Symposium about domestic and external challenges to lasting peace in the Donbas at the Center for Diplomacy at Andrassy University Budapest.
Despite the concerted diplomatic effort of the international community, violent conflict in the Donbas continues to prevail. As the struggle to unlock the political gridlock in Eastern Ukraine goes into its fourth year, the limits of diplomatic power seem to become apparent.
The newly established Center for Diplomacy at Andrassy University Budapest in cooperation with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung hosted a symposium to explore the domestic and external challenges to lasting peace in the Donbas and discuss the prospects for lasting solutions. Among those in attendance were high-ranking diplomats of the OSCE, representatives of the Hungarian government, academics from Ukrainian, German, British and
Hungarian research institutions, as well as the team of the Bonn University Center for International Security and Governance, including Professor James D. Bindenagel.
The key to a solution for the Ukraine crisis, participants and keynote speakers agreed, lies in Moscow, which has failed to implement the Minsk Agreements. What can Europe do to work towards a sustainable future for Ukraine? Discussions at the symposium centered around the challenge of managing the intricate triangular relationship between Ukraine, Russia, and Europe. Russia’s suspicions that relations between Europe and its Eastern neighbors constitute a form of covert expansionism into its sphere of influence not only initially triggered the Ukrainian crisis, but continue to render European efforts to maintain diplomatic exchange with Russia while supporting Ukraine an ever more challenging and delicate task.
Participants agreed that a strong and united Western policy is required to counter Russia’s violation of Ukrainian territory and to make a stand for a rules-based, peaceful international order, but the components of such a policy remain contested. Superficially, the Minsk Agreement remains the greatest diplomatic success since the eruption of violence in Eastern Ukraine, but its slow and partial implementation highlights the limited applicability of classic diplomatic solutions to the particular conditions of the Ukraine crisis.
Participants in the roundtable discussion reviewed various alternative approaches to resolving the crisis. One of the most controversially discussed policy options was the recent American proposal to supply Javelin missiles to Ukraine. While supplying lethal military equipment to Ukraine could reduce the number of Ukrainian casualties in the Donbass and strengthen Ukrainian defenses, thereby deterring Russia from deploying tanks to Ukraine, a military solution to the conflict is neither likely nor desirable. Doubts were also voiced regarding the defensive nature of such weapons, with speakers pointing out that arms shipments could also increase the risk for renewed and more violent conflict and play into the Russian narrative of Western aggression in its immediate neighborhood. Americans have also proposed assisting Ukrainian arms producers to manufacture Ukrainian anti-tank missiles instead of shipping U.S. weapons directly, which could undermine the Russian suggestion that Ukraine is a Western puppet.
Other approaches focused on the classical tools of diplomacy. Solidarity in the Western sanction regime against Russia, which although in its current form appears to have deterred further Russian aggression in Ukraine has not brought President Putin to implement the Minsk Agreements, was suggested as a possible greater political influence. Others voiced support for the Russian proposal to deploy a UN peacekeeping mission to protect OSCE monitors in Ukraine but acknowledged that deploying peacekeepers to the conflict line – as President Putin has suggested – would only serve to solidify the de facto-division of the country.
Another suggestion was the reluctant maintenance of the status quo as a possible strategy for the long haul. By effectively accepting, but not recognizing, the separation of the Donbas for the time being and by increasing European support for the rest of Ukraine, it might be possible to eventually destabilize Eastern Ukraine sufficiently to decrease support for the secessionist movement and raise the costs for Russia to maintain its influence. If Western Ukraine manages to become an example of reform success and economic growth, not least because of its ties to Europe, so the argument goes, the already apparent economic weakness and social problems of the secessionist republics will prompt citizens to call their provisional leaders into question.
The precondition for this approach, of course, is successful domestic reform, another central theme of the event. Participants emphasized that the fight against corruption, the advancement of decentralization and the streamlining of public administration are vital for the social, political and economic development of Ukraine. The timing of the domestic reform agenda might be just as important as its content – experts noted that succumbing to political inertia now might mean that the political momentum for change will be lost.
In Ukraine, a complex crisis on the domestic and international level, deep rifts between the major actors involved, and violence beyond anything Europe has had to encounter since decades have created one of the greatest diplomatic challenges the continent has witnessed. The symposium at Andrassy University Budapest has once more demonstrated that political efforts on all sides must be increased to resolve the crisis; but perhaps even more importantly, that diplomacy must extend beyond its tested limits to address the new challenges of the 21st century.