Ukraine, Russia, and the Minsk agreements: A post-mortem

Western policymakers should study the lessons of the Minsk agreements – and drop any illusions about the ways in which Russia supposedly acts

FILE – In this Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014 file photo, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, second left, welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, second right, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, during a meeting in Minsk, Belarus. Within the EU’s ranks, Baroness Catherine Ashton now is the most recognizable woman among the EU officials, the foreign policy chief who flies across the world, hobnobs with the great and powerful to deal with anything from the Iran nuclear issue to the fighting in Ukraine and the Middle East. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
Belarusian leader Aliaksandr Lukashenka welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, during a meeting in Minsk, 2014
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Alexander Zemlianichenko

The question of whether talks can bring the war in Ukraine to an end has, in many ways, become a faith-based argument. Some maintain that all wars end through negotiations; others say that Putin can only be stopped on the battlefield. Both perspectives have valid aspects. But observers too often ascribe to the Russian leadership behaviours that it never actually demonstrates.  

Indeed, each view overlooks the way in which Russia has acted in and around past negotiations about Ukraine – the most prominent results of which were the Minsk agreements. These have long since become a byword for the West’s failure to deal with the post-2014 conflict in eastern Ukraine. In the debate relating to the Minsk agreements, they tend to either be branded a de facto capitulation to Russia or made out to be the main reason for Russia’s full-scale invasion of 2022, because of a supposed failure by Ukraine to implement these agreements (a view which echoes the Russian narrative, whether knowingly or not).

Putin’s decision in 2022 to recognise the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics killed off the Minsk agreements. Now that they are indubitably dead, a post-mortem can provide lessons for how the West and Ukraine should position themselves ahead of any future negotiations to end the war.

What were the Minsk agreements?

Negotiated under the auspices of France, Germany, and the OSCE, the Minsk agreements were signed by Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE special representative in September 2014 and February 2015. These agreements are often – improperly – called “Minsk I” and “Minsk II”, although the second text was expressly conceived as a “package of measures” to implement previous agreements.

They covered four main areas:

  • Security, including: the establishment of a ceasefire, monitored by a special OSCE mission; the withdrawal of forces and heavy weapons on both sides of the line of contact; the disarmament of illegal groups; and the withdrawal of foreign fighters.
  • Humanitarian aspects, including the exchange of prisoners and provisions regarding humanitarian access (to which de-mining was subsequently added as a key item for discussion).
  • Economy, including: firstly, the establishment of an economic development plan for Donbas; and, a few months into the war, a dialogue on the resumption of economic relations across the line of contact.
  • Political issues, which revolved around three main points: the status of Donetsk and Luhansk regions (with Ukraine meant to undertake a constitutional reform to introduce decentralisation and a law on self-government for these regions); the holding of local elections in these regions; and an amnesty for participants in the “events that took place in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions” (the phrase adopted due to the lack of a common definition of these events).

The Minsk agreements had two virtues. Firstly, they established a formal Russian commitment to return the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk to Ukrainian control (which thus implied respect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity): the Minsk agreements were at least in theory supposed to bring about the full reintegration of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions into Ukraine. Secondly, following their signing the level of violence and the number of casualties fell significantly, even if the ceasefire was never complete and sustained.

However, beyond these benefits, these were agreements in name only, as the two sides had radically divergent readings of the way they should be implemented.

Divergent readings

During the almost eight years of negotiations over the implementation of the Minsk agreements, two important divergences emerged.

None of the provisions in the agreements explicitly assigned any obligation to Moscow. This allowed it to present itself as a mediator in a Ukrainian domestic conflict

The first was the difference in the role of each side as formally set out in the agreements. None of the provisions in the agreements explicitly assigned any obligation to Moscow. This allowed it to present itself as a mediator in a Ukrainian domestic conflict, on par with Berlin, Paris, and the OSCE. Moreover, pointing to the fact that representatives of Donetsk and Luhansk had countersigned the agreements (although they never used any formal title as they did so), Moscow argued that the agreements’ implementation had to be discussed on an equal footing between Kyiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk. But for Kyiv, treating Donetsk and Luhansk as equals would have meant accepting the prospect of a federalisation that would allow Moscow to maintain control through its proxies. Ukraine also insisted that Russia be recognised as a party to the conflict, with specific obligations under the Minsk agreements, such as the withdrawal of foreign fighters from Ukraine’s territory.

The second, equally important, divergence concerned the appropriate sequencing of the implementation of the agreements. Because they were conceived as a package, the agreements made no mention of the order in which their provisions should be carried out. For Kyiv, the priority was to restore security before implementing the political provisions, as it would not be possible to control the organising of local elections and hold them without the assurance of a minimum level of security. Meanwhile, Moscow wanted decentralisation first with the local elections taking place as part of this – which would legitimise its proxies in Donbas, whose job would be to win these elections. Moscow also wanted the constitutional reform to grant the Donetsk and Luhansk regions far-reaching powers, including in the fields of justice and foreign policy, which are traditionally central government prerogatives, turning the decentralisation laid down in the agreements into a de facto federalisation of Ukraine. It argued that this conflict, which it described as internal, originated in Donetsk and Luhansk regions’ lack of autonomy; Moscow thus insisted that the rapid and unconditional implementation of political provisions would bring the conflict to an end.

