Russia's war in Ukraine: Is Minsk the end, or just the start?
There is no doubt who gained most from the deal reached in Minsk on February 12th to end the conflict in Ukraine: Russian President Vladimir Putin. At a minimum, a frozen conflict will block Ukraine’s progress towards NATO and the EU; and if fighting resumes, the terms of the ceasefire will leave Ukrainian forces in a weaker position than now. The only questions are why German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande were prepared to give Putin so much, after a year of Russian aggression and lies; and what the West can do now to buttress European security.
The Minsk deal includes two documents. The first, entitled ‘a package of measures for the implementation of the Minsk agreements’ was signed by representatives of Russia, Ukraine, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the separatist entities in Donetsk and Luhansk. This contains 13 points, modifying the original Minsk agreements of September 5th and 19th; and an annex outlining a special status for the Russian-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. The second document is a declaration by Hollande, Merkel, Poroshenko and Putin “in support of” the package of measures.
According to the package, a ceasefire will start at midnight on February 15th (Kyiv time), giving Russian forces and their proxies time to take more territory. Early indications are that fighting around strategic points is intensifying. After the Minsk talks, Putin said that the separatist forces claimed to have surrounded 6,000 to 8,000 Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve and “assumed that they would lay down their arms”.
Gaining territory before the ceasefire matters, because the line of contact at that time will become the boundary between Kyiv and ‘separatist’ controlled territory. Ukrainian forces will have to withdraw heavy weapons (artillery and missiles of a calibre greater than 100mm) to distances of up to 140 kilometres from that line. Heavy weapons on the Russian side are supposed to withdraw by the same distance, but from the ceasefire line agreed in Minsk in September.
To monitor the ceasefire and withdrawal of weapons, the OSCE will have (at least initially) its current team of 250 unarmed monitors and one drone to cover an area of more than 20,000 square kilometres. By comparison, the UN peacekeeping force on the Israel-Lebanon border, UNIFIL, has 10,000 multinational troops to cover an area of under 1,000 square kilometres, and still cannot prevent Hizbollah deploying thousands of missiles there. The OSCE may not need the same force density as UNIFIL, but trust between the parties is low; the resources and mandate of the OSCE mission will need to be significantly strengthened if it is to play an effective stabilising role.
Even if the ceasefire holds temporarily, Ukrainian defences will be weakened. The port of Mariupol, less than 10 kilometres from the line of contact, will be unprotected by tanks or artillery if fighting resumes. Meanwhile, Russian forces will keep control of the Ukraine-Russia border in the separatist areas until the end of the year, and until Ukraine has made constitutional changes guaranteeing the special status of the separatist areas. Unlike the first Minsk agreement, there is no provision for OSCE monitoring of the Russian-Ukrainian border, which means that Russia is free to move more weapons and other supplies into the separatist areas for at least the next ten months.
The constitutional changes sketched out at Minsk show how limited Kyiv’s influence will be in separatist-controlled areas. The local authorities there will have a role in appointing public prosecutors and judges and can create “people’s militias” (an ambiguous term, which might or might not be limited to a police force). The central government in Kyiv will have to pay for social and other services, without having control over them.
The Minsk package also foresees an amnesty for “events that took place in the particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions”. MPs in the Netherlands are already asking whether this means that those responsible for the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 will also be amnestied; though Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has told the Dutch prime minister that they will not, the text itself makes no exception for them.
In the accompanying declaration, Hollande, Merkel, Poroshenko and Putin reaffirm their “full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”. Given the involvement of Russia, it is not surprising that this is not further defined; but it is disappointing that neither Merkel nor Hollande appears to have said the word “Crimea” even in comments to the media after the talks.
Worse, the four leaders backed talks between the EU, Russia and Ukraine “to find practical solutions to the concerns raised by Russia about the implementation” of the EU-Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). The DCFTA will force Ukraine to make painful reforms; but it also offers a long-term route to a successful European economy.
Putin wants to deprive Ukraine of the benefits of the DCFTA. Russian proposals to exclude whole categories of EU goods from tariff reductions, in order to keep Russian goods competitive on the Ukrainian market, are contrary to WTO principles and economically damaging both for EU exporters and Ukrainian consumers. The European Commission delayed implementation of the DCFTA last September, in an effort to support the last Minsk deal. Putin wrote to Poroshenko at the time, warning that any move by Kyiv to implement the DCFTA would bring immediate retaliation from Russia. Now Hollande and Merkel appear to have offered Putin another opportunity to influence implementation of the DCFTA to suit Russia.
