As the first month of the new year ends, the war in Eastern Ukraine remains as frozen as ever. Despite declared ceasefire as part of the Minsk II Agreement, the total number of civilians killed by the fighting is fast approaching 10,000 (almost double the casualty figure at the time the Agreement was signed) and the East still remains outside Kiev’s control despite the low approval of the separatist leadership and war weariness among the people of the breakaway republics. Could the implementation of an alternate conflict resolution strategy reduce the tension in the Donetsk and Luhansk region?
One of the ways in which Kiev could break the current stalemate is adopting a Gradual Reduction in Tension (GRIT) strategy in its dealings with the Separatist government. GRIT calls for one side of a conflict to send a unilateral signal to the other side through an act or gesture to build trust and plant the seeds for reciprocity. Where the theory differs from the classical tit-for-tat is that even if the initial gesture is ignored, the initiating side should continue to send additional gestures (albeit cost prohibitive) without expecting reciprocity to demonstrate to the other side the seriousness to change the conflict from its current state towards eventual resolution.
In a prolonged and stalemated conflict, a refusal of the other side to match good-with-good might lead to unrest or a change in loyalties among their war-weary constituents who might view their leaders’ obstinacy as unreasonable and no longer in their best interests. Such a strategy was employed in 1977 by the Egyptian government, in the form of Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem. Prior to this move, relations between Egypt and Israel were incredibly poor, having engaged in military confrontation during the Yom Kippur War only four years prior. Sadat surprisingly announced that he would visit Jerusalem to build trust between the two nations, and although the trip cost very little politically, it greatly improved his perception as a leader in Israel, and helped facilitate the Camp David Accords a year later.
To build trust among the people in the Separatist regions, Kiev could allow for more crossing points for pensioners in the East to collect their pension checks. Since the Donbass area remains a rust belt and is economically depressed, the major source of revenue is pensions. While Kiev has allowed people from the East to pass into Western Ukraine to collect their pensions in a few areas, the clear majority of pension collectors remain dependent on Russia for their payments due to a lack of accessibility. Thus, although the people in the East might not support the Separatist government, in the absence of choice, they are reliant on the latter to provide income. Additionally, while some leaders in Kiev might think that by denying or limiting pension payments might make the war too expensive or unsustainable for the Separatists and their Russian backers, there remains little to no evidence of that. The Russian response to the crisis in Ukraine remains popular among the Russian people, and the Russian economy has proven to be rather resilient despite economic sanctions and dropping oil prices.
Therefore, the simple gesture of creating additional crossing points and increasing the allocation of funds to provide pensions to the people in the East (who are still Ukrainian after-all), would demonstrate that Kiev still cares about the population’s welfare and would signal a willingness to change direction in the conflict. Their continued implementation, despite the potential lack of reciprocity from the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (and the risk of some of that pension money fueling Separatist operations) could cause the people in the East to pressure their leadership or question their leadership’s current approach to the conflict and restart the peace process.
After gaining trust through the additional border crossing points, Kiev should begin serious discussions of an amnesty program for the rebel leadership and its fighters. Admittedly, this is no small matter and has become increasingly harder to consider given the number of casualties, people displaced, and infrastructure destroyed over the past 3 years. Although agreed upon in Minsk II, there has been little talk as to how such a program would work or what it would look like. However, by making it a central part of Kiev’s GRIT strategy, it would demonstrate the government’s commitment to fulfilling its part of the Minsk II Agreement and lessen concerns around post-reunification retributions among the population of the breakaway regions.
Although a highly emotionally and politically charged decision, if Ukraine is ever to be peacefully reunited—and since its current heavily military approach is not having the desired outcome—then a form of reconciliation and forgiveness is essential and inevitable. Therefore, even if this action is not reciprocated by Separatists, Kiev should still push forward with this program because failure to do so will only prolong the war. Its continued delay strengthens separatist resistance at the front lines and at the negotiating table. Thus, by being flexible on its current position on pensions and the amnesty program, Kiev could achieve its overall interest of reunification.
While some in the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) or those serving on the front lines might question this approach considering the blood spilled so far, such losses would not have been in vain as their sacrifice allowed the conflict to progress to this stage and if ultimately successful, kept Ukraine united.
John Rugarber is a former United States Army Captain and graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point with multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. John is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with a concentration in Conflict Management.
Photo Credit: Ukraine Ministry of Defense