The Russia-Ukraine Conflict: Tensions De-escalate, For Now

Zelenskyy Calls for a Revamp of the Minsk Agreements, Seeks West Support
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (5th L) inspects at the southern frontline positions near the border of Crimea which was illegally annexed by Russia, in Ukraine on April 27, 2021. (Getty)

April marked seven years since the Russia-backed separatist conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine. Despite countless ceasefire attempts and much international outrage the conflict remains unresolved, the kinetic warfare is actively ongoing, and Russia continues to support the separatist forces economically and militarily. CFRs Global Conflict Tracker estimates that the war in Donbas has already produced more than 10,000 civilian casualties and 1.5 million displaced people. The total number of casualties, so far, is estimated to be over 14,000. This conflict, coupled with the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, has made Ukraine more fractured and vulnerable than ever. The country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations remain on hold, while it struggles to find stability amid countless economic and political crises.

For over seven years Moscow has used its involvement in the war as one of the major instruments of influence over Ukraine and the Black Sea region, and as a significant tool for powerplay in its competition with Europe and NATO. While the war is typically at a stalemate, Moscow tends to dial up the heat at the Russia-Ukraine border during strategically convenient times, helping escalate the conflict and create further tension which will merit the west’s reaction and involvement. This in turn drives up Russia’s self-perception as an important global player, and helps cement its place at the top of strategic adversaries’ list for the transatlantic community.

In April Russia began a significant military buildup in Crimea and at the border with Ukraine, placing an estimated 100,000 soldiers and carrying out massive military exercises. This move alarmed Ukraine and gave way to speculations that a Russian invasion was imminent. The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, renewed his efforts to bring international attention to the conflict. He even invited President Putin to meet with him one-on-one at the frontlines of the war. Putin declined the request, but said he’d be happy to meet with Zelenskyy in Moscow.

Zelenskyy has insisted that the Biden administration most do more to support Ukraine. In his recent plea for more U.S. involvement Zelenskyy explained: “There is a persistent threat, because we are having a war, especially in the Donbas area, and the Russian army, we all know it, is a very powerful force. So, we have it continuously at our borders. And this particular case is a case of psychological pressure. We are ready here for some unpleasant surprises. We’ll try to avoid them. Our military is very strong, and we are prepared to deter any kind of threat of aggression.”

The Ukrainian president, who ran on the platform of ending the war in Donbas, back in 2019, has had some success in negotiating with the Russia-backed separatists and even managed to exchange hundreds of prisoners with them a year ago. However, when it comes to actually resolving the conflict, he needs Putin’s attention, but Putin has made it clear he will not negotiate with Zelenskyy directly. Moscow has done its best to use the conflict in Ukraine as a way to demonstrate its strength and importance to the west, and to “deter” the aggression it perceives from NATO. The conflict with Ukraine is an incredibly valuable tool for forcing the West to come to the negotiating table with Russia and treat Moscow as its equal. Putin is not going to throw away this powerful instrument just because Zelenskyy is looking to build peace in Ukraine. This latest buildup of tensions was, in part, meant to send a message to the Biden administration, which has only recently wrapped up its first one hundred days in office. The message was supposed to be a reminder that Russia is committed to being taken seriously as a great power and it enjoys enormous, tangible influence over the spaces of U.S. and NATO strategic interests – like Ukraine and the greater Black Sea basin. 

Thus, exactly as planned, Mr. Putin’s message was clearly seen by the White House and even earned him a call from Mr. Biden. According to the White House, during the call President Biden emphasized the United States’ unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The President voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders, and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions. President Biden reaffirmed his goal of building a stable and predictable relationship with Russia consistent with U.S. interests, and proposed a summit meeting in a third country in the coming months to discuss the full range of issues facing the United States and Russia.”

But the Biden administration, so far, appears to be interested in conducting its foreign policy in partnership with its NATO and E.U. allies, and via the international institutions like the G-7. This is why in response to the buildup of tensions between Russia and Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, flew to Brussells on April 14th to rally the NATO members states to come out in support of Ukraine. As a result, the NATO allies issued a strict statement condemning Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine: “Allies will continue to work in close consultation to address Russia’s actions, which constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security. We call on Russia to cease immediately its destabilizing behavior, and to uphold its international obligations, as Allies do theirs, including existing arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation agreements and commitments. We also call on Russia to cease its provocations and to immediately de-escalate tensions on Ukraine’s borders and in illegally-annexed Crimea."

After a month of tensions and anxiety, at the end of April, Russia’s defense ministry ordered its troops to return to base and wrapped up the exercises. This comes as positive news for Ukraine and the Zelenskyy administration. Reduced tensions could give way to renewed peace talks, which is what Mr. Zelenskyy hopes. He has called for a revamp of the Minsk agreements – a peace process that began in 2015 and has failed to deliver even a lasting ceasefire agreement, so far. But Zelenskyy insists on an increased role for the United States, Great Britain, and Canada in the peace talks. Conveniently, secretary Blinken was set to fly by end of this week to Ukraine to meet with President Zelenskyy, Foreign Minister Kuleba, other officials, and representatives of Ukrainian civil society “to reaffirm unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression.  He will also encourage continued progress on Ukraine’s institutional reform agenda, particularly anti-corruption action, which is key to securing Ukraine’s democratic institutions, economic prosperity, and Euro-Atlantic future.”

Moscow, on the other hand, has insisted that Zelenskyy first conduct talks with the leaders of the breakaway Donestsk and Luhansk regions. But Zelenskyy has refused, claiming: “I have no intention of talking to terrorists and it is just impossible for me in my position”. For Zelenskyy it is very clear that there is only one way to achieve peace in eastern Ukraine – with Moscow’s consent and the west’s unwavering support.