Introduction: the ‘Minsk conundrum’
Russia’s undeclared war in eastern Ukraine – which sets the Kremlin-backed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (DNR) and ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ (LNR) against Ukraine’s central authorities – has entered its seventh year, with no end in sight. By mid-February 2020, the death toll had climbed to almost 14,000, with more than 30,000 people injured. Ukraine is now home to almost 1.5 million registered internally displaced persons (IDPs), the ninth-largest number in the world. The economic impact, measured in lost output and trade, and destroyed or damaged assets, almost certainly runs into tens of billions of dollars. Unsurprisingly, the war has driven political relations between Ukraine and Russia to an unprecedented low. Relations between Russia and the leading Western powers have meanwhile sunk to their lowest point since the early 1980s.
Diplomatic stalemate mirrors deadlock on the ground. Implementation of the Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015, which sought to end the war, remains the professed goal of Western policy. Indeed, ‘Minsk implementation’ is a mantra for policymakers, reiterated publicly by leaders and privately by officials. Yet implementation has made minimal progress. Bursts of activity – most recently in December 2019, when the heads of state of the ‘Normandy Format’ met after a three-year gap – have not broken the logjam.
Attempts at implementation have foundered because they are mistakenly predicated on compromise. Compromise is not, however, an option. The Minsk agreements rest on an unresolvable contradiction – what could be called the ‘Minsk conundrum’: is Ukraine sovereign, as Ukrainians insist, or should its sovereignty be limited, as Russia’s leaders demand?