The new Minsk Agreement is almost certainly unenforceable and is very unlikely to lead to a political settlement that will end the war.
Its significance is that it provides more evidence of the pressure Merkel is under and shows that the balance of political advantage is shifting towards the Russians.
However it is not a breakthrough and the war will almost certainly continue.
To understand what happened in Minsk, it is necessary to discuss the diplomatic background.
A popular uprising began in the Donbass in April 2014, shortly after the February coup that brought the Maidan movement to power. In its initial stages the uprising was peaceful and its demands moderate.
These were for a political democratisation of the region, which had up to then been tightly controlled from Kiev, which appointed its governors.
The new Maidan government refused to negotiate with the leaders of the uprising, branding them instead “terrorists” in the pay of Russia. It launched what it called an “anti terrorist operation” (“ATO”) to destroy them.
This steadily escalated over the course of the spring and summer, until on 30th June 2014 it evolved into a full-scale military assault on the Donbass by the Ukrainian army backed by right-wing volunteer militias and the Ukrainian airforce.
The Russians responded by launching a diplomatic initiative to settle the conflict by peaceful means. The idea was that there should be negotiations between the Donbass and the Maidan government in Kiev to settle the conflict through a new constitution that would take into account the Donbass’s aspirations.
The concept was for a federal structure, loosening Kiev’s formerly tight political control of the Donbass. This proposal for what has become known as “federalisation” was first floated in discussions between the Russians and the Germans in the days immediately following the February coup.
The question of a new constitution had actually been placed on the agenda in the weeks before the Maidan coup. Its supporters at that time were the Maidan leaders, who pressed the idea on Yanukovych. The 21st February 2014 agreement, brokered by the EU and signed by Yanukovych and the Maidan leaders, envisaged a national unity government and negotiations on a new constitution to be completed before the end of 2014.
In the event the coup took place the following day, the 21st February 2014 agreement was repudiated by the Maidan leaders, a proper national unity government was never formed and the negotiations to agree a new constitution never took place. Since the coup the Maidan leaders have turned from being supporters of the idea of a new constitution to its bitter opponents.
On 17th April 2014 a Statement was agreed in Geneva between Russia, Ukraine, the US and EU, that alongside various steps to calm the conflict (including a repudiation of the use of force to settle it) called for an “inclusive national dialogue” to settle the question of Ukraine’s constitution. The precise words were
The announced constitutional process will be inclusive, transparent and accountable. It will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies, and allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments.
Though it signed the Geneva Statement the Maidan government made no effort to implement it by starting such a dialogue. Instead it launched the ATO.
Russian diplomatic efforts nonetheless continued. On 4th June 2014 Putin met Poroshenko, Ukraine’s newly elected President, during the D-Day commemorations in Normandy. Poroshenko informed Putin that he had a peace plan to settle the conflict.
Poroshenko’s “peace plan”, when published on 20th June 2014, turned out to be nothing of the sort. Though making a token concession in paragraph 11 to “decentralisation” and referring in passing to a new constitution, no procedure to achieve this was set out.
The plan was largely made up of demands amounting to an ultimatum for the unconditional surrender of the uprising in 7 days.
A declaration on 2nd July 2014 made in Berlin by the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia calling for swift action to enforce a ceasefire was disregarded. Instead a decision made by Ukraine’s Security Council on 30th June 2014 to launch a general military offensive to crush the uprising was implemented causing the conflict to escalate into full-scale war.
The Normandy meeting between Putin and Poroshenko on 4th June 2014 did bear one fruit in the form of the setting up of a Contact Group of Russia, Ukraine and the Organisation For Security and Cooperation in Europe (“OSCE”) whose purpose is supposedly to implement Poroshenko’s peace plan.
The Contact Group has become the key instrument in all subsequent diplomatic negotiations. The Minsk Protocol of 5th September 2014 and the Minsk Agreement of 12th February 2015 are its products, being in theory amendments to Poroshenko’s peace plan.
The military offensive the Maidan government launched on 30th June 2014 ended in disaster at the end of August 2014, with the comprehensive defeat of the Ukrainian army.
