic proportions. As of 1 August 2016, there were 1.749 million IDPs in Ukraine.[2] According to UNHCR, the total number of Ukrainians seeking asylum or other forms of legal stay in neighbouring countries now stands at 1.074.800 with the majority going to the Russian Federation (942.900) and Belarus (126.800).[3]

Western or Russian ally?

At the heart of the conflict are underlying geopolitical tensions about where Ukraine belongs. Is it part of the West or does it remain in the Russian sphere of influence? What should be the status of Crimea that was annexed by the Russians in 2014?

The Kremlin is playing its cards very openly and is not afraid of using force to defend its goals. It recently deployed its advanced S-400 missile defence system to Crimea. The announcement came two days after President Vladimir Putin promised to take counter-measures to clashes between Russian forces and what he called “Ukrainian saboteurs” in northern Crimea.[4]

Despite this, many Ukrainian people made a clear choice for Europe instead of Russia by supporting the Euromaidan movement in 2013-2014. Notably, students started the protests to get the government to sign the Association Agreement with the EU. To them further cooperation with the EU is of the utmost importance, as it gives them travel, study and work possibilities. Nevertheless, the agreement has only provisionally been applied, as the Dutch still have to ratify it after voters in the Netherlands rejected the Ukraine pact in a non-binding referendum.[5]

Ukraine needs help with essential reforms

For the stability of Ukraine, which is of great importance for the whole region, it is necessary to resolve the conflict but also to have a properly functioning government that respects democracy, the rule of law and human rights. However, according to Carnegie Europe, in the two years since Ukraine’s revolution, Ukrainian politics has revealed its worst side: former corruption fighters have established their own financial-political clans; and former democrats have created a super presidential system, hunted the media, and deprived the opposition from having a say.[6]

The international community should support Ukraine in making essential reforms. Compared with other countries in transition, Ukraine has the advantage of a relatively strong and sophisticated civil society. In contrast, political parties are rather weak and dysfunctional. Following the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)[7] and the United Nations (UN), the role of the EU is important in Ukraine, as one objective of EU cooperation is to support reform.[8]

More specifically, full entry into force of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement should be a priority, as Article 4 of that agreement states that ‘the aim of political dialogue is to strengthen respect for democratic principles, the rule of law and good governance, human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the rights of persons belonging to national minorities, non-discrimination of persons belonging to minorities and respect for diversity, and to contribute to consolidating domestic political reforms’.[9]

Furthermore, the fight against corruption should be at the heart of the reform process and its implementation. The main objective should be to raise the standard of living and to provide for a more equal, fair and open Ukrainian society.

Push Ukraine to end increased military budget

The main threat to Ukraine’s survival is from Russia. Since 2014, the Kremlin’s foreign behaviour has been unpredictable. Russia became more assertive and even aggressive in Eastern Europe. The EU might rightly decide to extend sanctions against Russia until 2017, in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea and deliberate destabilisation of a neighbouring sovereign country.[10] This could push Russia further in the direction of aggression, as it could further undercut the Russian economy.  

It is understandable that Ukraine is eager for better security measures from the West. The Ministry of Defence’s budget for 2016 increased by 16% compared with 2015. At $2.2 billion, the budget amounts to 2.5% of Ukraine’s GDP. Budgetary expenditures allocated to armaments and military equipment are four times higher in 2016 than in 2014.

Rather than a higher defence budget, however, Ukraine might more effectively improve national security by promoting strategies for peace-building and nonviolent conflict transformation. We therefore urge the international community to encourage Ukraine not to increase its military budget, while at the same time promising not to build up multilateral military capacity in the region. In addition, we urge the international community to support the education of the Ukrainian military about disarmament and non-proliferation.[11]

Call for Confidence Building Measures

Despite last year’s Minsk II ceasefire agreement between Ukraine and Russia,[12] fighting continues in the Donbass region. The situation in that part of the country remains tense. The UN Security Council therefore met on 11 August 2016 to discuss this as well as the emergency situation on the Crimean because of renewed tension between Ukraine and Russia.[13] Hopefully it will stimulate the rest of the world to remember Ukraine and to renew its attention to this crisis that has been intensifying.

