Despite vastly contradictory positions between Russia and the West over Ukraine, the Minsk talks appear to have delivered a result. What were the sides hoping to gain from the talks?
From left, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, back, are followed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, as they head for the Feb. 11 meeting in Minsk. Photo: AP
The first indications are that crucial negotiations held in Minsk over reaching a peace deal between the warring sides in eastern Ukraine have ended in success, with the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany announcing a ceasefire agreement after 16 hours of talks.
The ceasefire will begin at 00:00 on Feb. 15, after which both sides will withdraw heavy weapons – from the current line of contact, for Ukrainian troops, and from the line stipulated by the Sept. 19 Minsk Agreement, for separatist forces. Details of the peace deal, which also covers issues such as border control and decentralization, have yet to be made public.
The four-way peace talks were held in the Belarusian capital on Wednesday, Feb. 11, as the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany attempted to hammer out a last-gasp peace agreement amid an upsurge in violence in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, but continued through the night into the morning of Feb. 12.
The highly anticipated meeting was the culmination of a week packed with hastily-arranged diplomatic meetings, as Western leaders desperately attempted to find a way to bring the sides back to the negotiating table after the breakdown of a fragile ceasefire established last fall.
The Minsk summit was organized under a Franco-German proposal to try to halt the fighting, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande hoping to prevent the situation in the Donbass deteriorating into all-out war by persuading the sides to sign a joint declaration supporting Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty.
In addition, a separate document was supposed to be prepared by a so-called "contact group" composed of Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), affirming commitment to a ceasefire plan drawn up in Minsk last September and also signed by separatist leaders.
The Ukrainian side was convinced that the meeting in Minsk was one of the last chances to declare an unconditional ceasefire and withdraw heavy armaments from the frontlines. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had said that without a de-escalation of the conflict and a ceasefire the situation would spiral "out of control."
Kiev had claimed that any agreement should be based on the original Minsk deal signed last September.
In practice, that means shifting the current battle lines back to the original demarcation line agreed under that first deal as well as closing the border with Russia to stem the flow of Russian fighters and military hardware into eastern Ukraine. Furthermore, a full prisoner exchange and a full withdrawal of foreign troops from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are to be provided.
The Ukrainian position was based on the demand for a bilateral ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the frontline, in which case Kiev is prepared to grant far-reaching autonomy to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and Russian-language rights in these mainly Russian-speaking regions. Taking into consideration the fact that the Russian side was unlikely to agree to a deal that forces the separatists to cede the territory gained since the resumption of hostilities and return to their previous positions, hopes for a breakthrough appeared slim and would depend on Ukraine making most of the concessions.
The EU’s expectations
Merkel and Hollande, who were the representatives of the “Western” side during the Minsk talks, were asking that Russia respect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Western leaders have demanded the withdrawal of all Russian forces (volunteer and regular) and heavy weapons, along with effective monitoring of the Ukraine-Russia border and a widened buffer zone between the warring groups.
United in their support for Ukraine, Merkel and Hollande had said it was vital that the deal be based on the original Minsk agreement signed in September. Yet in recent days, amid the growing sense that Kiev will likely have to give some ground in order for this deal to happen, the West had kept silent on where it stands on the topic of territory. However, Germany remained a realist, stating that the Minsk negotiations offered a "glimmer of hope" for solving the crisis in Ukraine but no more than that.
France, in its turn, indicated it was willing to make territorial concessions to Russia. “We should not stray far from the September 2014 documents but the real situation on the ground has changed to Ukraine’s detriment,” said French foreign minister Laurent Fabius before the talks.
Analyzing the EU’s position, it is worth noting that the fear in Ukraine and among pro-Ukrainian states in the EU was that France and Germany push Ukraine to accept a ceasefire deal which could undermine Ukrainian sovereignty by creating a new frozen conflict on its territory. It remains to be seen how the new agreement will affect the situation.
Moscow had expressed public optimism over the talks, claiming that it was 70 percent likely that an agreement would be reached in Minsk. "The presidents aren't traveling for no reason," Russian diplomatic sources had said before the meeting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands, which he laid out to his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko last week, had included awarding far-reaching autonomy to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions under a broad Ukrainian decentralization plan, as well as special rights for the predominantly Russian-speaking eastern regions. “Federalization” is something that Moscow has expressed, but that is a point Kiev has said it will not implement.
The Kremlin also sought to see the territorial gains made by the separatists since September recognized, a demand that Ukrainian president would have a difficult time selling to the Ukrainian population.
Moscow was also demanding that Kiev negotiate directly with separatist leaders, a move which the Ukrainian government is unwilling to consider as it would confer a certain legitimacy on what it labels as “terrorists.”
In summary, Russia wants Ukraine to remain neutral and to promise that it will not join NATO. Putin is in the process of creating another "frozen conflict” in eastern Ukraine in order to use it whenever he wants to retain influence over the country and cripple its pro-Western authorities.
Western diplomacy against Russian hard power
The Minsk meeting was considered by many to be the last chance to bring the war in Ukraine to an end by means of diplomacy. Western politicians have been preparing their voters for the possible military escalation of the conflict by stating that they are doing their best using diplomacy. So the Western countries, in particular, the U.S., considered the Minsk peace talks as a point marking the transition from soft to hard power.
Europe has threatened more sanctions should Russia not roll back its involvement in Ukraine, but halted implementing new ones in order to give diplomacy one more shot.
The U.S. said in a statement before the Minsk meeting that “if Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine … the costs for Russia will rise.” If peace talks fail, President Barack Obama will consider whether to deliver lethal weapons to Kiev.
But the Kremlin has warned that if they go ahead it would be seen as an attack on Russia itself.
As a result, there is a fear that if too many of Russia’s demands are satisfied it will embolden Putin to pursue destabilization beyond Ukraine – in Belarus itself, but also in Kazakhstan and in EU and NATO members Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.