Don’t Doubt the Ceasefire

Minsk II Could Freeze the Conflict in Ukraine

A man stands in a queue of people waiting for relief packages given out by the International Committee of the Red Cross in the town of Debaltseve, February 22, 2015. Baz Ratner / Courtesy Reuters

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.

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