The war in eastern Ukraine may finally be ending

Ukraine rebels on tanks
Pro-Russian separatists and their tanks.
Aleksey Filippov

KYIV, Ukraine — With Russian planes suddenly pounding targets in Syria, it’s no surprise the conflict in eastern Ukraine has faded from the news lately.

And that’s too bad — because while you weren’t looking, that year-and-a-half-long war has been slowing down. It may even finally be ending.

A ceasefire between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces has (mostly) held for weeks, according to monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Spokesman Michael Bociurkiw says the significant decrease in fighting has led to an “unprecedented calm.”

“This is all very positive, and in the past few days … the only noise that we were hearing was what they call ‘controlled detonations,’” he told GlobalPost, referring to the destruction of unexploded ordnance. Bociurkiw added that both sides were still conducting training exercises.

Also telling were comments this week from a top separatist envoy, who claimed a tentative agreement with Kyiv on pulling back small arms from the front line was a major step toward ending the war.

But if the guns have largely fallen silent, that means the next phase of the conflict — political bargaining — is only just starting. The good news is that this part is far less deadly. The bad news? There’s no quick fix.

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Some Western officials reportedly believe that by pitching in to fight the Islamic State in Syria, Russia is hoping to force concessions from world leaders on Ukraine. Those could include the removal of economic sanctions or the tacit acceptance of a “frozen conflict” in the east, which means a political settlement would remain elusive despite the end of hostilities.

  "Russia is actually interested in gradually reintegrating its neibhbor’s two rebel territories back into Ukraine."

Vadim Karasyov, a political analyst in Kyiv, says Russia is actually interested in gradually reintegrating its neighbor’s two rebel territories back into Ukraine. That would provide the Kremlin greater leverage over the country’s domestic politics.

“It’s really about on whose terms they’ll be returned to Ukraine — on Putin’s, [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko’s, or otherwise through some sort of compromise,” he said.

Talks in Paris on Friday among the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany — collectively known as the Normandy Format — were partly aimed at resolving problems around this month’s local elections, a major bone of contention for both sides.

A peace deal signed earlier this year in Minsk, Belarus says elections in the rebellious parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions should be held together with the rest of the country. But the regions' separatist leaders insist on holding their polls independently, a decision that President Poroshenko has criticized.

After Friday's talks, French President Francois Hollande said the local elections in eastern Ukraine should be postponed, and that the Minsk deal would take longer than expected to implement.

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Officials are still expressing cautious optimism. But even if diplomats remain busy hammering out a deal, observers warn that a return to open hostilities is never far away.

“The risk of an escalation is still there,” said Bociurkiw, the OSCE spokesman, adding that the key is making sure all weapons are withdrawn first. “Both sides are definitely battle-ready.”

Follow Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk on Twitter.