Western imprecision and inconsistency
‘Minsk implementation’ has been the avowed goal of Western policy since 2015. But what does that mean? What outcome would serve Western interests? Answers to these basic questions have been muddled and mutable. US and EU policies have not been as clear and as consistent as they could and should have been or as policymakers like to think. Some decision-makers focus on making Russia change its policy (and, failing that, punishing it with economic sanctions); some would be content if Ukraine gave in to Russia’s agenda; some want a compromise (which they rarely define); some face two ways, voicing support for Ukraine’s sovereignty while hoping that an agreement acceptable to Russia is possible; and others seem prepared to accept anything that returns Europe to what they consider normalcy. In so far as there is a prevalent view in Western capitals, particularly in Europe, it is that implementation means identifying a point between the Russian and Ukrainian positions as regards elections and special status.
In this connection, two diplomatic initiatives stand out:
- The Morel Plan. Attributed to Ambassador Pierre Morel, then chair of the Minsk TCG Working Group on Political Affairs, this proposed that elections in occupied Donbas be held under legislation agreed by the authorities in Kyiv and the DNR/LNR. Ukraine would at the same time provisionally adopt a special-status law, which would become permanent once the OSCE/ODIHR had ruled the elections to be free and fair. The proposal was discussed in 2015 but never published. It ran into trouble when, following critical coverage in the Ukrainian media, Poroshenko distanced himself from what he referred to as ‘Morel’s personal opinion’.
- The Steinmeier Formula. Articulated (though again not published) in 2015 and 2016 by Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, this also called for the entry into force of a special-status law on the same day that elections were held in Donbas. Again, the law would apply provisionally until the OSCE/ODIHR had published an assessment that the elections were free and fair, when it would become permanent (Steinmeier’s proposal differed from the Morel Plan in requiring that elections only be free and fair ‘in the main’). The Steinmeier Formula also got nowhere because of opposition in Ukraine. But it was resuscitated in the autumn of 2019, when Zelenskyy signed the first written version. Another sharp reaction in Ukraine forced him to back down, and to reassure domestic critics that he would not assent to elections in Donbas while Russian troops were there.
Both proposals were deeply flawed. They suggested that free and fair elections could be held in Donbas before Russian troops had withdrawn and before the authorities in Kyiv had reclaimed control of the border – and that this would be acceptable to mainstream Ukrainian opinion. None of that withstands even cursory scrutiny. Both proposals were also based on the 2015 draft permanent law on special status. Yet the explosive reaction to the law in Ukraine at the time exposed the strength of domestic opposition to it. Nor, given what we know about Russian thinking, would the law have been anywhere near enough for the Kremlin. The conclusion should be clear: by trying to find the middle ground between the Ukrainian and Russian positions, initiatives such as the Morel and Steinmeier proposals risk plunging Ukraine into fresh instability – and still not satisfying Russia.
Russian precision and consistency
While some Western policymakers have tried to find a way to implement Minsk-2 so that everyone gets something, their Russian counterparts have kept things simple. Since February 2015, they have maintained that Ukraine must agree the Russian interpretation of the political sections of Minsk-2 with the DNR/LNR before it could even notionally get the border back.
Russian decision-makers did learn one lesson from the failure of the Novorossiya project. They no longer think that Ukraine will collapse imminently; getting it to assent to their version of Minsk-2 will take longer than they thought. But their underlying view of Ukraine has not fundamentally changed. In their eyes, it remains an accident of history: internally split, weak, unstable, the plaything of others – a geopolitical battleground, not a sovereign country. By such logic, the support of Western countries, led by the US, is what has prevented Ukraine from capitulating. Cutting it off from its Western sponsors is therefore key. This explains why Russia has kept up incessant pressure – periodic military escalation, economic sanctions, information war, cyber-enabled attacks, covert meddling in Ukraine’s domestic politics. By trying to divide and disorient Ukraine, Russia hopes to convince others that its neighbour is a failed state. According to this reasoning, Western capitals will eventually prioritize the restoration of ties with Russia, withdrawing their support for Ukraine and/or pushing it to make concessions. Either way, Ukrainians will have to give in to Russia’s demands.
