Dealing with a simmering Ukraine-Russia conflict

It remains in the U.S. interest to support Ukraine, Brookings Institution says

A major foreign policy challenge that will confront the new U.S. administration from day one is Ukraine and its conflict with Russia, Brookings scholars Fiona Hill and Steven Pifer say in their brief on the biggest issues facing the U.S. this election season.

The February 2015 Minsk II settlement that was to end the fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region has yet to be implemented. There is little sign that Moscow wants a settlement, apparently preferring a “simmering” rather than “frozen” conflict, where it can turn the heat up or down to pressure Kyiv. This ongoing conflict and perpetual state of uncertainty distracts the Ukrainian government from much-needed domestic reforms.

U.S. policy has focused on three fronts in dealing with this challenge: assisting Ukraine; supporting the German/French-led effort to reach a negotiated settlement for the Donbas war; and maintaining pressure on the Kremlin, including by working with the European Union (EU) to keep the sanctions imposed on Russia after Moscow’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea and the subsequent violence in Ukraine’s eastern region. In 2017, maintaining this policy will become especially difficult. In Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko’s popularity is eroding. In Europe, several governments question Kyiv’s capacity for reform, and key political and economic constituencies have pushed for an end to EU sanctions that impede trade and business relations with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has stalled on Russia’s compliance with the Minsk II agreement, waiting to see if all these and other developments in Europe will weaken Western resolve and allow Moscow a freer hand in Ukraine.

It remains in the U.S. interest to support Ukraine and to continue the current policy course, albeit with an eye to making future adjustments as the situation changes. The United States should, at a minimum:

– insist that Kyiv accelerate reform and anti-corruption efforts and, if it does, work with Europe to offer greater economic and technical assistance;

– continue current military aid to Ukraine and consider provision of defensive arms depending on circumstances on the ground;

– maintain pressure on Moscow to comply with Minsk II, and work with European governments to prevent Russia from taking advantage of the general election cycles;

– keep U.S. policy aligned with Europe (Germany will prove key in this regard, as will the U.K. in the wake of the Brexit vote; France and other European countries will also require close attention and engagement);

– be ready to enter the negotiating process if/when a prospect emerges for a solution to the Donbas conflict;

– avoid displacing Germany and France in the negotiations and make sure that Ukraine is present and represented in any supplemental diplomatic frameworks; and

– continue the policy of non-recognition of Crimea’s illegal annexation by Russia.

Read the full report here


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