Max BaderLecturer on Russia and Eurasia at the University of Leiden
The Minsk agreement signed in February 2015, also known as Minsk II, is destined to fail because it was designed to fail.
The separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine and their Russian backers never intended to implement points 4 and 9 of the agreement. Point 4 stipulates that new local elections in the separatist territories must be held under Ukrainian legislation. Point 9 provides for the full restoration of Ukrainian state control over the country’s borders. Two years after Minsk II was signed, there is not the slightest indication that Moscow and the separatists intend to fulfill these elements of the accord. Moscow will not contribute to the full implementation of Minsk II unless it has a radical change of mind.
The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, is in a tough spot because it cannot fulfill one of the points of the agreement even if it wanted to. Point 11 states that Ukraine needs to change its constitution to assign the separatist territories a special status. The constitutional changes have been drafted, but they require a two-thirds majority in the Ukrainian parliament, which will not materialize anytime soon.
Any realistic political solution of the conflict in eastern Ukraine will therefore be achieved under different conditions from those of the Minsk agreement.
Ian BondDirector of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform
The two Minsk agreements, signed in September 2014 and February 2015, were always doomed to failure. First of all, Russia, the real aggressor, continued to pretend that it was a mediator (like France and Germany) rather than a party to the fighting. Second, the parties disagreed on the meaning of a number of ambiguous points in the agreements; as a result, they failed to implement parts of the accords. Third, the Minsk II agreement effectively left it to Russia to decide whether Ukraine had changed its constitution to Russia’s satisfaction, and then hand back control of Ukraine’s eastern border. Not surprisingly, Russia has yet to do this.
Despite all these problems, the Minsk process reduced the violence in Ukraine’s east, though never to zero. But now there is a serious upsurge in fighting around the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka. Russian President Vladimir Putin may feel that with his U.S. counterpart, Donald Trump, eager to strike a deal with Russia to fight the so-called Islamic State together, he has the chance to strengthen the Russian position in Ukraine without risking additional Western sanctions. The EU and the United States must stand firm and show that they still support Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. The kinks in Minsk II will never be straightened out if Russia thinks the West has abandoned Ukraine to its fate.
Thomas de WaalSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
The Minsk agreement endures only because a bad peace is better than no peace at all.
The February 2015 accord holds its signatories to promises that they cannot keep. The Kyiv government agreed to a law on a special status for Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, but it will never win the 300 votes in the Ukrainian parliament it needs to pass the legislation. Kyiv also agreed to elections in those regions without clear commitments on who runs them and how. Moscow agreed to full monitoring of the Russian-Ukrainian border and the return of the two regions to Ukrainian sovereignty, which means surrendering its ability to destabilize Ukraine at will.
The recent upsurge in fighting is an implicit acknowledgment by both sides that they see force as a real option to get a better deal from each other. Eventually, a deal will be struck that will resemble the Minsk agreement—but with better sequencing and enforcement mechanisms. However, that looks a long way off. All the while, the two regions suffer from conflict, economic collapse, and emigration that will make it even more costly to rehabilitate and administer them in the future.
Balázs JarábikNonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program
It is useful to remember that the Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015 brought a relatively stable ceasefire to eastern Ukraine, even though the truce stops short of peace. The alternative is either a renewed war or better implementation of the agreements. No grand settlement between the United States and Russia would work, as the main players are the Ukrainians. Peace is in deadlock: Kyiv wants security first, while Moscow seeks genuine political dialogue as a guarantee for its client statelets. No peace agreement is possible as long as Ukraine feels it is under a Russian diktat. No fully applied ceasefire is achievable until there is a bit more trust between the fighting sides.
The way forward is therefore low politics: addressing the security situation in hot spots such as the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka, focusing on the withdrawal of heavy weapons, implementing and expanding the so-called disengagement zones, and finalizing prisoner exchanges. This is a lot of nitty-gritty work. But the West has no other choice, as it has a limited ability to apply pressure on either Russia or Ukraine. Therefore, implementation of the Minsk agreements will continue to be incremental at best.
Anna KorbutDeputy chief editor at the Ukrainian Week
The Minsk agreement will probably remain in its lethargic state—as a framework for critical rhetoric, some limits on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and, ideally, the basis for prolonging Western sanctions against Russia—but will not offer an effective solution that puts increasing pressure on the perpetrator of the conflict.
Russia’s decision on February 18 to recognize identity documents issued by the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk was met with criticism from Ukraine’s top officials and society at large. Government representatives in Kyiv have issued statements saying that this move signals Russia’s departure from the Minsk agreement.
However, it would be difficult for Ukraine to reject the accord as a result: there is presently no alternative framework that would help Ukraine preserve its territorial integrity and security and be backed by Kyiv’s international partners. Ukraine might want to offer some changes to the current framework. But it is unclear how willing the other parties would be to accept modifications or, more importantly, pressure Russia to change its demands.