The replacement earlier this year of Surkov by Dmitriy Kozak as the senior Russian official responsible for Donbas should be seen in this context. Born in Soviet Ukraine and one of Putin’s trusted fixers, Kozak has already sounded more constructive than the relentless Surkov. Yet there is no evidence that Russia has altered its position on Minsk-2 implementation. Moreover, it was Kozak who fronted the abortive attempt to resolve the Moldova/Transnistria dispute along lines almost identical to Russia’s preferred solution for Donbas. His appointment may be a belated response to the emergence of President Zelenskyy, whose freshness has at times left Putin looking leaden-footed but whose election also appears to have given rise to the perverse judgment in Moscow ‘that Russia-friendly or even pro-Russian forces could return to power in Kyiv’. The move may also be an attempt to capitalize on renewed political infighting and fragmentation in Kyiv in recent months. In addition, the Kremlin may judge that Kozak’s business-like reputation will help to exploit signs that Ukraine’s external support could be wavering following the ‘Ukrainegate’ scandal in the US (which underlined President Donald Trump’s limited interest in Ukraine) and the eagerness of President Emmanuel Macron of France to mend fences with Moscow. Whatever the reason for Kozak’s assignment, it arguably heralds new dangers for Ukraine.
Proposing an alternative approach
In the view of this author, however, there is an alternative way to approach implementation of the Minsk agreements. It has six parts.
First, Western governments should define their objective, unequivocally, as the defence of Ukraine’s sovereignty. This would be the bottom line that too often has been missing from policy debates in Western capitals. It would mean being guided by what the authorities in Kyiv decided was feasible in terms of implementation, particularly as regards elections and special status, even if this proved unacceptable to Russia, as it almost certainly would. Equally, Western leaders should support a Ukrainian leader who freely reached agreement with Russia on these questions, although the likelihood of that seems remote given where Ukrainian public opinion is. What they should not do is push Ukraine to cede ground on the core issues. That would contradict their commitment to uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty. Nor would it work. The likeliest effect would be to undermine the authorities in Kyiv, destabilizing the political situation there and encouraging Russia to press for more concessions.
Second, in the absence of a settlement acceptable to Ukraine, Western governments should view the Minsk agreements and the Normandy process primarily as mechanisms for ending the conflict in Donbas. This is, after all, the starting point of both Minsk-1 and Minsk-2. Decision-makers should welcome practical dialogue and confidence-building measures (e.g. withdrawal of weapons, prisoner exchanges, allowing the OSCE mission full access to the conflict zone, environmental/ecological risk mitigation) to de-escalate the fighting, minimize casualties and build a sustainable ceasefire. But they should not expect movement over political issues, which would continue to divide Ukraine and Russia. The Minsk and Normandy processes would see many more ‘draws’, as Zelenskyy described the December 2019 Normandy summit.
The third element of this approach is not, strictly speaking, part of the Minsk agreements but flows from the commitment to uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty. It would require Western capitals to maintain support for political and economic reform in Ukraine. The short- to medium-term priority is that Ukraine fulfils its commitments under the Stand-By Arrangement negotiated with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), preserving macroeconomic stability and pressing ahead with structural reforms to unlock its economic potential. Looking further ahead, the focus should be gradual implementation of the EU/Ukraine AA, which provides a long-term anchor that Ukraine otherwise lacks, and related fundamental reforms (such as public administration reform) which are supported by international donors. This would strengthen institutional resilience in the face of Russian pressure, which will continue without a political settlement to the Kremlin’s liking.
