Three years after Minsk II: Where are we now?
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.
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.