For Russia, the Minsk agreement keeps the sanctions against it in place. However, the deal also serves as a tool to promote Russia’s interests in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, in Ukraine in general, and internationally. At this point, the Kremlin hardly has sufficient reasons to scrap the accord.
Hrant KostanyanResearcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies
The two Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015 have failed because of their design and a lack of political will to implement them. Two years after the so-called Minsk II accord produced a package of measures to which France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine agreed, most of its provisions, including a ceasefire and the withdrawal of foreign armed forces, illegal groups, and military equipment, are either partly implemented or not implemented at all.
The Minsk agreements will need to be amended to include the deployment of some 1,000 monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or the UN with a robust mandate to closely monitor the accords’ implementation. OSCE border operations at the checkpoints of Gukovo and Donetsk should be extended along the entire Ukrainian-Russian frontier. Elections may take place once these basic security conditions are met and modalities agreed on. The parties ought to become more proactive in generating ideas about the eventual status of the Ukrainian territories currently under separatist control.
As long as Russia and the separatists it backs do not demonstrate a political will to implement the security-related provisions of the Minsk agreements, a strong transatlantic alliance is paramount. To this end, the bilateral U.S.-Russia format that deals with the crisis but excludes Ukraine and the EU should be abolished. Instead, the United States should be invited to join the Normandy format along with France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine.
Francisco de Borja LasherasHead of the Madrid Office and policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations
The two Minsk agreements will not succeed in producing a political settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The accords are a framework for conflict management and de-escalation and have a limited impact, as ceasefire violations and operations by Moscow’s proxies have shown. The Minsk deals do not alter the parties’ fundamental calculations.
The agreements were hatched to stem Russia’s direct military intervention in Ukraine in summer 2014 (Minsk I) and early 2015 (Minsk II). Hence, the notion of an overall political settlement through the Minsk process is dishonest, as it presupposes the conflict was merely homegrown. There were elements pushing for a political, even violent conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, and Kyiv’s poor governance may have made matters worse. Yet, one cannot overlook the role of an external actor in turning domestic grievances into a military conflict by arming hybrid forces, empowering local criminal elements, and spreading propaganda.
The Minsk agreements also operate as a placebo for a Western diplomacy overwhelmed by crises and in need of tangible deliverables. But some Europeans’ insistence on a political solution divorced from security on the ground or any movement by Moscow undermines their goal of transforming Ukraine and empowers populists. Ukraine signed the Minsk agreements—bad deals for Kyiv—and has to stick to them. Meanwhile, the West must avoid a Daytonization of Ukraine—a process of entrenching partly artificial divisions and empowering spoilers for the sake of immediate peace at the expense of democracy and progress—and remember how Ukraine got where it is in the first place.
John LoughAssociate fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House
No. The Minsk I and II agreements of September 2014 and February 2015, respectively, could never be fully implemented because of built-in sequencing problems around security and elections. But none of the parties or their backers has any interest at this stage in reopening the process.
The self-proclaimed people’s republics of Luhansk and Donetsk are a suitcase without a handle for Moscow. Russia is having to provide them with significant financial and military support but does not want to take full responsibility for them. Kyiv is lukewarm about reintegrating these territories in view of the political and economic costs involved. For Russia, they remain an instrument for weakening Kyiv’s rule and influencing Ukraine’s overall orientation by making the provision of a special status for them the sine qua non of reintegration.
Moscow’s decision on February 18 to recognize temporarily identity documents and certificates issued by the separatist authorities marks another stage in the creeping erosion of the agreements. However, for all sides to agree that there is a need for a Minsk III, the situation will have to deteriorate much further. For now, both sides and their backers have a shared need to keep up the pretense that there is no alternative, to put pressure on the others.
Amanda PaulSenior policy analyst for Turkey and the Eurasia region at the European Policy Centre
The Minsk II agreement signed in February 2015 cannot be implemented in its current form. The recent serious uptick in fighting in eastern Ukraine belies the claim that the deal has preserved the peace there. The sequencing and interpretation of the thirteen ceasefire provisions articulated in Minsk II is fatally flawed and open to contradictory interpretations. For example, the accord calls for the withdrawal of all foreign armed formations but never mentions Russian forces specifically. This flawed approach has allowed Russia to blame the lack of progress on Ukraine while continuing to destabilize the country from within.
Today, the official negotiation process is in deadlock. The security situation remains extremely precarious, with thousands of Ukrainians having been killed since Minsk II was signed. The warring parties adhere to basic ceasefires for a maximum of several weeks at a time, and usually no more than a few days. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine continues to report the presence of heavy weapons on both sides of the contact line that divides Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists. Furthermore, Russia’s decision on February 18 to recognize passports and other identity documents issued by the self-proclaimed rebel republics in eastern Ukraine goes against the spirit and goals of the Minsk agreement.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
Only Russian President Vladimir Putin knows. Ukraine is his tactical rubber band: he can stretch it, let it loose, break it, or aim it at will, to stir up trouble. The conflict in eastern Ukraine is a thermostat of his political will; he can make it hotter or cooler. For Putin, the Minsk agreement is just paper, to be burned if necessary.
