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Why the Minsk-2 is not the Munich but a tactical pause for stabilization in Ukraine

The Russian, Ukrainian, French and German leaders met in Minsk on Feb 11-12, 2015, with a view to negotiate solutions to the crisis in Ukraine. The parties signed a new document, which was approved by the Contact Group and was called a Complex of Measures to Fulfill the Minsk Agreements. Its first point – ceasefire in the Donbass - took force on Feb 15. That was the highlight of the last week in Ukraine.

The negotiations were conducted behind the closed doors for as long as sixteen hours. 

The problem was that during their previous meeting in Astana the parties failed to coordinate their preliminary positions. That’s why their Minsk discussions were so long.

As a result, Russia, France and Germany supported the document in words only, while the signatories were the former President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma, the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic (both unrecognized by Kyiv), an OSCE representative and Russian Ambassador Mikhail Zurabov. This means that the new agreements are not firm enough as they ensure no contacts between Kyiv and the “unrecognized republics” and are guaranteed by words only.

 The United States qualified the Minsk agreements as “potentially significant steps” towards peace in Ukraine. US Secretary of State John Kerry said that “the United States is prepared to consider rolling back sanctions on Russia when the Minsk agreements of September 2014, and now this agreement, are fully implemented.” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that though not fully satisfactory for Germany, the Minsk agreements were a very essential step away from violence and towards a political solution.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande both qualified the agreements as a glimmer of hope but not more. High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini said before the European Council’s meeting last Thursday that they were developing mechanisms to implement the new Minsk agreements but she did not specify what they would look like.

The meeting in Minsk has generated hopes for ceasefire. The other agreements are less clear. Much of what they say is quite equivocal. For example, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says that the agreements stipulate no autonomy or federalization for the Donbass. 

Nor do they suggest any practical mechanisms, particularly, of how the conflicting parties can be disengaged by peacekeeping forces. Most of their points favor the self-defenders, with only one – ceasefire – point benefiting Kyiv.

The Minsk-2 shows that the goals of the conflicting parties are so different that no agreement is possible for the time being. The points saying that Ukraine should adopt a new constitution are impracticable because of US-supported nationalists in Kyiv. The key measure that can ensure Ukraine’s sovereignty over the Donbass – control of the eastern border – has been put off till the end of this year and is linked to a number of stipulations Kyiv will hardly be able to fulfill. The point obliging Ukraine to stop its economic blockade of the Donbass is linked to Kyiv’s precondition that the rebel regions should conduct new elections according to the Ukrainian laws. The solutions offered by the new Minsk agreements imply no practical mechanisms or guarantees. The conflict in the Donbass can be frozen only in case of continuous ceasefire. But for them in Kyiv, this is just short respite. This is why most of experts in Ukraine, Russia and the West regard the Minsk-2 as a temporary measure.

If truth be told, ceasefire is the only thing the new Minsk agreements have been signed for. In military terms, ceasefire is good for Ukraine as it gives it time for rest and regrouping. In political terms, many people in the West believe that the agreements are good for Russia. In fact, such views are just a ground for measures that are supposed to nullify these benefits.

The Minsk-2 reflects much of what Russia required, but these points have no strategic importance. So, the West’s forced concessions can hardly become a basis for stable peace in Ukraine. Their only goal was to achieve ceasefire in the face of growing military and financial crises in the country.

The new Minsk agreements are full of omissions, defects and ambiguities. In the current Ukrainian combination diplomatic and military scenarios alternate depending on which of them is the best for the conflicting parties at the moment. As a result, tactical maneuvering is turning into a strategy of undeclared war.

Very many western articles about the Minsk-2 say that they in the West do not understand the Kremlin’s position on the Ukrainian conflict as President Putin does not give a clear answer what he wants. They say that he keeps puzzling his western colleagues. But this is a lie. Russia has long formulated its terms:

- Crimea’s accession to Russia must be recognized;

- Ukraine must be federalized, otherwise, the rebel regions must be given an autonomy;

 - Ukraine must become a neutral, non-bloc state; 

- Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU must be coordinated with Russia’s economic interests.

However, the US and the EU completely ignore this. Both the new Minsk agreements and the declarations signed by the Normandy four on Feb 12 neglect the requirement for Ukraine’s neutral status. On the other hand, the declarations mention full respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This ambiguous wording may mean either that the West has silently recognized Crimea’s annexation or that it may lay claims for Crimea in future.

