After nearly a month of intermittent violations, the Minsk ceasefire is starting to show results. Now it will become clear what its long-term implications are likely to be. Rehanna Jones argues that the ceasefire has imposed enormous costs on Kyiv, while absenting Russia from upholding its part the deal.
“Tensions run high along ceasefire line”, “Juncker Calls for an EU Army”, “Ukraine Says Rebels Violating Ceasefire.” These are a few of the latest headlines on Ukraine. While the truce in eastern Ukraine – brokered in Minsk on 12 February – was met by a sharp decline in violence, the situation on the ground remains fluid and uncertain. The Minsk Implementation Plan (Minsk II) has not only failed to stop the fighting, but there is little evidence that its key deliverables – namely the withdrawal of heavy weapons and ‘foreign armed formations’ – are being met. Instead, confusion and accusations abound, as the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine remains powerless to monitor the ceasefire. What is more, the fate of Crimea – where human rights abuses are mounting – has long since faded from political attention. For now, the question remains: will Minsk II serve as a lasting settlement for peace?
Agreed after all-night negotiations between heads of state in the Normandy format, Minsk II leaves much to be desired. Firstly, the factors that crippled the original Minsk agreement – ambiguous definitions and timeframes, and an inadequate enforcement mechanism – have not changed. The document is in fact nonbinding for Russia and there is no precise timeline for the “withdrawal of foreign armed formations, military equipment, as well as mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine.” Given this lack of precision, it is likely that interpretations of the agreement’s provisions will remain a continuous source of tension, as exemplified by rebel claims that the cease-fire does not apply to the Debaltseve pocket.
Discrepancies also exist between the role entrusted to the OSCE and its monitoring capacity. The organisation is tasked to monitor and verify the cease-fire regime, but it currently lacks the necessary personnel and equipment to do so. As confirmed by the latest SMM reports, the OSCE holds neither the proper security guarantees, nor a sufficient mandate, to fully observe the Ukrainian-Russian border. Indeed, only a couple of hours after the start of the ceasefire, a fourteenth Russian ‘humanitarian aid’ convoy crossed the border, unchecked by OSCE personnel.
Notably, the issue of border control is now conditioned upon Ukrainian constitutional change. Under Minsk II, Ukraine is required to carry out constitutional reform, providing for decentralization. The reinstatement of full border control is to be finalized when this process of reform is fulfilled “by agreement with representatives of certain regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.” Constitutional reform is set to be a complex process that will require considerable consultation and buy-in from all key political forces in Ukraine, not just the separatists. Needless to say, without reinstated border control, Russian forces can maintain unhindered access to eastern Ukraine, continue to dispatch weaponry and personnel at will and threaten renewed hostilities, if and when necessary.
The balance of power in the Minsk agreement clearly lies with Russia and the separatists. The key commitments that Russia is called upon to comply with – namely halting the transfer of weapons, equipment and manpower into Ukraine and allowing Ukraine to regain sovereignty over its own border – are only referred to in ambiguous terms. For instance, the removal of “foreign armed formations,” stipulated in the agreement, is unlikely to be recognized as a stringent requirement as President Putin continues to deny the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine. In the weeks since the ceasefire agreement, Russia has also dissociated itself from the deliverables of the Minsk II package, with Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov underlining that Russia sees itself as a ‘guarantor’ rather than a party to the conflict.
In contrast, Minsk II places enormous pressure on Kyiv, with provisions that will involve a dramatic change to the governance of Ukraine for the foreseeable future. While President Poroshenko has denied that he accepted proposals for federalization, it is clear that the areas controlled by the separatists under this agreement will be federal in all but name. Minsk II cements the special status of Ukraine’s eastern regions, while outlining wide powers to be provided through constitutional reform, including the right to form a police force and trade freely with Russia.
This is a strategic victory for Russia: the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics will hold greater autonomy, enabling Russia to exert leverage against Kyiv, reducing the prospects of any further integration with the EU and NATO. At the same time, the separatist regions remain, nominally, part of the Ukrainian state, exempting Russia from any economic responsibility. Indeed, under the current agreement, Ukraine is forced to reinstate social payments and banking services in rebel-held areas – a clear ‘win’ for Russia which will no longer have to support the separatists from its own shrinking economy.
One of the most significant flaws of Minsk II is in fact what it omits: any reference to Crimea. While the ‘Declaration’ in support of the Minsk Implementation Plan states that all four heads of state “reaffirm their full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” no mention is made of the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula. This sets a worrying precedent for the future. It is doubtful that Russia will now allow the Crimean question to form any part of discussions on Ukraine.
Going forwards, the Minsk Implementation Plan has concerning implications for the political stability of Ukraine. There are already a number of factions in Ukraine calling for a harsher position vis-à-vis Russia and the separatists. Opposition to constitutional reform could be used to undermine President Poroshenko’s position within Parliament and among the broader public. Political rivals are wont to take advantage of any failures to ensure the ceasefire-regime at the price of political cohesion, thereby hindering the possibility of regulating the conflict. The chances of a long-lasting settlement remain clouded by lingering suspicions and stumbling blocks.