The Minsk-1 agreement
This was the context in which the first Minsk agreement (‘Minsk-1’) was signed in the capital of Belarus on 5 September 2014. Echoing Poroshenko’s earlier peace plan, it called for the following measures: an OSCE-monitored ceasefire; an exchange of prisoners; the withdrawal of ‘armed formations, military equipment and fighters and mercenaries’ from Ukraine; the establishment of an OSCE-monitored ‘security zone’ along the border; and an economic reconstruction programme for Donbas. (A memorandum on 19 September repeated the demand for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons. It proposed banning landmines and drones, except OSCE drones, and reiterated the call for foreign troops to be withdrawn. This was also a first attempt to delineate the line of contact.)
Yet the humiliation of Ilovaisk ended Poroshenko’s hopes of setting the terms of a political settlement. With his administration reeling, three clauses were inserted into Minsk-1 at Russia’s insistence, calling for: (1) the adoption of a ‘law on special status’ that would temporarily decentralize power to occupied Donbas; (2) on this basis, the holding of local elections; and (3) ‘an inclusive nationwide dialogue’. These provisions stopped short of constitutional change but did recast the debate: ‘The political clauses of Poroshenko’s peace plan envisioned that the abnormal situation in Donbas be rapidly brought back to normal. Minsk-1 provided that the existing abnormal situation be regulated and prolonged, albeit temporarily.’ Instead of being dissolved, the DNR and LNR would now be elements of a future political settlement.
In line with Minsk-1, the Verkhovna Rada passed a temporary law on special status on 16 September. Signed on 16 October by Poroshenko, it was to be in force for three years (and extended annually after that). It scheduled pre-term local elections in occupied Donbas for 7 December. It gave the DNR and LNR rights to establish their own police forces, to appoint judges and prosecutors, and to pursue ‘language self-determination’. The law also prohibited the central authorities from dismissing local councils (parliaments).
The announcement of a ceasefire had little effect. As fighting continued, Russia bolstered the DNR/LNR regimes to make them invulnerable to renewed pressure from Ukraine, and thus avoid a repetition of the summer crisis. The establishment of more authentic proto-states required several measures: the reorganization of regional militias into more disciplined armed forces and police units; the replacement of Russian (and Transnistrian) DNR/LNR leaders by ‘locals’; the establishment of public order (sometimes by physically eliminating recalcitrant warlords); and the delivery of basic public services by the DNR/LNR authorities. To strengthen the legitimacy of the regimes, ‘presidential’ and ‘parliamentary’ elections were held on 2 November, before the date stipulated in the temporary law on special status. Although this violated the Minsk-1 agreement, the results enabled the installation of new Moscow-backed local leaders. On 15 December, Russia created an inter-ministerial commission to manage the DNR/LNR economies.
Developments in Ukraine simultaneously showed that the DNR/LNR and the rest of the country were moving further apart. Parliamentary elections on 26 October produced a majority coalition in the Rada committed to deeper Western integration. Voting had confirmed that Ukraine’s east/west electoral divide was shifting eastwards, with ‘pro-Western’ parties doing better in the south and much of the east than their ‘pro-Russian’ rivals. In November, the authorities in Kyiv began cutting economic and financial ties with the DNR/LNR (to reduce budgetary spending on state institutions on territory no longer under their control), establishing a limited number of crossing points across the line of contact and fortifying their military positions in the region.
Fighting intensified in parts of Donetsk oblast at the turn of the year. Most notably, insurgents supported by Russian troops attacked Ukrainian positions at Debaltseve, a transport hub near the administrative line between Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Although not as destructive as the battle at Ilovaisk, this engagement was still a major setback for Ukraine’s forces, which withdrew from Debaltseve on 18 February 2015.