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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