Is the Minsk Process for Eastern Ukraine Dead or Deadlocked?
The recent military escalation by Russia along its border with Ukraine has been a strong reminder to the rest of Europe and the United States that the conflict in Donbas, where Russian-back separatists still control considerable territory, is far from frozen and could become a major security crisis at any moment. Since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine, France and Germany—with the backing of the United States—have tried to help resolve the conflict in Donbas through the Minsk process with Russia and Ukraine, based on the diplomatic agreements brokered in 2014 and early 2015. However, today the situation does not appear any nearer to resolution. Two GMF analysts offer opposite assessments of whether it is time to abandon the Minsk process or not.
“Minsk” Should Be Consigned to History
The true logic of the “Minsk” agreements is opaque. Officially, they were supposed to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Russia was to withdraw its troops and elections were to be held in the occupied Donbas territories, after which Western sanctions would be lifted and normalcy would return. None of this has happened. Some six years later, Russian troops are still there, and elections have not been held. Normalcy is as elusive today as it was in 2014.
The Minsk agreements may never have meant much, or they may never have meant what they said they meant. They were high-profile diplomacy, giving Russia a seat at the table, which was one of President Vladimir Putin’s goals after he felt he was losing control. For the Western powers, Minsk was helpful because it signified an end to violent conflict. The fighting never fully ceased, but neither did it return to the level it had reached in the summer of 2014 or the winter of 2015. With Minsk came structure, and sanctions accordingly were pegged to implementation. Minsk furnished the end state, without which there can be no strategy.
Minsk may simply fade away. Perhaps it has already. It would be better, though, to declare it dead, for three interrelated reasons.
First, Minsk creates the illusion that Russia and the West have a diplomatic relationship. This they do not. More and more, they are speaking to one another in the language of warning and imperative and not of the compromise that enables successful diplomacy: economic sanctions and moral condemnation of “late-stage” Putinism for the West; cyber-meddling and military buildups for Russia coupled with constant anti-Western rhetoric. Trust is non-existent on both sides, and Minsk could never work without trust or without a plausible array of confidence-building measures. Either a measure of trust will be regained, or Ukraine’s destiny will lie in the region’s military balance of power. That is the current trajectory, and it is hardly a cheerful one for Russia or the West.
Second, apart from the sanctions levied on Russia by the Obama and the Trump administrations, Minsk never included the United States. It was negotiated by two Western European powers that had no military stake in the conflict, by a Ukraine diminished by battlefield defeats, and by a Russia unable to convert its military advantages into political influence within Ukraine. The United States supported France and Germany on Minsk, but it should have been at the table. The tensions between Ukraine and Russia are not some provincial dispute at the periphery of Europe. They have proven instrumental to a global realignment since 2014, felt from Syria to China to Venezuela. At issue is a crisis too important for the United States to be on the diplomatic sidelines.
Finally, a lot of time has passed since 2015. Minsk is a museum piece, a fiction that had its uses for all the parties concerned but is no longer (if it ever was) a blueprint for concerted action. Two of the signatories, Petro Poroshenko and Francois Hollande, have exited the scene years ago. Angela Merkel will soon follow them. Putin, remains, though not in the same domestic political situation he was in in 2015, when many Russians, glad to see Crimea “back,” were rallying around the flag. The West of 2021 needs a Russia strategy. This strategy should be worked out within the collaborative transatlantic framework reestablished by President Joe Biden. A large part of this strategy should be a coherent, workable vision for Ukraine. On the basis of that vision, Minsk and all its inoperative protocols should be consigned to history and a new settlement sought to the conflict that will do much to shape Europe’s future.
The Minsk Protocol Is Worth Saving, but It Needs a Transatlantic Revamp
The Minsk Protocol is deadlocked. This reality has been painfully underscored as Russia withdraws some forces from its massive military buildup along Ukraine’s eastern border. Neither Minsk I agreed in 2014 or Minsk II agreed in 2015 have stopped the fighting. Instead, eruptions of violence have killed at least 30 Ukrainian servicemen since the beginning of this year. But for all its flaws the Minsk Protocol remains the best basis for any future resolution of the conflict. However, its format needs to be changed.
With the 2019 election of Volodymyr Zelensky there was a spark of hope the peace process might be revitalized as Ukraine’s new president sought a compromise with Russia. Two years later, the tone on both sides has hardened. Struggling with his sinking popularity at home, Zelensky now rejects Russian demands for him to meet with the Donbas separatist leaders or to give the breakaway regions more autonomy. Moscow, having time on its side, has indicated it will not give back control over the Ukrainian border before local elections are eventually held in Donbas, and it has shown itself to be willing and able to deploy military force to back its demands. Meanwhile, any hope of implementing a ceasefire has disappeared. In April another round of Normandy Format talks between France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia also ended without progress.
Despite years of relentless conflict and diplomatic disappointment, giving up on the Minsk Protocol would nevertheless be foolish. The peace talks offer neutral ground for Ukraine and Russia to meet, and for Kyiv to call upon its international partners to keep the Kremlin in check whenever the latter escalates. Moreover, if Ukraine were to pull out of the Minsk Protocol it would give Russia a pretext to accuse it of not being interested in peace. The consequence could be more support for Russia in the separatist regions.
But clearly the current process does not deliver peace. The measures designed in 2014 and 2015 do not necessarily any longer reflect the needs or realities on the ground, and the international context has changed too. Ukraine’s civil society and armed forces are much more organized today, and they have demonstrated their ability to protect the country from interference. Russia’s military and political influence over Ukraine’s maturing democracy has virtually evaporated. In Europe, even some of the most Kremlin-friendly countries have turned increasingly skeptical of Russia’s behavior, resulting in several rounds of EU sanctions. And in the United States, a new president highly supportive of Ukraine’s sovereignty has been elected. Moreover, renewed transatlantic cooperation to push back on Russia, for instance through NATO, is emerging.
This new context calls for another approach to the Minsk Protocol. A realistic solution would be to bring more heavyweight players to the negotiation table. This was suggested by President Zelensky earlier this week. The mediation of key players like Germany and France needs to be complemented by other countries with a stake in Ukraine. The quintessential candidate is the United States. Preferably this would be in an expanded Normandy Format.
Deepening the involvement of the United States has been debated since 2014. Ukraine has been fighting bravely over the past years, but it does not mean that its security has improved. The Biden administration is outspoken about its desire to see peace in Ukraine, so there might be a window of opportunity to include Washington. But words have only effect if they are supported by deeds. If the United States in coordination with France, Germany, and Ukraine would insist on its inclusion, it is unlikely that Russia would decline since it would make no immediate gains from leaving the Minsk Protocol. For a start, the expected U.S. special envoy for Ukraine could already be included at the diplomatic level. The Donbas war is arguably the single most important source of tensions between Russia and the West. There should be honest interest from the United States and Europe to demine a situation that threatens not only Ukraine but the very concept of the rules-based international order. Russia for its part is increasingly feeling the cost of sanctions and isolation.
Today’s frozen diplomatic talks do little more than sustain a frozen conflict. Without a revamp the Minsk Protocol will likely remain deadlocked because no party is currently being pressed to show political will, not least Russia. Making Donbas a transatlantic issue would clearly show the West’s resolve and help Ukraine to negotiate with Russia from a position of strength.