German Chancellor Merkel, French President Hollande, Russian President Putin, and Ukrainian President Poroshenko concluded a marathon 15-hour negotiation early this morning in Minsk, announcing a deal to end the conflict that has ravaged eastern Ukraine for more than nine months. The agreement—signed not by the leaders, but by the participants in the parallel Contact Group—comprises thirteen points, many of which leave questions open that will require tough negotiation in the coming weeks and months.
The deal likely was the best that Poroshenko could have achieved under difficult circumstances, with Russia continuing to back the separatists and pour tanks and other heavy arms into Donetsk and Luhansk. Merkel was appropriately guarded in her assessment, calling the deal “a glimmer of hope,” but correctly adding that much remains to be worked out.
Indeed, much has to happen if today’s deal is not to suffer the fate of the earlier ceasefire agreement, agreed in Minsk in September but never implemented. Merkel mobilized her peace effort over the past ten days in the face of a complete collapse of that agreement.
Minsk agreement raises tough questions
But Minsk II raises tough questions and leaves difficult issues for later. It is a fragile arrangement, requiring good faith and follow-through from parties that have shown little of that in the past.
The ceasefire does not kick in until midnight on Saturday. That leaves two days for the conflict to rage on. Will the separatists and Russians try to grab additional territory, such as the salient held by Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve, a key railroad junction that has been under assault for the past week? Ukrainian sources reported additional armor coming into Ukraine from Russia just this morning.
If the ceasefire holds—a very big if—the next immediate step will be withdrawal of heavy weapons away from the line of contact, pulling artillery and rocket systems out of range of the other side. That is to be completed 14 days after the ceasefire. The sides came up with an interesting compromise for the line of contact, which has changed dramatically since September as the Russian-backed separatists have added some 200 square miles to the territory they control. The Ukrainians will withdraw from the actual line of contact on February 15, while the separatists will pull back from the line agreed in September.
What the Minsk agreement means for Ukraine
The agreement requires that all “foreign” armed forces and equipment be withdrawn from Ukraine under supervision of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and illegal formations be disbanded. Will Russia withdraw the troops and equipment it has in eastern Ukraine—though Putin denies that very fact? It did not happen after September.
Today’s agreement, moreover, provides that Ukraine can secure full control over the Ukraine-Russia border only after local elections and a comprehensive political settlement by the end of 2015. Until that happens, the border between the separatist-occupied areas and Russia essentially remains open, and the Russian army will have the ability to freely move troops and equipment across the border, as they have since last June.
Beyond the military arrangements, the Minsk agreement contains provisions on local elections in the separatist-controlled areas in Donetsk and Luhansk, and on constitutional reform, including decentralization of authority to Donetsk and Luhansk. The latter point goes to the heart of the relationship between Kyiv and the two eastern provinces. Working out the specifics—the separatists and their Russian supporters will likely seek far more autonomy than Kyiv is prepared to provide—will pose a daunting challenge.
So today’s agreement, while perhaps better than nothing, is fraught with hard questions and the potential for breakdown. Poroshenko may face criticism at home, where attitudes toward Russia have hardened over the past five months (one of the unintended consequences of Russia’s virtual war against Ukraine is that he has made a generation of Ukrainians anti-Russian). But the Ukrainian president undoubtedly feels that he had little choice. He badly needs breathing space so that he can address a looming financial crisis and implement critical reforms. In this regard, he received one piece of good news this morning. International Monetary Fund Managing Director Lagarde announced a preliminary agreement on a four-year, $40 billion program for Ukraine, with up to $17.5 billion to be made available in the first year—provided that Ukraine meets the program’s reform requirements.
Merkel, Hollande, and the West need to press Moscow hard on implementation. They should make absolutely clear that there will be no easing of economic sanctions on Russia until there is substantial implementation of the agreement’s terms and that, if the agreement breaks down due to a failure by the separatists or their Russian backers, new sanctions will be leveled.
Hopefully, the deal can be made to stick and deliver peace and a degree of normalcy to Ukraine. But one would be wise, as the German chancellor suggested, not to get one’s hopes too high.