Since the mid-90s I have been acquainted with Ukraine; in 2013, through my work as a member of the UN’s Standby Team for Mediation Experts, we witnessed a catastrophe unfolding, so we decided to reengage professionally.
mediatEUr, my organization, has been involved in a number of fairly small and focused initiatives there, also for the UN. For us, a European Organisation, it was clear that, if we were to be involved in any in-country project, it should be in Ukraine, as its role was and still is pivotal to our European security and to our political and cultural systems. The European project might well be disintegrating from the inside and in dire need of reform; it will only survive if we can secure its borders and/or allow an integration of all bordering countries into the European space. At this occasion, I would like to discuss Ukraine’s conflicts through the ‘mediation’ lens, rather than providing a political analysis of Ukrainian/Russian Peace/Conflict processes, even though this has merit in itself. Maybe a first lesson: that a peace mediator needs to have an excellent political sensitivity while also being more than a diplomat; he or she needs to be finely attuned to the requirements of a specific process. In that sense, the peace mediator is like a political judoka, using the energy of the parties to master a conflict “the soft way”.
Throughout the next 15 minutes I’d like to bring along a few lessons learned, and to address the question of “is a peace mediation in Ukraine possible and how” within two perspectives:
1. Can we describe the Ukrainian, or any high-tension process, as a mediation, or even a peace process?
2. Taking a leap forward and, given the protractedness of this critical conflict, I’d like to offer a proposal to overcome possible gaps and shortcomings that could contribute to a peace process.
The bigger picture
First, as in any conflict, we need to understand what we are actually talking about – we are looking at a territorial conflict that needs to be considered in connection to four other in the region: Nagorniy-Karabakh, Transdniester, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. All of them are territorial conflicts within the territory of the former Soviet Union. Let me call this the belt of (in)security.
The main question here is about the eastern regions of Ukraine, part of which the Ukrainian authorities refer to as occupied territories. The fact is that this part of the country shows a weak allegiance towards the ‘Centre’ and has generally been more Russophile. Meanwhile, Crimea is, disputably, historically a part of Russia, whilst from the point of view of international law, it is still part of the Ukrainian state.
For the mediator, of course, the question is how to transform this belt of insecurity into a belt of security. And there are various ways to do that, all of which merit attention.
Second, as a professional mediator, one would also have a look at the formats offered by the conflict. Let us recall that, according to the United Nations Mediation Guidelines, “[m]ediation is a process whereby a third party assists two or more parties, with their consent, to prevent, manage or resolve a conflict by helping them to develop mutually acceptable agreements.” It is established that, within a mediation process, relationships can be improved. However, this does not quite seem to be the case in Ukraine. To date, there have been two consecutive ceasefire agreements in Ukraine, co-managed by Germany and France, featuring Ukraine, Russia, Donetsk, and Luhansk as signatories; Russia seems to observe rather than act as a guarantor to the agreement. Seeing as no provision specifically refers to Russia's role, it arguably serves one of the principal parties to be able to opt out of or to not be held accountable for the agreement at any time, giving this actor superiority over others.
Furthermore, these Minsk Agreements were mostly signed/negotiated when the Ukrainian party was in such an unfavourable position – it was one of these agreements that are signed in haste, already setting the assumptions for any follow-up talks. This means that follow-up work would pick up where the ceasefire agreement left off, which is now assuming, for example, that Crimea is a territory lost for Ukraine. Two issues stick out prominently: firstly, that Russia has not withdrawn its artillery on the ground, and secondly, that the Ukrainian state refuses to allow local elections to be held.
One thing is clear when comparing data with most current negotiations in the world: making a ceasefire should never be the end state of any negotiations; it should be the beginning, and that point should firmly be made even within a ceasefire agreement.
In parallel to the Minsk format, there is still the configuration of the Normandy Format, which deals with the conflict at the highest level and contains the same actors except for the separatist actors.
Can this conflict be solved through mediation?
