The Minsk arrangements that were supposed to resolve the conflict in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine have not been implemented. Ukrainians and others increasingly question whether it is time to abandon the Minsk process. The Ukrainian government, however, should not do so, as it would dangerously undermine Kyiv’s position.
Negotiators met twice in Minsk—in September 2014 and February 2015—to broker a settlement to the Russian-inspired separatist fighting in the Donbas. The second time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande joined Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin to mediate.
Minsk is not working. The first three provisions of the Minsk II agreement called for an “immediate and full ceasefire” by midnight on February 15, 2015, the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the line of contact within fourteen days of the February 11 conclusion of the Minsk II agreement, and free access for Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors to provide “effective monitoring and verification” of the ceasefire and heavy weapons withdrawal.
Today, more than fifteen months after Minsk II was signed, Ukrainian soldiers continue to die as a result of hostile fire. Separatists marked VE Day on May 9 in Donetsk by parading tanks and artillery whose presence flouted the heavy weapons withdrawal requirement. OSCE monitors routinely are denied access to areas in occupied Donbas.
Absent implementation of the basic security provisions of Minsk II, the failure to bring into force the political and economic elements comes as no surprise.
Ukrainians see the Minsk arrangements as flawed and, in any case, unattainable. Moscow has shown little interest in their implementation, by all appearances instead preferring a frozen—or not-so-frozen—conflict. Voices inside and outside of Ukraine increasingly say the Minsk process should be discarded.
That view is entirely understandable. It is also wrong. Before throwing out Minsk, Ukrainians need to ask what alternative path might lead to a settlement. They should also understand what they might lose by moving precipitously.
Some suggest a return to the Geneva format of negotiations, which met briefly in early 2014. That would bring the United States and European Union to the table. But why would Russia agree to that format instead of Minsk? Would the European Union provide a more effective voice than Germany and France? Would the presence of the United States ensure a more favorable outcome for Kyiv?
The Ukrainian government should have answers to these questions before casting aside Minsk in favor of Geneva. Similar questions should be asked before pursuing any alternative negotiating format.
Some in Kyiv seem frustrated with the role of Merkel, who has clearly led the German-French tandem. While the Germans have at times leaned on Kyiv, Merkel sees an important principle at stake: Moscow is using armed force to support a conflict on the territory of a sovereign state, on top of its illegal seizure and annexation of Crimea, in violation of the cardinal rule of the European security order going back to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. The German chancellor has proven steadfast in maintaining European Union unity regarding sanctions on Russia, and she has made clear that full implementation of Minsk II is necessary for the sanctions relief that Moscow desires.
Merkel has invested time, effort, political weight and prestige in Minsk II. If Ukraine were to decide to walk away, how would Kyiv keep Germany involved? Having seen one process fail, Merkel would have no incentive to engage in a new negotiating effort, particularly given everything else on her agenda now.
The Germans would leave the mediation role to someone else. Who? There is no reason to expect that the Obama administration, in its last eight months in office, would pick it up. Whoever takes the presidential oath in January, he or she will need time to get organized and may not have Ukraine at the top of the in box in the Oval Office.
Moreover, if Kyiv abandons Minsk, it would destroy the basis for European unity on sanctions. Merkel has maintained the European Union’s support for sanctions—despite softness on the part of member states such as Hungary and Italy—by linking them to Minsk II. Ending Minsk II would end that link. That would lead to the collapse of European sanctions, eliminating a significant element of Western pressure on Moscow.
Discarding the Minsk arrangements raises a host of difficult questions. It does not appear that those questions have good answers, in the sense of answers that would make a settlement of the Donbas conflict more likely and ensure continued Western support for Ukraine. A Ukrainian decision to abandon Minsk would make a settlement less likely and weaken Western unity.
The Minsk arrangements are flawed and most probably will not work. At some point, it may well be time to end Minsk. But Kyiv should want that conclusion to be reached in Berlin and Paris because they recognize Moscow’s intransigence, not because Ukraine itself killed the process.
This piece was originally published in the Kyiv Post.