Can the Minsk accords help de-escalate Russia-Ukraine tensions?

Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz is the latest western leader to visit Moscow to explore whether two ceasefire accords brokered seven years ago between Kyiv and Moscow could defuse military tensions and end the war in eastern Ukraine.

Brokered by France and Germany in 2014 and 2015 after Russian-backed separatists attacked and occupied territory in the Ukrainian Donbas region, Minsk I and II are being hailed as one way of avoiding a new conflict in Europe.

Speaking to the press after his meeting with Scholz on Tuesday, Vladimir Putin himself said the agreements should be the “basis” for finding a solution to current tensions.

The Russian president echoed his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, who last week in Moscow said the accords were “the only way” to build peace, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said the US and Ukraine stood “united” in supporting the agreements as the best way forward.

But those talks under the so-called Normandy format – Russia, Ukraine, France, Germany – have stalled. The accords were written under conditions Kyiv now views as duress and Ukrainian interpretation differs from that of Moscow, analysts say. For Kyiv, they mean restoring territorial integrity; for Moscow, they mean the possibility of exercising a veto over Ukraine’s future.

“The Minsk process is not so much a red herring as a dead duck,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

What are the Minsk accords?

Kyiv says it signed the Minsk agreements after Russian forces intervened in the Donbas war in support of Ukrainian separatists, imposing heavy military losses on Ukrainian troops at Ilovaisk in 2014 and Debaltseve in 2015. Moscow denies any involvement.

Signed in September 2014 – six months after Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea – Minsk I is a 12-point ceasefire deal that never held: Kyiv estimates 14,000 people have died since fighting broke out.

Vladimir Putin, Petro Poroshenko, Angela Merkel, and Francois Hollande attend a meeting on resolving the Ukrainian crisis, with Alexander Lukashenko seen nearby, in Minsk ... Russia's President Vladimir Putin (2nd L), Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko (R), Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel (4th R) and France's President Francois Hollande (3rd R) attend a meeting on resolving the Ukrainian crisis, with Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko (L) seen nearby, in Minsk, February 11, 2015. The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine began peace talks in Belarus on Wednesday, while in Ukraine pro-Moscow separatists tightened pressure on Kiev by launching some of the war's worst fighting.  REUTERS / Mykola Lazarenko / Ukrainian Presidential Press Service / Handout via Reuters

Vladimir Putin, Petro Poroshenko, Angela Merkel and François Hollande attend a meeting on resolving the Ukrainian crisis, with Alexander Lukashenko, left, in Minsk in February 2015 © Reuters

Struck in February 2015, Minsk II laid out a formula designed to reintegrate the Russian-backed separatist regions into Ukraine by giving Moscow some say over Ukrainian politics. Critics note that then-president Petro Poroshenko signed it because Kyiv’s forces were facing defeat.

It was signed by representatives of Russia, Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the leaders of the two pro-Russian separatist regions. It was also endorsed by the UN Security Council. But it has never been fully implemented by either side. Minsk II is where diplomatic efforts are now focused.

What are the central terms of Minsk II?

The main terms of Minsk II include an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons; monitoring by the OSCE; and resumption of full economic and social links between the two sides, such as pensions.

To the extent that the OSCE still monitors the area and the pace of casualties has slowed, these parts of the accord have been partially met.

More contentious, and variously interpreted by both sides, are the provisions that require Ukrainian government control restored over the border with Russia; withdrawal of all foreign armed formations, military equipment and mercenaries; and Ukrainian reforms that would provide a degree of self-rule to the eastern Donbas region.

What are the main sticking points?

One is sequencing. Ukraine wants control of its international border before local elections are held in the Russian-supported breakaway regions. It also wants Russian forces – which Russia denies are present – to leave.

By contrast, Moscow wants elections before Ukraine regains control over the border. Analysts say this would bar Ukraine from ever joining NATO, because Russian-backed elected MPs from the Donbas would be able to block such membership plans in Ukraine’s parliament.

“You may like it, you may not like it – but deal with it, my gorgeous,” Putin said during his press conference with Macron last week, in a pointed comment to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Kyiv takes a different view of what Donbas’s autonomous status would mean. Ukraine’s foreign minister last week said: “Among our red lines: no concessions on sovereignty, territorial integrity within internationally recognized borders; no ‘direct dialogue’ with Russian occupation administrations. . . and only the people of Ukraine have the right to define foreign policy course. ”

“Essentially, Russia wants to control the circumstances under which the elections take place,” Gould-Davies said. “I don’t see any democratically elected leader of Ukraine could implement the Russian version.”

Another issue is Moscow’s decision to issue more than 600,000 Russian passports to Donbas separatists – even though the Ukrainian constitution does not allow dual-nationality. Moreover, on Tuesday, Russia’s parliament adopted a resolution appealing Putin to recognize the independence of the would-be Donetsk and Luhansk statelets in the Donbas – a recognition western officials said would mean the death of Minsk. Asked about the resolution, Putin said that Russia would first aim for “the unrealized possibilities of fulfilling the Minsk accords”.

Is there a way forward?

Judging from Putin’s recent statements, no. “Everyone can see that the current government in Kyiv is moving to sabotage the Minsk agreements,” he said last week. “There’s no movement on principal issues like constitutional reform, amnesty, local elections, and legal aspects of Donbas special status.”

Ukraine fears that the west will force a deal on Kyiv but has hinted at a compromise. On Monday in Kyiv, Scholz said Zelensky had assured him he would outline draft laws on Donbas’s special status, the constitutional amendment and the electoral law for Minsk talks.

“Ukraine is making a very big contribution here,” Scholz said.

Even so, simply meeting the Minsk accords is viewed by many Ukrainians as a concession to Russian military aggression. The prospect of Kyiv negotiating directly with the separatists, which Zelensky has ruled out, would also spell his political death, western diplomats say.

That might provoke the kind of rupture that would then give Putin an excuse to intervene militarily. The last time Ukraine tabled constitutional changes that seemed to cater to the Moscow line in 2015, riots in the capital left three security officials dead.

Conversely, as under Ukraine’s interpretation Donbas would not have sway over Kyiv via parliament, rather supposed ploy of using Donbas to win control over Ukraine’s politics and foreign policy would have failed.

“That would be a defeat for Russia. . . and its security demands that go far beyond Minsk, ”Gould-Davies said.

Additional reporting by Victor Mallet in Paris, Guy Chazan in Berlin

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