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Overview of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine – a context and conflict analysis

Overview of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine – a context and conflict analysis

The study was conducted within the framework of the project “Local Self-Government and the Rule of Law in Ukraine” implemented by the Folke Bernadotte Academy (FBA) during 2014-2022 with the financial support from Sweden. The study was conducted by the Center for Security Studies CENSS for use by international organizations operating in Ukraine that develop and implement initiatives on resolution and mitigation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and is aimed at providing better awareness and planning of potential relief measures (in particular, targeting groups affected by the conflict).

Огляд поточної ситуації

The work on this analytical report involved mapping of the current conflict situation in eastern Ukraine with impact on various spheres of societal, political and economic life, capturing some of its manifestations and implications, prospects of resolution and possibilities for mitigation and relief. The report presents information as of September 2020.

The study addressed the need to systematize information about activity of Ukrainian authorities and partners in the area of conflict resolution and mitigation. Over the six years of the ongoing armed conflict and temporary occupation of part of Ukraine’s territory, the authorities have introduced and implemented multiple interventions and drafted legislation to address the needs and safeguard the rights of conflict-affected population. These documents have served as planning guidance for local authorities and international partners. The election of a new parliament, several rounds of government reshuffle in 2019-2020, dismantling and building of new governance structures together with redesigned competences have caused fluctuations of government policies on respective matters. To some extent, these circumstances have influenced the ability to maintain institutional memory in public institutions and delivery of coordination functions.

Therefore, the purpose of the study was to provide a data-driven, evidence-based overview of the current situation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and its impacts on various domains of social, political and economic life, including the reform processes. IT also aimed to define the context of some manifestations and implications of the conflict as well as the outlook for its resolution and possibilities of relief and mitigation.

The study is offered as input for international organizations operating in Ukraine that design and implement initiatives to resolve conflict and mitigate its effects in eastern Ukraine, with a view to providing better awareness and inform planning of potential relief measures (in particular, targeting groups affected by the conflict). It can also be used by authorities in their planning of interventions for conflict prevention and settlement in various regions of Ukraine, and development of public policies based on the analysis provided by the study.

The spread of coronavirus infection has influenced the study methodology, putting the focus mainly on the analysis of the legal framework, existing data (information from state institutions, their reports and responses to CENSS inquiries, public statements of politicians and other openly available records) as well as secondary data (for example, assessments, monitoring reports, surveys, etc. collected or produced by agencies and projects of the UN, European Union, OSCE, Council of Europe, development agencies of partners-states of Ukraine, and other stakeholders, including highly-credible non-governmental organizations).

The study has enabled for the first time to compile a general profile of conflict in Ukraine, taking into consideration the external influence and events taking place in the early 2000s. The Report identifies causes, participating actors and external players committed to its resolution at global and regional levels (the EU, NATO, Council of Europe, USA, France, Germany). It also provides an overview of the strategic vision of Ukraine’s political leadership regarding ways of conflict resolution, mitigation and relief, with general reference to key legal actions brought by Ukraine or individual government-controlled entities against the Russian Federation in international judicial institutions. Separate analysis was conducted with regard to methods of conflict perpetration and the system of management of territories outside the control of Ukrainian authorities (political, economic, financial, security and military systems). This analysis enabled to identify the main drivers and risks that affect or may considerably affect the conflict dynamics and generally increase vulnerability of society in the future.

Special attention was given to the respect of the rule of law concerning population groups affected by the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, in particular internally displaced persons (IDPs) and residents of non-government controlled territories. In this context, the analysis of legislation and outcomes of government decisions and initiatives (as well as those of international partners of Ukraine) enabled to review such issues as access to justice, welfare, delivery of state-guaranteed services and benefits, birth and death registration, compensation for lost /destroyed property and harm to health due to conflict, as well as liability of persons who committed crimes against humanity.