The conventional wisdom is that Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump will be buddies, but Putin does not trust Trump. The Russian leader knows that his U.S. counterpart is unpredictable, moody, and startled by anything he sees on cable TV. A former KGB officer trained in disinformation, Putin will exploit the thin-skinned Trump. Will Trump be cowed, or will he listen to anti-Russian hardliners? Meanwhile, will Chancellor Angela Merkel continue to rule Germany, or will the much mellower Social Democratic Party win the 2017 parliamentary election? What about France: Will the pro-Kremlin Marine Le Pen or the hawk Emmanuel Macron be president after May?
Putin will wait and see, and act accordingly. He has no strategy but is a superb tactician who faces a West without strategic plans or tactical cunning. Putin thinks, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at the Munich Security Conference on February 18, that the world should choose a “post-West world order.” For the Russian president, Ukraine is not a battlefield, but a weapon to be used as needed.
Gwendolyn SasseNonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and director of the Center for East European and International Studies in Berlin
The actual Minsk II agreement of February 2015 cannot succeed, not least because some of the timelines it set up have passed. But references to “Minsk” have become a shorthand for a negotiation framework to which none of the conflict parties or the key mediators in the Normandy format—France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine—sees any alternative.
Thus, the Minsk process can succeed or fail at different levels. The most basic level of success would be a return to a ceasefire. This is what Minsk II and its predecessor of September 2014, Minsk I, achieved temporarily, and this remains the most pressing issue. Both Ukraine and Russia have an interest in preventing escalation; therefore, at least another temporary ceasefire is feasible.
The sequencing of political and security measures as envisaged by the Minsk agreements remains unacceptable to both Ukraine and Russia and provides them with a pretext not to engage in a substantive compromise. Just as in many other cases of conflict management, the original ceasefire deal should not be seen as a template set in stone. At best, it maps out a stage in the process and a framework for ongoing negotiations. The question of whether the Minsk process can succeed in balancing security guarantees for Ukraine with competitive local elections in the occupied territories remains open.
Susan StewartSenior associate in the Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)
It will take more than the February 18 decree by Russian President Vladimir Putin recognizing passports and other documents issued by so-called separatists in eastern Ukraine to destroy the Minsk agreements. Although their effectiveness has been limited, the two accords have helped save lives and provide an important measuring stick for the EU regarding its sanctions against Russia.
Clearly, Russia remains determined to destabilize Ukraine, and both countries—as well as the separatists—have reason to find the current status quo more or less acceptable. However, the greater threat to the Minsk process may come from changes in the international situation. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president raised the specter of a potential grand bargain between the United States and Russia that could call the existence of Ukraine into question. For the moment, though, such a deal appears unlikely, and Germany’s commitment to the Minsk process remains strong.
One upcoming test of the process will be elections in France and Germany later in 2017, after which the two countries’ respective governments will need to recalibrate their positions in the Normandy format, which also includes Russia and Ukraine and is an essential part of the Minsk process. But for now, the Minsk accords remain an important framework whose dissolution would do more harm than good.
Andreas UmlandSenior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv
The Minsk agreement of September 2014 and its successor of February 2015 are being violated by Russia in a multitude of ways. But the accords were signed by Ukraine’s official representative and remain the only documents aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and the implementation of the Minsk agreements will be possible once the Kremlin becomes sufficiently interested in the West lifting its sanctions against Russia. The only practical instrument to implement the agreements meaningfully would be a large and heavily armed UN peacekeeping mission, which Russia would have to approve in the UN Security Council and probably be a part of. Within this mission, Russia would receive a certain territory, which would probably become a safe haven for many of the criminals who now make up the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Under UN administration, the territories could be disarmed, internally displaced people could return to their homes, and local institutions could be built up. A formula devised by former German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier envisages that only after local elections that the OSCE regards as democratic would Ukraine have to enact a permanent special status for the occupied territories. At that point, the crisis could be considered solved. So far, all this looks unrealistic. But there is little alternative to such a scenario.
Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
The Minsk agreement of February 2015 has succeeded in reducing the violence and number of casualties in eastern Ukraine. But it has not delivered an end to the current conflict or a political solution to this confrontation. It is far from certain that the Minsk process was ever intended to do so, and the reality on the ground makes success even more unlikely.
Eastern Ukrainian separatists are not ready to surrender their illusion of power. Russia, with its military presence in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, maintains leverage over the government in Kyiv that it has no intention of relinquishing. And the Ukrainian authorities have little room for maneuver—if any—for a bold initiative that could give negotiators a new political horizon.
From that perspective, the only game changer seems to lie in a much broader scope for talks than the current Minsk arrangements envisage. Negotiations should look for an overall political deal that could fix all the issues related to Ukraine, notably Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea and occupation of the country’s east and Ukrainian membership of NATO and the EU. No one doubts the magnitude of this task, but this is the key to any solution that can bring back stability to Ukraine.