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The deficiency of the new Minsk agreements was confirmed by the events that followed their signing. During a summit in Brussels on Feb 12 the EU leaders decided not to consider new sanctions against Russia. But on the very next day German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the EU leaders had asked the European Commission to draft new anti-Russian sanctions. New economic sanctions will hardly be approved before the next EU summit on Mar 19-20 2015. As regards the sanctions against 19 Russian citizens and pro-Russian figures of the Donbass as well as 9 legal entities, they were enacted before the Minsk-2. Poland and the UK actively resisted the EU leaders’ wish not to apply the sanctions in view of the new Minsk agreements. The logic of the advocates of further sanctions is simple: the Minsk agreements are not strong enough, so, in order to strengthen them, Europe needs a firm common stance.

So, sanctions are in force and may even be toughened. The French Foreign Ministry made things even worse when on Feb 12 evening it said that the Mistral deal was still pending.

The pro-Ukrainian critics of the new Minsk agreements called the Minsk meeting a copy of the Munich conference of 1938. They said it was one more “cynical deal made at the expense of Ukraine.” But what happened in Minsk Feb 11-12 night was all but a new Munich, first of all, because the talks involved the “object” of the conflict, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. After February 2014 Ukraine ceased to be a subject of politics and turned into a field of a geopolitical battle between Russia and the West. In fact, in Minsk Hollande and Merkel were just part of the collective West as one of the conflicting parties.

Had the organizers of the Minsk-2 wished to organize a new Munich, they should had left Poroshenko waiting in the lobby for what others would decide. The absence of the US President meant that the Americans may block any possible agreement on Ukraine. They sent Poroshenko there so as to be able to control the process and to curb any undesirable developments between Russia and Europe. Poroshenko’s presence was a guarantee that there would be no new Munich.

The Minsk-2 is important for the West as a means to convince the EU members to be tougher in the conflict in Ukraine. The next day after the Minsk-2, they in Brussels said they would apply new sanctions against Russia if the ceasefire in the Donbass was broken but they didn’t say what they would do it the ceasefire was broken by Ukraine. It was President Poroshenko’s proposal that the European Council should convoke a special meeting should the ceasefire be broken.

Right after the Minsk talks the West did its best to make Russia the only one to blame for a possible breach of the newly-declared ceasefire. The Americans and the Europeans promise to toughen their anti-Russian sanctions. Western mass media keep discussing extreme measures, like removing Russian from Swift and delivering arms to Ukraine. In fact, the West is giving Ukraine the green-light for breaking the ceasefire and encouraging this step by a promise of arms deliveries. The first 20 of the 75 Saxon armored personnel carriers bought by Ukraine from the UK were shipped to the port of Odessa on the very next day after the Minsk talks. On the same day Steven Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, the United States’ closest ally, said that they were going to consider all possible ways to support Ukraine, this including deliveries of lethal defensive arms. The deliveries will start once the ceasefire is broken. The coordinator of western arms deliveries to Ukraine will be former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili, while Vice Speaker of the Ukrainian Supreme Rada, radical nationalist Andrey Parubiy is going to leave for the US in order to ask the Americans for more arms for Ukraine.

These deliveries are the most the West can give Ukraine. But many experts in Berlin and Washington are sure that even if the arms are delivered, Russia will still be strong enough to beat the Ukrainian army. So, such ceasefires are the best way for the West to restrict Russia’s capacities in Ukraine: they give the Ukrainian troops time to recover and to avoid a rout.

One more clue to the Minsk-2 is Ukraine’s financial and economic problems. One of them is the threat of default. In late Jan-early Feb 2015, this threat was even higher than that of a defeat in the Donbass. That’s why right after the signing of the agreements, the IMF announced a strategic program of financial support for Ukraine. The fund is going to lend the country $17.5bn for financial stability and economic reforms, with $40bn more to be provided by other sources. The World Bank joined the program the next day with $2bn. The European Commission reacted by announcing the next stage of the EU-Ukraine-Russia gas talks. Thus, the Western allies of the ruling regime in Kyiv are trying to use the new Minsk agreements for ensuring financial and economic stability in Ukraine.

In fact, the Minsk-2 was nothing but a tactical pause.

It is early yet to speak about a frozen conflict in the Donbass as the new Minsk agreements were not preceded by a defeat of the Ukrainian army. The delay in beating the Ukrainian troops near Debaltsevo had weakened Russia’s positions during the Minsk talks. In Sept 2014 the Ukrainian army was beaten. That’s why President Poroshenko was forced to accept the Minsk-1. Before the Minsk-2 there was no defeat. Debaltsevo failed to become a factor of pressure on Kyiv. Instead, it has become a factor of instability for the newly-declared ceasefire.

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