History Points to Rough Road Ahead for Ukraine Peace Deal

A Ukrainian soldier looks on. (Flickr/Steve Evans)

Mediated by France and Germany, an agreement aimed at ending the Ukraine crisis was concluded between Russia, Ukraine, and Russian-backed separatists in the self-declared democratic people’s republics (DPRs) of Donetsk and Luhansk on Thursday, February 12, and took effect in the early hours of the following Sunday. While most observers agree the terms of the so-called Minsk II agreement have been largely observed and violence has died down, intense fighting continued for several days in some areas, especially around the strategic town of Debaltseve, where Ukrainian forces suffered a humiliating defeat.

There is some hope that the agreement can still gain traction on the ground—the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front lines has begun and a first prisoner exchange has taken place. In another round of talks on February 24, the foreign ministers of the signatory states restated their commitment to the provisions of the Minsk Agreement and called for a one-year extension of the OSCE Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. Thus, the agreement could indeed offer hope for an eventual breakthrough to the settlement of one of the worst crises in relations between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War and the bloodiest conflict in Europe since the Yugoslav Wars 20 years ago.

However, the February agreement is not the first such deal struck in the course of the Ukrainian crisis. Almost a year ago, representatives of the Ukrainian parliamentary opposition at the time and then president Viktor Yanukovych signed an agreement on a way out of the crisis. This agreement survived for about three days, after which time the opposition issued Yanukovych with an arrest warrant and he became a fugitive in Russia.

An agreement in Geneva two months later—after Russia’s annexation of Crimea—did not fare much better, nor did a United Nations Security Council resolution in July, or the first Minsk Agreement of September 2014 and the subsequent memorandum on its implementation. So, the question now becomes: is there anything in Minsk II, or in the context around it, which makes it more likely that Ukraine is at least on a steady path toward peace and stability?

The content of Minsk II is reasonably promising. The agreement combines military-security, political, and humanitarian aspects in a fairly aspirational manner. A cease-fire and the creation of a buffer zone—both to be monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)—are the most important military-security aspects, alongside a commitment to the withdrawal of all foreign-armed forces from Ukraine and the disarmament of all illegal groups. In the medium term, and linked to progress toward a political settlement, Ukraine is also to full control of its armed forces in Luhansk and Donetsk.

The political aspects of the agreement include the holding of OSCE-monitored local elections in individual areas of Donetsk and Luhansk and constitutional reform to be completed by the end of 2015. A timetable foresees the beginning of a dialogue on local elections and the future status of areas currently under separatist control on the first day after the creation of the military buffer zone, which is expected to be fully in place within two weeks of the beginning of the cease-fire.

Within 30 days of the conclusion of Minsk II, the Ukrainian parliament is to pass a resolution that will define the areas to which a special status is to apply, on the basis of the demarcation line agreed in the memorandum on the implementation of the agreement. The parameters of this special status, to be codified in permanent Ukrainian legislation as part of the constitutional reform process, are further outlined in an annex to Minsk II. Among other things, it specifies language rights, local control over judicial and security institutions, cross-border collaboration with regions in the Russian Federation, and a special development program for the separatist areas.

Minsk II’s humanitarian measures include an amnesty for troops fighting in the conflict, prisoner exchanges that will be completed within five days of the creation of the buffer zone, facilitation of humanitarian aid, and full restoration of socioeconomic relations between Kiev and the separatist area, including pensions, healthcare, utilities, and tax collection. Where the agreement falls short is in the lack of any in-built guarantee mechanisms or arrangements for the settlement of any disputes over its own conditions. There is relatively little in Minsk II that offers assurances to the parties that it will indeed be implemented and no consequences are stipulated for any of the sides failing to hold up their end of the bargain. Neither is it clear what will happen if the sides do not agree on particular stipulations. For example, one could easily foresee different interpretations of what “individual areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions” means—literally local municipalities, which will have some sort of special status, or the combined areas under rebel control in each region (the DPRs at present) that would be given regional autonomous status in Ukraine? While such constructive ambiguity is often necessary, an agreement is more likely to survive if there are also agreed procedures in place on how to deal with it.

Moreover, while some of the steps toward achieving peace are sequenced, they are not connected in a way that creates incentives for the parties to follow through. For example, the agreement sets absolute deadlines for specifying the territory of special status areas and for completing constitutional reform through a parliamentary bill, when a focus on reaching relative milestones may have been more effective.

These caveats to one side, there is still considerably more promise in Minsk II than in previous agreements, if only in the sense that the four leaders involved—Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s François Hollande, Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin—spent a considerable amount of time and effort negotiating it. The fact that the cease-fire, so far, seems to be largely holding and that the withdrawal of heavy arms has begun to create a buffer zone also offers a ray of hope.

Much will now depend on the agenda of the Kremlin and how well it can keep separatists in check, particularly as they realize that they, rather than Putin, will have to live under whatever new constitutional arrangements will be negotiated. Similar issues might also emerge on the Ukrainian side, where a number of paramilitary groups have made significant contributions to stemming various rebel offences. Thus, it is entirely possible that localized fighting will continue for some time or erupt again in the future. The durability of Minsk II will depend on such incidents not igniting more widespread military confrontations again. The willingness to contain local incidents will also reflect how serious leaders on both sides are about bringing this crisis to a political conclusion.

A further note of caution is that, in addition to sharing many features with the other agreements concluded over the crisis in Ukraine during the past year, Minsk II is also eerily similar to a number of relatively recent cease-fire agreements in the wider region. This includes conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transnistria, none of which have seen any negotiated settlement over the past two decades. While Transnistria may have achieved some degree of stability, the conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia sparked a war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, and Nagorno-Karabakh continues to teeter on the brink of serious violence.

Minsk II gives the opposing parties in Ukraine an opportunity to avoid a similar fate of unfulfilled expectations, but nothing more. It is a promising first step, but will require dependable local leaders, continuing international diplomatic efforts, and a process of robust constitutional reform in Ukraine that will create viable structures of a new state that reflects the aspirations of all its citizens. For the time being, this may be too tall an order. The signs are that, in the absence of credible enforcement mechanisms, Russia and its proxy forces on the ground are not yet content with the extent of territory they control. The build-up of troops near the strategic port city of Mariupol, the bombing in Kharkiv, and a similar attack that was foiled in Odessa, speak volumes of the insincerity of the separatists and their backers in the Kremlin, and of the relative impotence of the West to stop them.

Despite the aspirations of Minsk II to achieve a definitive peace, the most stabilizing outcome for the crisis in Ukraine for the time being may be a new frozen conflict.

Stefan Wolff is Professor of International Security with the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham, England, UK and a widely published expert and consultant in international crisis management. You can find him at www.stefanwolff.com; @stefwolff; or [email protected]