The Minsk agreement: one year of shadow boxing
In Minsk on 12 February 2015, the Presidents of Ukraine, Russia and France and the Chancellor of Germany signed a document designed to resolve the armed conflict in the east of Ukraine. One year later, the Minsk agreement is dead, as none of its points has been fully implemented. Although fighting on a larger scale has stopped, the full ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the buffer zone never took place. Nor were the political conditions complied with that would have made it possible to reintegrate the Donets Basin, currently under de facto Russian control, with the rest of Ukraine. The two sides have different interpretations of the agreement’s main points. Russia believes that a prerequisite for agreement is the introduction by Ukraine of decentralisation reforms, which would give special status to part of the Donbass, while Ukraine is of the view that the implementation of the document must be accompanied not only by an unconditional and permanent ceasefire, but also by the restoration of control over the entire Ukrainian-Russian border to Kyiv. The current situation should be seen as a stalemate, and the difference of opinions as insurmountable. At the same time, an escalation of military action is unlikely, which means that in the foreseeable future the conflict is likely to remain in its present, not fully frozen state, with all the negative consequences that entails for the Donbass, the rest of Ukraine, and Russia.
The military aspects of Minsk-2
A fundamental element of the Minsk agreement is the points governing the halt to the fighting and reducing the relevance of military factors in any further settlement of the situation in the Donbass. The parties agreed to an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire as of 15 February 2015 (point 1); the withdrawal of all heavy weapons at least 25 kilometres away from the demarcation line, which was to have begun no later than the second day following the ceasefire and been completed within 14 days (point 2); as well as subjecting the implementation of these provisions to monitoring by the OSCE (point 3). The exchange of prisoners (point 6) and the withdrawal of foreign armed formations and mercenaries, along with weapons and military equipment (point 10), were also military questions.
The military part of the agreement should be considered dead from the very start. Some of the most intense fighting of the conflict took place even before the ceasefire formally came into effect, and continued immediately after the agreement was signed. During these clashes, the pro-Russian separatists pushed the Ukrainian government forces out of the so-called Debaltseve ‘pocket’, thus changing the demarcation line as set forward in Minsk. The ceasefire lasted no more than a few hours, after which the separatists again fired on the positions of the government forces. Since that time, the question of who opened fire first has remained unclear; each side accuses the other of provoking the fighting. Every day, anywhere from a dozen (during periods of relative calm) to over a hundred (in periods of intensification of clashes) cases of artillery and mortar fire have taken place along the demarcation line, and rocket launchers have also occasionally been used. The separatists periodically take a more proactive approach, although their attacks on Ukrainian government positions are more in the nature of provocations rather than real attempts to capture new territory. On several occasions, fighting has intensified to a scale comparable to the period before the agreement came into effect.
Under conditions of continuing exchanges of fire, the withdrawal of heavy equipment has largely been faked. Both sides initially delayed the start of the withdrawal, eventually doing so after a week’s delay. The complete withdrawal of heavy weapons has never been confirmed. Moreover, since last spring, it has been observed that larger groupings of heavy weapons tend to re-enter the buffer zone when the fighting intensifies. Their presence is confirmed in each report by the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission, which states that both sides – as should be emphasised – have hampered its representatives’ inspections, preventing them from entering particularly sensitive areas under various pretences. We may thus assume that heavy weapons are still located in the buffer zone, and the amount of them to be found on the demarcation line is exclusively governed by the current operational needs of each side.
The fictionality and superficiality of the agreement’s first two points were emphasised by the series of diplomatic initiatives undertaken in summer and autumn 2015 to maintain the ceasefire and extend the terms of the agreement to other categories of weapons. The beginning on 1 September last year of the ‘ceasefire regime’ only contributed to the occasional reduction of the intensity of the fighting. In turn, the withdrawal of tanks and light artillery to 15 km from the line of demarcation carried out in October and early November was purely a media operation. The lack of respect for Minsk-2 was demonstrated by communiqués (backed up by film footage) reporting the end of successive phases of the withdrawal of tanks and light artillery (which often returned to their former positions the next day), in a situation where the OSCE reported that they had identified a series of heavy weapons located in the buffer zone.
The OSCE monitoring and the exchange of prisoners should be considered as having been only superficially performed in regard to the military points of the Minsk agreement. However, the Special Monitoring Mission’s mandate has not been and cannot be fully effectively exercised in the light of the warring parties’ current attitude. Taking into account that point 6 called for the exchange of all prisoners, it has not in reality been implemented, even though both sides had released most of their detainees before the agreement came into force. Currently the main obstacle to the continued exchange of prisoners is the attitude of both parties, according to which those individuals remaining in their captivity are not participants in armed conflicts, but rather terrorists or common criminals. From the outset, it has been impossible to verify whether the foreign armed formations, weapons and military equipment and mercenaries/volunteers from other countries have been withdrawn from their positions.
Kyiv’s position: an agreement adopted under pressure
Most of the Minsk agreement’s provisions are conditional on the implementation of the military postulates, and so assessing whether the others have been implemented is pointless. Kyiv has ignored those provisions of the truce which could strengthen the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, for example by enhancing their social and economic isolation, while disregarding the progressive collapse of the region.
