Everybody seems interested in observing the Minsk Agreements on Ukraine. At the same time, however, no side wants to fully comply with them for fear of displaying weakness or admitting failure


From left, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko arrive for a news conference during a meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. Photo: AP

One year ago, in September Minsk saw the conclusion of Trilateral Contact Group (Russia-Ukraine-OSCE) consultations and the signing of a protocol on a ceasefire in the two Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.  However, the armed conflict in the Donbas has not stopped. Along the way there have been ups (the period from January-February 2015 and July-August 2015) and downs (February-June 2015).

Attempts were made to quell the rising violence through a package of measures on the implementation of the Minsk accords, which was also signed in the Belarusian capital and labeled “Minsk-2.” But according to the UN data as of September 8, 2015, the armed conflict in the Ukraine had claimed the lives of 7,962 people (including civilians, Ukrainian security officers, rebels and 298 passengers aboard Malaysian flight MH17), with 17,811 injured and more than 2.3 million refugees, most of whom are now in Russia.

So why did last September’s ray of hope not light the way to peace, or at least stem the tide of Europe’s largest conflict since the collapse of Yugoslavia?

Attempts made to quell the military conflict in Ukraine

To answer this question, we need to analyze all the attempts made to stop the armed violence in southeastern Ukraine, of which there have been many since the Ukrainian authorities declared an anti-terrorist operation in April 2014 in response to the proclamation of the People’s Republic of Donetsk.

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Literally days after the Ukrainian military operation commenced, a US-EU-Russia-Ukraine meeting was held in Geneva, where a special statement on the disarmament of all illegal armed groups and the release of previously seized administrative buildings was adopted. It seemed to have all the angles covered, yet the conflict only intensified.

The next gathering was on June 23, when a tripartite commission met with representatives of the self-proclaimed republics of Donbas. A ceasefire agreement emerged four days later. That too failed. Later, in July, the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine agreed on a declaration on the settlement of the conflict.

The plan proposed granting OSCE inspectors access to checkpoints on the Russian-Ukrainian border and the establishment of a contact group to develop specific mechanisms to overcome the crisis. The initiatives looked good on paper. But the non-involvement in the negotiation process of the United States, which had become an important factor in the Ukraine crisis, devalued any arrangements.

The conflict entered a new phase, and the negotiation process saw a dangerous lull. Attempts were made to fill the gap during the anniversary celebrations of Operation Overlord in Normandy (where Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko met for the first time). Peace initiatives from the Russian and Ukrainian presidents ensued, followed by Minsk-1.

But the slight abatement of military activity in the run-up to New Year was supplanted by an escalation of violence, peaking in February. Minsk-2, which unlike its predecessor stipulated political and legal mechanisms for settling the conflict and was not limited to ceasefire, disengagement and prisoner exchange, was intended to break this negative trend. But the confrontation continues to this day, although without major frontline offensives.

The search for a compromise solution amenable to all sides

As such, all attempts to halt the violence have come to naught. But the problem is not that the proposals have been flawed. After all, there is no such thing as a perfect peace plan. Any initiative is about concessions and compromises. That last word is key.

This year, as before, the warring parties (Kiev and the self-proclaimed republics), in addition to Russia and the West, have systematically failed to develop a conciliatory approach toward each other. The United States and its NATO allies see Moscow as the main transgressor of international law and European state boundaries (which is true from a legal standpoint, but does not reflect the full scope of the political problem, in which the West is no less responsible).

Russia fears that Ukraine could be transformed into an outpost for NATO incursions into the post-Soviet space and its zone of exclusive interests. Kiev, on the other hand, seeks to maximize Western aid to escape Russia’s influence, while the unrecognized republics of Donbas apply the same logic in respect of the Ukrainian state and Kremlin support.

Add in the fact that the Ukraine crisis is not a “thing unto itself,” but a reflection of the general post-Cold War crisis in European security and the affirmation of unipolarity, which Moscow rejects. Hence, a Donbas settlement cannot be limited to the withdrawal of heavy equipment and weapons. It needs to be part of the overall transformation of security in Europe.

Otherwise, the parties will continually renege on obligations, considering unilateral concessions as the first step toward defeat. Whereas Russia is afraid of a repeat of the Balkan scenario as it was for Serbia (the loss of de facto states aligned to Belgrade), the West and Ukraine fear the transformation of the former Soviet Union into “Russia’s backyard.”

Consequently, both Minsk 1 and 2 were worded so as not to allow one side to claim victory. As a result, the priority for Kiev (and its Western backers) is Ukraine’s territorial integrity and no mention of “independent people’s republics,” while for Moscow it is the need for constitutional reform to be agreed upon with regard to the “separatist regions” of southeastern Ukraine.

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Russian officials maintain that the agreement contains no provisions on Russia’s responsibility for the “separatists” and their political actions, and that the ceasefire pertains to Ukraine’s armed forces and volunteer militia (formally, of course, Russia and Ukraine are not at war and diplomatic ties are not severed).

As a consequence, there are different interpretations of the Minsk agreements, on which basis specific political initiatives are put forward (in particular on the issue of extending or even tightening sanctions). This October the problem could come to a head. If the two “people’s republics” do not hold local elections under Ukrainian law, then Russia could face additional sanctions for violation of the Minsk accords.

But how can they be imposed if Moscow’s responsibility for the actions of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics is not stipulated, and Russia is not a de jure party to the conflict? Ukrainian decentralization, as declared in Poroshenko’s proposed constitutional reform, does not solve the underlying problem of the Donbas conflict, specifically the model of relations between Kiev and the unrecognized republics, which can be ignored only if defeated militarily, which the Ukrainian army attempted last summer. It was after this failure that Minsk-1 was signed.

A paradoxical situation arises whereby everyone wants peace, yet no one wants a peace that favors the other side. The idea that the Minsk agreements can satisfy all interests is wishful thinking. As a result, an intensification of reconnaissance operations designed to test both the military and diplomatic capabilities of the opposing side cannot be ruled out.

It is a rhetorical question as to when “reconnaissance fatigue” will set in and discussion can start of the root causes of the Ukraine crisis, which is at the core of the most serious confrontation between the West and Russia this side of the Cold War.

Will European security be ensured by involving or marginalizing Russia? How to organize cooperation between Moscow and the West and how to prevent the post-Soviet space from turning into a large gladiatorial arena? The only hope of resolving the conflict in Donbas lies in finding answers to these questions. Otherwise, the road to peace will be littered with broken “Minsks.”

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.