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Article

Letting go

Steven Pifer

Approaching its one-year anniversary date, the February 2015 Minsk II settlement agreement to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass is not faring well. All of its provisions were to have been implemented by Dec. 31, 2015. Few were. Still, Minsk II remains the only settlement arrangement on offer, and it continues to command at least rhetorical support in Kiev and Moscow. For the foreseeable future, however, it appears that Donbass is destined to occupy a place on the list of frozen (or not-so-frozen) conflicts that dot the post-Soviet space.

Following Russia’s military seizure of Crimea, an armed separatist conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine in April 2014. Moscow gave the separatists significant support: leadership, funding and heavy weapons as well as political backing. When the Ukrainian military in August 2014 appeared on the verge of retaking Donbass, regular units of the Russian army intervened.

A ceasefire was hastily brokered in Minsk in September 2014, but it never took serious hold. Fighting continued, and discussions in the trilateral contact group—chaired by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and involving representatives of the Ukrainian government, separatists and Russian government—made little headway. In February 2015, with a possible resumption of full-scale conflict looming, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande brokered the Minsk II agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine.

Minsk II provided for a ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons from the line of contact within two weeks’ time. Other provisions laid out the terms for a political settlement, including release of prisoners, special status for Donbass, local elections, constitutional reform to provide for decentralization of authority to local governments and the restoration of Ukrainian control of its full border with Russia.

Implementation of Minsk II got off to a poor start. Separatist and Russian forces ignored the ceasefire and instead launched a major attack at the key rail center at Debaltseve. While the line of contact separating the two sides subsequently stabilized, the sides continued to exchange fire. In August 2015, the Ukrainians reported as many as 200 ceasefire violations per day.

Things improved somewhat in the autumn. The ceasefire took better hold in September and the sides withdrew much of their heavy weaponry, though not all fighting came to an end. In October, Poroshenko, Putin, Merkel and Hollande met in Paris and agreed that local elections in the separatist-occupied parts of Donbass should be postponed until they could be organized in accordance with Ukrainian law and under OSCE observation, as provided for by Minsk II. The separatists, under some pressure from Moscow, agreed to the postponement.

Kiev and the separatists have yet to agree on terms for holding the elections. The separatists demand that Donbass receive special status before the elections are held, while the Ukrainian government says the elections should be held first and certified by OSCE to have met democratic standards. In another possible complication, a separatist leader has said that pro-government political parties would not be allowed to compete in the local elections.

Furthermore, Ukrainian officials argue that the separatists and Russians have failed to meet key Minsk II provisions, including withdrawal of foreign forces and military equipment from Ukraine, full access for OSCE to the Donbass, release of all illegally-detained persons and the restoration of Ukrainian control of the border. The separatists claim that Kiev has not yet granted amnesty and has not enacted constitutional reforms to provide for decentralization.

Concerning decentralization, on Aug. 31, 2015, the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) passed a constitutional amendment on first reading with 265 votes. The vote generated controversy as opponents criticized it for rewarding the separatists. The Radical Party, one of five that constitutes the pro-government coalition, left the vote in protest. The amendment needs to pass on second reading with a constitutional majority of 300 votes. In a new twist, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk suggested on Jan. 24 that the amendment instead be put to a referendum.

Most disturbingly, perhaps, leaders of the so-called “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk have repeatedly stated that they will not accept a restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty, which is, of course, the ultimate objective of Minsk II.

All the agreement’s provisions were to have been implemented by the end of 2015. In a Dec. 30 phone conversation, Poroshenko, Putin, Merkel and Hollande agreed to extend the deadline into 2016, but did not fix a specific date.

While Russia moved promptly to annex Crimea in March 2014, it has given no indication of similar intentions regarding Donbass. Crimea has historical significance for Moscow and hosts the Black Sea Fleet. Moreover, it is proving a financial burden, and most analysts believe that Donbass would impose an even heavier burden. The Kremlin appears to regard Donbass as a means to destabilize Kiev and to make it more difficult for the central government to proceed with needed reforms and implementation of the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement.

