Ruslan Kermach
Policy papers
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23 February 2018

Three years in the Minsk blind alley: how did we get there and where to go from here?


February 12, 2018 marked the third year when the “Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements” was signed. They are better known as the Minsk Agreements. The document was endorsed in the capital of Belarus by envoys from Ukraine, Russia, the OSCE and the unrecognized “DPR” and “LPR”. At the time of its singing, it was viewed as a roadmap for de-escalation and a step-by-step settlement of the protracted armed conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

However, the agreements, which were also endorsed by a separate resolution of the U.N. Security Council (№ 2202) in 2015, did not meet the expectations that the international community had entrusted with them. Despite the optimistic expectations of “Minsk II”, it became in the best case only an instrument for relatively reducing the intensity of combat in the country’s east, which had turned Donbas conflict into a protracted phase of low-intensity confrontation.

As a result, Ukraine’s Donbas has for several years existed in an erratic state of sluggish war and this has left a distinct impression on the public sentiments of Ukrainian citizens. Thus, some three-quarters of the population believe that “events in Ukraine are heading in the wrong direction” (74%). At that, a similar percentage of people surveyed in December 2017 said that the main indicator for changing the country’s direction would be foremost “the end of the fighting and establishing peace in Donbas” (75%).

A recent survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI) also points to the problem of the armed conflict in Donbas as a priority among 42% of respondents in Ukraine alongside problems of corruption in government agencies (48%) and inflation (41%).

In light of such public attitudes, one can speak of a steady demand being formed in Ukrainian society for a quick resolution to the overwhelming problem of war in Donbas. Preserving the current situation in the region, as with the political elite lacking clear responses to the problem that emerged, will be a significant catalyst for the Ukrainian society and factor that would noticeably undermine confidence in the government as a whole.

Against the backdrop of Ukraine rapidly entering the next phase of the election race, it is becoming obvious that to sidestep the topic of Donbas (in light of the particular urgency of the issue for voters) will be quite difficult. The public demand for putting an end to the protracted conflict is extraordinarily high. In this regard, the key to winning the upcoming elections in 2019 will fall into the hands of those who will not be afraid to search for and offer creative solutions to one of the most topical problems that has faced the country in recent years.

The recently adopted by parliament so called “De-occupation Law” (“On the peculiarities of state policy on ensuring Ukraine’s state sovereignty over temporarily occupied territories in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts”), notwithstanding the number of appropriate and necessary definitions – Russia as an aggressor state, the status of the occupied administrations of the Russian Federation in Donbas, the right for Ukraine to defend itself in accordance with Article 51 of the U.N. Charter – outlines only general policy approaches to reintegrating the Donbas and doesn’t provide answer to the question of how to actually end the armed conflict.

The law clearly on its own cannot be an instrument for resolving the conflict, which has several dimensions, most importantly of which is perhaps the geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West. The solution, accordingly, should be comprehensive in nature where legislative changes in Kyiv are only one component in a more complicated political and diplomatic game. Without the consolidated efforts of the international community in the context of finding peace, one can hardly hope for rapid success.

The Minsk Agreements still remain the main roadmap for resolving Donbas conflict among Western countries, especially for those who brokered the signing of the agreement when other coordinated options are absent. Berlin, Paris and Washington have all the while continually through their leaders emphasized the necessity for implementing the Minsk Agreements by each party of the conflict, including Ukraine and Russia.

However, the stumbling block for realizing the document lies not in the essence of its provisions, but in the sequence of their implementation. Whereas Moscow strenuously has called for expediently giving the self-proclaimed republics in Donbas special status tied to changes in Ukraine’s constitution, Kyiv has unremittingly appealed to logic and common sense with regard to the implementation of the political part of the agreements (special status, holding local elections etc.) – they should take place after sustainable solutions are in place on basic security issues. As is well known, an “immediate and comprehensive ceasefire”, as the first clause of the Minsk Agreement requires, has never taken hold in Donbas.

Although formally Minsk II didn’t have requirements for the sequential implementation of the agreement’s clauses, which is probably the document’s biggest flaw, Ukraine’s arguments for giving priority to security issues over the political requirements appear to be quite logical and consistent.