The Report discusses the vision of state authorities and the existing legal framework / initiatives on development and implementation of public policies on veterans’ affairs as well as disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants. It identifies problem issues regarding veterans’ employment, professional adaptation and rehabilitation, counselling and social support, benefits and services, as well as building a positive image of veterans. Special attention was paid to instances of veterans’ involvement in illicit arms trade in Ukraine.

The study also includes a review of the existing legal framework and ongoing reforms / initiatives in the field of dialogue and mediation, providing examples of related projects implemented by international partners and nongovernmental organizations at national local levels. In 2017-2018, Ukrainian government adopted a number of strategic decisions outlining policy priorities up to 2020 covering the following issues: building linkages between population living in non-government controlled areas and the state; support to citizens living in non-government controlled areas; reducing tension and increasing cohesion in communities affected by the armed conflict; integration of IDPs in host communities, and return of ATO/JFO veterans to peaceful life.

Special attention should be given to the implementation of the National Action Plan 2020 for the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 “Women, Peace and Security”, approved by the Cabinet of Ministers’ Ordinance No. 113 of 24 January 2016 that stipulates objectives and measures aimed at fostering the culture of peace, intolerance of violence and discrimination, raising awareness on issues related to gender-based violence and sexual violence in conflict situations. It includes measures focusing on fostering firm tolerance and conflict prevention outlook among young people, engagement of girls and women in dialogue building in situations of community-level conflict, especially host communities for IDPs, using mediation and facilitation techniques.

Progress reports on the implementation of the National Action Plan by state authorities in 2018-2019, although not specifically mentioning dialogues and conflict resolution activities involving women and youth, provide examples of cultural and educational activities in communities carried out by women’s civil society organizations and highlight their cooperation with local authorities and individual social groups. Essentially, the results of the National Action Plan implementation demonstrate only high attention to women who are or may become victims of gender-based or domestic violence, especially in communities affected by the armed conflict, and delivery of legal, psychological and social aid to this group. At the same time, assessments by non-governmental organizations point to a wider engagement of women as dialogue participants and facilitators. At national level, women MPs are involved in sub-groups within the Trilateral Contact Group on peaceful resolution of the situation in eastern Ukraine. It is also not uncommon for women to be engaged as facilitators and mediators during activities conducted by authorities and international partners on critical issues of public policy that require consensus solutions and communication with civil society.

The Report presents up-to-date information about coordination at the level of government and international partners in some conflict-related areas, analysis of the existing and planned coordination mechanisms, and an overview of international technical assistance projects related to conflict resolution and mitigation in Ukraine, including reintegration of veterans. Annexes to the Report provide the list of key national institutional actors with brief summary of their competences regarding the rights of ATO/JFO veterans, IDPs as well as dialogue and mediation.

Key conclusions and recommendations

1. It is obvious that Ukraine and the Russian Federation are in the process of conflict that involves both military and non-military methods.

Issues related to ways of conflict resolution and relations with Russia are naturally linked to the issues of national identity and other foundational elements underlying state-building. Traditionally, the most debated and hot topics include the status and use of the Russian language, joining the EU and NATO / neutrality, historical period of the World War II era and participation of Ukrainians, religious and clerical issues of the Orthodox Christian faith. In Ukraine, not only the eastern part but the entire country is the subject of Russia’s strong influence aiming to substitute the Ukrainian identity or support the existing Russian identity of Ukrainian citizens (the so-called identification with the “Russian world”). Beside people with strong Ukrainian identity, there are also groups with “dual” and “oscillating” identity.

Beside external forces, this situation is also utilized by some domestic political forces in order to mobilize and consolidate their base during elections and campaigns pushing for or against certain decisions made by authorities.

An important aspect is holding of local elections (in October 2020). Political players with influence on nationallevel policy making have the intention to build a vertical of cross-cutting influence on the situation in the country – from the centre down to community level. Political players with no decisive influence at national level consider the possibility of using local elections to strengthen this influence at regional level and in individual communities, primarily in large cities. Control over local self-governments may facilitate as well as complicate or even fully block implementation of decisions adopted by national government. Moreover, control over local self-governments in some regions may give the possibility to exercise bottom-up pressure on national-level policy making.

