How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The second Minsk ceasefire agreement, signed on February 12, had an inauspicious beginning. Just after the ceasefire was supposed to come into effect, the separatist rebels forced Ukrainian troops to retreat from the encircled city of Debaltseve. The city’s fall, and the continued fighting along the front, could prove to be an early end to the ceasefire. But hope remains that it is actually a beginning, since other parts of the frontline have calmed down, and the sides have started to exchanges prisoners. Although the recent agreement may not provide a final solution to the conflict, it has good prospects of freezing it.
Observers have labeled the deal as an unqualified victory for Russia. Indeed, it gave Russia most of what it sought for the separatist regions—autonomy, special status, and assurances that separatists will be protected before Russia is required turn over control of the border. This is in stark contrast to the first agreement, which seemed to favor Ukraine and the West. When that deal collapsed, the West spent months pressing Russia to abandon the separatists and return control of the border to Ukraine—effectively capitulate completely—or face the stacking pain of sanctions.
It is hard to understand why Russia even agreed to the first Minsk protocol on September 5, 2014. Perhaps the casualties it suffered in the August fighting were significant, or Moscow genuinely believed that having defeated Ukraine in the field, it could push it around after negotiations. Instead, Minsk I became a tool for the West to hold Russian leaders accountable for further fighting by the separtists.
By January 2015, a fuming Russia had spent months training and equipping a capable separatist force. The new year had come, and with Russian support, the separatists were ready to take on the Ukrainian army, starting with Donetsk airport. Russia launched its separatist offensive on January 13 with two objectives: force Ukraine to sign a new agreement that erases Minsk I, and capture territory that enables a viable state for the separatists. This plan required taking the transit hub town of Debaltseve, which Ukraine’s forces predictably retreated to, and pushing the line of control away from the main separatist cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Russia’s successful winter offensive gave it the upper hand in the Minsk II negotiations. For Ukraine, the choice was to either continue the war, risking more territory and derailing Western efforts to rescue the country or to sign the deal and commit the country to unpopular political and territorial concessions. In the end, it picked the second option.
Poroshenko was not the only leader under pressure at Minsk. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had intentionally avoided meeting Putin on his terms in Moscow, was forced to fly there to rescue Ukraine and Western foreign policy. Her negotiating position was unenviable: Russia’s ground offensive was going well; Ukraine’s military was (and is) in a precarious state; and the prospect that the IMF could start vital work rehabilitating Ukraine’s economy this year was evaporating. Concurrently, in Washington, influential former officials and diplomats were pressing a reluctant President Barack Obama to send arms to Ukraine, a policy categorically opposed by Germany and France.
The West’s relatively weak position in the talks led to what looks like a bargain for Moscow. In absolute terms, though, it is a pragmatic compromise. Russia has carved out of Ukraine some autonomous regions for the separatists—and secured influence there—but Ukraine’s independence remains uncompromised and the country still has a promising future in Europe. Prolonging a war over separatist regions would be not only ruinous for Ukraine, but would also undermine Western efforts to save the country from national bankruptcy, transform its economy, reform its government, and turn it into a successful member of the European community. Even if the second Minsk agreement falls through—and it likely will sometime this year—it stands a good chance of ending the fighting in Ukraine. Those who doubt that, because of how abruptly the first one collapsed, misinterpret the contexts in which the two agreements were made.
The first Minsk protocol could never have served as a political settlement to the conflict. In retrospect, it is difficult to understand why anyone hoped that it would work in the first place. That deal, struck on September 5, 2014, offered a respite to warring parties, but no mechanism to secure their interests. Notably, the map outlining the line of control was kept secret by all parties, leaving it open to dispute. Furthermore, the agreement did not set up conditions between the parties or spell out who must do what first.
Sequencing in such deals matters. If Russia had withdrawn its forces, pulled out its artillery, and returned control of the border to Ukraine as promised, then its nascent separatist project would be completely at the mercy of Kiev. And if Ukraine had moved first, nothing would have prevent the separatists from simply seizing more land with Russian support as soon as its army withdrew its artillery and heavy weapons. A battle broke out over Donetsk airport shortly after the deal was signed, leading to months of skirmishes and artillery exchanges that consumed the ceasefire and agreement.
