Conflict in Ukraine: One Year On

February 4, 2015

(l-r) Tonia Samsonova, Andrey Kurkov, Orysia Lutsevych, Robert Brinkley, and Gabriel Gatehouse.

By Graham Lanktree

(l-r) Tonia Samsonova, Andrey Kurkov, Orysia Lutsevych, Robert Brinkley, and Gabriel Gatehouse.

(l-r) Tonia Samsonova, Andrey Kurkov, Orysia Lutsevych, Robert Brinkley, and Gabriel Gatehouse

A year since revolution erupted in Ukraine has marked increasingly violent changes inside the country. Yet the transformation remains unfinished and it is uncertain where the conflict and efforts to reform corruption will go next as fighting intensifies across the east of the country.

To discuss the future of Ukraine, and whether 2015 will see an end to the conflict, BBC correspondent Gabriel Gatehouse moderated a conversation between leading experts at the Frontline Club on Tuesday 4 February. Panelists included: acclaimed Ukrainian writer and commentator, Andrey Kurkov; Chatham House Russia and Eurasia Programme research fellow, Orysia Lutsevych; former British Ambassador to Ukraine from 2002-06, Robert Brinkley; and Tonia Samsonova, a London correspondent for Echo of Moscow.

One year on
Since the most violent clashes of the Euromaidan protests broke out in Kiev on 18 February 2014, fighting has become increasingly bloody as Russia and the West have thrown their support behind different factions battling to pull the country in separate directions.

“From the point of view of being a Ukrainian, I clearly see the country being at war and being invaded by proxy forces supported, funded, trained, directed from the Kremlin,” said Lutsevych. “The nature of this conflict, the lens that’s personally helpful for me to understand this is the continuation of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union has been reincarnated in Putin’s regime by using rule by force, by security forces to subvert countries in the neighbourhood. It is an oligarchy and kleptocracy and Ukraine refused to belong to this sphere of influence.”

The challenges that lie in front of Ukraine are huge, she added. “Russia is trying to undermine the transition on purpose in a systematic way using all possible methods: economic pressure, military pressure, propaganda and disinformation,” Lutsevych said. “And internally in the country indeed there are vested interests that are fighting back to preserve the old rules of the game.”

Brinkley emphasised that Russia should be stopped. “Because this is not just about Ukraine. Otherwise, this is going to undermine the entire basis on which our security rests. We’ve already been trying political and economic means. The pressure has been building up, it hasn’t stopped them yet. So I think we have to be inventive and look for other means.”

What next after a broken cease-fire?
Recent United Nations figures mark the death toll in the Ukraine conflict at more than 5,000 people since all-out battles between armed factions began in April 2014. Fighting has intensified in recent weeks as the September Minsk cease-fire agreement disintegrated, with calls from Russian-speaking rebels to mobilise more troops. What could possibly fix the situation?

“It’s apparent to everybody, especially since last August, that the Ukrainians on their own are not going to beat the Russians militarily,” said Brinkley. “Russia is bigger and stronger and has more armed forces. And so, really with a rather heavy heart I’ve come around to the view that we in the West have to help the Ukrainians to defend themselves. I don’t mean by sending our armies and our soldiers, but I do mean in terms of defensive weaponries and technologies.”

Kurkov agreed, but with reservations. “It’s clear that once the Ukraine army gets more weapons, Russian forces will get even more weapons,” he said. “It will probably mean full-scale war,” he continued, “and how long will the West only supply them with arms?”

If all sides in the country want to see an end to the suffering in Eastern Ukraine, said Brinkley, “abide by the agreement that was drawn up in September last year in Minsk.” There is a cease-fire, there is a peace agreement, “but it’s not being implemented.”

Fixing Corruption
Accusations of corruption are rife throughout Ukraine’s government and institutions. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranks the country 142nd in the world, alongside Uganda. How can things get better?

“I think the fight against corruption should be started from the legal system,” said Kurkov. “Practically 100% of the judges,” he added, “should be replaced with either post-graduates or students or somebody.”

In other ways the country has made broad moves toward change, said Lutsevych. “Ukraine already restarted its political system with two consecutive democratic elections,” she said. “Only two current ministers in the new government that was just appointed two months ago have ever served in ministerial positions before. Only one member of the Cabinet does not speak English. Before it was one who spoke English. So it tells you the change of a generation that is now leading Ukraine.”

Yet other strong visual signs of reform are also deeply needed, she added. “I believe in symbolic police reform. This means people changing, uniforms changing, buildings changing,” Lutsevych said. “They have to show in a visual way that the country has changed and that the old rules are not working anymore.”

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