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Conflict resolution in Donbas: no magic formula, political process is needed

Three military experts with extensive peacekeeping experience talk to Andiry Kulykov. They compare Donbas conflict to the situations in Northern Ireland, Yemen, South Africa, and Cyprus. Part 1 of 2

Show hosts

Oksana Smerechuk,

Andriy Kulykov

Conflict resolution in Donbas: no magic formula, political process is needed
Conflict resolution in Donbas: no magic formula, political process is needed

Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv and we’re bringing you our feature interview followed by some new music from Ukraine. We’re trying something new this week. We’re airing the first part of an interview, and the second part will air in next week’s show. Andriy Kulykov, Hromadske Radio co-founder and CEO, spoke to three military experts with extensive peacekeeping experience who visited Ukraine: General Sir Rupert Smith, expert on peacekeeping operations and security, Sir William Jeffrey, expert on post-conflict policing and DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration) with a focus on Northern Ireland, and George Anderson, expert on political reintegration and decentralisation. Their conversation ran well over our regular time slot. But rather than editing it down, we decided to share the entire interview with you, in two parts. Here’s the first part.


Part 1

Kulykov: You have vast experience in the international sphere, I mean in different countries. We Ukrainians quite often think that people who come from abroad have solutions for our own problems. What can you say about this, General?

General Smith: I don’t think we’re here to offer a solution. Certainly, in my experience, and I think I speak for the others, is that each problem, conflict, such as this, is unique to the circumstances they’re in. There isn’t a formula. You have to find the best answer in the circumstances at the time.

Kulykov: Alright, there isn’t a formula, but maybe there are some rules that apply to different countries, I mean the general line of conduct. What can you say about this?

Anderson: Well I certainly think there are lessons you can draw. And there are good lessons and bad lessons. One of the things that I worry about in this particular case is the risk that you’ll end up with a frozen conflict. What we’ve seen in a number of countries, is that there’s an inability to really engage in the issues and make the compromises that are necessary to reach an understanding. In this particular case I think both sides are hurting, but will they find a way to engage, and actually address the underlying issues, and move on to a more normal relationship? That’s one of the lessons we’ve seen from abroad, is that there’s a risk of slipping into a permanent state of confrontation.

Kulykov: You say both sides. Are there just two sides? Or maybe more?

Anderson: It’s more complex than I just said. And we’ve seen that in a number of places. One of the issues is how many people come to the table? Or how many tables do you have? That kind of question.

Kulykov: When we speak of frozen conflicts, do we have a specific number of years after which a conflict becomes frozen?

Jeffrey: I don’t think you can be as specific as that, but I think there are certainly characteristics of a conflict that has gotten to the point that nobody is really seriously expecting a resolution for a long time to come. And that’s a dangerous situation. But that doesn’t mean that there will always be an easy solution. The conflict I’m most familiar with is Ireland, and that rumbled on for many, many years. In a way, there was a solution waiting to be adopted, and what was needed was the political will, and the right timing, to make it successful.

Kulykov: Political will is a very popular combination of words in Ukraine. For every failure, for every drawback, we say, ‘we have everything but political will.’ I followed events in Ireland, or Northern Ireland, or rather in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, since 1969. I lived and worked in London from 1992 to 1995, and then again from 2000. I sort of witnessed the Good Friday process and all this. Where was this political will found, after all? And why at this specific time?

Jeffrey: I think that there were two things that brought it together. One was that there was a generation of politicians in Northern Ireland who had lived through decades of fighting, and were sick of it. And knew that their constituents wanted change. That was one definite factor. Another was that the security situation had reached the point where neither side could win, and they knew it. The Provision IRA had been penetrated to the point that they knew that they were not going to win a military victory. Equally, they were strong enough that it was unlikely that British forces would do so. So, in security terms the timing was right. And then, politically, although much good work had been done by their predecessors, we had the coincidence of a British Prime Minister, in Tony Blair, and an Irish Taoiseach, in Bertie Ahearn, who formed a very close, personal, working relationship. If you add all these together, the conditions were right. But it’s a combination that took a long time to come.

Kulykov: General Smith, apart from political will, and cooperation or contacts between people at the top, how important is work on the ground?

