The peace process in Donbass started on February 12, 2015 with “A Set of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements.” However, few of the 13 points included in the agreement were implemented: Point 1 (immediate and comprehensive ceasefire), Point 2 (pull-out of all heavy weapons by both sides), Point 3 (On the part of the OSCE, to ensure effective monitoring and verification of the ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons), and Point 6 (Facilitate the release and exchange of all hostages and illegally detained persons, based on the principle of “all for all”). On March 17, the peace process in Donbass stumbled on the Point 4 (to begin a dialogue with respect to the modalities of the local elections in accordance with Ukrainian legislation and the Law of Ukraine “On the temporary order of local government in certain areas of the Donetsk and the Lugansk regions,” as well as with respect to the future operation of these areas on the basis of the Law). Under Point 4, the Supreme Rada of Ukraine was to adopt an enactment specifying the territory with special regime in accordance with Ukraine Law “On temporary order of the local self-government in some regions of Donetsk and Lugansk regions” on the basis of the line set by the Minsk Memorandum of Sept 19, 2014 (i.e. without Debaltsevo). This is what Supreme Rada did at the request of President Poroshenko, so that Kiev’s arbitrary corrections reduced the Minsk Agreements to nothing.
In fact, it must be admitted that Point 1 – “immediate and comprehensive ceasefire” was not observed, the parties keep blaming each other of violating Point 2 – “pullout of all heavy weapons by both sides.” As for Point 3, even the OSCE admitted that “effective monitoring and verification of the ceasefire” was failed due to continuous shelling along the frontline. German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that the Minsk Agreements are not observed in accordance with all the standards of the OSCE. Meanwhile, under the game rules of the Minsk-2, the conflicting parties and the guarantor-superpowers – France, Germany, Russia – were accepting yet before the beginning of the last week that the Minsk Agreements were being fulfilled, though with violations.
As for Point 4 – “a dialogue with respect to the modalities” – after the decision of the Supreme Rada of March 17, the parties make contradictory assessments. Leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic (DPR and LPR) now say Ukraine with its enactment on “temporarily occupied territories” of Donbass violated the process of the Minsk Agreement and made their fulfillment impossible.
Afterwards, on March 21, Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov told Russia-1 TV that he had officially addressed the foreign ministers of Germany and France over violation of Point-4 of the Minsk Agreements by Kiev. It is noteworthy that on the same day, i.e. on March 21, the Russian Foreign Ministry made an official statement claiming that Kiev violates only Point 2 (pullout of all heavy weapons by both sides) of the agreement. Such contradictory statements showed that Russia’s diplomacy faced problems with implementation of the Minsk agreements by Ukraine. These difficulties are not made public with a hope to come to an arrangement. Moscow’s main problem is that Germany and France do not see Kiev violating the Minsk Agreements. As a result, the Russian diplomacy and personally President Vladimir Putin faced the worst example of diplomatic cheating by their Minsk-2 “partners.” It can be perceived also as retaliation in the hybrid war around Ukraine. Negligence of the classical diplomacy rules – accurate ultimatums and certain actions if these ultimatums are not fulfilled – in the case of Point 4 of the Minsk agreements has brought to erosion of the diplomatic practice as such. It appears that German Chancellor Angela Merkel used that Point to give President Vladimir Putin her revenge for the February all-nighter in Minsk. It is noteworthy that President Poroshenko’s policy sharply changed last week after his visit to Berlin.
Ukraine’s Parliament passed three legislative acts related to the Minsk-2 on March 17, 2015: amendments to the law on special status of Donbass, enactment recognizing part of Donbass as occupied territory and description of the division line. In conformity with the enactment, the populated areas in Donetsk and Lugansk regions that fall under the special order of the local self-government were recognized as temporary occupied territories until the illegal armed groupings along with the military hardware, fighters, and mercenaries are withdrawn from the territory of Ukraine and a full control over the state border of Ukraine is restored. Kiev set a special condition, not discussed in Minsk-2, to Donbass – special status will be granted only after local elections within Ukraine’s laws based on the formula “elections in the evening, special status in the morning.” Yuri Lutsenko, head of the Poroshenko faction in the Supreme Rada, explained the amendments: “Local elections here [in Donbass] can be held only when there are Ukrainian flags, Ukrainian patrols and laws in these territories.”
