The background to the Minsk agreements
This question drove the crisis that engulfed Ukraine in 2013–14. In 2007 Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yushchenko, launched negotiations with the European Union over an Association Agreement (AA). At the core of the proposed pact was a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), which would eliminate most tariffs on trade in goods. Even more significant, the DCFTA envisaged legal and regulatory approximation: Ukraine would transpose much of the EU acquis communautaire into its own legislation. Russia did not take the prospect of an AA seriously at first. But by late 2011, with the negotiations at an advanced stage, the Kremlin had come around to the view that it was a realistic threat.
Three factors in particular informed the Russian leadership’s change of position. First, the Kremlin had become concerned about the EU’s expanding profile in the non-Baltic post-Soviet space. The EU’s presence and activity had grown appreciably after the 2009 launch of the Eastern Partnership, which was an attempt to invigorate EU policy towards Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Although the EU did not conceive of the AA as a geopolitical instrument, Russia saw the agreement in this light: as a challenge to its view of the post-Soviet space as its self-proclaimed sphere of influence.
Second, the AA promised to establish a radically different model of governance on Russia’s doorstep – in the country that many Russians considered to be virtually indistinguishable, culturally and historically, from their own. The implications were huge, as ‘implementation of the Agreement would have threatened the established modes of survival and enrichment of Ukraine’s ruling elite’. Moreover, if this could happen in Ukraine, why not in Russia? Merely raising that possibility implicitly challenged the authoritarian system which President Vladimir Putin had consolidated in Russia and which had, he believed, already been threatened by contagion from Ukraine after the 2004 Orange Revolution.
Third, Russia was by now championing its own integration project, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which Putin (then prime minister) described in October 2011 as one ‘pole’ in a ‘multipolar’ global order. Russian policymakers considered Ukraine’s accession to the EAEU vital, the point being that Ukraine could not join it and have an AA with the EU. Stopping Ukraine from signing the AA had therefore become a priority for the Kremlin.
Successive Ukrainian leaders had rejected earlier Russia-led integration initiatives. They were especially wary about joining a customs union – the first stage of integration into the EAEU – given the constraints that this would place on their ability to run an independent trade policy and pursue Ukraine’s EU integration, and given the much greater size of Russia’s economy. So it proved with Viktor Yanukovych, who replaced Yushchenko as president in 2010. Although more open to cooperation with Russia, Yanukovych sought a balance between Ukraine’s relations with the EU and those with Russia. He pressed on with the AA negotiations, which concluded in 2012. At the same time, he also flirted with engagement with the EAEU, floating various arrangements short of membership. Russia was not fooled, however, and from 2012 stepped up economic pressure to force Yanukovych to drop the AA. Increasingly isolated internationally by his administration’s corruption, growing authoritarianism and economic incompetence, Yanukovych started to buckle. He had planned to sign the AA at an EU/Ukraine summit in Vilnius in November 2013. A week before, however, he announced that he would not do so, although he still refused to commit to the EAEU. The Kremlin stepped in with a $15 billion loan and other inducements, confident that Ukraine’s economic problems would eventually force Yanukovych to give in.
Yanukovych’s about-face sparked demonstrations in Kyiv – the so-called ‘Euromaidan’ protests – which at their peak drew hundreds of thousands of people. The authorities gradually (albeit ineptly and incoherently) intensified the use of force against the protesters in the early weeks of 2014, which culminated in the killing of dozens of people in the centre of the capital on 18–20 February. Weakened by elite defections and buffeted by international outrage at its brutality, Yanukovych’s administration imploded. Yanukovych fled Kyiv on 21 February, arriving in Russia shortly afterwards. Ukraine’s unicameral legislature, the Verkhovna Rada, removed him and installed Oleksandr Turchynov as acting president, pending a presidential election in May.
Yanukovych’s overthrow rocked the Kremlin, which ordered Russian troops and irregular forces to occupy Crimea. The proximate trigger for the decision may have been concern that the new leadership in Kyiv would cancel the lease on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet base on the Crimean peninsula, but the smoothness of the operation indicated that a contingency plan had been drawn up earlier. Having established control, Russia annexed the region. A referendum on 16 March (prohibited under Ukraine’s constitution) recorded an implausible 96.7 per cent vote for incorporation into Russia on an equally unlikely turnout of 83.1 per cent. Putin announced the annexation of Crimea on 18 March.
The ‘Novorossiya project’
Annexing Crimea was cathartic for Russia’s leaders and for many ordinary Russians. But it did nothing to counteract Ukraine’s increasingly westward orientation. By the time that Russia had annexed Crimea, Ukraine’s new leaders were making it clear that they would sign the AA with the EU. How did Russia intend to stop them?