"The only way to a solution is through mediation, provided we fulfil its essential criteria of equal participation, inclusiveness, abidance to the norms of international law, and so on. The way to shape a mediation process that could serve the interest of all parties is what we ought to reflect upon. Anything short of that will continue to exacerbate the ‘frozen’ situation."
Although personally and professionally I have seen and lived through nasty negotiations, I still believe (as I should, as a mediator) that there is a reason in harmful or evil practice. Here, it has a lot to do with the marginalisation of Russia ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union. In the case of this conflict, as any of these conflicts in the Post-Soviet Space, I would think that the only way to a solution is through mediation, provided we fulfil its essential criteria of equal participation, inclusiveness, abidance to the norms of international law, and so on. The way to shape a mediation process that could serve the interest of all parties is what we ought to reflect upon. Anything short of that will continue to exacerbate the ‘frozen’ situation in line with the other four cases I mentioned before.
So, what could be done to overcome the challenge for a peace process?
Let me then briefly sketch out some ideas on how to transition from the present-day arrangement to a more promising arrangement.
1. Revise and overhaul the Minsk Agreement
The mediators and the parties of the Normandy arrangement should recognise that the Minsk Agreements should not be final but are now paving the road towards a longer-term peace process, the Agenda for which will be decided by all the parties to the conflict.
2. European Security Arrangement
It is certain that the untrustable security in Europe has led to a hardening of security between the European Union and the “East”. Hard security paradigms and policies are again on the rise at the expense of the human security approach. 25 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain and there is still no comprehensive understanding and arrangement of the security of the European space. This needs to be relaunched – with Russia as an important member. This might sound utopian to some, but it is clear that European security cannot be built on security arrangements around Russia, or with Russia igniting regional conflicts to weaken certain European minded countries. A conference should launch the idea and regional conflict resolution should be part of the Agenda. Hosts should be the OSCE/EU/and even NATO.
3. Multitrack process
Initially the Minsk Agreement speaks about a National Dialogue in Ukraine. These were the early days! The term “national dialogue” creeps up a lot these days in mediation talks, and in its literature. National Dialogues have had different performance results globally; for Ukraine, it was a still-birth for a lack of consistent and systematic planning. But the signal for Ukraine was that that, to solve its external conflicts, the country also needed to solve its internal rifts, which arguably could have contributed to the situation, and/vice versa that new rifts are opening due to the situation in Crimea.
Ukraine has one of the strongest civil society in the world, with a huge role in building dialogue from the ground. But it still needs to learn how to ally with governmental actors with the purpose of building a strong nation-state, instead of always acting as the “enemy” or the opposition. Transparency is the key: National governmental actors need to be aware of what preoccupies people in the region, and to understand what the concerns really are. mediatEUr has begun to work with local dialogue facilitators to map out the divisions and commonalities in the country and to address them with political authorities who are deeply distrusted. We believe that this dialogue has to be nation-wide, inclusive of Crimea and the territories in the East. At the same time, national actors, instead of polarising themselves, should take a stance and be encouraged to act responsibly and debate their positions as regards to the conflict situation. To date, the Verkhovna Rada has never taken a joint decision regarding the conflicts in Ukraine. Yet these affects all actors in Ukraine and a systematic dialogue around this should bring about clarity and unity. This is what a national dialogue can, and should be.
Now, it is true that there is little connection between different actors, and at times local groups are reticent and distrustful to bring their issues to a higher level, afraid to be politically hijacked. This is where third party impartial facilitation and sharing of information is indispensable for building peace. It will be highly useful for the international community, especially the European Union to understand and support Ukraine to overcome the rifts. New tools to increase transparency and to allow for a holistic understanding of the situation at hand, could have a decisive impact on how the situation could possibly be transformed.
