Six years of armed conflict. Occupation. Displacement. More than 13,000 recorded deaths in a violent struggle of sovereignty, nationality, and power.
I bet you didn’t think I was talking about Ukraine—you know, that forgettable, mid-sized, “second world” country squashed between Russia and the European Union—which has been at war with internal separatists and its global power neighbor, Russia, for almost a decade. Journalists and readers alike tend to forget about slow-burning news, the kinds of regional deathbeds that folks come to expect and flip the page on. We forget that, for those on the ground, these seemingly inconsequential hostilities are lived experiences. Limbs torn from bodies; families ripped apart; native tongues and ways of life abandoned. To them, the six-year-old story is not “old news.” It’s middle school, a first girlfriend, a death in the family.
So, what possibilities remain for peace in 2020? In terms of reduced carnage, a lot. But the root cause of the conflict can’t be assuaged by the balm of international agreement.
Putin simply has far more to gain from disobedience to international agreement than he would gain. Take a look at the conflict’s origins: back in November 2013, pro-Moscow President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych abandoned a deal to establish political and economic ties with the European Union in favor of establishing stronger ties with Russia. Pro-European Union Ukrainians didn’t like that, so they took to Kyiv in a protest coined the “Euromaidan.” The upheaval ended with the ousting of Yanukovych. Well, Russia didn’t like that, so Putin and his military annexed Crimea, one of Ukraine’s former republics, and continues to occupy it today in violation of international law. Pro-Russian Ukrainians, largely acknowledged to have been led by Russian influencers and backed by the Russian army, also fought back with their own counter protests, seceding from Ukraine to form the separatist “People’s Republics” in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the Donbass. What we see here is a concerning trend of polarization: Russian resistance has met Ukrainians at each of their efforts to change teams to the EU.
If you take a look at geography, this makes sense: Ukraine basically serves as a buffer between Russia and the EU curtain, situated between NATO allies—Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland—and Russia. It is integral for Putin’s Russia to have a pathway to the EU market for crucial exports, including oil (Russia’s oil pipeline literally runs straight through Ukraine), natural gas, and other resources, which are frequently shipped via key ports located in Crimea that provide Russian and Ukranian access to the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.
For Russia, access to one of the largest natural resources markets in the world is indispensable, especially considering its limited economic diversity: crude petroleum, refined petroleum, and petroleum gas constitute Russia’s top three exports. Putin has no intention of allowing Ukraine to be influenced or controlled by the EU when so much hinges on its location and cooperation. Western measures of deterring continuing violence through lazy economic sanctions couldn’t scratch the surface of all that could be lost, so it’s no shocker that surface level economic punishment has basically done nothing.
Enter Minsk II, a confusing little peace treaty which then-President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko and Putin signed half a decade ago, in 2015. The agreement asks for everything you’d want: it details a ceasefire and creation of a security zone dividing the territory of the Russian-backed separatists from that of Ukraine, as well as a withdrawal of “foreign armed groups” (namely, Russia), and a plan for how a now-separated “People’s Republics” could be reintegrated into Ukraine.
So far, Minsk junior has been successful in its panoptic enforcement of de-escalating the front lines. The treaty outlines a 13-point plan to end the fighting, beginning with a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons, followed by a prisoner exchange, local elections and amnesty for fighters. Under comedian-turned-Ukrainian-president Volodymyr Zelensky, these clearcut timestamps and goals have surprisingly been met.
But there’s just one problem: Russia lacks an incentive to further comply and Ukraine lacks the bargaining or military power to enforce compliance. Both sides have violated the ceasefire, and the security zone remains a site of sporadic, yet active, warfare. Oops.
On Ukraine’s end, Zelensky is in a bit of a bind. He’s facing ongoing domestic pressures from nationalist groups that claim the agreement is merely a capitulation to Russia that “favor[s] defiant rebels over other loyal Ukrainians,” referencing separatist regions earning special status under Minsk. In fact, Ukraine has fought a war for five years against exactly what Minsk calls for: increased autonomy and language privileges for rebellious regions that no other citizens now enjoy. Worse yet, having Crimea or the Donbass regions involved in Ukrainian elections could slant the outcome in favor of Russian interests, which would “jeopardize the country’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions and social cohesion.” With increased pressure to ask for more, Zelensky may be politically boxed into making further requests that Putin has no good reason to cough up.
For Russia, implementation of Minsk means removing its military occupation of Crimea and potentially reducing its influence over the Donbass, thereby losing its almost complete control, when maintaining it requires comparatively fewer resources and little risk. To be frank, Russia’s done pretty well accessing resources for itself by force, despite sanctions and disapproval by the Western world. Reintegration of separatist-held regions decreases Russian control, while dissatisfying the Ukrainian public—an outcome that satisfies neither party.
…And it certainly can’t help matters that Putin gets a nice ego stroke every time he violates these agreements. Literally: His approval ratings skyrocket as he approaches Ukraine with a heavy military hand. Only two months after Russia annexed Crimea in spring 2014, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) released polling information indicating that Putin’s approval ratings reached 85.9 percent—a six-year high—with many pollsters indicating “The high level of approval of the president is closely connected to the difficult situation in Ukraine, with some 52 percent of the respondents in the last week calling the events a major factor.” As Michael Kimmage points out, Putin “has more to lose from looking weak than from looking recalcitrant” when it comes to his public image.
I’m not saying that international agreements don’t work when we’re talking about wars between a powerful country and a not-so-powerful country. But powerful, capitalist countries like Russia rarely act out of the goodness of their heart—especially if nobody is watching. Frankly, military violence has diminished recently because OSCE and other international groups are watching. But Putin has no good reason to believe that the EU and U.S. would plausibly intervene in a conflict with Russia when Ukraine—a country whose only assets are oil access and buffer positioning between Europe and Russia—is the only casualty. Nor does Putin really benefit, politically or economically, from making peace.
And that’s why you should care about lives lost in some distant land, in some poor, “forgettable” country. You should care because you care about humanity and the possibility of reopened violence, and the fact that your leaders seem to not care very much at all. Think about it: Ukraine is militarily weak, economically dependent on Russia, and internally divided. We’ve seen some progress. But as soon as Zelensky attempts to cross him, the only rational reason Putin would have to back down is if militarily or economically equitable states posed a tenable threat. For now, our only hope is to keep paying attention.