In the vast majority of cases, local elites see strengthening or retention of their roles within certain territories as their top priority – rather than gaining power at national level. Influence in the region or community is viewed as a possibility to control distribution of local resources, local markets of goods and services, creation of favourable conditions for local business, etc. At the same time, the possibility for local elites to have influence on the national level is also considered as a goal that may open access to additional resources from the “centre” on the mutually beneficial basis – resources in exchange of support.

In 2019-2020, gradual increase of tension was observed in relations between national-level authorities and local self-governments. The land reform, although much needed, has also added certain risks. The significance of land as resource is such that it is as valuable, or even more valuable, than state property privatization of which gave rise to entire oligarchical empires. Thus, fairness during land privatization and impossibility of its concentration in the hands of oligarchs should prevent conflicts not only between owners and agricultural producers, but also between local self-governments and national executive bodies.

At the same time, pro-Russian political forces are active in Ukraine, promoting the so-called “federalization” that would presumably strengthen the role of regions (but not communities!) and would act as a safeguard of economic stability. This situation considerably increases Ukraine’s vulnerability in the face of external pressure. It is worth reminding that Ukraine lost control over its territories due to Russia’s hybrid interventions – a combination of military and non-military means – each time using local self-governments to “legitimize” certain actions when decisions indeed were made under external influence.

In the absence of long-established democratic traditions and effective organizational forms of political and other types of dialogue, internal polarization may tend to increase, making society more vulnerable. Ukraine lacks a comprehensive approach to building of a resilient society. No single body responsible for these matters has been identified, and legal acts issued in this area have not been prioritized for implementation.

The culture of dialogue, democratic procedures for important decision-making, and continuous, meaningful communication with the public should become a foundation for increased trust to state institutions and local government, eventually for building a more resilient society.

The entire territory of Ukraine has been affected by the armed conflict, and also, the whole government-controlled territory is targeted by Russia’s non-military means of conflict. This situation requires strategic solutions and their rapid implementation to counteract these measures, in particular building of resilient and sustainable society, national unity, development of critical thinking and media literacy, fostering the culture of dialogue, protection of human rights and safeguarding of the rule of law. These actions ought to be taken both at national and local levels. Communities located in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts require special attention.

Recommendations for national-level authorities derived from the study and presented in the Report include carrying out of surveys exploring issues of national identity and risks of divisions and polarization in Ukrainian society, development of relevant strategic documents and measures using effective, advanced forms of national dialogue, designation of an appropriate institution to be responsible for these issues, while ensuring proper coordination with international partners and engaging various social groups.

In this context, local self-governments are advised to conduct risk assessment with regard to group conflicts in communities and use findings to develop and approve local conflict prevention and/or conflict resolution plans; take into consideration identified national priorities towards building resilient and sustainable society and national unity; introduce advanced methods of dialogue and mediation in communities; develop local integration plans for former combatants and IDPs. It is also suggested that local governments should assist in delivery of courses and workshops in communities to increase media literacy and develop critical thinking.

2. Issues of “war and peace” and relations with the Russian Federation play an important role for society. Visions of how to achieve peace in Ukraine can both unite and split the society.

Thus, there must be sufficient clarity on these issues, so that the public would understand the general vision proposed by the governing elite for ways to achieve peace and major steps to be taken as well as related risks. This approach requires close and well-designed communication with the public in general and individual target groups. In this context it is recommended to offer special educational projects for members of the Parliament (Verkhovna Rada), government, other executive agencies and local self-governments, based on international best practices and lessons learnt in the area of conflict prevention and resolution.

It is critical to continuously adjust and update Ukraine’s policy aimed to maintain linkages with people living in areas controlled by Russian authorities or other administrative bodies established by Russia. This should be done not only as a reaction to Russia’s interventions (such as simplification of procedures for Ukrainians to acquire Russian citizenship and such like) but also proactively – to support and strengthen the feeling of belonging to the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian society, preservation of Ukrainian national identity. To this end, the government should provide appropriate financing of corresponding programmes and projects.