It appears that on March 17, 2015, President Poroshenko returned to his “peace plan” of June 20, 2014, i.e. withdrawal of the self-defense forces from Donbass, their disarmament and restoration of control over the border as the first steps towards peace settlement. Then and now, the self-defense forces of the DPR and LPR are offered honorable capitulation with possible retreat to Russia. Poroshenko’s peace plan of June also suggested elections in the territory of Donbass after Ukraine restores control over the region with following “decentralization.”
After March 17, there is important circumstance to understand: the Supreme Rada with its current nationalistic composition will never recognize ‘the special status’ i.e. autonomy of the insurgent region. The defeats of the Ukrainian “anti-terrorist operation” forces were not that big. Therefore, the leaders of the self-defense forces failed to dictate their will to Kiev.
After March 17, in Kiev they suddenly remembered that the Minsk agreements were signed by Leonid Kuchma who is not an official representative of the Ukraine authorities and has no right to sign international documents on behalf of Ukraine. That is why, the Minsk agreements are not an international document for Ukraine and their fulfillment for Kiev does not look mandatory. Actually, Minsk-2 is nothing but a simple recommendation for Kiev. In such a situation, arbitrary modification of the document is justified.
Immediately after March 17, Head of the DPR Alexander Zakharchenko said the enactment of the Supreme Rada on the status of certain regions in Donbass must be coordinated with the representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics. Although Point 4 of the “Set of Measures for the fulfillment of the Minsk Agreements” calls for “a dialogue with respect to the modalities of the local elections,” the text of the agreements does not specify whom that dialogue must be held with. By this logic, the debates at the Supreme Rada can also be considered as a dialogue. A simple verbal trick allows the Kremlin’s partners to say that Ukraine observes Point 4 of the Minsk agreements. At least, representatives of Germany and France may say that they do not see any problems with their implementation after Kiev’s modifications.
Last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Kiev fully ignored the provisions of the “Set of Measures for the fulfillment of the Minsk Agreements” regarding the “modalities of the local elections” and the future status of certain districts of Donetsk and Lugansk regions that should be discussed with representatives of Donbass. The guarantors of the Minsk agreements – Paris and Berlin – responded to the breach of the Minsk Agreements with silence. Although, the failure of the Minsk-2 in the way it happened is not yet a “diplomatic Tsushima” for Russia, but it is an evident failure of the Russian Foreign Ministry. The president’s aide Dmitry Peskov said the latest decision of the Supreme Rada, to put it mildly, discourages the fulfillment of the Minsk agreements. The Russian foreign ministry has too little time to settle the “matter of discrepancies” in the Minsk agreements with Berlin. So far, it is evident that “the honest German broker” again deceived our “Gorchakov.”
The most important in this political process is that last week, on March 19, the economic and financial sanctions of the EU were linked to the fulfillment of the Minsk agreements by Russia. Meanwhile, by that moment, Kiev had already fundamentally and arbitrarily modified the Minsk agreements. On the eve of the EU Summit after the March 17 decision of the Supreme Rada, German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed EU’s readiness to impose new sanctions against Russia if the Minsk agreements – actually the ones already modified by Kiev - are breached.
The EU Summit in Brussels on March 18-19 discussed extension of the sectoral sanctions against Russia for another six months. The sanctions will be imposed on the energy, financial and defense sectors till July. Due to the countries opposing the sanctions, it was decided to extend, if not toughen, the sanctions from July up to the end of 2015. Before the summit, the foreign ministers of the EU countries met in Brussels. They did not conceal their discrepancies over the sanctions.
Seven member – countries that opposed the sanctions preferred avoiding any decisions till late June. Due to such delay, if the next EU Summit in June failed to extend the sanctions, they would stop automatically. However, at the Summit they decided that the duration of the economic sanctions against Russia will be linked to the complete implementation of the Minsk Agreements to stop the military conflict in the east of Ukraine. This was announced by Donald Tusk, the vehement advocate of the anti-Russian sanctions, after the summit in Brussels. The EU leaders decided to clearly link the sanctions to the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements, bearing in mind that this is only foreseen by the end of 2015. The decision was a compromise between those who advocated for immediate extension of the sanctions – that were due to expire in July - and those who preferred waiting for several months to observe how Russia implements the Minsk agreements. To lift the sanctions, they demand full implementation of the Minsk agreements. This became a partial victory for those who advocated for toughening of the anti-Russian sanctions. Nevertheless, Donald Tusk accepted that the EU countries no longer have a single stand on the anti-Russian sanctions. It should be admitted that the illusion of the Minsk-2 have brought to standstill the EU member-countries that came out for lifting the sanctions at the summit.