Moscow’s apparent support for ratcheting down the violence in Donbass and for postponing local elections there, coupled with the appointment of Borys Gryzlov, a Kremlin insider, as Russia’s point-person for the conflict, have led some to suggest that Russian policy may be changing. They argue that Kremlin policy has hit a dead end in Donbass, that Moscow has now turned its attention to Syria, and that the Russian economy is in more difficult straits than anticipated. The economy contracted by 4 percent in 2015 and, faced with the low price of oil and Western economic sanctions, is expected to contract further in 2016.

The Kremlin’s policy may be changing. But it is also possible that Moscow has concluded that, at this point in time, no further destabilization is necessary. Politics in Kiev have become more difficult over the past half-year. In addition to the Radical Party’s departure from the pro-government coalition, rifts reportedly have broken out between Poroshenko and Yatseniuk, and public approval ratings for both leaders and the government’s performance have plunged.

Absent a more serious effort by Moscow to implement the Minsk II provisions, all indicators point to the conclusion that Russia is not yet prepared to reach a settlement of the crisis in eastern Ukraine, at least not on terms that would be considered reasonable for Kiev.

The most likely state in which Donbass will remain into the foreseeable future is thus a frozen (or not-so-frozen) conflict, where there is no major fighting yet no complete ceasefire, and where negotiations on implementing Minsk II continue yet show scant real progress. That would allow the Kremlin to ratchet up the conflict at a later point if it desired to further pressure Kiev.

The Ukrainian government, while regularly reiterating its desire to implement Minsk II and restore sovereignty over all of Donbass, may consider a frozen conflict acceptable for the near to medium term. Kiev is not in a position to assume economic responsibility for Donbass, which would require significant humanitarian assistance and reconstruction funds to repair the heavy damage caused by nearly two years of fighting. Some privately question whether Ukraine should seek the return of Donbass or just let it go. It is not apparent, however, that letting Donbass go would settle matters with Russia, particularly as Moscow appears to use Donbass as leverage to pressure Kiev, rather than to pursue securing the territory as part of Russia.

The EU and US should continue pressing all parties to implement the Minsk II provisions, even if full implementation seems unlikely. That means urging Kiev to do its share. If, or when, it is concluded that Minsk II has failed, the Ukrainian government should be in a position to say that it did everything in its power to honor the agreement, so that the blame will rest squarely with Russia and the separatists.

The key to settling the conflict continues to lie in Moscow, which has decisive influence with the separatists. Western policy should aim to change the calculation of costs and benefits underlying the Kremlin’s policy toward Ukraine.

The West should continue to give Kiev political support and—provided that the government accelerates economic and anti-corruption reforms—additional financial assistance, with the aim of bolstering Ukraine’s resiliency. Additional military assistance should be provided with the objective of driving up the costs of any renewed offensive by separatist and Russian forces.

The West should make clear to Moscow that a return to more normal relations will depend on the Kremlin changing its policy toward Ukraine. In particular, the EU and US should hold to their position that sanctions will be eased only after Minsk II is fully implemented. As for the separate issue of Crimea, Kiev has wisely said that it should be addressed in the longer term. Western sanctions linked to Crimea should continue to apply.

Above and beyond Ukraine, the West must take into account the broader implications of Moscow’s use of military force against Ukraine. While the likelihood of Russian military action against a NATO member state is low, it cannot entirely be discounted. NATO should take steps to bolster its conventional forces and deterrent capabilities in the Baltic States and Poland.

In many quarters of the West, there is interest in engaging Russia, which should certainly be a part of the EU and US approach. But the West should recognize that the more effectively it bolsters Ukraine and demonstrates NATO’s readiness to deter other Russian provocations, the more likely it will be that engagement will prove fruitful.

This article first appeared in The Security Times, a special addition of The Atlantic Times for the 52nd Munich Security Conference.

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