After reaching an implementation agreement in Minsk on 11 February 11, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was very cautious in her predictions of whether the ceasefire will hold and whether this means there is a real chance to end the conflict. There are more than a few reasons why the whole process might fail.
There is a real danger that the negotiations are a rather tactical delaying manoeuvre by the Kremlin. There are many issues on which both countries have a totally different view and where demands will be difficult to reconcile. One was already aired by Putin, when, immediately after the conference, he demanded that the Ukrainian troops in Debalcewo surrender – in the name of the “people’s republics”. Another imminent quarrel is about the release of prisoners. Ukraine demands the release of the abducted Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who has become something of a national hero in Ukraine, held on trial in Moscow. But the Kremlin insists that she crossed the border into Russia, and that she must be tried for that.
Putin might later claim that it federalisation was “promised” to him at Minsk to have a pretext to bail out from the ceasefire.
Then there are more long-term issues. The amnesty law the Rada (Ukrainian parliament) should pass, is particularly controversial in Kyiv. To Ukraine, the rebels and their Russian backers are responsible for a war that caused more than 1.5 million internally displaced people and refugees, as well as at least 6,000 or up to 50,000 casualties. Granting amnesty to the war’s instigators is a bitter pill to swallow. Constitutional reform is another tricky issue. While Poroshenko stressed the necessity of constitutional reform and decentralization even before Minsk (to make Ukraine’s administrative structures more effective and business-friendly), Russia is expecting “federalization”, which would seat sovereignty in the oblasts and give them a veto over any decision by the central government. While Poroshenko never ever agreed to federalisation, Putin might later claim that it was “promised” to him at Minsk to have a pretext to bailout from the ceasefire.
The agreement is everything but perfect. But between this and the continuation of war, it is probably the lesser evil. In her Munich speech [read in German], Angela Merkel made it clear that the Russian-Ukrainian war had ramifications beyond the Donbass. The wider Russian-European standoff is about values, norms, rules and social and political order in Europe and will not be ended with a truce, not even with peace in Ukraine. It will end when the Russian regime changes fundamentally – something we might not see for a generation to come.
There is no silver bullet to cure Ukraine’s military shortfalls overnight.
But Ukraine can’t fight for decades, not least for humanitarian reasons. While the West will never recognize or legitimize Russia’s conquest of the Crimean peninsula or the Donbass, it should have little illusion that Russia will give them back any time soon – or will allow Ukraine to retake it. Since autumn 2014 Russia has sent regular military units across the border and Russian military presence in the Donbas increased considerably in January and early February 2015. Although Ukraine’s armed forces have made tremendous efforts, the weaknesses of Ukraine’s hastily expanded and reorganized armed forces has become obvious. The newly founded Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian brigade as well as US training activities in Lviv are first measures to cure those ills. But it will take time till they have an effect. The same is true about possible US and European arms deliveries to Ukraine. There is no silver bullet to cure Ukraine’s military shortfalls overnight.
Meanwhile, the territory effectively controlled and held by Kyiv only got smaller. And Ukraine’s financial and economic situation deteriorates faster than that of Russia.
For Europe, and above all Germany, the hard work with Ukraine on implementing the ceasefire, stabilizing Ukraine’s finances, reforming the administrative system, and rebooting the economy has just begun. All regulatory issues mentioned in the ceasefire now have to be hammered out. And especially when finding viable way to revive the banking and social transactions into the Donbass, Ukraine will need some advice and assistance in order to find viable solutions that do not put too many burdens on Kyiv.
Even if it holds, the ceasefire is only a beginning. Both the war in Ukraine and the wider conflict with Russia will need the full attention of European leaders for the foreseeable future.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.