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Minsk-2 outcomes: Putin showed that any new truce would be achieved on worse terms for Ukraine

On February 12, 2015, the high-level talks in the Normandy format in Minsk resulted in a new peace agreement on the conflict in Donbass.  The agreement envisages “A set of measures for the implementation of the Minsk agreement.” Under the first point of the agreement, on February 15, the sides were to announce “immediate and comprehensive ceasefire in certain areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine.” However, there was no comprehensive truce due to the continuing battles in Debaltsevo. The hybrid war was replaced with a hybrid truce. The ceasefire was being observed selectively. By the moment of the Minsk talks, the self-defense forces had already taken the main arms supply routes of Ukraine’s troops in Debaltsevo Ledge. At the Minsk talks, President Poroshenko denied stoutly that Ukraine’s troops were encircled.  President Putin, on the contrary, insisted that the troops were encircled in the “Debaltsevo pot.” Just four days after Minsk-2 and a day after the official start of the truce, Ukraine’s president finally accepted the fact of the military crisis in the area of Debaltsevo.  On February 18, he announced that Ukraine’s troops were leaving Debaltsevo. Ukraine’s armed forces, as Poroshenko said, “completed the operation on planned and organized withdrawal of troops from Debaltsevo.”  It became known then that the self-defense forces took full control over the area.

The continuing battles for Debaltsevo after the official announcement of the ceasefire meant certain correction, if not breach, of the second point of “the Set of measures for the implementation of the Minsk agreements” saying that “the withdrawal of heavy weapons shall begin no later than the second day after the cease-fire and end within 14 days.” Last Saturday the conflicting parties signed an agreement to launch withdrawal of heavy weapons from the Line of contact starting Feb 22, 2015. Actually, the withdrawal of heavy weapons was delayed for almost a week.  Now, it is expected to end on March 8, 2015. If the withdrawal of weapons succeeds, it will be possible to say the second point of “the Set of measures for the implementation of the Minsk agreements” is fulfilled.

The most obvious advantage of the Minsk-2 over Minsk-1 is the logical connection of the agreement points and specific terms of their fulfillment. If all the points are fulfilled and all the terms are observed, the conflict in Donbass will get a status of a frozen conflict. Otherwise, Minsk-2 will bring nothing but temporary truce.

Minsk-2 started with Ukraine’s defeat in Debaltsevo. The question arises as to whether the battle for Debaltsevo was the final battle of that war, or it was a tactical pause before a new phase of the conflict. We need to look at the problem more broadly. A smashing victory near Debaltsevo could become a reason and a precondition for peaceful settlement in Minsk. Meanwhile, the belated victory near Debaltsevo destabilizes the ceasefire. The uncertain victory – Ukrainian soldiers were let out of the Debaltsevo ‘pot’ – gives the bellicose Ukrainian nationalists hopes for a revenge. They cherish illusions that Ukraine just needs to better prepare in the period of truce and receive advanced weapons from the United States.  As Ukrainian army suffers a crushing defeat near Debaltsevo, President Poroshenko’s political carrier appears to be at risk - Debaltsevo paves the way for a new coup in the country.

At the same time, the military actions in Donbass in Jan-Feb 2015 demonstrated the following to the backers of Kiev’s regime:

Ukraine’s army is not capable of attacking, but it can hold the line if the adversary is not able to conduct a deep attack with maneuvers;

Ukraine’s army experiences problems with elementary supplies, though the former Soviet storages give it more ammunition than necessary;

Ukraine’s army is not large and lacks advanced arms.  In Kiev they try to settle this problem through foreign supplies and re-launch of the military-industrial enterprises. However, the general economic and financial situation in Ukraine hampers the ramping up of the production of advanced weapons. Kiev uses the truce to arm and strengthen the army through systematic supplies of weapons from the U.S. despite its pro-peace rhetoric in public.

The West learned the following lessons from Debaltsevo: Ukraine must have an army strong enough to withstand further attacks by the self-defense forces and attrite those forces. For this purpose, Ukraine must have a strong economy able to keep a powerful army. Meanwhile, Ukraine has neither powerful army nor strong economy, which spawns doubts in the U.S. and the EU when they try to assess the current situation in Ukraine. Last week and at the beginning of the current week, Ukraine’s hryvna plunged to a record low. The government spends more than it takes in. War in Donbass raises spending and destroys the sources of income. A floating rate of hryvna is impossible amid economic instability and military actions in part of the country’s territory. War policy requires certain restrictions on the free foreign exchange. Theoretically, foreign exchange operations must be suspended in the course of war. The country needs money to war. Generally, to achieve a success in the short-term acute conflict against Russia, Ukraine needs integration into the EU and financial aid comparable to the Marshall Plan. However, the EU has neither funds nor desire for it.  

Yet, the current state of affairs appears to be in favor of a war of position, of course, if Russia refrains from involving into it with all its combat power. The current dynamics makes the circles in the West  - the forces that are not due to go on a concession to Russia – to cherish illusions that the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine can be protracted the way they did it in Bosnia.

