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Will the 'Minsk agreements' on eastern Ukraine lead to peace?

25 Sep 2019 - 16:35

Preparations are underway for a Normandy Four summit on Ukraine to be held shortly in Paris. But apart from haute cuisine, what will actually be on the table when the leaders meet?

The Normandy format was created in June 2014 on the margins of the 70th anniversary of D-day and it brings together France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia to discuss the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine (not Crimea, which in Russia’s view is a domestic issue). A crisis that according to UN estimates has cost some 13,000 lives since it erupted in early 2014. For the last three years the Normandy leaders haven’t met, but the election of Ukrainian president Zelensky, who has vowed to bring this protracted conflict to an end, and the recent exchange of 70 prisoners and detainees between Ukraine and Russia (with maybe more to follow) seem to have created an atmosphere more conducive to diplomacy.  Furthermore, French president Macron, who wants to upgrade relations with Russia, has stepped forward and  is actively engaged in resuscitating this high-level process.

The basis for these talks are the so-called Minsk agreements, which refers to a Protocol and Memorandum signed in September 2014 and a subsequent Package of Measures of February 2015, endorsed by the UN Security Council in resolution 2202 (and sometimes called the Minsk-II agreement). All these documents were negotiated in Belarus’ capital (president Lukashenka cleverly offered to host these talks, allowing him to take a neutral stance), facilitated by the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and  signed by representatives of Ukraine and Russia, but also by the self-proclaimed leaderships of the break-away ‘republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk. Meanwhile, the bulk of the EU sanctions initiated since 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its involvement in eastern Ukraine are tied to ‘full implementation’ by Russia of the Minsk agreements.

"These agreements, more often mentioned than scrutinised, are problematic".

But these agreements, more often mentioned than scrutinised, are problematic. Why? Because at the time, considering military circumstances, Ukraine didn’t have much choice but to agree to these documents even if they were vague about sequencing and lopsided, in the sense that Russia is hardly mentioned at all. Since Moscow, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, officially claims it is not involved in eastern Ukraine, it was only going to sign up to commitments that would sustain that position. Russia consistently positions itself as an outside mediator rather than a belligerent party, and this is reflected in the agreements. It demands Ukraine does its political homework (such as enacting a special status law for the east, organising local elections and instituting constitutional reforms that would allow for decentralisation) while referring to home-grown militants when it comes to the principal requirements of a general cease-fire and withdrawal of forces and weaponry (requirements that never materialised). In short, Minsk gives the Russians a free ride and leaves plenty room for political bickering.

Still, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Prystayko has claimed there is agreement on the so-called Steinmeier formula: a proposal from 2016 by the then German Foreign Minister saying that the special status law takes provisional effect at the time of local elections, but is only confirmed after OSCE observers have established the vote was free and fair. Reportedly, another condition for a summit meeting is the disengagement of forces from a few hotspots around the ‘line of contact’ (something which according to Minsk should have happened a long time ago).

Therefore, if and when Macron, Merkel, Zelensky and Putin meet in Paris the Minsk acquis will loom in the background but hardly serve as a precise roadmap towards peace. Rather, hopes should be pinned on the two main parties being more incentivised than before to make headway. For president Zelensky it is important to make good on his election promise to resolve the crisis in eastern Ukraine (while keeping the Crimea issue on the back burner). For president Putin, the Donbas stalemate has become a nagging and costly affair and at some point, given the state of Russia’s economy, he’d like to see sanction relief – just as some EU countries would like to revisit this regime. Besides, Russia’s narrative of non-involvement becomes increasingly perilous (judging from Russia’s insistence on including Ukrainian MH17 witness, and possible suspect, Volodymyr Tsemach in the recent prisoner swap to keep him away from international justice).

"Russia will only settle for arrangements that ensure sufficient leverage over its neighbor to prevent it from joining the West."

At the same time, one should realise that at the end of the day Russia will only settle for arrangements that ensure sufficient leverage over its neighbor to prevent it from joining the West; the very same agenda that prompted Russia to intervene in Ukraine in the first place. Novice Zelensky, already under pressure for being too close to controversial oligarchs (and now even enmeshed in a US impeachment inquiry), cannot be seen to trade away the integrity of his country and its future orientation. Last week, demonstrators in front of his office in Kyiv warned against ‘the treason of Normandy’.

But also absent a level playing field, the most important thing now is to have this long-overdue summit take place and provide the opportunity for a first in-depth conversation between Zelensky and Putin. Building bilateral trust is key to managing and ultimately resolving this conflict. It’s up to Macron and Merkel to supervise progress while considering Ukraine’s interests: a delicate but important role.