Ukraine Crisis: Frozen Conflict or a Fluid Battle Zone?

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The Conflict

Since the Russian troops gained control of Ukraine’s Crimean region in March 2014 followed by annexation of the peninsula, the crisis snowballed because of disputed local referendums and skirmishes among pro-Russian separatists, Russian forces and Ukrainian military. The present-day Ukrainian crisis finds its roots in the protests against former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision of non-integration of Ukrainian economy with the European Union in 2013. Efforts to broker peace and a ceasefire started in 2015 when France and Germany became active to diffuse the tensions through Minsk Accords (1 and 2). A peace deal was signed in the same year but its implementation in letter and spirit remains incomplete.

Few of the measures highlighted under Minsk-2 included immediate and thorough ceasefire, establishment of OSCE-ceasefire monitory and verification team, removal of heavy weapons from designated security areas and withdrawal of foreign forces, mercenaries and weapons from the Ukrainian areas. The eruption of violence in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian military and separatists increased to unprecedented heights. According to safe estimates, since 2014, the conflict accounted for over 13,000 deaths and left around 24,000 injured.

The Turn of Events

Ukrainian officials and NATO have pointed fingers at Moscow for its involvement in arming and facilitating the separatist forces. In addition, they have also reported Russian cross-border shelling and troop’s build-up around the disputed areas. Commenting on these accusations Dmitry Peskov, spokesman of Russian President Vladimir Putin, voiced that the troops were on exercises inside Russian territory in wake of Ukrainian provocations. Ukrainian authorities also stated that the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea was laid under Moscow’s plan to split Ukraine to establish a new entity namely “Novorossiya” or New Russia.

Following these developments, in April 2016, NATO announced deployment of four additional battalions in Eastern Europe, flanking troops through Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. This decision was taken to deter potential Russian aggression in the Baltic region. To support Ukraine, the U.S. also provided it with Javelin anti-tank missiles. Moreover, NATO is also supporting Ukraine’s military to modernize itself and enhance inter-operability through joint exercises and training.

Even though the two countries reached a cease-fire agreement in July 2020, a military concentration in the region continues. Ukrainian officials estimated that around 40,000 Russian troops were present in and around Ukraine’s eastern border. On April 13, 2021, Russian military deployed two army battalions and three formations of airborne troops to its western flank after Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu alleged NATO of conducting “threatening” actions against Moscow. However, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, denied the Russian claims stating Russian military build-up to be “unjustified and deeply concerning.” With a drop in cease-fire violations from July 2020 to March 2021, a new wave of hostilities begun in April 2021 shortly after the remounting of additional troops in the region.

One of the frequently overlooked component of the Ukraine crisis is attached to the maritime domain where a tug of war started between the two competitors over Kerch Strait which connects the Black Se and Sea of Azov. Russia occupied the Strait of Kerch and increase the presence of its maritime forces around it affecting Ukrainian maritime commercial traffic. Figure 1 shows the geostrategic importance of Strait of Kerch and how Russian navy established the headquarters of its Black Sea Fleet to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance of Ukraine’s maritime activities.

Figure 1 Source ESRI
Figure 1 Source: ESRI

Moscow’s proactive approach vis-à-vis Crimea and in the Donbas region has compelled the U.S. to provide security assistance to Ukraine. Since the recent wave of conflict started in 2014, Washington provided over $2.5 billion as security assistance under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative and Foreign Military Financing. During FY2015 to FY2020, Ukraine received $418 million annually in addition to $350 million for humanitarian aid.

To date, crisis in and around Crimea remains unresolved or unsettled with the stakeholders not having consensus over the peace-process. Russian proactive approach stems from its historic, ideological and political affiliation backed by its military’s forwardness whereas Ukrainian stance on the illegal occupation of Crimea by foreign forces remains correct on just-grounds. The role of international stakeholders to broker a peace deal has also become controversial due to military clashes, overlapping economic interests and broader political alignment apparently making them biased towards the issue. The end result of Ukrainian crisis cannot be gauged unless or until the parties agree to implement a mutually-agreed peace deal. Otherwise, like all other outstanding conflicts including the Palestine crisis and Kashmir dispute, Crimea would become a hot-bed for future proxies and the nucleus for future instability. The world must act to resolve this crisis while there is still sand in the hand.

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