Minsk I was borne out of a different time in the conflict. Russia had handed Ukraine a military defeat, but it had not managed to secure a viable territory for the separatists. Kiev remained politically divided over whether a military solution was viable, and still is. Ukraine had lost the battle, but perhaps not the war. The West remained undeterred, hopeful that sanctions, combined with Russia’s economic crisis, would work. In Russia, Minsk I is viewed as a strategic mistake: a result of incompetence and indecisiveness. The deal made Russia a party to the conflict with obligations, but secured none of its interests on paper. Ukraine spent the next four months building up its military capability, and the West applying crushing political and economic pressure.
Minsk II is a dramatically different arrangement. It sets up genuine scenarios for a political settlement, or for a failure that does not necessarily return the region to war. There is hard work involved for Kiev, especially for Poroshenko. He must see through the Ukrainian parliament a constitutional decentralization and a special status law for the territory in separatist hands. The separatists will get amnesty, protection for the Russian language, participation in the appointment of local officials, and leeway to convert their army into a local militia, all while the central government restores social benefits and financial services. Ukraine’s incentive for starting down this less-than-enticing path is the prospect of eventually regaining control of its border, after all conditions are met, and maintaining sovereignty over these regions.
On the separatist side, local governments must hold elections in accordance with Ukrainian law. These will likely not take place until the fall, at the earliest. The current separatist leaders will be the main points of contact for handling election arrangements. Kiev will likely keep pensions and other social benefits as incentives for the leaders to hold clean elections, lest Moscow wish to pay for these regions in perpetuity. Immediately after the elections, Ukraine can begin assuming control of the border with Russia.
In other words, Russia will get what it wants, but within Ukraine. Kiev will officially retain territorial integrity, and the separatists will get to keep their own defense force as insurance. The agreement addresses the complete absence of trust on both sides, and they each have something to lose. Assuming that Ukraine passes the law on decentralization and special status, separatists may still renege on holding fair elections. In that case the two so-called republics that they have created become political nether regions in the vein of Transnistria or Abkhazia. In this variant, Russia will tamp down on violence—having physically secured influence in Ukraine, it makes little sense to continue a costly fight—while retaining the option to provoke hostility later time.
If the deal succeeds, Moscow has far less freedom of action, but it is also not financially responsible for the economically ravaged Donbass, and it stands a good chance of chipping away at sanctions. If it fails, Russia’s hands stay untied, but it may have to pay forever to maintain that privilege, and some sanctions are certain to remain in place. Either way, Russia does get what it wants: a situation in which Ukraine does not have effective control of its eastern reaches, but in which those regions still have strategic implications for the country’s future.
The terms for an initial ceasefire, the withdrawal of artillery, and the creation of a line of control were laid out in great detail and with clear timelines. However, the obvious unsolved problem was a contingent of several thousand Ukrainian soldiers who were encircled and behind enemy lines in the Debaltseve pocket during the negotiations. Moscow demanded that Ukraine withdraw to its front line and surrender the city. Ukraine refused, although its representatives agreed to delay the ceasefire coming into force by three days (supposedly Moscow originally asked for weeks), which gave Russia a bit of time to take Debaltseve by force. It is evident now that ceasefire or not, Russia had no intention of letting the Ukrainian army keep this town behind separatist lines. It is unclear whether Ukrainian leaders understood that, or the military situation on the ground.
If Russia instructs the separatists to cease fighting, the West will likely overlook this infraction as a predictable case of Russian perfidy and an error in Ukrainian judgment. The unanswered question is whether this is what Ukraine wants. Kiev’s relentless requests for Western arms, and the latest proposal for a peacekeeping mission, will not be met with a positive response from Washington or Berlin. Minsk II is the new framework, and the West will insist that all roads lead back to it. For the West, to paraphrase Churchill, this agreement is the worst option Ukraine has, save all others.