Smith: In the end, it entirely depends on the agreement to cease fire, and resolve the confrontation. And I’d like to draw a distinction between the fighting, the conflict, and the underpinning political confrontation that led to the conflict. You can only carry out your military functions according to the agreements in which you’re operating. So, if we’re talking of peace, there has to be an agreement to cease fires at an absolute minimum. And then you can start to contribute to developing an answer to the confrontation.

Kulykov: When I spoke to some former combatants in Northern Ireland, and asked them what made them finally stop their combat activities, I was stunned by the answer. I, as a person who never took up arms militarily, heard that both of them, from different sides of the conflict, said: ‘We got tired of killing.’ How important is this factor?

Anderson: I think it can be very important in certain circumstances. I’ve been doing some work on Yemen. I’m afraid they’re not yet tired of killing in Yemen, and this is a country which has a plague of weapons. I referred to frozen conflicts. Sometimes the killing has stopped, but that doesn’t get you to the point of addressing the underlying issues. In Cyprus now, it’s been decades where they’ve had this frozen conflict, where the Turkish army is still on the ground in northern Cyprus. It can get too comfortable, in a sense, even when the killing has stopped, to actually address the underlying political issues.

Kulykov: What was your major message to the Ukrainians with whom you spoke? I know that you held a seminar for the Ukrainian police.

Anderson: We met with some officials here. We had different messages. Each of us has different areas of expertise. But in my particular case it was to encourage people to start looking at the different issues, to break it up into chewable bits. And say, is there an issue around language? Is there an issue around policing? Is there an issue around security? Work your way through the list of questions, and start thinking about what might be creative responses to those questions.

Kulykov: And?

Smith: Mine I’ve already given. Deploying military forces into somebody else’s fight must be done with a clear understanding that there is at least, as a minimum, an intention to cease fire. And then you can start to contribute to establishing the beginnings of solving the confrontation.

Kulykov: How to you find proof that there is such a wish?

Smith: The more doubtful the intentions to do what everyone is saying they’re going to do in this agreement, the larger the force you’re going to require. And I think there’s a sort of crude correlation between the two. Secondly, you must understand that the deployment of this force is, in itself, a confidence building measure for both parties. And unless you can establish those understandings, I don’t think you should deploy the force in the first place.

Kulykov: Thank you.

Jeffrey: I think my main message was to do with for the need for some kind of political settlement and overarching agreement, and in particular for some process by which such an agreement can be reached. And I agree with what Rupert said earlier, that we’re not presumptuous enough to imagine that we have some magic formula that will cure the problems here, which are very deep-seated. But the only way in which there can be a solution is through a political process of some kind. We also talked about if there were such a process, and if it led to the kind of political agreement that occurred in Northern Ireland and Columbia, for example, how would one best address issues such as demilitarisation of regular armed forces, the decommissioning of weapons, and reintegration of those who have been acting as terrorists into a normal society, and changes in the police force. I think one advantage that Ukraine has, and there are not many, if one’s honest about it, is that a lot of thought has been given in recent years to the question of police reform, and certainly in my experience reforming police services has been an important element in making peace.

Kulykov: You are rather cautious in assessing Ukrainian efforts because I heard you say, “a lot of thought was given.”  Was there a lot of action, in your opinion?

Jeffrey: I think there is evidence that things have changed, particularly in relation to community policing and patrolling. My sense is that even those responsible for these changes will acknowledge there is some way to go.

Kulykov: Before we go to questions that we got from people who live in non-government controlled areas, one last question from me in this part of conversation. From what I hear you seem to underline, to stress that there has to be a political will, that there have to be agreements which then will be implemented on the ground. But how important, or how probable is the process when there are initiatives that come from beneath, from the ground, when combatants or non-combatants, but who are on opposing sides, find something common to do and then this goes up and is accepted by those who work for political agreements and all this kind of stuff.

Anderson: Are you referring to things that are positive or conflictual?

Kulykov: Positive.

Anderson: That can be a useful icebreaker, if you will, in the process. But one of the things that strikes me is that we have two countries here both of which have electoral systems. I mean flawed at least in one case, but nevertheless politics is real in both countries. So when we talk about political will it’s not just the leaders. The leaders are always thinking about the population. One of the problems is that if population is starting to drifting apart and seeing this in very nationalistic terms or is there some space to create for leaders to find a solution? Bringing the population around in understanding the value of the solution, and the fact that the solution will require accommodation and even some painful compromises. That’s a very tricky thing to manage politically. It will have to happen on both sides.