3. Effective counteracting of external threats in a non-military context requires aligned and well-coordinated efforts of relevant state institutions. The ability to effectively counteract external influence of detractor states depends on security sector capabilities. Reform of security sector institutions is among top priorities: they should be fully relieved of non-essential functions, have clearly defined competences, and procedures of their democratic oversight, not only by parliament, president or government but also by civil society, should be in line with the highest standards of democracy. Trust and confidence in the country’s intelligence community, law enforcement and security forces are characteristic of a democratic society and contributes to the overall public trust to democratic institutions.

Civil society oversight over the security sector envisaged in the new Law “On National Security” is virtually non-existent. In order to introduce adequate civil society oversight, it is recommended to carry out relevant preparatory (training) activities in security sector bodies, design internal (departmental) acts in line with the democratic oversight principles and increase capacity of civil society organizations in this field. In eastern parts of the country with high concentration of armed forces, intelligence, law enforcement and security units from other parts of Ukraine, it is recommended to introduce new, effective forms of their interaction and cooperation with local self-governments.

4. Work with social groups prone to violence, especially political violence, require development and implementation of special programmes. The uptick in violence in society has been caused, among other factors, by the abundance of illegal weapons and day-to-day insecurity. Resilience and security in communities largely depend on the possibility for community members to use arms and weapons in conflict resolution. Given the exiting protest sentiment and public discontent as well as the abundance of weapons in the areas of hostilities in eastern Ukraine and accessibility to these and other illegal weapons, there is formidable threat of weapons being used in situations of conflict, both at interpersonal level and during protests, rallies, provocations and various forms of pressure on authorities. These are obvious risk factors that should be taken into consideration both by protest organizers and authorities. Having access to weapons in the areas of hostilities, ATO/JFO veterans often take them back home for the purpose of so-called “self-defence” or trafficking. Weapons are used to resolve domestic conflicts against family members, police or neighbours.

Access to arms for organized crime groups, radical organizations, other formal and informal groups challenge the state’s monopoly on the use of force, including use of arms. Under such circumstances, informal centres of influence on economic, political and other important societal processes can arise outside the public authorities and local self-governments.

Proliferation of arms in Ukraine is a factor not only for internal, but also for regional security. Considerable amount of some types of illicit arms, affordability and easy access can be the enabling factors in activization of established criminal gangs, including transnational organized crime, in illicit arms trafficking to and from Ukraine.

In relation to the above, recommendations derived from the study include implementation of monitoring activities and reviews to identify the dynamics of arms use, sources and mechanisms of illicit circulation and trafficking as well as ways of confiscation / buyback / surrender of weapons in possession of population, relying on international best practices. It is also advisable to conduct conflict risk assessments in communities with highest incidence of use and keeping of weapons. It is also necessary to initiate expert discussion about proliferation, possession, and keeping of illegal weapons and related threats and carry out thematic, targeted outreach campaigns to minimize incidence of use and keeping of weapons and raise public awareness about the requirements and obligations related to legal weapon possession.

5. Despite numerous legal acts, advocacy efforts, and cooperation with non-governmental sector, veterans and IDPs still require support and are not fully integrated in new settings. Ensuring the rights and delivery of services to these groups are not among 10 top priorities of government or parliament. At local level, in the vast majority of cases, veterans and IDPs receive attention thanks to financing from international programmes and projects. Transfer of the responsibility for services and benefits for veterans and IDPs from national to local level is often not supported by sufficient financing or any financing at all, without prior estimation of local resources, reserves and possibilities to implement certain measures (for example, provision of temporary accommodation for IDPs, or allocation of land plots to ATO/JFO veterans).

Therefore, it is recommended that in order to achieve effective results, all central-level decisions that will be fully or partially trickled down to local self-governments for implementation should be adopted in a participatory process, with broad engagement of local authorities, assessment of capacities and discussion of key issues with all stakeholders. Disregard of this principle may lead to parallel existence of several conflicts and tensions –local versus central authorities over the lack of resources, IDPs / veterans versus community members over competition for access to resources and services; community members versus local authorities over unjust distribution of resources and suboptimal provision of services and benefits.

6. The major problems faced by IDPs and veterans remain to be related to housing and livelihood. The problem of provision of housing for veterans is closely related to a similar problem of housing for military personnel during their active service. Provision of housing for military personnel requires clear planning according to the projected number of troops in government armed forces, duration of contracts and other factors, such as specifics and stationing of military units.

After discharge from service, servicemen can retain their accommodation on certain conditions, if all contractual obligations have been fulfilled. This entitlement can be passed on to their family members, for example, in the event of loss of life. In this case, having received the status of combatant (veteran), such people would not have to be enrolled in corresponding programmes for veterans. Therefore, recommendations derived from the study for state authorities include a suggestion that long-term planning of housing schemes should take place in close cooperation between the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Security Service and other institutions, on the one hand, and the Ministry for Veterans Affairs, on the other hand, as well as cooperation between the latter and the Ministry of Finance.

Whereas the issue of housing is about finding resources for implementation of the existing mechanisms, the issue of employment is not only about finding jobs, but also about coming up with mechanisms to provide guarantees both for employers and the employed. It is especially important in the context of labour relations with veterans. In case of former combatants, the employer bears additional burden of ensuring all benefits and guarantees related to additional time off and retention of workplace for the time of contract-based service in the armed forces. Being aware of this burden, employers are reluctant to hire veterans. In this situation, it is recommended that state authorities should create a compensation mechanism for employers and provide additional incentives to recruit veterans.

7. As evidenced by multiple studies, after the six years since the onset of conflict, some IDPs and the majority of ATO/JFO members remain to be cut off from other social groups. IDPs often do not feel part of their host communities and do not feel motivated to participate in public life, even despite employment and access to education, healthcare and other services. Only in some communities do veterans play active role in regular national patriotic upbringing (apart from appearing on special days of commemoration). They also do not frequently engage with local authorities. Part of Ukrainian society still perceives IDPs and veterans as burden and additional strain on local social infrastructure. These stereotypes often trigger conflicts between different groups within community, and local authorities typically do not pay much attention to them.

To tackle this problem, it is recommended that authorities and IDPs and veterans’ non-governmental organizations join efforts to develop strategic documents on IDPs and veterans’ integration, promote their positive image and present them as valuable resource for communities, engaging active IDPs (especially women and young people) and veterans in local activities, local decision-making, leveraging their knowledge and expertise to improve life in community. IDPs themselves are powerful channel for information exchange with people living in NGCA, and their integration and perspective on the level of trust to Ukrainian authorities, reforms and transformations in Ukrainian society will influence the perceptions of people in NGCA and strengthen important linkages.

8. The basis for effective implementation of international programmes and projects is adequate coordination of all stakeholders and national ownership. International experience and expertise on post-conflict recovery and peacebuilding and participation of international development partners in these processes constitutes an enormous, accessible resource that should be incorporated in the national frameworks. Communication in the process of coordination of development partners should be enhanced through dialogue and platforms that would help mobilize resources and minimize costs. Today, the government has all necessary preconditions for it: strategic documents created by predecessor government teams that have been endorsed by partners and are aligned with their programming for Ukraine; well-designed coordination mechanisms based on international best practices; implemented digital solutions simplifying the monitoring and coordination tasks. Agility and continued possibility for adaptation to the present-day demands and contexts, use of capacity and resources offered by the international community will help accelerate achievement of desired results.

The report in English and Ukrainian can be found at the link:

  1. Аналітичний звіт «Огляд поточної ситуації збройного конфлікту на сході України та контекст окремих його проявів і наслідків»
  2. Analytical report “Overview of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine – a context and conflict analysis”

As part of the project, an online presentation of the analytical report took place on April 9 and 12, 2021. Read more about it here: https://censs.org/73402/

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