On 11 February, a four-way meeting attended by Presidents Vladimir Putin, Petro Poroshenko, François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, alongside OSCE and Donbass representatives from the Contact Group, took place in Minsk to discuss what we dubbed the “last chance” for peace over the Donbass conflict and the Ukrainian crisis. After more than 16 hours of negotiations and intensive talks, the leaders announced in the morning of February 12 that all parties involved in the conflict had accepted a ceasefire agreement and a 13-point global political settlement roadmap that will (eventually) lead to peace in Donbass. Initial talks, however, bore little hope when President Poroshenko stormed out of the negotiation room early on 12 February to denounce that the Russian position was “unacceptable”.
A roadmap agreement was nonetheless struck later in the morning and consequently signed by the Normandy format Foreign Ministers of the four states and most importantly by the OSCE Contact Group representatives – including the “Donetsk People’s Republic” leader Oleksandr Zakharchenko and “Lugansk People’s Republic” chief Igor Plotnytsky.
From day one, the genuine purpose of the new summit was to completely revamp the initial Minsk agreement of 19 September 2014 and re-negotiate its content. The Minsk 2 agreement therefore replaces the September deal under new arrangements that are, once more, considerably advantageous for Moscow and clearly favor Donbass separatist forces.
A security and military slap in the face for Kyiv…
The 13-point document and its annex provide for an immediate and full ceasefire to begin on Sunday 15 February. The delay in the implementation of the ceasefire, between the 12th and 15th, allowed both the Ukrainian army and rebel forces to intensify their respective shelling and military incursions in the Donbass regions held by separatists. So much for peace.
Under Article 2, the agreement encompasses the withdrawal under OSCE supervision of heavy weapons by both sides to equal distance from the front line by 50 to 140 km (depending on the weaponry and equipment) within 14 days after the ceasefire takes effect. Nonetheless, if the Ukrainian army has to pull back from the actual de facto contact line established as of February 12th, separatist forces are requested to vacate from the September 19 Minsk Memorandum line. This situation means that the genuine conflict separation line is the actual one, which implies that separatist military advances between Minsk 1 and Minsk 2 are officially considered legitimate claims and recognized as such. The secure demilitarized zone will therefore encompass the territory taken by rebels since Minsk 1, which is in clear violation of the initial agreement. In this, Minsk 2 simply enshrined the infringement on the initial Memorandum, and sent a powerful signal to Moscow that no matter what, diplomatic agreements can be reshaped at Russia’s will. This is in itself a slap in the face for Kyiv, as the new conflict line conceded further losses of Ukrainian territory at the benefice of separatists.
The same goes for Article 10, which requires the withdrawal of all “foreign forces” and “mercenaries” (i.e. Russian proxies) from the Donbass as well as the disarmament of all illegal groups under OSCE supervision. There, Russia once more dodges the bullet as the document does not directly address Moscow as a party to the conflict. This means the Kremlin can still use plausible deniability concerning the presence of Russian troops and military equipment on the territory of Donbass (ergo Ukraine). Moscow will hence still be allowed to say that Russian troops were never there in the first place…
Finally, Article 3 states that “effective monitoring and verification of the ceasefire” and withdrawal process will be ensured by the OSCE. Nevertheless, the OSCE does not have full access in the Donbass and its war zone today: in this, Russia might be tempted to further deny access to the OSCE, hamper the border monitoring mission, and overall slow the whole process down. Furthermore, Moscow completely controls the exact mandate of the OSCE, the content of which has to be accepted by Russia beforehand.
…wrapped a in strategic and political farce
In terms of political concessions and diplomatic compromises, Ukraine is the biggest loser of the Minsk 2 agreement. Article 4 and its annex task for the organization of local elections in Donbass occupied territories under Ukrainian legislation as well as the establishment of a special regime therein. This implies two serious drawbacks – if not defeats – for Ukraine. On the one hand, Kyiv must now change its constitution to accommodate a special status for the Donbass “Republics”: this explicitly means that Ukraine must accept the existence of the “DPR” and “LPR” representatives as quasi-legitimate authorities – as they are official signatories of the Minsk 2 agreements under the OSCE Contact Group – and the legitimacy of these territories. This is a huge victory for Russia, as Kyiv will have to discuss with the Donbass leaders to enact the special status and organize local elections.
On the other hand, Minsk 2 enshrines the concept of decentralization of the Ukrainian state, a proposed reform that Kyiv was seeking to push back as much as possible in order to avoid the dilution of its national political authority. The constitution will have to be changed by the end of 2015 and introduce increased self-government in Donbass – this includes the ability to form their independent police forces and appoint their prosecutors and judges. Ukraine will not become a federation but will have to deal with a more autonomous Donbass. This is a smaller victory for Moscow, but a victory nonetheless.
Border control, under Article 9, is another serious blow against Kyiv. As such, full Ukrainian control of its national border in the conflict area is conditioned to the full political regulation of the conflict. This implies Kyiv grating Donbass the special status – namely the constitutional changes to provide for decentralization – and only after the organization of local elections. The double conditionality is a nightmare for Ukraine, which now has no other choice but to decentralize its state and acknowledge the existence of the separatist authorities in Donbass.
Finally, Kyiv will have to bear the cost of the restoration of “social and economic connections” in the Donbass region, and notably resuming social payments and pensions, restarting the banking system, and providing humanitarian aid. It remains to be seen how a virtually bankrupt country already on life support through international donors will be able to autonomously pay for the Donbass…
Score: Russia 1 – Ukraine 0
In the end, the Minsk 2 peace roadmap is a serious slap in the face for Ukraine, who made the most drastic compromises – including implicitly legitimizing both “People’s Republics” – and will have to take in the cost of the Donbass redevelopment. The only “real” concession bestowed by Moscow is the fact the local elections in Donbass will still take place under Ukrainian law. This in turn somewhat dashes the immediate Russian hopes of a genuine autonomy of the Donbass as well as brings down, at least for now, the federalization project the Kremlin has been so hell bent on imposing over Ukraine for the past year.
The “hot phase” of the Donbass war might be over, allowing Russia to concentrate on the political and territorial appropriation of the Donbass. If Moscow wants its geopolitical test Novorossia to exist fully on the long run, a phase of territorial consolidation and rationalization is likely to take place in the Donetsk and Lugansk “Republics” – if only to unify military command, get rid of rogue groups in Lugansk undermining local rule, and strengthen local infrastructures. Only then will Novorossia spawn as a unified territorial construct. Then, a phase of expansion may ensue, and especially towards Mariupol, and why not towards Kharkov or Dnipropetrovsk. In parallel, Moscow will move in the shadows to ensure that Ukraine will never join the European Union or NATO – a point that was not addressed during the Minsk 2 summit – but seeking to talk the country into reestablishing its non-aligned and neutral military status.
What is even scarier is the hypothesis that President Putin might not have yet established his “end game” strategy for Ukraine. At stake could be the very survival of Ukraine as an autonomous, sovereign state.