In February 2015, after almost 16 hours of talks in the city of Minsk, leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia agreed on a ceasefire in Ukraine’s region of Donbass. The measures for successful implementation of what was the second peace agreement of the conflict, although grandiose presented, included at least two conditions which did not guarantee Ukraine’s long-term territorial integrity in practice. Measures such as “immediate and comprehensive ceasefire in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk”, “withdrawal of all heavy weapons by both sides in order to create security zones”or “effective monitoring of the ceasefire regime by the OSCE”were useful in their intent and were reflected in the 2014 Minsk Protocol. However, they lost their relevance once it became obvious that the current government in Kyiv was unlikely to agree on giving up its legitimate control of the state borders. A constitutional reform advocated by the second Minsk agreement on “decentralisation and special status of certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk”did not guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and created an opportunity for the separatists to aggravate the situation at any given moment. This essay will argue that the Minsk agreements leave Kyiv with little choice but to continue the military operation in Donbass. The agreements do not provide the former with an opportunity to reintegrate the two self-proclaimed and the majority Russian speaking republics so that Ukraine’s territorial integrity can be restored. Whether Kyiv has any means to do so is another question but the texts of both agreements, encouraged and supported by Berlin and Paris, are conducive to conflict escalation at any time and legitimize Moscow’s aspirations in Donbass. The Donetsk and Luhansk self-proclaimed republics could potentially repeat the fate of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan in the best case scenario, and that of Transnistria and South Ossetiya or Abkhazia in the worst. Given that such scenarios are not unrealistic, Kyiv has tried its best to ensure that this conflict does not become frozen.
There are at least two conflicting points in the Minsk agreement which Moscow and Kyiv clearly do not agree on. The first one is Ukraine’s restoration of full control of its borders which, according to the agreement, should occur after the elections in the two self-proclaimed republics take place and when a political settlement is reached. There are considerable timing, sequencing and enforcement issues with this prospective status. For example, the disruptive issue of the separatist forces in the east was not adequately resolved. Currently, the separatists are not even a party to the negotiations on the status of Donbass despite having been signatories to the Minsk agreements. In June 2014, they were represented at the peace talks in Donetsk by Viktor Medvedchuk, a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In line with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s peace plan, a weeklong unilateral ceasefire was then announced and the insurgents’ leader Alexander Borodai agreed to respect it. The fact that Mr. Borodai softened his stance on Kyiv’s military presence in Donetsk was promising. He also agreed to release observers of the OSCE who they held hostage. However, the cease fire eventually failed and both parties continued accusing each other of agreement violations. It failed not only because the separatists in Donbass are viewed as occupants – Kyiv claims that “only members of local governments elected after Ukraine regains sovereign authority over this territory can be recognised as representatives of Donbass”- but also because the text of the Minsk agreement failed to provide for the Donbass’ autonomy, a condition that no party seems to be prepared to guarantee. In the words of Stephen Stedman,“building confidence among the parties”should have entailed the desired results – but even Moscow, which is viewed as the protector of the Russian speaking minorities in Donbass, has surprisingly limited influence on the most ideological insurgents.“We are tired of being an experiment. Our people were used and ignored for years on end, and then they had a small taste of what it’s like to be part of something real”, were the words of one of the Donetsk insurgents, Alexander Khodakovsky.
Alexander Zakharchenko, who was elected as prime-minister and chief executive of the self-proclaimed Donetsk republic, said shortly after the first agreement was reached that his forces would retake all the territories that were lost to Ukrainian forces because“these are historical times” and “we are creating a new country”. “It is an insane goal”, he added. At the same time, it was particularly surprising to hear Swiss Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-office Mr. Didier Burkhalter criticising the elections held in both Donetsk and Luhansk and saying that “such action runs counter to the letter and spirit of the Minsk Protocol and would further complicate its implementation”. Mr. Burkhalter’s remarks did correspond to Kyiv’s emotions. However, the Minsk agreements, also signed by Swiss diplomat and OSCE representative Heidi Tagliavini, clearly stated the need for adoption of a resolution of the Ukrainian parliament specifying the area enjoying a special regime under the law of Ukraine “on interim self-government order in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions”. That, in line with the agreement, would entail pardon and amnesty of persons in connection with the events that took place in Donbass. Monica D. Toft’s analysis of war recurrence becomes particularly applicable to this situation, as she has concluded that third party guarantees generally “increase the likelihood that a war will recur by 7 percent” and do not secure peace. Therefore, Mr. Burkhalter’s remarks, although positive in their intent, have been counterproductive for the conflict’s resolution.