The answer was the ‘Novorossiya project’, a campaign of violent subversion designed to turn the east and south of Ukraine, where many of the country’s (non-Crimean) ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers lived, against the authorities in Kyiv. The initiative reflected a view of Ukraine that was and is widely held in Russia – summed up by the claim, which Putin often makes, that Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one people’ with a shared destiny. In this account, Ukraine is not a ‘real’ country, as Putin told US President George W. Bush in 2008. Supposedly a mish-mash of disparate regions glued together under Tsarist and Soviet rule, Ukraine is thought to be inherently weak and unstable because of its regional, linguistic and confessional fault lines. It is seen at the same time as an organic part of the ‘Russian world’, without which it becomes an unsustainable entity. By extension, Ukraine’s integration into ‘alien’ Western-led structures would be perverse and dangerous.
Set against the paralysis that gripped Ukraine’s government machinery following the ouster of Yanukovych, this outlook encouraged Russian decision-makers to think that they could bring the authorities in Kyiv to their knees. As one source has written:
The general feeling inside the Kremlin was that Ukraine had ceased to exist as a state. The central government was no more, and the eastern regions would follow Crimea into Russia’s embrace. The locals would be in favour, and there would be no military resistance.
Putin hinted at such thinking when proclaiming the annexation of Crimea on 18 March 2014:
After the Revolution, for a number of reasons the Bolsheviks – let God judge them – added historical sections of the south of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic composition of the population, and these regions today form the south-east of Ukraine.
The Novorossiya project seems to have originated among an assortment of officials, political consultants, nationalist ideologues and business figures. Sergei Glaziev, Putin’s adviser for the EAEU, played a prominent early role. Compared with the invasion of Crimea, which was a disciplined military operation, the Novorossiya project was a loosely organized affair executed by networks of provocateurs and saboteurs (both locals and Russians), supported by Russian intelligence operatives. The Presidential Administration in Moscow provided general oversight of this opaque constellation; Vladislav Surkov, another of Putin’s senior advisers, would emerge during 2014 as the key official dealing with Ukraine.
Although the overthrow of Yanukovych set off unrest in eastern and southern Ukraine, it was soon apparent that the Kremlin had misjudged the mood there. Seeking to exploit discontent at events in Kyiv, local activists and Russian agents organized rallies and attacked official buildings in cities in the east and the south during March. They attracted little support in Kharkiv, Dnipro and Odesa (and elsewhere in the south), where the authorities remained broadly loyal to the provisional leadership in Kyiv. The situation in Donbas in the east was more volatile. Yet here too events belied the Kremlin’s expectations. Disorder swept parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts after Yanukovych’s flight (Donetsk oblast was Yanukovych’s home region and the electoral base of his Party of the Regions). Many there feared his Euromaidan successors, whom they considered illegal usurpers. Such concerns were amplified by a strong sense of regional identity (although sympathy for separatism was minimal). Fragile from the start, the local standing of the new authorities in Kyiv evaporated as power was appropriated by regional forces – business oligarchs, organized crime figures, remnants of the Yanukovych ‘clan’ and socially excluded groups. But alongside hostility towards the new leaders in Kyiv, there was ambivalence about growing Russian influence, which at least some of these actors saw as a threat to the positions that they were carving out for themselves. The Kremlin would have to intervene more directly to take charge in Donbas.
Putin referred to Novorossiya during his annual phone-in on 17 April:
… what was called Novorossiya (New Russia) back in tsarist days – Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa – were not part of Ukraine then. These territories were given the Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet Government. Why? Who knows? They were won by Potemkin and Catherine the Great in a series of well-known wars. The centre of that territory was Novorossiisk, so the region is called Novorossiya. Russia lost these territories for various reasons, but the people remained.
Putin’s remarks signalled support for the orchestrated violence that had exploded five days earlier. On 12 April armed irregulars, some of whom had participated in the invasion of Crimea, seized the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in Donetsk oblast, which they then used as bases for raids against other urban centres. The insurgency gained momentum during the second half of April. Its leaders proclaimed the establishment of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) on 6 April, and of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) on 27 April. Both regimes held referendums on 11 May, claiming large majorities for ‘self-dependence’ (samostoyatelnost).
Given its antecedents, the phrase ‘Novorossiya’ inferred absorption by Russia (or at least separation from Ukraine), as certain Russian nationalists and imperialists wanted. This sowed confusion about Russia’s goals. Would it annex the DNR and LNR as it had swallowed Crimea? Would it set them up as pseudo-independent states like Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Or would it drive a land corridor along the coast of the Sea of Azov to Crimea (a fear that some judged to be credible given Russian military manoeuvres, along Ukraine’s border, which looked like a prelude to full-scale invasion)?
For the Kremlin, the Novorossiya project was in fact a means to an end: taking territory and, in return for formal reincorporation into Ukraine, forcing the leadership in Kyiv to assent to far-reaching autonomy for the areas concerned. These regions would then exert a stranglehold over the central authorities, stymieing Ukraine’s Western integration. In short, the Novorossiya project aimed to promote ‘a secessionist revolt that the Kremlin could use to exert leverage over the geopolitical future of Ukraine’.