The course of the fighting in the summer of 2014 has been discussed on RI by Paul Robinson, who has explained that the Russian intervention that caused Ukraine’s defeat was not intended to dismember or destroy Ukraine but to end the war so as to avert a humanitarian disaster and pave the way for constitutional negotiations to settle the conflict.
Russia’s intervention in the summer was a product of Russian political needs. It is politically impossible for the Russian government to allow the Maidan government to crush the uprising in the Donbass.
This is not because the uprising is controlled by Russia or serves for Russia some ulterior political purpose. It is because the connections of ethnicity, culture, religion and language make such an outcome unacceptable to the Russian people.
When Russians see on their televisions cities like Donetsk and Lugansk being shelled and bombed, they see and hear people who look and sound exactly like themselves or, perhaps more accurately, who look and sound exactly like they did 10 years ago. The connections between Russia and the Donbass are so strong that many Russians also have friends and relatives there.
For Russians the war in the Donbass is not a foreign war in some distant, faraway country. The people of the Donbass are not an alien, foreign people. or Russians the war in the Donbass is a national issue that impacts directly upon them and given the strength of their feelings it is politically impossible for the Russian government to abandon the Donbass or walk away from it.
In Russia Putin and his government are far more likely to be criticised for the moderation and restraint they have shown throughout this conflict than for the supposed “aggressiveness” and “expansionism” the West constantly talks about.
The diplomacy since the start of the uprising in the Donbass in April 2014 nonetheless shows that it is Russia that has consistently sought a peaceful settlement of the conflict through negotiations and that it is the Maidan government in Kiev which has consistently chosen war. I have previously discussed here on RI why the Maidan government left to itself will always choose rather than compromise.
Desperate to avoid total disaster, Poroshenko in September appeared to agree a peace deal, the basic outlines of which were laid out by Putin supposedly during a flight to Ulan Bator. The exact terms were hammered out on 5th September 2014 by the Contact Group, this time with the participation of the leaders of the Donbass, and were set out in a document known as the Minsk Protocol.
The Minsk Protocol spelt out a political process whereby the Donbass would hold elections and be granted special status pending constitutional negotiations that would finally settle its status. This is of course in line with Russian ideas that the conflict should be settled by the parties themselves through negotiations.
The Maidan government reneged on the Minsk Protocol. It failed to agree the terms of the elections in the Donbass. It rescinded the law of special status the Minsk Protocol required it to grant. It took no step towards the constitutional negotiations that would determine the Donbass’s future.
Instead the Maidan government refused to recognise the elections the Donbass held in November 2014, imposed an economic blockade on the Donbass and refused to observe the terms of a ceasefire also agreed on 5th September 2014 by failing to withdraw from territory it had agreed to hand-over and by refusing to withdraw its heavy weapons from the conflict zone.
Despite a drastically deteriorating economic situation, it instead rearmed and reinforced its army in the Donbass in preparation for a new offensive, which it launched at the end of January 2015.
That offensive has ended in disaster, with heavy loss of life, the loss to the militia of Donetsk airport and the encirclement by the militia of 5-8,000 Ukrainian troops in the town of Debaltsevo.
It is this disaster that has set the stage for the negotiations that took place in Minsk on 11th and 12th February 2015.
These negotiations represent a departure from the negotiations that have gone before.
All previous negotiations were initiated by the Russians. These latest negotiations were not initiated by the Russians. On the contrary, they have been giving signs recently that they have given up on negotiations (see here and here).
The negotiations were initiated by Angela Merkel most probably with the support of more moderate or “realist” elements within the US government, who flagged up their intentions in an editorial in the New York Times that I have previously discussed.
I have also previously discussed how Merkel’s refusal to recognise the conflict as a civil war has led her down a blind alley. I have explained how her miscalculation has put her position in Germany and elsewhere in Europe under pressure, causing her judgement and her leadership for the first time to be seriously questioned.
Merkel has been called many things, including an ideologue and an EU fanatic. Whether or not she is any of these things, she is first and foremost a politician. With her policy of bullying Russia to hand the Donbass over to Kiev having visibly failed, with the IMF threatening to pull the plug on Ukraine economically unless the war in the Donbass is brought to an end, and with the Ukrainian military facing disaster in Debaltsevo, her need for an agreement that would prevent a collapse in Ukraine that would expose the failure of her policy has become imperative.
