Three years after Minsk II: Where are we now?

Quelle: Shut­ter­stock

Reca­pit­u­la­tion of a fal­ter­ing peace process: the second Minsk Agree­ment of Feb­ru­ary 2015, intended to put an end to the war in eastern Ukraine and to set a polit­i­cal process in motion, with no success so far.

A look back: On 27 Feb­ru­ary 2014, Russian special forces occupy Crimea’s par­lia­ment build­ing. The annex­a­tion of Crimea is forced through at a dizzy­ing pace: the region’s de facto incor­po­ra­tion by Russia takes place on 18 March, a mere two days after the pseudo-ref­er­en­dum held at gun­point on 16 March. All of it metic­u­lously pre­pared.

The West, com­pletely blind­sided by this unex­pected devel­op­ment, responds with shocked dismay, but cor­rectly. Europe and the USA make it clear that there will be no mil­i­tary response of any kind. Instead, mod­er­ate eco­nomic sanc­tions are imposed. Secretly, many hoped that Putin had been sati­ated by the annex­a­tion, and that he would not risk the leap to main­land Ukraine. The West had under­es­ti­mated the Kremlin’s appetite.

Esca­la­tion in the Donbas

The Ukrain­ian mil­i­tary was not pre­pared for an attack on Crimea, nor later, for one in the Donbas. As a func­tion­ing force, it was prac­ti­cally non-exis­tent. Offi­cers whose com­mis­sions dated back to the days of the joint Soviet Army, anti­quated equip­ment, mis­man­age­ment, cor­rup­tion and zero expe­ri­ence in defend­ing against an attack con­spired to make the inva­sion a mil­i­tary walk in the park for the Russian forces, with the con­nivance of col­lab­o­ra­tors from the Donbas.

Recall­ing Milošević’s dictum from 1991 “If a Serbian lives there, it is Serbian soil”, the Kremlin’s pro­pa­ganda asserted the imper­a­tive of pro­tect­ing the “Russian” pop­u­lace, allegedly threat­ened by a fascist Maidan. The myth of fascist upris­ings was any­thing but new – the Kremlin had already used it to quell the lib­er­a­tion move­ments in Berlin in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czecho­slo­va­kia in 1968.

That, despite the organ­i­sa­tional chaos within the Ukrain­ian mil­i­tary, the “sep­a­ratists” could nonethe­less be, for the most part, driven back in August of 2014 was some­thing on the order of a minor miracle. But not one the Kremlin was pre­pared to tol­er­ate. A massive deploy­ment of troops and heavy weaponry from Russia forced the Ukrain­ian forces back out again. In one par­tic­u­larly dra­matic chapter of the war, over 1 000 Ukrain­ian sol­diers found them­selves trapped in Ilo­vaisk, encir­cled by enemy troops. Having met a few des­per­ate sol­diers who managed to escape the Ilo­vaisk pocket, the author has some idea of the horror these young men lived through.

Minsk I

Against this back­drop, a first meeting took place in Minsk on 5 Sep­tem­ber. Under the aus­pices of the OSCE, Leonid Kuchma, former Pres­i­dent of Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov, Russia’s Ambas­sador to Ukraine, and the rebel leaders Alexan­der Zakharchenko and Igor Plot­nit­sky met with the respected diplo­mat Heidi Tagli­avinia. The outcome was a package of mea­sures made up of 12 points, which, in addi­tion to a cease­fire, included pro­vi­sions on an exchange of pris­on­ers, an OSCE mon­i­tor­ing mission to the Ukrain­ian-Russian border, special status for the Donbas region, and early regional elec­tions.

The cease­fire leaked like a sieve right from the start. The pro-Russian forces used the oppor­tu­nity to further their con­quests, cap­tur­ing an area approx­i­mately the same size as the city of Hamburg. The Ukrain­ian mil­i­tary found itself in a crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion.

Second attempt in Minsk

This gal­vanised the German and French Gov­ern­ments to make a new attempt to put an end to the war in the middle of Europe, with the per­sonal involve­ment of Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel and Pres­i­dent François Hol­lande. The talks went on until five in the morning.

The Russian pres­i­dent was open to a new, second Minsk agree­ment, but demanded a two-week delay before it went into effect. Clearly, he was think­ing of the fact that pro-Russian forces near Debalt­seve had encir­cled around 8,000 Ukrain­ian troops there, and the desire bring this to its proper mil­i­tary con­clu­sion.

The rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Nor­mandy format managed to barter the two weeks down to 48 hours, at which point the Ukrain­ian pres­i­dent signed the agree­ment. Readers must judge for them­selves whether Poroshenko had any other option given the des­per­ate­ness of the sit­u­a­tion. (The truce was of no use to the troops trapped in Debalt­seve at any rate: the pocket was closed and the atroc­i­ties the took their course.)

Where are we now?

