Russia says the bill amounts to preparation for war. But it might clear a path for meaningful negotiations.

Ukrainian soldier. Credit: US Army EuropeBy Anastasia Voronkova, Editor, Armed Conflict Survey; Research Fellow for Armed Conflict and Armed Conflict Database

A new bill passed by Ukraine’s parliament aimed at reintegrating the Donbas into Ukraine has been condemned by Russia, but it could in fact mark a softening of Kiev’s approach to the four-year-old conflict.

The bill’s long title – ‘On the aspects of state policy on the restoration of the state sovereignty of Ukraine over the temporarily occupied territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine’ – reflects its complex journey through parliament. It was voted for by 280 lawmakers, following three days of debate to consider over 700 amendments, of which only a handful were adopted.

Apart from describing the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as ‘temporarily occupied’, the bill also classifies Russia as an ‘aggressor country’. Containing no direct reference to the Minsk agreement, the bill backs a transport blockade of the east and a ban on trade. It stipulates that Ukraine will only recognise birth and death certificates issued by separatist authorities, to the exclusion of all other types of document. One of the final amendments to be adopted during the parliamentary debate was a provision granting Ukrainian citizens the right to sue Russia without having to pay court fees.

The bill also contains a provision that grants the Ukrainian security forces with a very broad mandate in relation to ‘security zones’. These will be designated as such by the chief of staff of the armed forces, and in these areas security forces will have the right to use weapons, detain citizens, inspect and seize vehicles, and even enter and occupy homes.

Russia’s reaction was strong and definitive, with the foreign ministry stating that the bill amounted to ‘preparation for war’ and dealt a ‘fundamental blow’ to the peace process within the Minsk format.

Can the bill break the deadlock?

While the adoption of this bill does increase the unpredictability and uncertainty of future developments in the conflict, several factors indicate that the long-term implications of this measure may not be as devastating as most of the initial reactions suggest. Indeed, it may indicate a willingness to embrace change and explore alternative formats in a way that is positive considering the current deadlock.

Firstly, the Minsk process has remained stalled for a long time: neither side has moved closer to the implementation of the agreement’s provisions, while the fighting – resulting in civilian and military casualties – continues. In this context, the bill could be seen as an attempt by Kiev to break the current deadlock and to reposition itself in relation to both the peace process and Moscow, taking into account the tough reality on the ground. While previously Kiev had always interacted with the leaders of the self-proclaimed republics, refusing to see Moscow as a party to the conflict, this bill could signify a shift, opening up the possibility of Russia–Ukraine communication and, potentially, negotiation in the medium term.

Secondly, wary of the European Union’s lack of internal cohesion, French and German preoccupations with their respective domestic agendas, and failed attempts to revive Minsk, Ukraine likely sees an opportunity to distance itself from these external facilitators. It is difficult to predict how the United States’ decision to allow the sale of weapons to Ukraine will change the balance of forces.

Thirdly, some of the most radical amendments that were debated in parliament, including severing economic and trade ties with Russia, and declaring the self-proclaimed republics ‘terrorist organisations’, were not accepted in the final version. This signals a cautious willingness on the part of Ukraine to forge a position that is soft enough to leave the door open to negotiation.

Finally, Ukraine is increasingly preoccupied by the prospect of parliamentary elections in 2019, and the push to intensify what have to date been slow anti-corruption and economic reforms. Potential changes in the Russian domestic and foreign policy teams following the 2018 elections may also signify a critical reassessment and gradual softening of Kiev’s stance on the conflict.

Uncertain outlook for the year ahead

In itself, the bill is unlikely to be the most decisive factor, and its adoption could feasibly result in any one or a combination of three scenarios: continued ‘freezing’ of the conflict; a strong externally driven push towards the cessation of hostilities following a heightened threat of escalation; or conflict management within a bilateral Russia–Ukraine framework in the medium to long term. In any case, 2018 may prove decisive in determining which of these scenarios will come to pass.

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