4. Engagement policy, not isolation nor nationalisation
It is thus welcome news that the Ukrainian government created its ministry for the “Temporarily Occupied Territories and IPDs”. It is learning from others that isolation of a so-called occupied territory cannot be the solution, but engagement should be. However, engagement in a multi-ethnic state also means respecting local identity, customs and language; the Ministry could assist in creating a multi-ethnic multi-identity region within Ukraine. The current action plan that has been formulated focusses on a “Ukraine first” approach. But would it not be in the national interest to secure the multi-ethnicity of the region, and embrace the Russian culture as a coexisting one? Generally, people have not felt any discrimination because of their use of language, and it would be meaningful to gradually allow for reintegration and allowing local cultures to express themselves according to their felt identity. Through dialogue and recognition these are aspects that can be nurtured. Peace is something that can be learned. And it needs time.
5. Civilian Security and Care taking – towards a Healing Process
The negotiators and the International Community should be intolerant towards any abuse of civilian security. The International Community including the EU will need to enforce the disrespect of international humanitarian law as unacceptable and should be severely sanctioned. Civilians have been profoundly affected by the war, and the war continues on a daily basis. We should learn from other situations and relentlessly press against violence against innocent civilians.
In Ukraine as in other war torn societies, the psychological damage and traumatism that is endured by civilians will continue to exist as a cancer of society unless it is taken care of. Traumas imprint themselves on societies, and will reproduce themselves in the next generations. A recent study of the London School of Hygiene and Tropic Medicine of 2203 IDPs showed a prevalence of 32% of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, in addition to Depression and Anxiety. If you would calculate this alongside 1,5 million IDP’s, this amounts to 430.000 people – that would become ‘social cases’. Rather than being dealt through the pharmaceutical industries, dialogue and specially-tailored programmes that have a peace-building and healing component can help overcome trauma.
6. Crimea and Donetsk/Luhansk as a neutral Zone.
Rather than forging a politically- or militarily-induced solution now, it would be advisable to make Crimea and Donetsk-Lugansk a neutral zone, such as a Northern Ireland/Lichtenstein/Hong Kong of the post-Soviet space. This would mean that it would be an internationally supervised zone, in which the conflict parties agree on measures of joint dialogue and cooperation, surrendering their weapons. This should be supervised by a civilian monitoring mission, for example by the EU, or the UN, or indeed the OSCE. The Aceh ESDP Mission is a prime example here. This would mean that both Luhansk, Donetsk and the Crimea would be protectorate for the time being to restore stability and peace, whilst local and possibly internationally managed dialogue processes would configure local administration – like the present work of the trilateral contact group.
The Zone should be politics-free for a certain time, 5-10 years. International aid agencies and NGO’s should be allowed in to work with local communities and to create a situation in which economic development is also possible, inserting positive energy. This is when the healing process of all societies can take place and IDPS are to be gradually returned to the regions.
7. What’s in it for Russia?
Of course, there is always the sceptic “Russia is never going to agree to this” argument. It is clear that Russia also might want to see the benefit of ‘cooperation’. To offer deeper integration and cooperation, and besides a new format for a security arrangement for Europe discussed in my first point, it might also be positive to seek a Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreement with Russia, just what the EU offered and is pursuing in Ukraine. The benefits to both Russia, Ukraine and the European Union would be considerable.
Obviously, there are quite a number of geopolitical stakes at play. The Syrian conflict also has an impact on the situation in Ukraine. Conversely, the way in which the international community engages in the Ukrainian situation will play itself out globally. We need to take the prospect of peace mediation serious. It is more than negotiating and formulating agreements; it is about commitment, creating trust and confidence, enlarging the options of all parties and to produce solutions that could be beneficial for all. 9,600 Lives have been spent, 22.000 have been injured, 1,7 million civilians have been displaced. Ukraine deserves a chance for a peace process, and it us, the international community who need to design the process.
Regular meetings of a community of practitioners as the important meeting we hold here today are an important instigator for such efforts.
In 2021, mediatEUr became Conciliation Resources EU/mediatEUr.