Poroshenko must have felt he had no choice but to accept the Minsk deal: his troops have been losing ground since the New Year, as more Russian regular forces and equipment have joined the fight; and the West has offered rhetorical but not practical support. France, Germany and the UK have all come out against supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine (the UK with the caveat, according to Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, that “we could not allow the Ukrainian armed forces to collapse”). President Barack Obama has said only that he has asked his team to look at all the options, including supplying arms, if diplomacy failed.
On the positive side, the deal may give Poroshenko time to focus on economic and political reform, instead of concentrating on the war. The IMF announced on February 12th that it had agreed a $17.5 billion loan for Ukraine, as part of a package of bilateral and multilateral loans of about $40 billion to support reforms; without that, Ukraine would soon run out of money.
On the other hand, the Minsk deal may have weakened Poroshenko’s political position: Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has been consistently more hawkish than Poroshenko, and may see an opportunity to undermine him. Western leaders will need to stay engaged with both men to keep them working towards the same goals of cleansing Ukraine of its pervasive corruption and reforming its Soviet-legacy economy. Whatever comes out of talking to Russia about the DCFTA, the EU should ensure that Ukraine is as ready as it can be to start full implementation of the agreement on January 1st 2016.
Why have European leaders conceded so much to Russia, despite its failure to implement the September agreement? Despite Russia’s serious economic woes, President Vladimir Putin has once again exploited Western divisions and disguised his own vulnerability.
The EU is divided between a small group of countries who want to arm Ukraine; those, led by Merkel, who think arming Ukraine would make things worse, but support the use of sanctions and diplomacy to persuade Putin to move; and those who want to get back to business as usual with Russia as soon as possible. Merkel leads the second group; Hollande seems uncomfortably balanced between the second and the third: he told journalists on February 13th that while the conditions were not yet right, he hoped that France would eventually be able to deliver the ‘Mistral’ warships ordered by Russia. Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Congressional Republicans like John McCain and members of the Obama administration are encouraging the president to reconsider his opposition to arming Ukraine. Putin has skilfully used European fears that giving weapons to Ukraine will escalate the war, and has offered peace, but at a high price.
What can the West now do to rescue something from the Minsk mess? First and without fanfare, those countries willing to do so should start training and equipping Ukrainian forces to ensure that they can defend the rest of their territory if fighting resumes. There will be no Western consensus on this; but the argument that helping a victim is ‘provocative’ to an aggressor does not stand up, either in international relations or in life: despite the West’s efforts not to provoke Putin, he now controls a significant portion of Ukrainian territory. Given the shortcomings in the new Minsk agreement, strong Ukrainian defences are likely to be needed sooner rather than later. The West cannot stop Putin escalating the conflict again if he chooses to, but it can raise the cost to him.
Second, France and Germany must do more to show that they are taking account of the interests of other EU member-states as well as the EU’s institutions. EU views are not united: the new Greek government is clearly a lot closer to Putin’s Russia than its predecessor, while the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaitė, has openly criticised the February 12th agreement as weak. Merkel may be doing her best to represent the EU’s ‘centre of gravity’, but in doing so she risks sidelining others. The Commission has never accepted the validity of Putin’s objections to the DCFTA with Ukraine, yet has now been committed by the Minsk deal to holding talks on how to accommodate them. Poland, despite having borders with Ukraine and Russia, no longer has a voice in negotiations. The UK has been invisible in the diplomatic arena, though it is contributing to NATO efforts to reassure Central European allies.
Third, the West should tighten implementation of its existing sanctions and start preparing new ones. It is time the European External Action Service (EEAS) had the resources to examine how sanctioned individuals and entities can circumvent the rules in particular member-states. Encouragingly, Merkel said after the European Council on February 13th that further sanctions were possible if the new agreement was violated. As a last resort, the EU could block Russia from SWIFT, the international financial transfer system, thereby inflicting considerable damage on Russia’s economy. But short of that drastic step, there are many senior Russians, including Putin himself, with financial interests in the West which have yet to be targeted.
Finally, the EU should let go of its illusions. A brilliant recent analysis by BBC Monitoring showed how Russian state media is successfully stirring up hatred and war fever in the population. Confrontation, not an idyllic pan-European zone of co-operation, is likely to be the norm for the foreseeable future. The EU has spent two decades trying to develop a mutually beneficial, rules-based contractual relationship with Russia. It is time to accept that its efforts have failed; now the West has to invest in protecting itself. Merkel was right to say at the Munich Security Conference on February 7th that a policy of forcibly altering borders in Europe should have no place in the 21st century, and that Russia’s actions in Ukraine had violated international law. It is a pity that the Minsk agreement rewards such behaviour.
Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.