Donetsk International Airport is in ruins. Yet Russian-backed militia groups and Ukrainian government troops continue to fight over the debris of hangars, runways, and terminals that a year ago provided a bustling and modern hub for eastern Ukraine.
The fighting continues because Donetsk airport has become a symbol for both sides in a war that is taking place on Europe’s Eastern borders and that could undermine stability in other parts of the region. Perhaps it is time to involve new actors in efforts to resolve the conflict.
Whoever wins controls over the area around the airport will be able to establish a demarcation line between territory held by pro-Russian separatists and that controlled by Ukrainian government forces. Over the past several days, the fighting has led to many civilians deaths.
It is that upsurge in the conflict that spurred Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to try again to broker a peace deal during talks in Berlin on January 21 with his French, Ukrainian, and Russian counterparts—a quadrilateral known as the Normandy format. Steinmeier, who has become increasingly pessimistic over the past few weeks about negotiating any kind of settlement, was downbeat after the four-hour meeting.
“There was an agreement reached today that the demarcation line, mentioned in the Minsk protocol, will be the line from which the withdrawal of heavy weaponry should start now,” Steinmeier said. “A lot depends on the question [of whether] what we have agreed on will not only remain printed paper but will also change the situation on the ground,” he added.
German diplomats no longer have any illusions about being able to broker a long-term ceasefire, despite Chancellor Angela Merkel’s repeated telephone calls to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Amid the fighting and negotiations, it’s easy to blank out the human costs of a war that is taking place just a few hours’ plane journey from Berlin. Over the past year, at least 4,700 people have been killed, the majority in eastern Ukraine, according to the United Nations.
At least half a million people—and that’s a conservative estimate—are internally displaced, according to the UN’s refugee agency. They consist of children (27 percent), the elderly or disabled (21 percent), and women (65 percent). Their living conditions are deteriorating. Many homes have been destroyed. There is a lack of water, electricity, heating, and food. Such misery is happening on Europe’s Eastern border.
By December 2014, nearly 9,000 people had asked for international protection in EU countries, with the largest numbers seeking refuge in Poland, Germany, and France. More than 317,000 have applied for temporary or permanent residency permits in Russia (222,000), Belarus (60,000), and Poland (23,000). Warsaw has begun to evacuate Ukrainian citizens who belong to Ukraine’s ethnic Polish minority.
The longer the fighting continues, the greater the flow of refugees, and the greater the number of internally displaced people. And the more likely that all sides in the conflict could become hardened.
Moreover, the region’s stability, especially in Belarus, cannot be taken for granted. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is loath to cede sovereignty over his country, which is a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, to Russia. But he is also reluctant to move closer to the EU, at least at the moment.
Against such a background of more fighting, refugees, and internal displacement, maybe it’s time for Germany, which has taken the lead in all the peace efforts so far, to expand the Normandy format. In practice, this could involve the countries directly affected in some way by the war, such as Poland and the Baltic states. Why not Belarus as well?
Poland tried to play a mediating role until summer 2014, before the Normandy format was established. The new foursome—and Poland’s absence from it—suited Putin. For the Kremlin, Warsaw was considered too anti-Russian.
But it is not only a question of involving the region in trying to seek a ceasefire. What about the role of civil society organizations from Ukraine and Russia?
Maybe it is naive to believe that Putin would even consider involving genuinely nongovernmental organizations. After all, he has tried to muzzle the Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, an NGO that tried to report on the number of Russian soldiers dying in Ukraine. And any criticism by the Russian media of Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine has received short shrift. Yet that is all the more reason to reach out to independent NGOs and hear their voice.
In Ukraine, civil society movements and the population at large are growing increasingly disappointed with their government. A new report by the Center for Eastern Studies, a Polish think tank, shows a Ukrainian public critical of the country’s lack of reform, lack of accountability for those who were involved in repressing the opposition during the 2014 pro-democracy demonstrations, and lack of perspective. The war in eastern Ukraine feeds into this frustration. “The situation threatens the outburst of another wave of protests, public readiness to participate in which remains at a high level,” the report states.
This is bad news for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his government. With a continuing war in his country and pressure from the EU and the International Monetary Fund to introduce reforms, his room for maneuver is limited. Involving civil society movements and governments from the region might just put a different perspective on negotiations.