On 15 February, a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Defence announced a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine’s border, a statement later echoed by President Vladimir Putin. The message prompted a collective sigh of relief in Europe, particularly Germany, where some politicians already seem to see de-escalation as a fact. But, on the ground, it is hard to verify such a “withdrawal”. Izvestia reported that elements of the 3rd, 150th, and 49th Motor Rifle Divisions would return to their garrisons. However, the garrisons of the 3rd and the 150th are close to Ukraine’s border – so, only the movement of the 49th would indicate a true withdrawal. Meanwhile, Russian troops have entered transports in Kursk oblast, but it is unclear where they are headed. In recent days, some Russian forces have moved to staging areas that are closer to Ukraine’s border than previous ones. Trains carrying additional forces are still on the move westwards. Now, the Russian military has the strength and capabilities in place to launch a major attack – and its capacity to do so will increase in the coming days.
Moscow has also kept up its bellicose rhetoric, accusing Ukraine of preparing for an attack on the Russian proxy republics in Donbas and of genocide targeting Russian speakers (a particularly ridiculous accusation given that most Ukrainians speak Russian as a first language). All this appears designed to create a pretext for Russian military action.
So, how accurate is this talk of de-escalation? And why would Putin indulge in it now, after putting all military options on the table? Firstly, it is a diplomatic reset that changes public perceptions in his favour. After the United States and the United Kingdom openly warned of an imminent Russian invasion, he was in a defensive position. Public opinion in most Western countries was trending against Russia, creating an environment that facilitated efforts to counter Russian moves, support Ukraine, and strengthen NATO’s defences. Putin appears to have recognised that he could reverse this trend by waving the olive branch – even if it is a fake one.
Secondly, the initial effect of military pressure has worn off. Now that Russia has assembled its forces for an invasion, Ukraine will not make more concessions if additional Russian troops move to the border. As Putin wants to achieve his aims without escalating the war, he will almost certainly exert other forms of pressure on Ukraine. The massive cyber-attacks that hit the country on 14 January 2022 are an example of this.
Thirdly, with Western European states having made clear that they want to avoid all-out war at almost any cost, the Kremlin likely wants to explore the concessions it could extract from them. Ambiguity in statements by both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz opened the door for ample speculation on this. That aside, European leaders seem to be pushing to implement the Minsk agreement. Scholz announced that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would present new laws on the special status of occupied Donbas and the so-called Steinmeier formula. That formula, negotiated in 2016 by then German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, stipulates that a special status law will enter into force only after local elections in Donbas have occurred under Ukrainian law, and have been certified as free and fair by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
This approach would have been viable in 2016 – if Russia had fulfilled its obligations on issues such as the withdrawal of its forces and the establishment of an international peacekeeping presence in Donbas. But, in 2022, the Steinmeier formula would produce nothing but a scam. Russia is operating a brutal regime of repression in Donbas that has eliminated any political opposition and displaced millions of people. Elections that were even remotely representative would require the creation of a transitional administration in the region – a move that Russia rejects and European states have proposed only on a few occasions. Indeed, Kyiv put forward a law on a transitional government only to be forced to withdraw it under Russian and Western pressure.
Moscow demands that Ukraine integrate the breakaway republics as they are – including their Russian military and security presence – into its political system, thereby providing it with a mechanism to directly interfere with politics in Kyiv. And, all along, the Kremlin has backed up that demand with military force, escalating the conflict whenever it feels that things are not going its way. Kyiv has never subscribed to this interpretation of the Minsk agreement. That is why the war has continued for eight years.
Throughout, Berlin and Paris have backed Ukraine, maintaining that the agreement does not abandon Ukrainian sovereignty – and that the phrase “according to Ukrainian law” would allow Kyiv to set the terms of local governance in Donbas. Now, Russia hopes it can use France’s and Germany’s desire to avoid all-out war to make them switch sides. As a consequence, western European leaders’ announcements about ‘diplomatic progress’ generate a great deal of nervousness in Kyiv and other parts of eastern Europe.
So, the Minsk agreement provides no basis for lasting peace. And, in fact, this has been widely recognised from the beginning. Asked about the chances of implementing the agreement in 2015, one German negotiator told the author that “this is not about solving the conflict but providing Ukraine with some time to get back on its feet”. Playing for time was a reasonable strategy back then, but European leaders have since refused to come up with a viable alternative plan. So far, they have also failed to provide sufficient support to the Ukrainian security and defence forces (not least because of domestic political constraints). With a sizable Russian invasion force on Ukraine’s border, Putin wants European leaders to show their hand – but they have nothing to show. Putin is impatiently demanding a final decision on Ukraine, and could still use a large-scale military offensive to force his demands on Kyiv. Through diplomacy, Western countries appear to have gained a few weeks to come up with another solution. During this time, they should not only increase their military support for Ukraine and the price of escalation for Russia, but also work with Kyiv to develop new courses of action and assess the likely consequences of each of them. As things stand, Kyiv is being forced into a brutal choice between territorial integrity and sovereignty. Certainly, this choice goes against the principles of international order that Western democracies claim to hold dear. European states should do whatever they can to ensure that Ukrainians decide their future for themselves.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.