Russia’s undeclared war in Donbas is Moscow’s latest attempt to limit the sovereignty of Ukraine, which successive Russian leaders have seen as the heart of their country’s self-proclaimed sphere of influence. Having annexed Crimea in March 2014, Russia launched a campaign of violent subversion in eastern and southern Ukraine. Using teams of insurgents (local activists and provocateurs from Russia itself), Russia tried to force Ukraine to ‘federalize’ its political system. The aim was to create pro-Moscow regimes in these regions that would, once reintegrated into Ukraine, enable Russia to control its neighbour from within. The Novorossiya project quickly turned out to be a crass misjudgment – ‘a conceit of Russian geopolitical culture’ as one observer put it. Few locals sided with Russia. The readiness of many more to fight in self-defence compelled Russia to resort to increasingly open military intervention to save its proxies. Russia inflicted crushing defeats on Ukrainian forces in September 2014 and February 2015, yet was unwilling to pay the price that further high-intensity war would have exacted. Out of these contradictory circumstances emerged the Minsk agreements.
By almost any standard, this was a stunning failure of Russian foreign policy. The Kremlin pursued two objectives during the crisis of 2013–14. Its immediate goal was to prevent Ukraine from signing an AA with the EU. In this, it failed: the AA was signed by Ukraine and the EU in 2014 and entered into force in 2017. Russia’s second, more ambitious objective was to press Ukraine into the EAEU. Most unlikely at the time, this is virtually unimaginable now. The vision of a Russia-dominated regional bloc with Ukraine at its core – the central plank of Putin’s foreign policy when he returned as president in 2012 – is in ruins:
Russia’s goal of getting Ukraine to join a Russia-led bloc is further than ever from being realized. While many Ukrainians prefer to have good relations with both Europe and Russia, the events of 2014 have made that harder, and polling shows that, forced to choose, most would choose the EU. The war has soured the Ukrainian public toward Russia, and the fact that much of the pre-2014 population that was most pro-Russian resided in Crimea or the occupied Donbas, and cannot now vote, makes it harder still that a pro-Russian government will come to power in Kyiv. So the tension between Ukrainian democracy and Russia’s ambitions there is higher than ever.
This tension pulses through the Minsk agreements, which reflect two irreconcilable views of Ukraine’s sovereignty – the Minsk conundrum. Ukraine sees the agreements as instruments with which to re-establish its sovereignty. It demands a meaningful and lasting ceasefire, followed by the complete withdrawal of Russian troops and the return of the border to its control. Free and fair elections in the DNR/LNR would be held according to OSCE/ODIHR standards. Power would be devolved to Donbas, broadly in line with the countrywide decentralization programme, but without giving the region constitutional ‘special status’. Following reintegration of the DNR/LNR, Ukraine would make its own domestic and foreign policy choices. By contrast, Russia views the Minsk agreements as tools with which to break Ukraine’s sovereignty. It demands that elections be held in occupied Donbas before Ukraine has reclaimed control over the border, knowing that its proxies would win. An extreme form of special status would be written into Ukraine’s constitution, crippling the central authorities and turning the DNR and LNR into Russian-controlled mini-states. Ukraine would be unable to govern itself effectively or to orient its foreign policy to the West. Only then would Russia return the border to Ukraine’s control, although it is doubtful that this would actually happen.
Western attempts to resolve the Minsk conundrum – notably, the Morel Plan and the Steinmeier Formula – have sought to bridge the Russian and Ukrainian stances. Not only have they failed; they have heaped pressure on Ukraine and made a delicate situation there even more fragile. Nor have they led to any discernible change in Russia’s stance. On the contrary, Russia’s leaders have felt vindicated in their view, first, that Ukraine is inherently weak and unviable; and, second, that Western governments lack the spine for a drawn-out confrontation. Well-intentioned attempts at conflict resolution may therefore have made a political settlement that protects Ukraine’s sovereignty even less likely. Such episodes underline the need for extreme caution when talking about Minsk implementation, which easily merges with a presumption that the Ukrainian and Russian positions can be split down the middle. Rather than searching for an optimal point acceptable to all, Western policymakers should acknowledge the starkness of the Minsk conundrum – that either Ukraine is sovereign, or it is not – and stop trying to square this circle.
There is, however, an alternative way to approach implementation of the Minsk agreements. It has six elements:
- It would make the defence of Ukraine’s sovereignty the unambiguous premise of Western policy. This would mean adhering to Ukraine’s interpretation of the Minsk agreements, particularly as regards elections and special status.
- It would use the agreements and the Normandy process mainly as tools for managing the conflict and reducing the chances of renewed escalation.
- In line with the priority attached to upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty, it would meanwhile focus on supporting long-term political and economic reform in Ukraine, with policy guided by the provisions of the EU/Ukraine AA and other fundamental reforms.
- It would also require encouraging the authorities in Kyiv to engage with the population of occupied Donbas more inclusively.
- Yet it would proceed from the assumption that the DNR/LNR should not be legally reincorporated into Ukraine for the foreseeable future, and that this would realistically happen only when those there wanted it (and, almost certainly, when Russia permitted it).
- Finally, it would entail confrontation with Russia over Ukraine until such time as Russia’s leaders accepted Ukraine as a sovereign country.
Some policymakers would recoil from this prospectus, which they would find troubling and unnerving. It challenges a widespread cultural predisposition in Western capitals: the presumption that, despite major difficulties, Western and Russian geopolitical differences in Europe can ultimately be resolved in a spirit of dialogue and compromise which, with the application of sufficient reason and pragmatic common sense, will more or less satisfy everyone’s interests and leave all parties broadly content. The twin realities laid bare by Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine – Ukraine’s determination to defend its sovereignty and Russia’s determination to break Ukraine’s sovereignty – mean that the Minsk agreements are not susceptible to such logic.
A protracted stand-off over Ukraine need not preclude cooperation with Russia in other areas, to the extent that this is possible. It would, however, mean a relationship with Russia that would be fractious, difficult and sometimes dangerous – and that would therefore require constant attention and management. That is a sobering prospect. But those inclined to reject such an approach because they find it too uncomfortable ought to ponder the alternative. Attempts to implement the Minsk agreements that do not start from an unequivocal commitment to support Ukraine’s sovereignty will continue to fail and will continue to risk destabilizing Ukraine itself – with potentially grave implications for long-term security in eastern Europe. More than six years after Russia launched its calamitous and futile war against Ukraine, Western decision-makers need to decide which of these answers to the ‘Minsk conundrum’ best serves their countries’ interests and most closely accords with their professed principles.