In the absence of a significant progress in achieving de-escalation of Donbas conflict, the West has over time accepted official Kyiv’s arguments and stopped rigorously insisting that the Ukrainian side implement the political part of the Minsk II until fundamental security issues are resolved, including a comprehensive ceasefire in the combat zone.

Up until today, international diplomats and leaders of Western countries continue to consistently try breathing life in the once much-touted Minsk Agreements. However, the outcome has been one of dubious success. If discounting the few exchanges of hostages and short-lived phases of truces in Donbas, then generally speaking, the agreements are limited in functionality as a settlement tool.

However, it is worthy to note that if Moscow decided to take decisive measures to pressure the representatives of the self-declared Donbas ‘republics’  (that it effectively controls) to cease fire, then tangible problems could arise for Kyiv.

Ukraine’s political elites, as is generally known, harbor a rather casual attitude towards the document containing the signatures of the leaders of Donbas self-declared ‘republics’ (DPR and LPR). A relatively fresh illustration of how the legislative corps perceives the Minsk Agreements was the negative reaction by a majority of MPs in the Verkhovna Rada on possibly referencing or even mentioning the Minsk Agreements in the recently adopted law on the de-occupation of Donbas (No.7163).

Still fresh in people’s memories are the tragic events of August, 2015 when amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution on decentralization of power were voted in the first reading in the Ukrainian parliament. Amendments to the Basic Law, which have not been definitively approved by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, envisioned, among other things, adding references to the “Minsk” law on “Special order of self-government in separate regions of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts” to the Transitional provisions of the Ukrainian Constitution.

It’s worth noting that the rejection of the provisions contained in Minsk II by a number of political forces in Ukraine resonates well with the relevant attitudes of the Ukrainian society. Thus, recent public opinion polls have found out that every second polled in Ukraine (49%) realizes the necessity to “agree on certain comprises for the sake of achieving peace in Donbas.” However, a majority of those compromises that one way or another are defined in the Minsk Agreements – for example, amnesty to combatants, exclusive political and economic relations between SRDLO and Russia, enshrining in the Constitution of Ukraine “special status” for certain areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts – are not supported by a majority of Ukrainian citizens. Herewith, the level of support for the aforementioned compromises declines regionally the further West one is located from the East of Ukraine.

Thus, there are certain grounds to affirm that if serious attempts are made to implement the compromises foreseen in the Minsk Agreements, this has the potential to ignite another political crisis and could even split Ukrainian society. In the context of settling Donbas conflict, citizens, according to the public opinion polls, express readiness for compromise on an abstract level and often reject specific ones.

The Minsk Agreement over three years of actual existence still has not become an effective instrument for a long-term, sustainable resolution of Donbas conflict. They also didn’t gain sufficient social and political legitimacy in Ukraine, which makes them replete with potential risks for the political stability of the country.

In light of this, it would be reasonable for Ukraine and the international community to focus their efforts on searching for new effective and proven mechanisms for conflict settlement. This could be, for instance, the introduction with the support of the peacekeeping forces of the transitional UN Interim Administration in the temporarily uncontrolled (occupied) territories of Donbas.

The use of this mechanism would allow for the necessary conditions to be created stage-by-stage for settlement and the return of occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to Ukraine’s political and legal purview.

It is also important that such international peacekeeping initiative would be approvingly embraced by Ukrainian society. Based on recent public opinion poll data, nearly every second Ukrainian (49%) agrees that a U.N. interim administration in Donbas backed by “blue helmets” would promote the process of settling the armed conflict in Donbas. At that, this option of conflict settlement currently does not divide Ukrainian society and is supported by the absolute majority in Western and Central Ukraine, while in the East, South and in Donbas is supported by the relative majority of Ukrainians.

A long-term resolution to the war in Donbas and reintegrating occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts into Ukraine requires not only measures that have time-proven effectiveness in international practice for achieving an end-goal. Also important is for the respective measures to have adequate public support in Ukraine and not generate new lines of political confrontation and divisions inside the country prior to future elections.