It seems that from the beginning Kyiv intended to interpret the Minsk agreement in a manner that would practically make it impossible to achieve. This was due to the belief that Ukraine had agreed to some unfavourable conditions, primarily under pressure from Berlin and Paris. On 17 March 2015 the Ukrainian parliament adopted a law defining the boundaries of ‘specific counties’, while adding conditions under which the elections to local authorities in the Donbass provided for in the Minsk agreement could not be held before the sovereignty of Kyiv was restored, including disarming the armed separatist formations and the Russian military withdrawing. This decision has prevented any reconciliation with the separatists on legal regulations concerning the region. Kyiv still maintains this position, and one should not expect it to change.
One of Minsk-2’s main points obliges Kyiv to accept an amendment to the constitution which will introduce the decentralisation reforms while granting special status to ‘specific counties of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts’. Such a provision would be tantamount to granting the region autonomy within Ukraine and effectively maintaining the distinctiveness of the separatist republics. Ukraine has prepared a draft of the relevant law to amend the Constitution, although introducing the option of giving these counties special status caused violent opposition from a substantial part of the deputies, and in effect blocked the adoption of the amendment (the project cannot count on getting a constitutional majority of votes). As a result, linking the decentralisation issues with the ‘special status’ for part of the Donbass has effectively blocked this highly essential reform in Ukraine.
Russia: consistent strategy, flexible tactics
Despite the failure of the Minsk agreement, the strategic objectives of Moscow’s policy towards Ukraine remain unchanged, namely blocking the sustained integration of Ukraine with the West, and including it into Russian integration initiatives (optimally, Kyiv joining the Eurasian Economic Union). Moscow also seeks a situation where the Donbass, while formally belonging to Ukraine, would constitute an instrument of Russian influence on the Ukrainian central government, which would have to bear the costs of reconstruction and maintenance for the war-torn region. This inflexible strategy has been accompanied by a (forced) flexibility in tactics, which since spring 2014 have evolved from escalating the armed conflict in the Donbass to its controlled de-escalation (while maintaining the potential for destabilisation); and from the ‘Novorossiya’ project (the creation of a quasi-state or -states in the east of Ukraine) to declarations in support of the territorial integrity of Ukraine (excluding Crimea). This change in tactics stemmed from the failure of the ‘Novorossiya’ project, as well as the high costs incurred by the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which in a situation of economic crisis, falling oil prices and Russian engagement in Syria, Moscow is not in a position to bear.
In order to achieve its objectives (both strategic and tactical), Moscow is undertaking a complex series of activities, including the following:
- emphasising Kyiv’s unilateral implementation of the political part of the Minsk agreements, and in particular the introduction of the decentralisation reforms;
- a massive diplomatic and propaganda campaign blaming Kyiv exclusively for the lack of progress in implementing Minsk-2. This campaign aims not only to discredit Kyiv and discourage the West from working with Ukraine, but also to gradually lift the Western sanctions against Russia;
- weakening the Ukrainian economy by introducing economic sanctions, including the suspension of the CIS free trade zone agreement in relations with Ukraine as of 1 January this year, and reducing the transit of goods from Ukraine to Kazakhstan.
The consequences of the ‘Minsk stalemate’
The Minsk agreement, in its original version, was to have taken effect by the end of 2015, and it was later informally extended to February 2016; one should expect its further, tacit renewal at some point. The current situation around the part of the Donbass uncontrolled by Kyiv can be described as a stalemate: neither party has the ability to achieve its objectives in the foreseeable future. Kyiv is not in a position to restore its sovereignty to these areas by either political or military means, unless there is a very profound change of position by Moscow, or Kyiv makes far-reaching and unfavourable concessions. Both scenarios are now unlikely. Russia for its part has no chance of achieving its main goal of integrating the breakaway ‘republics’ into the system of Ukrainian statehood, which would give it a permanent tool to affect Ukraine’s policies, as well as turning the financing of these areas over to Kyiv. Russia has also failed to achieve its strategic objective, that is, of stopping Ukraine's integration into the West (the DCFTA came into force on 1 January this year).
This state of ‘not fully frozen’ conflict negatively affects the situation throughout Ukraine, inhibiting the reforming of the country, but at the same time it provides a convenient alibi for neglecting efforts to reform. At the same time, this turn of events is beneficial for Russia, because it weakens the Ukrainian state internally and deepens the existing political dispute within it.
The consequence of the current situation, which the West still fails fully to appreciate, is the continuous degradation of the territories covered by the conflict, economically, socially, and even ecologically. Despite the efforts of Russia, no quasi-states have formed in the Donbass, not even at the most basic level; the separatist militias resemble criminal organisations, and the heavily urbanised territory is turning into a ‘black hole’. Its reconstruction – whenever that becomes possible – will be an unbearable burden for Kyiv. On the other hand, Ukraine cannot give up those territories; if the government were to undermine the territorial integrity of the state by doing so, this would lead to the final discrediting of the political class.
The durability of the current situation indicates that both sides, despite their readiness to resume military action on a wider scale, are not interested in escalating, resolving, or even freezing the conflict. In connection with the low probability of success of any new diplomatic initiatives, this will mean the continuation of the current status quo.