Theoretically, the new formula of the sanctions is an instrument for the EU to either punish or encourage Russia at the end of 2015 – the deadline for fulfillment of the Minsk-2 agreement. However, the EU decided to align the duration of the sanctions with the implementation of the Minsk agreements after evident failure of the Minsk-2.
US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking by phone on Wednesday, “reiterated their agreement that there will be no easing of sanctions imposed on Russia over its support for Ukrainian separatists until it has fulfilled all of its commitments under the Minsk ceasefire agreement,” the White House said. Consequently, the U.S. agreed that the sanctions are linked to the Minsk-2 - the document arbitrarily modified by Kiev.
Judging by UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s statement before the EU Summit, such a decision of the EU fully meets the USA’s interests. According to The Financial Times, the United States actively pressed the EU before the Summit demanding “transatlantic unity” in the issue of sanctions. On March 16, Jen Psaki, U.S. Department Spokesperson, said “Washington will keep sanctions on Moscow for joining Crimea as long as the peninsula remains under Russian rule.” She said that Washington considers the peninsula as part of Ukraine. Now, the U.S. points at Crimea to justify the sanctions, while Europeans link the sanctions to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. Here are so far non-essential differences in the sanction policy of the U.S. and EU.
What will happen next? Last weekend, in an interview with Inter TV President Poroshenko promised that Ukraine will be taking back “the temporarily occupied territories” through diplomatic methods to avoid dozens of thousands of casualties. This means that the president of Ukraine promised not to resume the military actions. Blocking the Minsk agreements by such scenario will mean that DPR and LPR are turning into a kind of Transnistria. However, as shelling continues and the anti-terrorist operation forces are being deployed on the frontline, another phase of armed conflict appears to be inevitable in the short run. Irrespective of the developments, the West will blame the self-defense forces of the LPR and DPR for resuming military actions. Afterwards, the West will threaten with new sanctions against Russia to block the operations of the self-defense forces. Washington, Brussels and Berlin spared no effort to inform Russia of that beforehand. Possible loss of Mariupol, ingress of the self-defense forces to the Crimea and Dnepr will lead the nationalist government and the anti-terrorist operation forces of Ukraine to a disastrous situation. This will enable dictating quite different peace conditions in Novorossiya to Kiev. However, the West’s retaliation in terms of new sanctions will make Russia’s existence in the current model of development impossible.
Russia’s response to the Supreme Rada law on special status of Donbass shows that Moscow and Kiev with its western overlords differently understand the Minsk agreements. For the West the most important in the Minsk-2 is the territorial integrity of Ukraine, while Russia looks to freeze the status quo and keep the Donetsk autonomy as part of Ukraine. No resumption of military actions, no more sanctions. However, the current sanctions will hardly be lifted either. The political stalemate may after all lead to resumption of the armed conflict. The game around Minsk-2 comes down to a dilemma: military actions until Kiev takes control of the insurgent regions or new negotiations.
Washington has already offered a protraction of the conflict due to Warsaw’s mediation. On March 16, 2015, Poland's Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna in an interview with Rzeczpospolita newspaper offered returning to the Geneva format from the Normandy format of negotiations on Ukraine i.e. Poland is for participation of Washington and Brussels in the settlement process without German and French leaders. A new round of talks in the Geneva format will mean protraction of the conflict until psychological depletion and attrition of Russia. Even if the Geneva format talks are seriously launched, it will be very hard to agree on the autonomy level of the regions. That is why this “game” is doomed to failure unless DPR and LPR gain a decisive victory over the anti-terrorist operation forces. Such a victory will cost Russia extreme measures and tangible sacrifices.
So far, aligning the duration of sanctions against Russia with the full implementation of the Minsk agreements means that the sanctions will be lifted only in case of Russia’s capitulation in Donbass. In fact, the Minsk -2 was not a method of peace settlement of the conflict, but a diplomatic trap for Russia and a reason for the West to toughen the anti-Russian sanctions. The peaceful resolution of the conflict failed. The U.S., Germany and EU still demand full capitulation of Russia in the Ukrainian conflict.