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'Long way to go' before Russia-Ukraine repair relations despite prisoner swap, experts say

Key Points
  • A high-profile prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine is being seen as a boost to the possible resumption of peace talks, but some experts are tempering those hopes.
  • Ambassador Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, told CNBC Wednesday that "there is a long way to go before there would be any normalization between the two countries."
Soldiers of the Ukrainian army on the front line during the Joint Forces Operation in Donbass area, Luhansk region, Ukraine, on June 2018.
NurPhoto | NurPhoto | Getty Images

A high-profile prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine is being seen as a boost to the possible resumption of peace talks, but some experts are tempering those hopes.

Ambassador Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, told CNBC Wednesday that "there is a long way to go before there would be any normalization between the two countries."

"Russia's invasion, occupation, and claimed annexation of Crimea will never be accepted by Ukraine," Volker, who is also the executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, told CNBC. "That said, it is possible to make progress toward peace in Eastern Ukraine."

"This prisoner exchange is a good step, that could pave the way for further exchanges, a more durable cease-fire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and — ideally — a decision by Russia to proceed with implementing the Minsk agreements. If so, it would tremendously improve the lives of the local population," he added.

On Saturday, a possible thawing of frosty relations between the two neighbors came about after Russia and Ukraine exchanged a total of 70 prisoners, including Ukrainian sailors that were detained in November 2018 following a skirmish in the Kerch Strait.

The incident in the strait was just one of a number of incidents reflecting heightened tensions between the countries since 2014, following Russia's annexation of Crimea and its role in a pro-Russian uprising in the Donbass region in the east of the country.

The uprising prompted Russian-backed separatists within the Donbass to proclaim two "people's republics" in Donetsk and Luhansk, exacerbating the destabilization of (and tensions with) Ukraine. It has also led to Russia becoming something of a pariah in the international community and it is still subject to sanctions for its actions.

What's happened?

The conflict in the Donbass region is now in its fifth year, although it has been characterized more by regular skirmishes than outright war. Nonetheless, the human cost has been high. Over 13,000 people (including civilians and combatants from both sides) have died since 2014, according to the United Nations, and hostilities have affected 3.9 million civilians living in the region.

Efforts by France and Germany in 2015 to broker a cease-fire and peace deal, known as the Minsk agreements, were widely seen to have failed with both Russia and Ukraine accusing each other of failing to meet the conditions of the deal.

Against a backdrop of bitter relations, a lot of focus has been on how the new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and TV star by trade, would handle Russia after he campaigned on a pledge to end the conflict in the Donbass region. During his inauguration, Zelensky said that the government's "first task is to achieve a cease-fire in Donbass."

'Normalization' of Ukraine-Russia relations?

Zelensky said Saturday that all steps must be taken "to finish this horrible war," Reuters reported, while Russian President Vladimir Putin said the swap would be "a good step towards the normalization of relations."

Even President Donald Trump got enthusiastic, tweeting his approval and his hope for peace.

Experts are cynical, however. Otilia Dhand, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence, is also not convinced that the exchange means conflict resolution, noting that there are major barriers to peace in place.

"First, this was just another (though high-profile) among several exchanges of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia under the 2015 Minsk cease-fire agreement," she said in a note Tuesday.

"Second, the political conditions of the cease-fire agreement require constitutional reform in Ukraine prior to the restoration of Kyiv's territorial control. Separatists would likely demand decision-making powers in foreign policy to prevent any possibility of Ukraine's westward economic and security integration, which remains unacceptable for Kyiv."

Nonetheless, Dhand noted that the recent increase in bilateral activity suggests that some form of talks over the Donbas conflict will likely take place soon, with both sides having vested interests in a resolution.

"Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, seeks a substantial political victory to foster his position in the political system … Russia seeks a normalization of relations with the EU and the U.S., the easing of sanctions and the return to the global political stage," she said.