A further spur was doubtless the wild talk in Washington of supplying arms to Kiev. As someone attuned to German opinion, Merkel knows that for an increasingly doubtful and skeptical German public, that crosses a red line.
The result is the frantic negotiations we have seen over the last few days. The key meeting was the one Merkel and Hollande held with Putin in Moscow on Friday 6th February 2015.
I have discussed the dynamics of the negotiations, with the Russians negotiating from a position of advantage as a result of the defeats the Ukrainians have suffered on the battlefield.
The result is that we now have another Contact Group statement and a four power declaration that reflect longstanding Russian ideas. Whilst there are similarities with the Minsk Protocol of 5th September 2014, the details are more fully spelt out and for the first time since the February coup a time line has been agreed.
There is agreement on a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the Donbass. The economic blockade Kiev has imposed on the Donbass is supposed to be lifted. The Ukraine is supposed to pass a law of special status for the Donbass before the end of March. Elections in the Donbass are then supposed to take place, this time supervised by the OSCE so as to prevent Ukraine from disputing their legality and outcome.
All this is supposed to pave the way for the constitutional negotiations the Russians have always insisted on, which are supposed to produce results before the end of the year.
In return, the Russians are supposed to restore control of the border to whatever authority is created in Kiev as a result of the constitutional negotiations.
The obvious problem with this agreement, as with every other agreement the Maidan movement has ever made since the start of the Maidan protests in November 2013, is that the Maidan movement is not going to abide by it.
That this is so is shown by Poroshenko’s behaviour in Minsk. Not only did he refuse to allow any reference to the word “federalisation” to appear in any of the documents produced at the meeting even as a possible outcome of the constitutional negotiations (a fact which in itself has no significance), but far more importantly he categorically refused to meet the Donbass leaders or negotiate with them directly and threatened to leave the meeting when called on to do so. He even refused to sign the Minsk Agreement, leaving it to his representative on the Contact Group, Leonid Kuchma, to sign it in his place.
This makes it a virtual certainty that this agreement will fall by the wayside as every other agreement has done. It is doubtful whether it will even lead to an interruption of the fighting, which seems if anything to be intensifying.
The only thing that might make the agreement stick is if Merkel forces Poroshenko and the Ukrainian government to abide by it. This is not something she has been prepared to do up to now. The political imperative that forced her to initiate the latest round of negotiations might in theory oblige her to do so. However that would require her to face down the hardliners in the US and Europe, which she has never up to now been prepared to do.
Beyond that there is the further problem that Merkel’s personal relationship with Putin is in tatters. She has been forced to agree to what Putin has been demanding all along. For someone used to getting her way, that must be humiliating.
Putin for his part would not be human if he were not furious with some of the things Merkel has been saying about him over the last few months, in particular her calling him a liar. The grim faces and poor personal chemistry between the two were obvious from the photographs of the meetings in Moscow and Minsk and do not promise well for future cooperation between the two to make the Minsk Agreement stick.
If the Minsk Agreement is all but guaranteed to fail has anything been achieved at all? The short answer is not very much. The Russians have managed to move the focus further in their direction by putting the question of constitutional negotiations at centre stage and by linking the question of control of the border to the successful outcome of these negotiations.
That does force acceptance of the Russians’ idea that some form of autonomy for the Donbass is the only way out of the crisis, putting more pressure on Kiev to grant it. The Russians are certain to bring this up in future, when more negotiations take place.
The negotiations have also exposed an element of division between the Germans on the one hand and the US and EU hardliners on the other, a fact confirmed by the angry articles complaining of “appeasement” that have appeared in parts of the British press today. However unless Merkel is prepared to take far more decisive steps than she has up to now, talk of a rift is exaggerated and it would be unwise to make too much of this.
A pessimistic but realistic view is that this conflict is still at a relatively early stage. The risk of escalation remains high. Unless Merkel surprises by taking a much stronger line with Poroshenko than past experience suggests she will, the overwhelming probability remains that these negotiations will be remembered as a footnote to a conflict that will be decided not at the negotiating table but on the battlefield.