Russia, Ukraine and the West may finally be groping for a way to dial down the violence in eastern Ukraine.

Russia, Ukraine and the West may finally be groping for a way to dial down the violence in Ukraine’s eastern tip that has claimed more than 10,000 Ukrainian lives and generated some 1.5 million displaced persons in the past 46 months.1 If it succeeds, the modus vivendi will be messy, brought about by a convergence of Russian failure to reclaim Catherine the Great’s ‘Novorossiya’ from Ukraine, Moscow’s budget squeeze from economic stagnation and Western sanctions, the implausibility of any Ukrainian military reconquest of insurgent-held territory in the east and the restabilisation of the old Ukrainian oligarchy.

The wary public bargaining so far hints that any longer-term truce in Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine would probably allow muddle-through evolution in the country in the long term, but leave Crimea annexed to Russia. And it would leave Ukraine’s vibrant civil society bitterly disappointed after its two aborted ‘Euromaidan’ democratic breakthroughs – and accelerate its brain drain of depoliticised digital programmers to better-paid jobs in the European Union.

Talk of a deal was triggered in mid-September 2017, when Russian President Vladimir Putin revived the idea of sending United Nations peacekeepers into Ukraine’s contested Don River basin (Donbas). Ukrainians tended to regard the offer as a trap to freeze and regularise Russian control of separatist areas, while granting these areas the kind of superautonomy within Ukraine that would give them veto power over national policy.2 But Alexander Vershbow, former American ambassador to Russia and former deputy secretary-general of NATO, quickly set out the West’s counter-demand that any peacekeeping deal ‘would ultimately need to extend across all the occupied [Ukrainian] territory’, instead of just along today’s de facto Ukrainian–Russian border.3

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Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Beyond the Wall (Brookings, 1993) and The Rebirth of Europe (Brookings, 2000).

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2017–January 2018

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