Post-Soviet Confidence Games

LONDON – It is starting to look like a pattern. After painstaking talks, the parties in the Ukraine conflict come to an agreement – only to have it fall apart or fail to be fully implemented. At least three separate deals to resolve the crisis have been struck, and each has quickly unraveled. Even a unanimous vote in the United Nations Security Council condemning the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and demanding access to the crash site has failed to produce the desired results. Over three months later, Dutch investigators have still not been able to conduct all necessary visits.

The usual diagnosis for the repeated failure to forge a lasting agreement is a lack of trust on both sides of the conflict, for which the usual prescription is to introduce a series of confidence-building measures. If only the Ukrainian national government in Kyiv, its Western allies, Russia, and the Ukrainian separatists could learn to trust each other, the thinking goes, perhaps a settlement could be reached.

But confidence-building measures are not the panacea that they are so often portrayed to be. To be sure, there are cases where the absence of trust-building efforts could partly explain why a conflict drags on. The 25-year tug-of-war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh is a prime example. But there are also conflicts in which years of confidence-building measures have not only failed to produce a solution but have also prevented one from taking shape.

The parties tussling over Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia spent some 15 years taking part in confidence-building measures, before Russia upended the status quo in 2008 by recognizing both regions’ independence. Since then, confidence-building has continued in the form of regular talks in Geneva, but nearly 30 rounds of meetings over the past six years have yet to yield tangible progress.