Insisting on the unconditional character of the Minsk agreements’ political provisions allowed Moscow to blame Kyiv for the conflict’s continuation. This face-off was not entirely static, however. At the Paris summit of the Normandy format in December 2019, Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, landed a blow on the Russian position, achieving the – largely unnoticed – mention of “political and security conditions” for holding the local elections in the last sentence of the joint communiqué. It was the first (and only) time in five years of conflict that Russia accepted conditions on the organisation of local elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

There was, however, one point on which the Minsk agreements were unambiguous, and it was the one most explicitly involving Russia. The February 2015 agreement stated that Ukraine would start recovering control over its state border on day 1 after the holding of local elections in Donetsk and Luhansk, and that this process would end only after the full implementation of all political provisions. In effect, this meant that Russia had exclusive control over the border and therefore over entry and exit to and from the two regions. This allowed it to enact a creeping annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk, progressively integrating them into the Russian informational, educational, economic, financial, and political space. By 2020, Russia had issued around 200,000 passports to residents of these two regions, who were allowed to vote in the election to the Russian state Duma in September 2021.

This game of ambiguity and clarity allowed Russia to follow the “frozen conflicts” paradigm throughout 2014-2022, even while fighting continued to different degrees of intensity. To this paradigm belong conflicts in Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, which started in the 1990s after the demise of the Soviet Union. In each of these cases, Moscow was able to deny its involvement while at the same time controlling the key parameters of these conflicts on the ground and participating in processes that aimed to achieve a diplomatic settlement (so as to avoid outcomes unfavourable to it). Moscow was once again able to follow this paradigm in eastern Ukraine only because other stakeholders tacitly accepted the fiction of its non-involvement as a condition on its participation in settlement efforts.

This convenient myth was finally dispelled in the period between 21 February 2022, when Putin recognised the independence of the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and 24 February 2022, when the full-scale invasion began. This was a radical clarification by Russia: in taking responsibility for its military action, violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and denying its neighbour’s sovereignty, Russia ceased acting according to the paradigm of frozen conflicts and shifted its goals – from the control of Ukraine’s political trajectory through local proxies to territorial appropriation and imperial restoration.

Lessons for the future

What conclusions can be drawn from this post-mortem? The first and most important lesson is that there will be no “Minsk III” agreement. The make-believe of Russia’s non-involvement can no longer be a basis for compromise, if only because Moscow has taken responsibility for its war, which it describes as an existential fight (even if it still calls the conflict a “special military operation”). Nor would Russia subscribe to an agreement that recognises the regions it controls as part of Ukraine. Proponents of this approach are essentially advocating a settlement that would freeze the conflict around a more or less agreed line of contact. They ignore the fact that previous agreements explicitly aimed to reintegrate Ukraine’s lost Donbas territories. Giving up on this goal would undermine one of the key principles of the international order – the territorial integrity of states – without any guarantee that this conflict would not be unfrozen a few years from now.

The make-believe of Russia’s non-involvement can no longer be a basis for compromise, if only because Moscow has taken responsibility for its war

The second lesson derives from the way in which the Minsk agreements infringed significantly on Ukraine’s political sovereignty. Given that most Ukrainians considered the agreements a form of capitulation imposed on their country, there was no way these provisions could be implemented with popular support, let alone negotiated with the aggressor country or its proxies. In August 2015, bloody clashes erupted during a parliamentary debate on constitutional amendments that would have granted Donetsk and Luhansk regions enhanced self-government – illustrating how unpopular and politically divisive these measures were. The fact that Ukraine conducted a much more ambitious (and successful) process of decentralisation in the rest of the country during the same period only confirms that local self-government in Donbas was not accepted because it was seen as imposed and not matched with concessions from the other side. It was effectively a unilateral surrender of sovereignty.

The third lesson is about the importance of control over territory. Because Ukraine did not control its state border in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Russia was able to manage the situation there, set the terms of the conflict, and to progressively integrate these regions into its own system.

Last but not least, the balance of forces on the ground matters for a negotiation. Russia was able to introduce deep ambiguity on some matters alongside absolute clarity on the fundamental matter of the border, not because Germany and France were innocent or selfish, but because the Ukrainian army was on the verge of being crushed, suffering major defeats at Ilovaisk in August-September 2014 and Debaltseve in January-February 2015. The priority for negotiators was thus to stop the fighting. Without leverage over the military balance of forces, Ukraine, France, and Germany had very little with which they might oppose Russia’s demands. Achieving a ceasefire and a Russian commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, albeit on paper, was probably the best result they could get under the circumstances.

What this means for Western partners today is that the best way to prepare for future negotiations is to continue to support Ukraine. This is, firstly, in order to help it build a more favourable position to start these negotiations. Secondly, this will help Kyiv and the West build up their leverage vis-à-vis Moscow and in relation to any talks.

It is also important to recognise that a future settlement can succeed only if it is supported by most Ukrainians – they will need to consider its proposals fair, or at least regard it as a better option than continuing to fight. Failure awaits any attempt to impose a settlement on a population that has shown its determination to oppose Russia and that has carried the burden of war for the last ten years. It would leave the Ukrainians angry and resentful. Instead, providing them with clear commitments to their country’s security should help them contemplate a settlement with sufficient confidence in their future.

The author of this article was, as a French diplomat, partially involved in talks preparing the ground for the agreements in 2014-2015 and directly involved in discussing the implementation of the agreements in 2018-2021.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Wider Europe programme

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