Why Russia and Ukraine Won’t Implement the Minsk Agreement

Ukrainian politics made it hard to decentralize, while Russia won’t allow Ukraine to move West. 

March 7, 2016

By Joshua Cohen

Ukraine already took the first step in implement the Minsk agreement, as last March Kyiv passed the law mandated by Clause 4 of the accord, “On Temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.” Russia, meanwhile, is supposed to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from the Donbass, as well as make the area available to OSCE inspectors. It has manifestly not done so to date, and and Kyiv possesses a strong argument that it should not be expected to take the next step while Russian troops and equipment remain on Ukraine’s sovereign territory.

Going forward, the most important requirements for Russia under Minsk II are for Moscow to end all military support for the separatists and restore full control over the Russian-Ukrainian border to Kyiv. On the other side, Minsk II requires Kyiv to create a new constitution decentralizing power to its regions and pass what Minsk II calls “approval of permanent legislation on the special status of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblast.” I am not optimistic that either side will take any of these key steps in the near future.
Ukrainian politics make it difficult for either President Poroshenko or the Rada to take decisive steps to decentralize power. When the Rada passed an initial bill to enact required by Minsk II, Ukrainian ultranationalists rioted, and in the ensuing violence three people were killed and 140 wounded. Finalizing changes to the constitution requires the support of at least 300 MPs in a second vote, and the threat from Poroshenko’s right flank undoubtedly makes him reluctant to push this forward.  Moreover, granting substantial autonomy to the “DNR” and “LNR” is already deeply unpopular with Ukrainian voters, and after the recent political turmoil in Kyiv—which may result in new elections this year—Ukrainian politicians will be even more reluctant to take any unpopular steps.  
Moscow is even less likely than Kyiv to implement the key points required of it by Minsk II. Once it became clear that Russia’s so-called “Novorossiya Project”—under which Moscow envisioned most of southern and eastern Ukraine seceding—had failed, President Putin narrowed his goals. Putin now seeks to use the DNR and LNR as “Trojan Horses” to prevent Ukraine from moving decisively West. Accordingly, in negotiations last May, Russia’s proxies in Donbass demanded formal non-bloc status for Ukraine, proposing that “Ukraine shall not be a member of any military bloc or alliance, maintain neutrality and refrain from participation in hostilities outside its territory,’ and/or bring out a law of Ukraine to enshrine the non-bloc, neutral status for Ukraine.” 
Putin understands that once Moscow withdraws support for its proxies and turns control of the border over to Ukraine, all his leverage over Kyiv disappears. Given that Moscow considers Ukrainian membership in NATO an existential issue, Putin is extremely unlikely to abandon the fight until he receives guarantees that Ukraine will not join Western institutions. Accordingly, if Putin cannot succeed in “neutralizing and federalizing” Ukraine, he will continue to keep the Donbass on a low boil, turning the pressure on Kyiv up or down as events dictate. In the meantime, Moscow clearly hopes that if it continues to stall for time and blame Kyiv for undermining Minsk II, eventually sanctions will collapse on their own. 
Unfortunately for Kyiv, Putin’s strategy may well work. Many of Ukraine’s European partners are increasingly eager to end the sanctions regime against Russia, and leading European Union states will therefore continue to apply equal pressure on both Moscow and Kyiv to implement the key points in Minsk II. Europe’s refugee crisis—which many argue Moscow purposely promotes by bombing civilians in Syria—only further serves to weaken European unity and brings Putin closer to his goal of seeing sanctions collapse.
In sum, while basic fairness dictates that Russia now take decisive steps to pull its troops and equipment from the Donbass, Moscow’s broader geopolitical concerns make this unlikely to occur in the near future.

Joshua Cohen
is a foreign affairs columnist and former USAID portfolio manager of market reform projects in the Soviet Union. His work has appeared in 
Foreign Policy, Reuters, Intersection Project, Atlantic Council, The Kyiv Post, The Moscow Times and others. Find him on Twitter at @jkc_in_dc.

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