Why the Minsk Accords Failed to Bring Ukraine Peace
Russian President Putin pronounced the agreements dead, a day after recognizing Ukraine’s separatist territories as states.
(Bloomberg) -- In an attempt to avert a major war in Europe, France and Germany, backed by the U.S., pressed for implementation of the controversial Minsk peace accords as the best chance for a solution to Russian demands on Ukraine. The package of agreements, which they helped negotiate with Russia after Ukrainian military defeats in 2014 and 2015, were complex, hotly disputed and went to the heart of what is at root a struggle over Ukrainian identity and sovereignty. On Feb. 24, Russian forces attacked targets across Ukraine after President Vladimir Putin pronounced the agreements dead.
1. How did the Minsk deals come about?
The accords sought to halt the armed conflict that broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The country’s pro-Russia leader Viktor Yanukovych had just been ousted by mass protests in the capital Kyiv, triggered by his decision -- under pressure from Putin -- to renege on a trade pact with the European Union. Smaller protests against the new government in Kyiv followed throughout eastern and southern Ukraine, with armed Russia-backed separatists seizing territory in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, together known as the Donbas. Although the Kremlin denies involvement, Ukraine has claimed, and open source investigations in the West and Russia have put forward evidence, that Russian forces intervened directly to turn the tide of the fighting and inflict two crushing defeats on Ukrainian forces. Each loss was followed by a peace deal reached in Minsk, the capital of neighboring Belarus.
2. What do the accords say?
Minsk 1, reached in September 2014, had 12 points, including a cease-fire to be monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a law on Ukraine’s “decentralization” with temporary special status for the separatist-held territory, local elections, an amnesty and other issues. As fighting continued, a follow-up memorandum two weeks later required heavy weapons to be pulled back from the front lines. The truce again struggled to hold amid disputes over sequencing and finally collapsed in January 2015. Minsk II followed a month later, amid renewed heavy fighting and with Ukrainian troops surrounded in the town of Debaltseve. The new deal’s 13 points included more detailed, but also confusing language on the settlement’s sequencing and political requirements.
3. Why have they been so hard to implement?
One problem was that though Russia negotiated the Minsk deal, it said it was not a party to the conflict and therefore not responsible for implementation. Ukraine says it was. Beyond that there were at least three key disputes. The first was who should be in control when elections were held. Still more difficult was that the deal says the special status for the Donbas region, and arguably Ukraine’s constitutional restructuring, have to be made “in consultation and agreement with” the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, through a specially formed group. Potentially the most dangerous dispute was over the extent of the special status territory, which was left undefined. The separatist leaders said it should include all of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, more than half of which remains under Kyiv’s control. Now in Moscow’s eyes they have legal standing to make those claims as the leaders of sovereign states -- and to invite Russian troops to help.
4. How did Russia interpret the accords?
Russia saw Minsk as a deal Ukraine signed and was obliged to fulfill, returning the Donbas to Kyiv’s control while ensuring the safety and rights of the area’s citizens, as many as 800,000 of whom have now received Russian passports. That’s roughly 20% to 40% of the population, depending on estimates. Moscow also saw the accords as creating wide autonomy for Donbas and as a means to federalize Ukraine, making it in practice impossible for the country to join Western institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the European Union. At a February meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Russia complained specifically about a Ukrainian pledge that “none of Ukraine’s regions will be able to veto state-wide decisions,” and that France, Germany and the U.S. had failed to pressure Ukraine to implement the agreement. Kremlin officials didn’t define the form this federalization should take, but Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s Ukraine adviser until 2020, said after leaving office that Minsk II was written to give Ukraine “symbolic sovereignty” over the east, of the kind the British monarch exercises over Canada or Australia.
5. What about Ukraine?
Ukraine passed a law on “decentralization” as required by the Minsk agreement, but it was not negotiated with the separatists, seen by Kyiv as Moscow’s proxies, and was therefore rejected by Russia. The government said it was committed to implementing the accords, just not as Russia interpreted them. It prepared draft bills for that purpose but insisted that security should be ensured first. Speaking out of turn, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov went further, telling the Associated Press in January that fulfilling the Minsk accords, “signed under a Russian gun barrel,” would destroy Ukraine as a country. Even a limited effort to implement the accords in 2015 led to violent protests in Kyiv. A December 2021 poll found that 75% of Ukrainians thought the Minsk accords should either be amended or abandoned. Just 12% thought they should be implemented.
6. What did the French and Germans say?
France and Germany were central to negotiation of the Minsk accords, and to talks in the seven years since under the so-called Normandy Format -- which includes those two countries, Russia and Ukraine -- to implement them. They argued, as did Russia until it declared the territories independent states, that the agreements were the only available route to a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz shuttled between Moscow and Kyiv in February in an effort to reinvigorate the Normandy process.
7. Where did the agreement leave Ukraine?
Minsk reduced the Donbas conflict to limited trench warfare for seven years, yet each side blames the other for the failure to implement key terms. Prior to the Russian attacks on Feb. 24, the fighting had already killed about 14,000 people and left more than 1.4 million internally displaced within Ukraine, according to government data. It was always difficult to see a solution emerging, because as Duncan Allan, an analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London, wrote in a study, the accords “rest on two irreconcilable interpretations of Ukraine’s sovereignty: Is Ukraine sovereign, as Ukrainians insist, or should its sovereignty be limited, as Russia demands?”
The Reference Shelf
- Related QuickTakes on why Donetsk and Luhansk matter to Putin and the West and why Russia-Ukraine tensions are so hard to defuse.
- Texts of the Minsk protocols: Minsk I, the additional memorandum, and Minsk II.
- Chatham House reports on the accords: The Minsk Conundrum: Western Policy and Russia’s War in Eastern Ukraine, and Why Minsk-2 Cannot Solve the Ukraine Crisis.
- A Carnegie Moscow Center article on the role a limited implementation of Minsk could play in defusing tensions.
- Fyodor Lukyanov speaks in a webinar on how Ukraine’s federalization should fit into a new security architecture for Europe.
- Statements by Russia and the U.S. on the importance of the Minsk accords at a February 2022 session of the United Nations Security Council.
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