The scale of the reform challenge is daunting. Implementing the AA would require rebuilding (or building from scratch) much of Ukraine’s state. It is debatable whether Ukraine has the capacity to deliver the AA in its entirety, in which case the prioritization of certain chapters would be advisable. Such an undertaking would also require a major commitment from Western countries and donors. Sustaining that at a time of ‘Ukraine fatigue’, and with governments and electorates battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, will be testing to say the least. It is imperative that donors apply firm conditionality to assistance, particularly as regards IMF programmes, which Ukraine has frequently failed to deliver since the mid-1990s. In addition, Western assistance should include the supply of defensive military equipment to reinforce the capabilities of Ukraine’s armed forces, thus raising the cost to Russia should it again decide to dial up the violence in a major way. Although there can be no military solution to the conflict, a warning in 2016 by International Crisis Group is still valid:
Until there is a clearly positive change in the core Russian approach, the international community needs to build its policy toward Moscow over eastern Ukraine on the assumption that anything, including more serious fighting, is possible. For now, this may seem highly unlikely… But large Russian units have already fought twice in Ukraine, once (February 2015) even during peace talks. Moscow could resort to such means again should the lower-cost, lower-visibility approach of supporting the entities in a protracted conflict fail.
Fourth, Western governments should encourage the authorities in Kyiv to take a more inclusive approach towards those in occupied Donbas. Unlike the de facto states in Abkhazia and Transnistria, the DNR and LNR are not fully consolidated. Unlike with the conflicts in Georgia and Moldova, Russian actions were critical in fomenting war in 2014. Partly as a result (and partly because the regimes are synonymous with turbulence, criminality and violence), the legitimacy of the DNR/LNR leaderships is questionable. Crucially, people either side of the contact line retain similar identities. Yet the longer the occupied region exists in a separate space dominated by Russia, the likelier it is that an identity overtly hostile towards Kyiv will crystallize, causing the current division to harden still further.
Certain actions by the authorities in Kyiv have added to this danger. One was the decision to cut or to disrupt economic, financial and social ties in late 2014, particularly the requirement that those in the occupied zone register on Kyiv-controlled territory at least every 60 days to qualify for state benefits and to acquire basic documents (including birth and death certificates, passports). Pension rights remain the biggest problem: hundreds of thousands of pensioners, it is estimated, do not receive regular payments. A related issue is the blockade imposed on occupied Donbas in 2017. Supposedly intended to combat smuggling and corruption, it depressed trade across the contact line, thus hitting living standards and prompting the DNR and LNR authorities to retaliate by expropriating large companies on their territories. Besides weakening the economic interaction that could help over time to rebuild political trust, such isolationist actions lend respectability to negative stereotyping of those in occupied Donbas, making reconciliation even more difficult. This is about more than a pragmatic argument over how to make reintegration eventually happen; there is a principle at stake. Ukraine’s justified claim to sovereignty over occupied Donbas should go hand in hand with a recognition that those there are entitled to be treated as Ukrainian citizens. Commendably, Zelenskyy has adopted an inclusive tone, but more needs to be done to address humanitarian issues, rebuild trade links and facilitate people-to-people ties.
That said, fifth, Western governments should assume that the DNR and LNR will not be de facto parts of Ukraine any time soon. For reasons of principle and consistency, Western capitals should continue to recognize Ukraine’s de jure sovereignty over occupied Donbas. But an attempt at early reintegration would impose intolerable strains on Ukraine. A return to pre-2014 realities is inconceivable. Reconciling communities traumatized by war will be an immense challenge. The cost of economic reconstruction will be colossal. The DNR and LNR are enmeshed in Russia’s military/security, economic and media spaces. The political gap separating them and Kyiv-controlled territory is wide and will become wider if Ukraine continues to reform to EU standards. Integration on terms agreeable to Ukraine would mean the effective dissolution of the DNR/LNR regimes. There is no chance that the Kremlin would accept that in the foreseeable future. A reformed and prosperous Ukraine might eventually act as a magnet, drawing people in occupied Donbas to reintegrate voluntarily. But that is not a plausible outcome for many years. And Russia’s attitude would still have to change before it could happen. Until then, the priority for Western governments should be to help defend the sovereignty of unoccupied Ukraine against Russian pressure.
Finally, the approach sketched here would logically entail a lengthy stand-off with Russia. This would last until Russia’s leaders acknowledged Ukraine to be a sovereign country. That seems inconceivable as long as the current leadership holds power in Moscow, and is also unlikely to happen quickly in a post-Putin world. By implication, those US and EU sanctions on Russia that are tied to implementation of the Minsk agreements would remain in place for the foreseeable future. Are Western capitals really prepared for that?