Within this framework, the Kremlin had three objectives. The first was to promote the ‘federalization’ of Ukraine, allegedly to reflect the latter’s divisions and to restore stability. As Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, stated several times in the second half of March, the Kremlin wanted to bring this about through constitutional reform. As the diplomatic community swung into action to contain the crisis, Lavrov persuaded his counterparts to give their general endorsement to this demand. Ukraine, Russia, the US and the EU met in Geneva on 17 April and called for a ceasefire, disarmament and an amnesty. They also advocated, in the interests of constitutional reform, ‘a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies’, with a process that would ‘allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments’.
Russia’s second goal was to ensure that ‘federalization’ was seen as the outcome of negotiations between the authorities in Kyiv and the DNR/LNR. Russia sought to confer a spurious legitimacy on its own activities by pretending that it was not a party to the conflict, which it portrayed as a civil war, and that constitutional reform would be a settlement between equal Ukrainian sides.
To accomplish its first two objectives, Russia needed something else: control of Donbas. More irregulars, along with operatives from Transnistria, were therefore sent in to achieve this third goal by taking charge of the DNR/LNR during the spring and summer. They set up embryonic state structures and imposed top-down order on chaotic local situations, subjugating or driving out local elites identified as obstacles to the extension of Russian influence, while assembling a new counter-elite from marginalized parts of society. Tighter control also enabled the Kremlin to rein in those Novorossiya operatives who had criticized what they saw as Russia’s failure to intervene sooner and more firmly.
Russia reiterated its demands throughout the summer at meetings of the Normandy Format group, set up on 6 June on the margins of events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in France. Comprising Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France, this became the main forum for attempts to manage the crisis. The Normandy heads of state set up a Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) on 8 June. The TCG contained representatives from Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and was charged with conflict management and resolution. At Russia’s insistence, DNR/LNR representatives joined the TCG on 23 June. According to the Kremlin, this put them on a par with the authorities in Kyiv.
War in Donbas
The Novorossiya project was, however, already in trouble. Besides failing in Kharkiv, Dnipro and southern Ukraine, it lacked broad support in Donbas. Weak coordination among the insurgents was another vulnerability. These weaknesses were soon felt. On 13 April, the day after Sloviansk had been seized, Turchynov announced the start of an Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO). Because of the dire condition of Ukraine’s army, the ATO initially relied on reservists, militias funded by business oligarchs, volunteer battalions (later formally integrated into the Ministry of Interior and subordinated to a newly created National Guard) and, from May, ‘territorial defence battalions’ formed in each oblast of the country and trained by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. After an uncertain beginning, the ATO pushed DNR/LNR forces on to the defensive in May. Politically, it was reinforced by surging patriotism throughout Ukraine, exemplified by the crowdfunding of ATO units and Petro Poroshenko’s victory in the presidential election on 25 May, the first time that a Ukrainian president had been elected without a second round run-off. Bit by bit, Ukraine was taking the initiative.
Poroshenko was confident enough about developments to put forward a 15-point peace plan on 20 June. Its political sections made concessions to the insurgents – a partial amnesty, joint police patrols in the post-ceasefire conflict zone, decentralization (‘by means of the election of executive committees, defence of the Russian language, draft changes to the Constitution’), pre-term local and parliamentary elections and joint appointment of governors – but Poroshenko envisaged a process controlled by his administration. Crucially, he called for a 10-km buffer zone on the Ukraine/Russia border to stop Russia resupplying its proxies.
As diplomatic exchanges between Kyiv and Moscow continued during the summer of 2014, Russia responded to the ATO by sending into Ukraine more irregulars and heavier and more advanced equipment, including surface-to-air missiles, and by supporting DNR/LNR forces with long-range artillery firing from its own territory. Even so, Ukrainian forces recaptured Sloviansk, the symbolic centre of the insurgency, on 5 July, and had pushed the DNR/LNR forces into a narrow strip running from Donetsk through Luhansk to the Russian border by early August. With the Novorossiya project on the verge of defeat, Ukraine’s negotiators sent Surkov their latest peace proposals on 25 August. These suggested that the border buffer zone be established by 5 September and that Russia secure the ‘self-disbandment’ of the DNR/LNR by 14 September. For Russia, this was probably the final straw.
Russia now intervened decisively. Up to 6,500 Russian troops, organized into battalion tactical groups, invaded Donetsk oblast. They decimated a large Ukrainian force at Ilovaisk, southeast of Donetsk; Ukraine lost several hundred soldiers and many of its armoured vehicles. The ATO never recovered from this shattering reversal. DNR and LNR units, again supported by regular Russian forces, regained much of the lost territory in subsequent days. Poroshenko felt impelled to seek an immediate ceasefire.