Who Should Move First on Minsk?

March 7, 2016

In each installment of “CGI Asks,” a selection of experts respond to a question about developments related to Russia and the broader region.

Western leaders met in Paris last week to review progress on the Minsk accords amid growing concern over Moscow and Kyiv’s unwillingness to implement their sides of the agreement.  We asked experts which side needs to act first to break the current stalemate.

Joshua Cohen, Foreign Affairs Columnist


Josh CohenUkraine already took the first step, as last March 17 Kyiv passed the law mandated by Clause 4 of the Minsk agreement, “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 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.
Moscow must withdraw militarily, but neither side will want to comply further.
Ukrainian politics make it difficult for either President Poroshenko or the Rada to take decisive steps to decentralize power. Ganting 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” 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, 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. 
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.
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Taras Kuzio, Senior Fellow, Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta


TarasThe key outstanding areas of the Minsk Accords that have not been implemented are the exchange of prisoners by the separatists and Russia, the return of control of the border to Ukraine, withdrawal of Russian forces, an end to military exchanges, and the according of some special status to Donbass and the holding of local elections. German and French leaders are more willing to exert pressure on Ukraine than on Russia, which was invited to join the peace talks even though it is an aggressor in the conflict and not a neutral bystander.

The exchange of prisoners has been blocked by the separatists and Russia, and there is a large volume of testimony that points to them committing human rights abuses and war crimes against Ukrainian prisoners of war and civilians. Russia refuses to return control of the border to Ukraine, because to do so would mean it could no longer provide a security guarantee to the separatists. Russian forces remain illegally based in Donbass, and Russia has organized, trained, equipped and financed the DNR-LNR forces into a 40,000-strong force that is bigger than half of NATO member armies. Since Minsk-II was signed, there has been continued shelling and warfare conducted by Russia and the separatists, in which Ukraine has suffered 400 dead and 1500 wounded, in addition to losing territory.

Ukraine can’t negotiate the status of Donbass until Russian troops withdraw. 

Local elections are pointless and should not be recognized by the OSCE, Council of Europe, EU and United States if Ukrainian parties will not be permitted to take part, as DNR leader Alexander Zakharchenko has said. Free and fair democratic elections cannot be held until Russian forces are withdrawn, Ukraine regains control of the border, and Donbass is de-militarized through the disarming of illegal groups. Once these steps are undertaken, a parliamentary constitutional majority will emerge that could support President Poroshenko in negotiating a special status for Donbass. If Russia and its separatist proxies do not take these steps, Ukrainian politicians will remain suspicious of Moscow’s motives and there will be no political support for a Donbass status.


Gerhard Mangott, University Professor of International Relations, University of Innsbruck 


Gerhard MangotThe implementation of the Minsk Agreement, signed back in February 2015, is at an impasse. Both the Ukrainian and the Russian governments blame each other for the dreadful situation. Russia insists on Ukraine recognizing her political obligations under the Agreement. Ukraine, on the other hand, refuses to go ahead with the required legal reforms until Russian troops have left the Donbass region and the rebels have been disarmed. But the Russians claim that there are no Russian troops in the Donbass (contrary to what experts have proven numerous times). So how can they be withdrawn, the Russians argue. This is the mess in which international mediators currently find themselves.

Russia must press the rebels to respect the ceasefire.

In order to untangle the knot, the military part of the Minsk agreement needs to be implemented in full and on a sustainable basis. Without a durable cease fire, the full exchange of prisoners and the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from the security zone, there is no prospect for a political solution. Reportedly, both sides violate the ceasefire, but the rebels on a much more frequent basis. Russia needs to use its leverage over the rebels for the violations to stop.

Once a sustainable ceasefire has been achieved, it is on Ukraine to move forward with its own obligations. A constitutional reform providing for the decentralization of Ukraine, a law on the unlimited autonomous status of the Donbass region, a law on elections in that region and an amnesty law have to be passed by the Ukrainian parliament. If these steps are taken and elections in Donbass are held, Ukraine will (probably) achieve its ultimate goalregaining full control over the border between itself and Russia.

As it stands, these Ukrainian obligations will not be fulfilled, even if a sustainable ceasefire were to be established. There is no majority consensus in Kiev to pass these laws, and there will not be one in the future. This why we are at an impasse, regrettably so. Moscow insists that Kiev adopt the constitutional reform and the other legislation before local elections can be held in the rebel-controlled regions of Donbass. Moscow endorsed the Franco-German proposal to hold these elections in June or July. Kiev, however, refuses to hold elections until OSCE monitors have full access to the Donbass conflict zone, including the Ukrainian-Russian border ,and demands an OSCE police mission to guarantee the security during the elections.

But even if Moscow were to agree to these demands, which most likely it will not do, the current Ukrainian government is in no position to pass any of the required legislation in the Rada as it lacks the majority needed for adoption. The question arises, how long the Minsk process can continue without significant progress. France and Germany stand to lose their credibility if both warring factions continue to ignore the Agreement.