The OSCE mission com­piles painstak­ing reports on the mil­i­tary activ­i­ties in the dis­puted region. Russian mil­i­tary, equip­ment and troops on a “busman’s fur­lough” cross the Russian-Ukrain­ian border without imped­i­ment; the rouble is the general means of payment; the admin­is­tra­tion is con­trolled from Moscow; more than 1.5 million people have left the region.

There are repeated vio­la­tions of the cease­fire. Skir­mishes over already war-torn ter­ri­to­ries, more sym­bolic in char­ac­ter than any­thing else, take a fresh toll in lives almost daily. Chil­dren in the so-called “grey zones” walk to school under artillery fire. The contact line between the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” and free Ukraine is sealed ever more tightly. In Kiev, dan­ger­ous under­tones can be heard in the new Rein­te­gra­tion Act, casting those who have remained in the Donbas in the role of poten­tial col­lab­o­ra­tors rather than as victims. Adopted only recently and highly con­tro­ver­sial, the statute imposes de facto martial law in the Ukrain­ian-con­trolled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Occa­sion­ally, pos­i­tive reports inter­rupt the flow of oth­er­wise gloomy news from the region: the four working groups of the OSCE’s Tri­lat­eral Contact Group, which focus on secu­rity issues, as well as polit­i­cal, eco­nomic and human­i­tar­ian topics, having quietly con­tin­ued their work. One of the less visible suc­cesses was the recent exchange of 237 Russian for 73 Ukrain­ian pris­on­ers. But many fam­i­lies are still left hanging, hoping for some sign that their loved ones are alive, or at least for defin­i­tive word of their deaths.

The pro-sanc­tion coali­tion within western EU coun­tries is begin­ning to crumble. The desire to be able to return to busi­ness as usual with the Kremlin runs too deep. An opti­mist would say: Minsk II is stag­nat­ing. A pes­simist would say: Minsk has failed.

What does Putin want?

It is com­pletely unclear whether the high costs of the occu­pa­tion and the sanc­tions might have made Pres­i­dent Putin willing to accept the rein­te­gra­tion of the Donbas into Ukraine. There is much sug­gest­ing that the oppo­site might be true, that a demo­c­ra­tic Ukraine, freed of the war and able to prosper eco­nom­i­cally might be seen as the greater threat to the sta­bil­ity of the author­i­tar­ian regime in Moscow.

It is in this light that we much assess Putin’s pro­posal that an inter­na­tional con­tin­gent of Blue Helmets watch over the OSCE activ­i­ties. The sin­cer­ity of Putin’s pro­posal can easily be tested: Will he hand control of the Ukrain­ian-Russian border over to the UN peace­keep­ing forces and thus make it pos­si­ble for Ukrain­ian sov­er­eignty to be re-extended over the Donbas an orderly fashion? Or will he want to leave it at having a Blue Helmet con­tin­gent sta­tioned at the current front-line? That would put the armed con­flict on ice, but no more. The UN forces would be made unwill­ing acces­sories to the con­sol­i­da­tion of the status quo.

Either way, Western gov­ern­ments would be well advised to take a real­is­tic approach to assess­ing the stur­di­ness of under­tak­ings from Moscow. In 2008, for instance, in con­nec­tion with the sep­a­ra­tion of South Ossetia and Abk­hazia from Georgia, the Russian side issued assur­ances con­cern­ing OSCE and Red Cross access to the region and the with­drawal of the Russian “peace forces”. Ten years after the end of the mil­i­tary con­flict, Russia has still not made good on these com­mit­ments under the agree­ment however, far from it: Russian supremacy over the break­away regions – rep­re­sent­ing 20 percent of Geor­gian ter­ri­tory after all – has been de facto con­sol­i­dated. This same sce­nario threat­ens Ukraine.

Thus, it all depends on the mandate given to an inter­na­tional peace­keep­ing force for East Ukraine. An end to the fight­ing alone will not give rise to an endur­ing peace. A UN mission in the Donbas needs to be flanked by a polit­i­cal process leading to free and fair elec­tions and secur­ing the rein­te­gra­tion of the occu­pied regions into Ukraine.

Where are the guar­an­tor powers of Budapest now?

Let us not forget that in 1994, the Ukrain­ian Gov­ern­ment – the world’s third-ranking nuclear power at the time – was willing, in all good faith, to give up its nuclear weapons. In return, Russia, the USA and the UK guar­an­teed the polit­i­cal sov­er­eignty of Ukraine and the integrity of its borders. Ending the war in East Ukraine there­fore also falls within the respon­si­bil­ity of the states that signed the Budapest Mem­o­ran­dum. London and Wash­ing­ton should have been sitting at the table along­side Moscow, Paris and Berlin four years ago. After nearly four years of war and over ten thou­sand deaths, it is time for these states to live up to their respon­si­bil­i­ties, to put an end finally to the war in the middle of Europe and ensure that inter­na­tional law is respected.

It is not only Ukraine that is harmed by dis­ar­ma­ment agree­ments that are not worth the paper they are written on, they damage dis­ar­ma­ment efforts every­where – because there can be no dis­ar­ma­ment in the absence of trust.

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