Kulykov: Anyone wants to comment?

Jeffrey: I just want to add to what George said on importance of the real popular view. As a follower of Northern Ireland process, you would know that we had some difficult political patches recently. Things have been set back and it is proving hard to follow through completely an agreement that was made as long as 20 years ago. I think the best chance to get it back together again lies in the public’s view and public’s willingness, as George said, to accept compromises.

Kulykov: General, no comment?

Smith: I would agree.

Kulykov: No comment will be accepted as an answer to following questions, but of course I am sure our listeners will appreciate at least some comments. So these are the questions from Ukrainian citizens who live in the non-government controlled areas.  As of now the non-government controlled areas are under a complete economic and social blockade. The Russian ruble is in use. We have gas and electricity from Russia. Russia pays pensions and social payments. How can a peace keeping mission have any effect, any influence on all of these? Will it have any influence on all of this?

Smith: No, it will not. As I’ve explained I think already that is not the purpose of the deployment of the military force.

Kulykov: All right. Anyone?

Anderson: Before peacekeepers are put on the ground, you need an agreement. Will that issue be addressed as part of the agreement, or won’t it be? If it is not, then introduction of peacekeepers would not deal with that issue. 

Kulykov: One SBU (Security Service of Ukraine) General made a statement all residents of non-government controlled areas will go through filtration camps. How possible is this? Was there any experience like this in the countries that you worked in?

Jeffrey: I do not think any of us came across anything like that before. It depends on the circumstances, but I can’t recall any examples in which entire populations were subject to such treatment.

Kulykov: Is full amnesty envisaged for people who carried weapons in their arms? I understand again that you are not responsible for what Ukrainian authorities are planning but what was your experience in the countries where you worked?

Jeffrey: In Northern Ireland we did not have an amnesty. We had arrangements for those who had been convicted of criminal offences associated with the troubles in Northern Ireland which was seen by many to be very generous. But there was no question of outright amnesty. As George was implying in response to your earlier question, an awful lot of depends on what agreement is eventually reached. In each of these conflicts there is a point at which a compromise may be possible. And it is not always the same point.

Anderson: If I just may add. One of the things you see in these post-conflict situations, is, first of all, how do you deal with the malefactors? Are they going to be treated as criminals? But there’s the broader question of transitional justice. In some cases, like in South Africa, they had a major process just to expose what had happened during the apartheid regime and in transition to majority rule. There had been very bad things done by ANC and very bad things done by the apartheid regime. All of that was sort of put out so people could see it, and it was part of coming in terms of the past so that they can move into the future. But they decided that not everything bad in the past is going to be dealt with. They were focused on the future.

Kulykov: General, what is your experience in the countries where you served?

Smith: You won’t get towards some form of resolution without a degree of good-will. If one side is being thoroughly vindictive, then you’re not going to get to the end. Because why would the other side then make peace? And I think the thing to hold in mind every morning, is you’re making peace with your enemies, not your friends.

(Part 2 will air next week)


There’s so much music coming out of Ukraine these days,in many languages, it’s hard to stay on top of it. Thankfully, Hromadske Radio has a number of shows devoted to music that helps. One song that appeared on the Sunday music show Pora Roku caught my eye. It’s called Кароока. When I first saw the title, I misread it for Karaoke. But it’s not. It’s about Dark Eyes. A reference to traditional Ukrainian songs. By the L’viv band Incomer. It’s their first song in Ukrainian. Not what one would expect from a band in Western Ukraine. Enjoy, and let us know what you think!


Next week we’ll be back with the second part of the interview, where Andriy Kulykov poses more questions to the foreign peacekeeping experts from Ukrainians living in the areas of Donbas not controlled by the Ukrainian government. Tune in to hear the questions and answers. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected]. This is Oksana Smerechuk in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.

Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Caroline Gawlik, Larysa Iarovenko, Caitilin O’Hare, and Oksana Smerechuk. Music by Marta Dyczok and Andriy Kulykov. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko.