Ukraine Five Years On: Enduring Challenges

Main Image Credit Soldiers march during the Ukrainian Independence Day Parade in Kiev, 2008. Courtesy of Wikimedia

Today, Friday 24 August, Ukraine holds its fifth Independence Day parade since the Maidan revolution. Five years on, the country still holds a unique position as a key geopolitical challenge for many alliances and governments around the world.

Held annually, Ukraine’s Independence Day parade marks the moment that Ukraine escaped the grasp of the Soviet Union in 1991. First held in 1994, it has mostly resembled a Soviet Union-style parade, complete with missile-launchers, tanks and high-leg marching troops. Last year, however, the parade took on a more international flavour as representatives from all the countries involved with supporting the armed forces of Ukraine were also present.

Keen to demonstrate to the world that they are a progressive country, the 2018 parade still includes the 18 foreign contingents, including members of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment, but is also seeking to demonstrate and present a rather different Ukraine to the world. On display are many vehicles that Ukraine has designed and built domestically over the past five years, along with weapons that are focused on export markets rather than for use in the Donbas conflict. Lauded by Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko as a success of the past 12 months, the much-discussed Javelin anti-tank weapon system, ‘gifted’ to Ukraine under the Trump administration, albeit with caveats on its use, is also making an appearance. But so are Ukraine’s wider diplomatic challenges.

Last weekend, President Vladimir Putin and Chancellor Angel Merkel met to discuss a number of topics, including the Nord Stream II pipeline, Ukraine and Syria. The meeting, ending with no agreements, demonstrates that Ukraine is still stuck within a confused Western strategy. As demonstrated during last month’s NATO summit, US President Donald Trump may have used incorrect figures in relation to Nord Stream II and Germany’s reliance on its energy supply, but the open dispute between the US and Germany on how to deal with a strategic competitor such as Russia is apparent and potentially detrimental to Ukraine’s long-term stability. With no date set for the ‘Normandy Four’ powers (France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia) to discuss the future of the Ukraine conflict, including the potential introduction of UN peacekeepers, it appears that there will be little to no progress this year for solving the Donbas conflict

With the US imposing more sanctions on Russia, this time as a result of the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury, the West’s approach to dealing with Russia seems more confused than ever. Ukraine is increasingly caught in a wider confrontation which includes many more issues of dispute between Russia and the West and that, too, cannot be to Ukraine’s long-term advantage.

And although the EU has continued to apply the sanctions imposed in July 2014 after the downing of the MH17 flight in eastern Ukraine, the EU is still struggling to have a dominant narrative about Russia. With Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, declaring that he wishes to see sanctions lifted, but Putin recently attending the wedding of Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, it is clear that the EU is split on what its relationship with Russia should look like.

Meanwhile, things are stirring in the conflict zone between Ukraine’s national forces and the Russian-backed rebels, recently renamed as the Joint Force Operation. Elections were scheduled there for November this year, to vote on the leaders of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic Party and the Donetsk People’s Republic. Although these elections are often criticised as a sham by Kiev – as they legitimise the Donbas’s claim to independence from the central government – it is widely believed that the delay in the elections is mostly due to Russian pressure. There have been plenty of media reports that Putin raised the possibility of a referendum-style election for the Donbas, similar to that which occurred in Crimea in 2014, to decide on the future status of the rebel-held region at his latest Helsinki summit with Trump. Whether this was a serious proposal and whether Russia will ever return to this idea remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: Russia has not given up its plans to further divide the territory of Ukraine.

Since May 2018, when the Donbas conflict title was changed from the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) to the Joint Force Operation (JFO), violations of the Minsk peace agreements have increased steadily. The change of status of the operational area also coincided with a Russian ‘red line’ in that the US, having discussed the option for several years, decided to provide Ukraine with the Javelin anti-tank weapon system.

Mariupol, the location for so many of the current violations and also the scene of so much fighting at the start of the conflict, has lost some of its strategic importance after the opening of the Kerch Strait Bridge, but its location, less than 50 kilometres from the Russian border, does not stop Ukrainian concerns about Russia trying to build a land ‘bridge’ to Crimea.

The Ukraine presidential elections scheduled for next year are also set to be close. Although early polls show that the election is wide open, Poroshenko is currently languishing in fourth place, with the veteran campaigner, Yulia Tymoshenko, leading the polls. Previously imprisoned having been convicted of embezzlement and abuse of power, Tymoshenko finished second to Poroshenko in the 2014 elections and is likely to be his greatest threat.

This could have been a great year for Ukraine, the year in which state consolidation made most progress. A plan to establish an anti-corruption court was final enacted, complete with IMF support. But the delays and political wrangling over this issue have raised many questions about how serious Ukraine is about tackling the issue of endemic corruption. For many in Ukraine, the latest NATO summit was going to be the opportunity for NATO and Ukraine to formally agree a Membership Action Plan, detailing Ukraine’s route to NATO membership. Overshadowed in some regard by Trump’s approach to the summit, the NATO Chairman’s post-summit statement on Ukraine, which reaffirmed NATO’s allies’ ‘unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’, does little to suggest a way ahead above what is already being done. Poroshenko has been vocal in his hope for a Membership Action Plan, and has not been dissuaded from this approach by the US. As the political tension and competition increase over the coming months it is likely that we see less and less movement on the many Ukraine-related issues.

In short, today is a bitter-sweet anniversary. Five years on, Ukraine remains adamant in its quest for independence. But questions about its ability to survive continue to linger.

Adam Coffey is a British Army officer and has just completed a Visiting Fellowship at RUSI. He has recently returned from Ukraine as part of the UK’s Building Partner Capacity Operation.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily represent the views of RUSI, the Ministry of Defence, or any other institution. 

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