Fear of an all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine has re-energized attempts by Western capitals to find a political solution to the main driver of the crisis – the conflict in the Donbas, which sets the authorities in Kyiv against the Russian-backed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (DNR) and ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ (LNR).
Engineered by Russia, this war has dragged on for almost eight years. The hope is the ‘Minsk-2’ agreement of February 2015 provides the solution – during his recent visit to Moscow, French president Emmanuel Macron even described Minsk-2 as the ‘only way forward’.
But a nine-hour meeting of the Normandy Format – France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine – convened in Berlin on 10 February specifically to revive the Minsk negotiating format, broke up inconclusively.
This latest failure to make progress comes as no surprise.
Why does Minsk-2 cause such debate?
Minsk-2 purports to create a framework to resolve the war, but it is a tangle of contradictory provisions, and a convoluted and contested sequence of actions. Textual incoherence reflects incompatible interpretations of what is to be achieved and how. And at its heart is a simple problem – Ukraine sees Minsk-2 as a means to restore its sovereignty, but Russia views it as a tool with which to cripple Ukraine’s sovereignty.
This is the ‘Minsk Conundrum’ and is baked into the core political provisions of Minsk-2, which are elections and ‘special status’. Ukraine argues security must come before a political settlement as free and fair elections can only be held in the Donbas after the separatist-controlled territories have been demilitarized and Ukraine has restored control over the border – meaning a full Russian military withdrawal.
This is not just a matter of interpreting Minsk-2 because the obligations to respect state sovereignty and territorial integrity are ‘peremptory norms’ of public international law – rules from which no derogation is allowed. But Russia insists elections should be held in occupied Donbas before Ukraine has taken back control of the border, to ensure its DNR/LNR proxies ‘win’.
What is the issue over ‘special status’?
The question of ‘special status’ for the DNR/LNR is even more controversial because, contrary to what is sometimes suggested, Russia’s demands go way beyond any reasonable definition of autonomy. Moscow wants an extreme version of autonomy and insists this is written into Ukraine’s constitution, meaning that following formal reintegration into Ukraine these mini-states would be essentially independent of Kyiv.
This would embed Russian influence into Ukraine’s political system, compromising Ukraine’s sovereignty from within. Such an agenda is spelled out in leaked emails from the mastermind of Donbas separatism Vladislav Surkov who has also said Ukrainian law would not apply in a post-settlement Donbas. There is no doubt about Russia’s objective – the destruction of Ukraine as a sovereign country.
Unsurprisingly, ‘special status’ is a potentially explosive question in Ukraine, and one glossed over by some advocates of compromise. A large majority of Ukrainians reject the concept because they fear Russia would exploit it to further destabilize the country. Occasionally, under international pressure, Ukraine’s leaders have reluctantly signalled acceptance of ‘special status’ only to run into domestic opposition.
Ukraine has proposed including the DNR/LNR in a nationwide decentralization programme so these regions would gain new powers but nothing like the maximalist form of devolution Russia demands or constitutional ‘special status’. Instead they would be resubordinated to the authorities in Kyiv who would be able to determine Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policies. This is unacceptable to Russia.
Why is implementing Minsk-2 such a problem?
Unlike Russia, whose position on Minsk-2 has not changed since 2015, Ukraine has shown flexibility. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy came to power in 2019 promising to resolve the conflict and pointedly avoided naming Russia as an aggressor, focusing on humanitarian issues instead and seeking compromise wherever possible.
But he soon ran into the same insurmountable obstacle – without control of Ukraine’s border and territory, there can be no political settlement which respects Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Since 2015, Western policymakers have tried forlornly to reconcile the Russian and Ukrainian stances, with the ‘Steinmeier Formula’ being the best known attempt to achieve the unachievable. Supporters of compromise maintain their nominal goal is the defence of Ukraine’s sovereignty, and implementation of the Minsk agreement is the means to this end. But they also say implementation entails ‘special status’ for the DNR/LNR, avoiding specific details but suggesting they reject Russia’s position.
Asserting Ukraine must swallow an unspecified form of ‘special status’ implicitly accepts that Russian aggression should be rewarded, disregards Ukrainian public opinion, jeopardizes political stability in Ukraine, and undermines Ukraine’s sovereignty. This is a policy mess.
What other issues need resolving?
There are also other ways in which some advocates of ‘Minsk implementation’ turn a blind eye to Moscow’s actions. Since 2014, Russia has been steadily integrating the occupied Donbas into its own legal, economic, and political order – making the prospect of Ukraine ever regaining control over the region increasingly moot.
The most striking measure is ‘passportization’ where Russia has issued more than 720,000 passports to inhabitants of the DNR/LNR – in effect turning Ukrainian citizens into Russian citizens, in violation of international law.
Passportization facilitates Russia’s extraterritorial governance over the Donbas by giving it permanent influence over the separatist territories without direct¬ annexation. It could also be used as a pretext to justify a full-scale Russian military intervention to ‘protect its citizens’. Western governments – particularly France and Germany as members of the Normandy Format – should draw two conclusions.