The fact that the agreements were not signed by the acting Kyiv state officials – former president Leonid Kuchma being the signer – but were signed by separatists, Russians and international diplomats contributes to Kyiv’s ability to continue its defensive military actions in the east. At the same time, it puts the entire responsibility for the implementation of the Minsk agreements on Moscow, Mr. Zakharchenko and Mr. Plotnitski, as well as foreign diplomats under the supervision of the OSCE. Such an approach legitimizes the Donetsk and Luhansk insurgents who are not only signatories to the Minsk agreements but who were also granted amnesty and right to self-government in accordance with Mr. Poroshenko’s own decree of September 2014. The law never came into force. The reason why it failed was because its key condition was not fulfilled, i.e. “the withdrawal of all illegal armed formations, their military equipment, as well as fighters and mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine”. But even if all mercenaries were hypothetically removed from Donbass under instructions from the Kremlin, Kyiv would still have to deal with the issue of foreign fighters (there are plenty from various parts of former Soviet Union), as well as the separatists supporting the concepts of Russkiy Mir and Novorossiya, that are currently present in Donbass. These did represent to some extent Moscow’s political capital in Donbass with an eye to force Kyiv to negotiate with them. However, there has always remained a question of how far “the tail was wagging the dog”.
President Poroshenko introduced the law once again in 2017 that extended special status for Donbass. That caused different reactions across Ukrainian society, including from his very own political bloc. Some figures supported Mr. Poroshenko saying that the law was a diplomatic step to avoid Russia blaming Ukraine for violating the Minsk agreements. Others suggested that it paved the way for sharing power with the occupiers. Organizing elections in the middle of the war may have seemed an untimely venture, but Kyiv was, to a certain degree, forced to introduce the law because of the conditions stated in the Minsk agreements. If it were Mr. Poroshenko himself or one of his ministers who were the participants in the Minsk agreements and not another of Mr. Putin’s protege Leonid Kuchma (Medvedchuk was the head of Kuchma’s administration), there would possibly be no need for the controversial laws. The introduction of elections could then have been negotiated as Kyiv suggested – after withdrawal of the military contingents and a restoration of peace.
Moscow’s participation in the agreements could be explained by its own security and economic interests in the region, which had existed in Ukraine long before the war started. There are five major energy pipelines going through the territory of Ukraine, and some even pass through Donetsk. Although Ukraine’s prospective membership in NATO has receded as a likelihood contrary to Moscow’s convenient bogeyman narrative, Poland’s military maneuvers on the border with Ukraine worry both Moscow and Ukrainian right-wing parties. Unless those interests are met, Russia’s commitment to peace accord is unlikely to transform into coercive strategy against the separatists. That said, the Kremlin’s real interest in implementing the idea of Novorossiya has never been revealed.
Finally, the law originally introduced by Mr. Poroshenko on the decentralization of Ukraine stated that Kyiv remained committed to non-violent restoration of its sovereignty over Donbass under the United Nations Statute. However, there was no way Ukraine could potentially restore its territorial integrity through peaceful means. Kyiv was engaged in counterinsurgency through having used all the military and intelligence capabilities it had at its disposal. Given that the separatists were supported notoriously by highly professional military forces, the message signaled divisions across Kyiv’s political spectrum. For example, the presidential administration quoted the president saying “that the possibility of fulfilling the law is strictly determined by a number of demands to Russia, which is the aggressor and the occupant, and also to its puppet regimes”. On the other hand, among major political parties who were against the president’s controversial law were Yulia Timoshenko’s Batkyvshina Party, Lviv’s Mayor Andrii Sadoviy’s Self Reliance Party, as well as Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party. Those who did not seem to be threatened by separatism and decentralization of the system of governance were the Opposition Bloc (essentially Viktor Yanukovych’s Partiya Regionov), Revival Party supported by energy and banking oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy, and People’s Will Party (whose leader died in 2015). Such a confused picture in the Ukrainian parliament suggested that the president was not fully in charge of the peace processes in Donbass, even if he wished for a gradual rapprochement with Moscow’s rationale. The picture on the ground was even more unpleasant – Donbass was still run by communists, Mafiosi and oligarchs.