Amanda Paul, Senior Policy Analyst, European Policy Center (Brussels)


amanda_paulIt has been just over a year since the Minsk II Agreement was signed.  Unfortunately, none of the elements of the agreement have been fully implemented and the deadline for full implementation December 2015has been extended without a precise date. This comes as no surprise because Minsk II was flawed from the beginning, with ambiguous language allowing for different interpretations of key points. Furthermore, the separatists did not even start to comply with the agreement until after they had taken the town of Debaltaseve, three days after the deal was signed.

Russia needs to act first to satisfy an agreement that already favors Moscow.

The fact that a cease-fire agreement and a peace plan were rolled together into one document made little sense, making it possibly one of the most flawed peace agreements ever penned. The urgency of reaching an agreement to bring the fighting and bloodshed in Eastern Ukraine to an end resulted in an agreement that was more favorable to Moscow than the earlier Minsk Agreement of September 2014, and less favorable to Kyiv, which was saddled with having to carry out a number of very difficult measures—including constitutional reforms aimed at decentralization and carrying out local elections at time a time when ceasefire violations were still ongoing and the border between the occupied territory and Russia remained open (as it still does today). Furthermore, as of today, the so-called leaders of the so-called Peoples Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk has repeatedly said that they will not accept the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, which is the main objective of Minsk II.

In my view it is Russia that needs to act first, because as of today, Moscow has implemented next to nothing. Russia needs to act to allow full access to the OSCE monitors to the occupied territories—which has never been the case since the agreement was signed—, withdraw its military forces and equipment from Ukraine, and restore Ukrainian control over the border. Furthermore, the exchange of all prisoners—which was an immediate condition of the agreement but hasn’t yet taken place—needs to happen.


Susan Stewart, Senior Associate for Eastern Europe & Eurasia, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)

Stewart_SusanThe answer to this question depends on how one sees the issue of sequencing. Interestingly, the only point of the Minsk II agreement which has been implemented is the thirteenth and final point on intensifying the work of the so-called Contact Group. This speaks in favor of a flexible approach to sequencing, in which those points on which there is agreement take priority over those where there is none.

Nonetheless, the Ukrainian argument that the security clauses (especially those on the ceasefire and weapons removal) of the agreement need to be more convincingly fulfilled before the political ones (on decentralization and elections) can be tackled appears reasonable. What should not be forgotten, however, is the humanitarian aspect of the situation, which is addressed in points 7 and 8 of the “package of measures” known as Minsk II. Thus a promising approach would be to focus on points 1-8 for now and leave the others to a later stage.

Russia and the separatists need to act first to allow access to the OSCE monitoring mission.

Both Ukraine and Russia (which exercises strong control over the separatists within the Minsk framework) can contribute to making crossings at checkpoints and access to social benefits and assistance easier. While both can also help to ensure security on the ground, OSCE reports indicate that in particular Russia and the separatists need to do more in this regard.

However, in order to verify what is and is not happening, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission must be allowed better access, especially to the occupied areas. This implies that Russia and its separatist allies need to act first. Once the question of access is resolved, all other steps can follow. Without access, the process is doomed to remain bogged down in a thicket of mutual accusations.

In parallel, Germany and France, as members of the Normandy format, need to make clear to their partners in the EU that quick implementation of the Minsk agreements is not going to be forthcoming. Thus the EU needs to prepare itself—despite strong internal opposition—to extend the sanctions against Russia this summer for another six months.


Mikhail Troitskiy, Associate Professor, MGIMO (Moscow)


Mikhail TroitskiyInternational mediators—the major European powers that helped to broker the Minsk accord of February 2015—should be expected to make the first proactive move in the current limbo. If the conflict in and around Donbass is to be resolved in the foreseeable future, a transparent election in the breakaway regions would be necessary.

A real election worth conducting would be one with unpredictable results. That is, neither the incumbent authorities in the self-proclaimed people’s republics, nor any political forces from “mainland Ukraine” should feel that their victory is guaranteed.

International mediators should develop a plan for Ukraine’s elections in the east. 

To set a legal framework for such an election, Ukraine and Russia would need to show significant political flexibility. Ukraine, for example, would have to allow the refugees and other migrants from Donbass to vote in the election. All those who have left Donbass and currently reside in Russia should be allowed to access polling stations in the Ukrainian embassy and consulates. Meanwhile, Russia will have to agree to close monitoring of the election by the OSCE, and perhaps to an expanded role for international bodies to play in printing the ballots and counting the votes.

The international mediators should take the initiative at this stage. They would need to develop a roadmap that describes the step-by-step measures needed in the run-up to the election, as well as a number of subsequent steps to ensure that whoever wins will be able to exercise authority in Donbass. The end result, though ambitious, should be the full restoration of all economic ties and communications between the breakaway regions and the rest of Ukraine.

The mediators’ view would be heard and taken seriously in Moscow if the roadmap includes a condition for how the sanctions regime could be eased at the end of the road. Kyiv would take the roadmap seriously if it contains a clear promise of restoration of Ukraine’s de-facto territorial integrity—as opposed to the perpetuation of the current, and costly, status quo.


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