For a solution to the conflict, clearly, the Minsk agreement must be implemented.[14] Russia and the West have taken new diplomatic steps to encourage the implementation of the Minsk accords and talks continue involving Russia, Ukraine and OSCE, the so-called Trilateral Contact Group.[15] Considering these developments, the international community should seek deeper and more intense contacts in order to develop confidence building measures among all parties involved in the conflict.

A diplomatic solution is the only way out of this conflict. Pax Christi International therefore repeats its call for the United Nations to identify a senior international leader or a neutral country to engage in a confidential dialogue and renewed diplomacy involving all key actors.[16]

Finally, the world should not forget this crisis. It is urgent for Ukraine and Russia to settle their conflict and for Ukrainians to live in a society with strong governance and respect for human rights and the rule of law. For this to happen, the lack of attention from politicians in Europe and around the world to the intensifying Ukrainian crisis must be reversed.

____________

Brussels, 19 August 2016

  • Fr. Paul Lansu, Senior Policy Advisor
  • Alice Kooij–Martinez, Senior Advocacy Officer


[1] UN News Centre, ‘UN warns of escalating tension in eastern Ukraine as casualties hit highest since last August’, August 3rd 2016, online available: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=54615#.V7LoqVOJGM9

[2] Reliefweb, ‘Survey Reveals Hurdles to Integration of Displaced in Ukraine: IOM’, August 5th 2016, online available at: http://reliefweb.int/report/ukraine/survey-reveals-hurdles-integration-displaced-ukraine-iom

[3] UNHRC, ‘Ukraine operational update’, 20 January – 9 February 2016, p.2, online available at: http://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/regionalupdates/UNHCR%20Operational%20Update%20on%20the%20Ukraine%20Situation%20-%2010FEB-1APR16.pdf

[4] Euronews, ‘Russia deploys missile system to Crimea, August 12th 2016, online available at: http://www.euronews.com/2016/08/12/russia-deploys-missile-system-to-crimea

[5] Euobserver, ‘Dutch might not ratify Ukraine treaty, PM says’, June 29th 2016, online available at: https://euobserver.com/foreign/134095

[6] Carnegie Europe, ‘Ukraine from Revolution of Dignity to Government of Shame, April 11th 2016, online available at: http://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/?fa=63293

[7] The OSCE stands for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. With 57 States from Europe, Central Asia and North America, the OSCE is the world's largest regional security organization. For further information see this website: http://www.osce.org/

[9] The EU- Ukrainian Association Agreement can be consulted on this website of the EEAS: http://eeas.europa.eu/ukraine/docs/association_agreement_ukraine_2014_en.pdf

[10] Huffington Post, ‘EU set to extend sanction against Russia until 2017, June 21st 2016, online available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/eu-set-to-extend-sanctions-against-russia-until-2017_us_57691e8de4b0853f8bf20921

[11] Report of the UN Secretary General on disarmament and non-proliferation education, A/71/124, p.9, online available at: http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/71/124

[12] Financial Times, ‘Full text of the Minsk Agreement’, online available at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/21b8f98e-b2a5-11e4-b234-00144feab7de.html#axzz3flTWK9Y9

[13] Russia&India report, ‘Putin, Security Council discuss security measures in Crimea — Kremlin’, August 11th 2016, online available at: https://in.rbth.com/news/2016/08/11/putin-security-council-discuss-security-measures-in-crimea-kremlin-more_620051

[14] Atlantic Council, ‘Now it is not the time to scrap the Minsk Agreement, June 28th 2016, online available at: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/now-is-not-the-time-to-scrap-the-minsk-agreement

 

Ukraine, Minsk accords, EU-Ukraine Association agreement, Russia