It was February 2015. The Donetsk Airport was still being contested. Debaltseve, with its strategically important railway hub, was being threatened by the militants, while leaders of four countries – Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany – gathered in Minsk. President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko personally brought coffee to the negotiators who were to sign an all-important document the content of which was known only to them. If one looks carefully at the text of the Minsk Agreements which were signed in the end, one feels that they were only signed in Minsk, but drafted in Moscow. Throughout the night, Petro Poroshenko regularly left the room for phone calls. He called the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. After signing the mentioned agreements, Vladimir Putin obtained three days for their implementation. Over these three days, the Russian armada took Debaltseve. Ukrainian soldiers managed to get out of the trap, but unfortunately, all of Ukraine got into another trap – the Minsk one. Den addressed this issue immediately in its No. 34 on February 27, 2015. But on looking closer, it becomes clear that we had fallen into a political trap long before the war, which then caused further defeats. With great sadness, we have to admit that Russia won the diplomatic battle in February 2015, the battle which it made us enter in the first place (one can recall here the Kharkiv Agreements of 2010 at the very least).
Photo by Mykola LAZARENKO
IS THERE AN ALTERNATIVE?
Den/The Day has repeatedly criticized the Minsk Agreements, both in their first (September 2014) and second (February 2015) versions. It is precisely the criticism of this document that has sparked a lot of speculation. Some speak of them as inevitable, while others are convinced that Ukraine should abandon them. In fact, an alternative to the Minsk Agreements had to be discussed before they were signed. To abandon the Minsk Agreements now is what Russia really wants, because they were the reason for the introduction of broad sanctions against the Russian Federation by the West. These sanctions are, frankly speaking, painful for the West itself as well, which is only looking for a pretext to weaken them. The withdrawal of Ukraine from the Normandy format or the abandonment of the signed agreements will give Russia a reason to persuade the West that Ukraine is not in a constructive mood, does not want peace, and is generally confused about its intentions. However, it would be a different matter if one asks the question: how can the format of the negotiations be expanded? The Budapest Memorandum, in spite of its declarative character, can be useful in this case. The US and Britain are guarantors of our security as much as Russia. Consequently, appealing to these nations to get involved in the negotiations in Minsk is entirely justified and fair.
In the end, in order to understand what the Minsk Agreements are for Ukraine and what to do next, it is necessary to understand their origins from the outset. In order to understand how the Minsk process arose, one has to look at the individual who represented Ukraine (besides the president) in February 2015. This was Leonid Kuchma, who signed this document. In fact, the Minsk Agreements turned him into a “peacemaker.” The father of the clan oligarchate, on whose watch the Donbas effectively fell under the direct influence of Russia, now regularly shows us how much he “cares” about the state which he himself led into a trap back in the 1990s. There is a feeling that the Minsk 2 Agreements were a present of sorts to Putin from our diplomats three years ago. And now, the negotiators who work in various sub-groups in Minsk are forced to advance Ukrainian positions round after round, a centimeter at a time and under zugzwang conditions. Just last year, the Ukrainian co-chairman of the security sub-group in the Tripartite Contact Group Yevhen Marchuk explained in an interview for The Day: “Russia will drag it out on the Donbas in order to keep Ukraine in a state of war and make it drain its economic and demographic resources. The paradox lies in the very text of Minsk 2. I can understand that when this document was being drawn up, there was a rush, including due to the events in Debaltseve. But the root cause of all the problems is Russia’s attempt to make it look as if Ukraine is not meeting its commitments. It needs to be recalled that when Minsk 2 was signed, Russia immediately initiated its approval by the UN Security Council. Russia, not Ukraine. It was in a hurry because this approval entrenched the Minsk 2 clauses that provide for political settlement in the Donbas.”
THE MINSK DEAD-END
On February 12, a roundtable dedicated to another anniversary of the signing of the Minsk Agreements took place. The experts of the International Center for Policy Studies presented a concise brochure “Conflict in the Donbas in 2018: Freeze Impossible to Resolve,” in which they outlined their vision of the Russian Federation’s war on Ukraine. Unfortunately, the very title of the brochure contains a contradictory inaccuracy. The war which the aggressor wages on our state is once again called “the conflict in the Donbas,” which hints at its domestic nature. It should be said, though, that the experts in attendance were clearly pointing out that this conflict had an external component. The participants agreed that the signing of Minsk 2 was forced on the Ukrainian authorities, and the document itself was imperfect. However, in the context of the broadening Russian aggression, Ukraine agreed to it so as to minimize losses and win time for rearmament and building a strong democratic state. And, while the Ukrainian military really has become much more powerful over these three years, there are significant problems with the second issue. “We still do not know what country we are building,” Ihor Tyshkevych, an expert of the program of international and domestic policy of the Ukrainian Institute of the Future, told the roundtable.
Concerning the Minsk Agreements, it is worth recognizing that their structure and commitments they impose have come to a dead-end. Russia is known to emphasize the need to hold elections in the occupied territories, which will inevitably legitimize the occupation authorities and turn the war into a “frozen conflict.” Ukraine, in its turn, demands the withdrawal of Russian troops from eastern Ukraine, and agrees to hold elections under Ukrainian law only after that is done.
“IF A CONFLICT CANNOT BE RESOLVED, IT SHOULD BE EXPANDED”
Former member of the State Duma of the Russian Federation Ilya Ponomarev claims that Russia does not need the Donbas, unlike Crimea. He is convinced that the Kremlin is ready to get rid of this “white elephant” on favorable terms, that is, to exchange the Donbas for Crimea. The Russian media, according to his observations, clearly state that the Donbas is a Ukrainian territory.
“The war that Russia has unleashed against Ukraine will be for us for a long time,” said president of the Ukrainian Association of Foreign Policy Volodymyr Khandohii. “We should not expect a quick resolution. Unfortunately, the proposed study offers no consideration of the modality of the ways of resolving this conflict. If a conflict cannot be resolved, then it should be expanded, and more precisely, we need to expand its object field. That is, it is necessary to increase the number of participants in the settlement of this conflict. We need to attract more mediators and institutions. In this way, the Normandy format and the Minsk Agreements need to be reformed, and the UN should get involved in resolving the conflict. But at the same time, it must be clearly understood that the UN peacekeeping operations are not first aid responders. The UN should be involved in the early stages of the settlement. However, out of the recent conflicts that were settled, none got there without UN assistance.”
Director of Udovenko Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Serhii Korsunskyi stressed that to recover the occupied lands of eastern Ukraine we needed not only to think about deploying UN peacekeepers there, but also to improve the economic situation in this country. In his opinion, it is worth paying attention to China as well, which can play a powerful role in the economic recovery of the Donbas in the future. “If the locals feel that Ukraine provides economic guarantees and associate our country with prosperity, then this factor will be a strong argument for purging Russian propaganda from their minds,” added Korsunskyi.
The question remains: if Russia is actually going to withdraw troops from eastern Ukraine, is Ukraine ready to accept the de-occupied territory as it is, wrecked economically, socially, and mentally? As you know, the law on “restoration of sovereignty” in eastern Ukraine was recently passed. Finally, it named the war and occupation as such. But this law is only a normative basis, not a strategy. In the meantime, we see that other strategies, election campaign ones, are being developed in ruling circles. And the population of the occupied territories does not fit into these strategies, like at all. Such an approach, involving political battles which are still dominated by oligarchic priorities, can lead us into another trap, only on an even larger scale.