As Ukrainian army suffers a crushing defeat near Debaltsevo, President Poroshenko’s political carrier appears to be at risk - Debaltsevo paves the way for a new coup in the country.  Following the Debaltsevo disaster, Poroshenko suggested deploying either UN peacekeepers or EU police force under the EU's aegis for a peacekeeping mission in the east of Ukraine on the example of Kosovo. Russia immediately responded saying that such measure runs contrary to the Minsk agreements. A possibility of deploying peacekeepers was discussed at the UN headquarters on the February 24 night.  Foreign Minister of Ukraine Pavel Klimkin said at the debates at the Security Council that Ukraine looked to invite a peacekeeping mission to Donbass. To override Russia’s authority, Ukraine will try to raise the issue at the UN General Assembly. On the one hand, the idea to invite peacekeepers points at weakness of Poroshenko’s regime. Actually, Kiev accepts that it has lost control over the situation in Donbass. On the other hand, the developments of 1992-1995 in Bosnia are rushing into mind. UN Peacekeepers or EU police force is a good chance to internationalize a local conflict. Those “peacekeepers” will have a bias towards the conflict. Furthermore, deployment of peacekeepers is ground for provocations and the straightest way to international bombardments for conciliation.

The next day after Ukraine’s troops left Debaltsevo, Washington called it obvious that Moscow and pro-Russia separatists do not observe the Minsk agreements on ceasefire in Ukraine and warned against a risk of new sanctions.  “New sanctions against Russia are an option if a peace deal to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine is violated, though ‘that is not the goal’,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a joint press conference with French President Francois Hollande.

It is quite natural that the closest ally of the United States – Great Britain – joined the criticism of the Minsk agreements last week. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said “it was not a new cold war with Russia because the situation is already pretty warm.” It was for the first time since the Ukraine crisis that a high-ranking British official resorted to such harsh rhetoric. The European Union Committee of the House of Lords slammed the authorities of the UK and EU for the situation in Ukraine. Obviously, Britain’s initiatives are directly coordinated with the United States.

Last Wednesday, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, called on Russia and the pro-Russian forces in Donbass to observe the Minsk agreements.  

Although Spokesperson for the White House Jen Psaki said she believes in the Minsk agreement of ceasefire. “We believe that the document signed in Minsk this week is an – it’s called an implementation plan for the Minsk agreement, and that is something that we believe can be implemented,” Psaki said after Debaltsevo battle. The Minsk ceasefire, despite the episode in Debaltsevo, has all chances to come into effect, and the standstill will continue, at least, till April 2015. What can the West do to prevent collapse of Ukraine? There are more questions than answers. However, an idea of separating the rebellious territories from Ukraine has emerged in the information field of the West, and first of all, the EU. After losing Crimea, Kiev is offered to put up with the loss of the areas taken by separatists in Donbass. This is the only way to prevent further destabilization in Ukraine and its collapse.

Along with standstill, the U.S. has gained a strategic pause to determine its further strategy in Ukraine in the soonest possible time. Washington must decide if Ukraine fits into its strategic plans. The U.S. president needs to decide if Ukraine can further be used as a counterbalancing weight against Russia and as a central component of the West’s long-term attack on Russia. At the same time, Minsk-2 gives an opportunity to the United States to get out of the conflict ‘with good grace.’ especially as the zone of instability between the EU and Russia is ready, and it will take Russia long years to put matters right in its relations with the EU. In Washington, they realize that to win Russia by force is an unrealistic idea.  However, it turned out to be quite possibly to gradually isolate Russia.

With Minsk-2, Putin, in turn, showed that any new truce would be achieved on worse terms for Ukraine. After the ceasefire, Russia hinted that it is ready to form a Ukrainian government in exile at the next stage of the military conflict. Particularly, on February 23, in the course of Vladimir Putin’s interview with VGTRK (the Russian State Television and Radio Company), the interviewer asked a question is to whether “Russia will conduct Minsk-3 or take immediate diplomatic measures up to recognition of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic in case of escalation of the military actions by Ukraine and national battalions.” The question contained a veiled threat to Kiev, if it attempts to breach the ceasefire or fails to fulfill the “Set of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements”.  Russia demonstrates the EU and U.S. that it is ready to settle the conflict in Ukraine, at least, by freezing it.  Subtle observers in the U.S. and EU realize that the statements suggesting that Russia has gained more advantages from Minsk-2 are exaggerated, anyway. Moscow holds Crimea without the West’s recognition. The Kremlin was reluctant to change its long-term goal of restoring its domination in the post-Soviet area with the opportunity of limited influence in Ukraine. Donbass’s ‘special status’ envisaged by Minsk-2 is considered as a guarantee of limiting Russia’s influence on Ukraine. Along with that, the demarcation line of the Minsk settlement restricts the territorial ambitions and cancels out the project of Novorossiya subject to keeping the project “Ukraine is not Russia”.  Is it an equivalent exchange? It seems not. However, given that the ill-structured and insufficiently consolidated Russia gets “poor peace,” it appears to be equivalent.    

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