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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