The obvious contradictions, now also in the president’s law on the status of Donbass, led to another presidential bill. In January 2018, the government adopted the de-occupation law aimed at Donbass’ reintegration with Ukraine. The bill was supported by 280 votes in Verhovnaya Rada and entered into force on 24 February. According to Oleksandr Turchynov, it allows Ukraine to use its armed forces to repel Russia’s aggression and prevent Moscow from portraying its actions as a “peacekeeping operation”. “We do not say that we could liberate the occupied territory exclusively by force. But this law does not exclude such a path”, he added. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying that the reintegration law could lead to serious escalation of the conflict and untie the hands of the “war party”.
It is totally understandable why Mr. Poroshenko introduced the bill – the war has been highly popular among Ukrainian nationalists and the opposition. He also did not want to be seen negotiating with what he called “terrorists”. Therefore, he agreed to former president Kuchma’s mediation between the parties in 2014. However, the internal balance of power was much more important for long-term stability of Ukraine than guarantees of any outside parties, including of Moscow. As a result, after almost four years of heavy fighting, the separatists in Donbass are still deprived of what Charles Call would describe as “expected opportunity” – to be accepted as legitimate power holders. The reality, however, is that “the experiences and solidarity that Donbass unleashed would not go away even when the conflict is eventually resolved”. As was already mentioned, not only Russian volunteers went to fight in Donbass, but also Kazakhs, Chechens, Azerbaijanis, Moldovans and others. In fact, both Russians and those “politically oriented towards Russia”, as well as “Ukrainian monists” could be found throughout Ukraine, which makes one question the wisdom behind controversial laws adopted by the government. The war has divided not only those who held power in Kyiv but also the separatists. The most ideological ones, Novorusskies, felt that by engaging in negotiations with Kyiv, Mr. Zakharchenko and Mr. Plotnitski were betraying them. Rather than peace, Ukraine experienced a situation where the internationally supported peace accord found little enthusiasm at home, by both the political voices in Kyiv and the most radical ones of the separatists. According to Stephen Stedman, both subgroups within the warring parties should be, therefore, defined as “spoilers”.
Another question, which may be reasonable in the case of Ukraine, is how effective negotiated settlements generally are. Toft suggests that, “identity and territory are often perceived as indivisible” and, as a result, should be less conducive to negotiations. She also thinks that, “states that experience rebel victories are more likely to have greater level of democratisation than states that ended wars through negotiated settlements”. Her argument is based on research that showed that negotiations may stop violence in the short term, but almost always lead to its eruption in the long term. A similar argument was suggested by R. Harrison Wagner who believes that negotiated settlements “are more likely to break down into large-scale violence than any military victories”. Other authors suggest that fewer people die during negotiated settlements than they do in the military ones. However, Toft argues to the contrary.
The above analysis of the Minsk agreements and the outcomes they have, so far, produced suggest that the reconciliation between the warring parties in the present form is almost impossible. Kyiv official dom avoided ratifying the agreements, so there was nothing for Mr. Poroshenko to comply with in the first place. The president’s legitimacy rests almost entirely on his war against Russia. The separatists, in their turn, refused to demobilize and disarm themselves since Kyiv would not guarantee their long-term security interests. Kyiv has refused to create an institutional infrastructure where “non-violent alternation of executive power was possible”. The signatories equally failed to achieve demilitarization of politics. Although the transformation of soldiers into civilians has happened to some extent in Donbass, with politicians such as Denis Pushilin (self-declared Chairman of the People’s Soviet of the Donetsk People’s Republic) slowly coming to the fore, the Novorusskies continued to constitute a significant percentage of the insurgents. Finally, Ukraine’s parliamentary democracy, while being an important achievement for the country’s international image, prevents Mr. Poroshenko from convincing and coercing his domestic opponents into peace with Mr. Zakharchenko and Mr. Plotnitski. If anything, it has led Ukraine to numerous contradictory laws and accumulation of nationalistic sentiments, making fulfillment of the Minsk agreements a remote prospect in the best case. Ukraine needed the policy advocated by Roland Paris of “institutionalization before liberalization”, emphasizing the need for “political stability” and the “establishment of effective administration”. In its absence, the conflict will inevitably continue.