The Minsk Accords, intended to stop the fighting in Southeastern Ukraine, have failed – but they still occupy centre-stage as ‘the only option’ for peace. If the United Kingdom (UK) really wants to be a friend to Ukraine, it needs to come out and say that this emperor has no clothes.
Russia’s undeclared war in Ukraine’s Donbas region, a toxic mix of civil war and Russian intervention, has been an especially intractable problem for the international community. Unlike the annexation of Crimea, this was not about the territory in question, but simply as a Russian means of bringing Kyiv to heel.
This failed. If anything, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader, helped accelerate the formation of a true Ukrainian national identity, transcending old political, regional, historical and linguistic divisions. Nonetheless, when it looked as though government forces were gaining the upper hand against the ragtag array of thugs, mercenaries, ‘patriots’ and adventurists on the ground, Putin surged in Russian troops, just enough to turn the tide.
This is the context of the first Minsk Protocol of September 2014 and then the Minsk II follow-on of February 2015. Both were responses to upsurges in fighting, and built around a ceasefire, and the reintegration of the so-called rebel ‘people’s republics’ under constitutional guarantees of greater autonomy following local elections under Ukrainian law.
Although at the time they averted the risk of all-out war, sporadic violence continues, with the constant risk of escalation. The promise was that armed groups and heavy weapons would be withdrawn from the line of contact, observed by monitors from the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), but this proved largely empty. Now, the OSCE is largely confined simply to reporting the daily tallies of shots fired and border crossings closed. Indeed, even the drones they use are increasingly being grounded by sophisticated Russian jammers.
Minsk II in particular was a non-starter from the beginning, over-complex and under-considered. It emerged, above all, from the personal intervention of French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. When national leaders get personally involved, that can sometimes provide the muscle to break logjams, but it also creates an almost-irresistible need to ensure that something – anything – emerges from the process.
Paris and Berlin had the muscle to make Kyiv sign a deal it did not believe would truly work, but as the following years of violence and stalemate have shown, they lacked the will or capacity to act as credible guarantors to the agreements on the ground.
Russia says Ukraine is failing to honour its commitments to granting special status to the local administrations. Kyiv says this depends on local elections being held under Ukrainian law, and until then will not grant these pseudo-states the status that would effectively give Moscow’s agents a veto over its policies. Round and round the recriminations go.
Kyiv regards Minsk as a dead end, but cannot be seen as walking away from negotiations, let alone ones which still have the French and German imprimatur. Time and again, the refrain is that ‘Minsk is the only peace plan on the table.’ Hollande’s successor Emmanuel Macron, for example, is equally determined that ‘on the Ukrainian issue, these are the Minsk agreements. And only the Minsk agreements. Everything is very simple.’ As if it were.
The trouble is that Minsk is not only dead, it is a rotting corpse slumped over the conference table. It is not only failing to bring peace to the Donbas, it prevents potential new negotiations, or even an honest conversation about the conflict.
A friend of Ukraine’s, one with an independent policy and a serious voice in global affairs, could give real form to that friendship by affirming, clearly and unambiguously, that whatever its virtues at the time, but the Minsk process is dead. This is about acknowledging the reality, and removing what has become a distraction. At present, after all, the parties are not talking about peace, they are trading recriminations over clauses in a document that now has no bearing on the realities on the ground.
This is something Britain could do and should do. It might look as if it is also a needless dig at France and Germany, but certainly based on my conversations, there are senior figures in both countries’ foreign policy elites who – however much they would remonstrate in public – would appreciate being let off the hook. It isn’t fun being expected to defend the indefensible.
Moscow would not be happy, but even while its overarching foreign policy may be driven by unrealistic notions of its global status and implausible fears of Western aggression, the Russians are also deeply pragmatic. If anything, they despise and despair at what they see as our sanctimonious hypocrisy. They expect states robustly to assert their interests, and even when they do not like the outcome, if need be, they come to accept them.
Nor would this weaken Kyiv’s position. While some see Minsk as one of the few constraints on Putin’s behaviour, arguably Ukraine’s capacity to have established an effective 250,000-strong military and the general lack of enthusiasm amongst the Russians for some wider war are much more significant.
Just as importantly, though, such a move will add a new dimension to the British-Ukrainian relationship. In 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a comprehensive Political, Free Trade, and Strategic Partnership Agreement. While this covered topics from commerce to culture, the security dimension has in many ways dominated the debate. This is, of course, important, as the continuing Operational Orbital training mission and deployment of British paratroopers to Ukraine in Exercise Joint Endeavour demonstrate.
However, to focus on security is, in effect, to perpetuate Ukraine’s status as a problem, to see it less as an emerging state and economy and more as a victim.
While it has a long way to go in reforming its institutions, and it is still heavily dependent on foreign financial assistance, Ukraine is a state on the rise, potentially beginning to see the ‘virtuous circle of profits, investment, rising wages and ballooning consumption’ that have transformed over countries once part of the Soviet Union. The UK is already in the top five sources of foreign direct investment, and Ukraine is both one of the world’s largest grain exporters and a growing market.
The European Union – under French and German leadership – has largely failed to create a convincing and comprehensive policy towards Ukraine that balances supporting its sovereignty and nurturing its development as well as recognising its realities. Someone has to.
It is not, after all, that the UK needs to offer some new piece of paper to replace Minsk II. Sadly, while Moscow is not especially happy with the current situation in the Donbas – the intervention certainly failed to break Kyiv’s will and its determination to move towards the Euro-Atlantic democracies – it seems to regard the economic, military and diplomatic costs as bearable, at least preferable to a shame-faced climb-down. For the moment, the prospects of any real peace deal are slender.
Instead, it is simply about facing facts. Taking Minsk II off the table would for now at least remove some unrealistic expectations from Ukraine and a document that is no more than a distraction. And maybe, somewhere down the line, that conference table could be used for more pragmatic discussions about peace, one driven by a genuine desire to reach agreement on the part of the participants, not the naive ambitions of distant European leaders eager for some headlines. That in itself would be a worthwhile gift from London to Kyiv.
Dr Mark Galeotti is Director of Mayak Intelligence Ltd.
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