Berlin and the Minsk trap
Almost five months on since Minsk II was agreed, it is clear that none of the early conditions have been met
When the implementation agreement on the September ceasefire was signed in Minsk on February 11th (later referred to as Minsk II agreement), there was an enormous amount to scepticism about the real effect and feasibility of the agreement. It was seen, at best, as the start of a difficult process towards peace, not as a perfect solution nor as a definitive end to the Russian-Ukrainian war.
German negotiators and politicians too were sceptical. The key points of the agreement were only vaguely defined, giving huge scope for interpretation, and ideas about how to implement them differed considerably amongst the parties. On top of this, many of the issues addressed in Minsk II were and are incredibly difficult to implement and have long-term consequences for the conflict: the special status for the Donbas, the amnesty law, the local elections, resuming social transfers to the separatist areas, and proposed constitutional reform in Ukraine.
But such considerations were seen as less important than securing an immediate end to the fighting. And the strict conditionality built into the treaty was designed to do that. Russia would only get benefits for the Donbas if the ceasefire lasted, heavy weapons were withdrawn, and the Russian Army left the Donbas. Eliminating foreign military presence justified the heavy burdens on Ukraine to finance and somehow legalise the strange constructs in the Donbas.
Almost five months on since Minsk II was agreed, it is clear that none of the early conditions have been met. While fighting did indeed slow down after the fall of Debalcevo, fighting is now on the increase again. Most of the ceasefire violations are caused by the Russian side and heavy weapons have not been withdrawn. Larger battles like the battle for Marinka are marked by the appearance of regular Russian armoured formations.
The OSCE is not capable of monitoring the ceasefire. Above all, it has no mandate and no capability to enforce it. In Eastern Ukraine, OSCE observers are allowed to drive only along roads in company with “separatist authorities” during the day. All routes have to be announced 24 hours in advance and woods, factories, barns, industrial storage facilities are never inspected at all.
Nevertheless, since May 2015 German foreign minister Steinmeier has been urging the Ukrainian government to proceed with the implementation of their parts of the Minsk II agreement, despite the worsening situation on the front. EU Commissioner Hahn, responsible for the European neighbourhood, was even more explicit, calling on Ukraine to proceed with the later points of the Minsk agreement without waiting for Russia to comply with any of the previous points.
Such statements are against the entire rationale behind the agreement. Concessions and benefits to Russia's puppet states were designed as a reward for de-escalation and withdrawal. If such a plan had been implemented, Ukraine and Europe would have been given financial responsibility for the Donbas while Putin would be relieved of any responsibility for the war.
Why has the logic and the conditionality of the Minsk agreement been abandoned? Many observers confused the pause in the fighting in March/April 2015, to allow Russia to rotate troops in the Donbas, with a ceasefire. Public opinion and the European press started hailing the agreement as “the” political solution to the conflict – which it wasn't. And in time, politicians came to believe this myth too. And finally there was no Plan B if the actions of Minsk II were not implemented. That left European politicians, including those in Berlin, reliant on a dogmatic implementation of an agreement that no longer fit the situation. And from Russia’s side, Putin has practically lost interest in the agreement, as he begins to realise that his interpretation of Minsk II (making Brussels and Kyiv pay for the Donbas and using “federalisation” to paralyse Ukraine domestically) is off the cards.
For the moment, Greece absorbs the attention of European and German decision makers. But there is unfinished business on bringing peace to Ukraine and the Minsk framework is approaching a dead end. Europe faces a difficult choice: put more pressure on Moscow to comply with Minsk II, or quickly come up a plan B, possibly including a separation force.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.