The peace agreement reached after 16 hours of talks in Minsk between the French and German leaders, Vladimir Putin, and Petro Poroshenko represents the second attempt to stop the fighting in the Donbas. Quickly, analysts assailed it or offered faint praise and even Angel Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, the leader of the initiative, would say only that it offers a “glimmer of hope.”
The first point to be noted is that Minsk-2 does not supersede Minsk-1, which remains in effect though neither side has followed its mandates very closely. Before offering an assessment, one should examine briefly its contents.
Minsk-2 agreed to a ceasefire by midnight on February 14 and the removal of heavy weapons from the conflict zone within sixteen days, with an exchange of POWs over the following three weeks. There have been cynical comments in the Western media as to how an immediate ceasefire could take two days, but in fact the original text does not contain the word “immediate,” it states “not slowly.”
Ukraine is to retain control over the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, but must grant them more autonomy, and by the end of 2015, the country is to restore its control over the border with Russia.
Concerning the first point, the time lag is dangerous, because it allows both sides to consolidate their positions and in the separatists’ case to try to capture the strategic town of Debaltseve, which constitutes a Ukrainian salient in rebel-held territory. Debaltseve is on the main highway M-04 between Donetsk and Luhansk, but more importantly it is a rail junction. Its capture would allow the rebels to transport coal from the mines to consumers.
The logistics of monitoring the agreement have been left to the OSCE, which lacks the numbers to do so efficiently at present. Moreover, over the past year the OSCE has had considerable difficulty in accessing areas held by the rebels. Since Minsk-1 was so flagrantly ignored, one cannot assume that the same fate will not befall Minsk-2, particularly if the separatists believe that they can strengthen their position.
Neither Ukraine nor the DNR/LNR emerge as winners from the agreement. Ukraine has effectively conceded some sovereignty over the eastern regions, and the subject of Crimea is excluded. Ukraine has also agreed to lift restrictions imposed on these areas, which on paper at least can now receive goods from Ukraine and restore regular trading practices.
For President Poroshenko, the difficult task now arises of getting the constitutional changes through a parliament that is much more radicalized in the absence of its former Regions and Communist delegates. The deal moreover implicitly recognizes the DNR and LNR, habitually referred to by the Ukrainian government as “terrorist” regimes. The Ukrainian president increasingly cuts an isolated figure, forced to take a moderate line in order that an agreement could be reached, traveling frequently to European capitals in search of support, and distancing himself from what might be termed the Euromaidan factions in Kyiv that would prefer a more confrontational approach.
The conflict, which has taken thousands of lives over the past months, and has escalated sharply over the winter, has never been confined to Kyiv and Donbas. Many Western analysts believe that Vladimir Putin is entirely to blame for its longevity and intensification, both by providing advanced lethal weaponry to the separatists and for encouraging “volunteers”—his term—to join in the fight against the Ukrainian ATO.
Putin in turn claims heavy US involvement both in Euromaidan and the ATO operation. Western analysts in contrast often chide Barack Obama for his reluctance to confirm the US Congress’ decision to send lethal defensive weapons to the Ukrainians. And US Senator John McCain constitutes his own personal war cabinet, threatening to send weapons, with or without the consent of his president.
The arguments in favor of providing lethal weapons to Ukraine seem dubious. What weapons and how many? Will advisors and technicians also be sent to assist Ukrainian forces in using them? What response would there be to further Russian buildup and escalation to what will be perceived as NATO’s move into Ukraine? Logically there would be little to dissuade Moscow from endorsing much heavier troop movements over the border.
The Ukrainian Army has not elicited confidence among the citizens it purports to defend, particularly not from those in the Donbas subject to regular shelling from both sides in the shambles that used to be their hometowns. The coal-mining areas were grim places at the best of times, but now they have become a devastated war zone. The officers are still transplants of the former Soviet army, many are corrupt, and perceive the war as a way to make profits.
Poroshenko thus relies heavily on volunteer battalions whose loyalty to the government is shaky at best. Some speak of another Euromaidan to deal with the government once the conflict in the east is over.
Both Ukraine and Russia need a respite, mainly to restore their economies. In this respect, Minsk-2 constitutes a respite. And Ukraine’s position was improved by a $17.5 billion loan from the IMF, which covers approximately half of its current debts, but tranches of that loan will be forthcoming only under certain conditions, namely stability, reforms, and stringent economic policies, and above all a reduction—only the most naïve would demand “the end of”—corruption.
None of this is to say that the deal should be belittled or ridiculed. Merkel and Hollande did their best. Several months ago, I suggested that Ukraine might cut its losses, abandon the Donbas and Crimea, providing that the rump state remaining could apply to join NATO and be slowly integrated into European structures. That remains, I still believe, one alternative, but it would be small consolation to those seeking to retain the integrity of the 1991 state and its borders, which Russia recognized not once, but at least three times in various treaties (1990, 1994, and 1997).
It would moreover leave the Donbas in the hands of the DNR and LNR, both of which are led by Russian security officials and freebooters, gangsters and militant locals. Some of the first group took part in earlier separatist movements, including in Transnistria in the early 1990s. They have few moral scruples and no recognition for an independent Ukrainian state. There is no benefit to Ukraine, short or long term, in dealing with the DNR and LNR, but Poroshenko was obliged to agree to their inclusion in the agreement.
Putin’s Russia has consistently violated Ukrainian borders, just as it has done with borders of other states of the former Soviet Union. In this respect, we should lay blame on the Kremlin. On the other hand, the problems of the Donbas precede Putin, and they have been exacerbated by the war. Its residents oppose a full-scale Russian invasion; but they are equally angry with the government in Kyiv—a very different issue from whether they would wish to leave Ukraine given the choice.
Ukraine above all needs a backup plan if Minsk-2 fails. It must use the armistice wisely and above all consider some serious questions. Can it retake the Donbas without foreign assistance? Can it afford to live without the Donbas and Crimea? Would its membership of NATO be guaranteed if it is forced to lose these regions for the immediate future?
If the answers to these questions are no, yes, and yes, then a fourth question, EU membership, might also be placed on the table once extensive and deep reforms are clearly under way. Ukraine, lamentably, needs to resolve not one problem but three: the conflict in the east, relations with Russia, and its failing economy. It is highly doubtful that it can address all three simultaneously.