Since late Dec 2015, the Contract Group on Ukraine has been increasingly active in its efforts to settle the conflict in Donbass. On Dec 26, 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Boris Gryzlov as Russia’s Official Representative to the group. On Dec 30, the Normandy Four decided to prolong the Minsk agreements for one year.
This decision does not however specify what the group should do if the agreements are not implemented. In fact, none of their points has been fulfilled so far. Shortly after their adoption, Ukraine showed that it was not going to carry them out. So, since then, the sides were just marking time in hope for some desirable outcome. It would be natural if they adopted new agreements for 2016. The Americans joined the process in the summer and after the meetings of Lavrov and Kerry and Nuland and Karasin, Ukraine began implementing some of the political points of the agreements.
On Jan 11, 2016, Gryzlov visited Kiev and met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. On Nov 15, Putin convoked a meeting of Russia’s Security Council. The same day US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland met in Kaliningrad with Putin’s assistant Vladislav Surkov. Spokesman for the US Department of State John Kirby said the meeting was constructive. He stressed the need to guarantee full implementation of the Minsk agreements in close cooperation with the Normandy Four states, particularly Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France. According to Kirby, the meeting continued the contacts, which had started during negotiations of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with US Secretary of State John Kerry who visited Moscow on Dec 15, 2015.
The key reason why the mediators are so active is that in Oct 2015 Poroshenko agreed to draft a special law on local elections in some districts of Donbass as an alternative to the self-organized elections held in Donetsk and Lugansk on Oct 18 and Nov 1, 2015. On Dec 30, 2015, the Normandy Four confirmed the decision to organize new local elections in Donbass in the first half of 2016. By the end of Jan 2016, the political sub-group chaired by Pierre Morel is supposed to approve a special bill. The amendments on “special districts” of Donbass adopted by Ukraine’s Supreme Rada in late Aug 2015 under the United States’ pressure are to be finalized by the end of Jan 2016. For the amendments to be adopted, Poroshenko needs almost 300 votes, but he will hardly get so many votes as some of the MPs are against the initiative.
Ukraine has never taken seriously the urges to implement the Minsk agreements. Even more, the country’s nationalists are against this. This is a strong ground for Poroshenko not to revise Minsk 2. During a press conference in Kiev on Jan 11, he said that there would be no Minsk 3. Even more, he urged Russia to carry out its obligations. Poroshenko’s logic is clear: he will insist that he first be given control over the border as a precondition for elections in “special districts.” In his turn, Putin told Bild that Minsk 2 had to be implemented as was agreed on: the Supreme Rada should first amend Ukraine’s Constitution in coordination with “special districts.”
In fact, he suggests that Kiev de jure recognize Donbass’s autonomy, organize elections according to amended laws and amnesty rebels in Donbass so as to be able to get back control over the border. That is, Russia sticks to the sequence stipulated by Minsk 2 and it also insists on a direct dialogue between Ukraine and the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics concerning constitutional amendments and elections.
And now after the meeting with Poroshenko, Gryzlov told the Russian Kommersant daily that the Contact Group may support the requirement on specific deadline for implementing the Minsk agreements, that is, to support Poroshenko’s requirement. But even though Gryzlov did not mention the sequence of the points to be implemented, it will mostly probably be in line with Minsk 2 rather than with Poroshenko’s scenario.
Poroshenko’s initiative was an “excellent move” as this can make the peace process endless and can give the United States and the European Union grounds for prolonging their sanctions against Russia. Ukraine is ready to play this game as it hopes that the sanctions will exhaust Russia. So, Poroshenko’s role here is to keep the process unsettled for as long as possible.
So, in near future, we may see further meaningless race for “constructiveness” between Russia and Ukraine. But the key disagreement - the sequence of the steps to settle the conflict in Donbass remains unsolved. The Ukrainians claim first control over the border and only then will give status to the “special district,” while the Russians claim first autonomy and only then they will pass the border to Kiev. The Americans can cut this Gordian knot. But it is not clear how they can force the Ukrainians to fulfill the Minsk agreements. Even though the Kiev leaders are their puppets, they have few effective instruments. If they try to pressure Poroshenko, they may face resistance from radical forces in the Supreme Rada. So, the only way for them is to give the Kiev authorities one more IMF loan. In late Aug 2015, it was the promise to restructure Kiev’s debts that helped the Americans to push the constitutional amendments.
Now it is not clear if they can force their Ukrainian puppets to recognize Minsk 2 or if they actually want the agreements to be implemented. A ceasefire would be enough for them in the White House to boast of one more success in stopping Russia and to gain points for the presidential election. Besides, even if Donetsk and Lugansk get autonomy, the Americans have oligarch Akhmetov and his customers, who may help them to outgame the Russians politically. The Europeans will allocate money that will be used for bribing certain politicians. And finally, the Americans do not care if Ukraine falls into pieces. What they care for is to beat Russia now that it is facing a crisis.
The best outcome for Russia would be “freezing of the conflict.” There are two ways to do it: if both sides fulfill the Minsk agreements and if they make it up without the agreements. But both cases mean that Kiev should stop its military campaign and should give up its hopes to get Donbass back. Even if Ukraine refuses to give autonomy of Donbass, it will have to put off its plans to get it back as is the case with Georgia with respect to South Ossetia and Abkhazia and Azerbaijan with respect to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Currently, the conflict in Donbass cannot be termed as “frozen.” Simply, the intensity of combat actions is low. This is good for Kiev: it’s like there is no war but it is still underway. And the key reason why this is going on is that the Ukrainians were not finally defeated in either Aug 2014 or Feb 2015 and therefore still have hopes to settle the conflict according to the scenario applied in Serbian Krajina.
Considering these circumstances, the Americans are ready for lower tensions in Donbass as its conflict with Russia has already had the effect it expected. It seems that they are even ready to bring Crimea out of this framework – though, of course, they will not recognize it as part of Russia. Both the US and the EU have achieved their geopolitical goals in Ukraine. Strategically speaking, the new orange revolution in Ukraine was aimed to curb Russia’s efforts to create a Eurasian Union. Peace in Ukraine will finalize this process. And the next goal of the US and the EU will be to keep things the way they are and to prevent any attempt by Russia to change them.
For the US, the nationalist Ukraine is one more springboard on the border between Europe and Eurasia. The association agreement has given the EU access to the Ukrainian market. It will also help it to ruin Ukraine’s industry and its economic ties with Russia and will bring it closer to the Russian market.
One more thing the EU may want from Russia in exchange for lifting the sanctions is restored free trade between Ukraine and the CIS. The goal of the Europeans (the Germans) is to see their products freely moving to the CIS (Russia). Putin’s decision to exclude Ukraine from the CIS Free Trade Area has caused a crisis in the Eurasian Economic Union: in Dec 2015, the members of the Union failed to adopt a single customs code, while Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan accused his allies of not acting as allies. So, the Ukrainian conflict has revealed a political and economic crisis in the Eurasian Economic Union.
The main thing is that the US and the EU have curbed Russia’s Novorossiya project. If carried out, it would cut Ukraine from the Black Sea. The sanctions are preventing Russia from using any military force in Donbass, while Donetsk and Lugansk do not have enough resources to rout the Ukrainian army. Russia has failed to use the factor of the “Ukrainian government in exile,” and now that the problems concerning the Russian loan, the transit of Russian gas and Ukraine’s expulsion from the CIS Free Trade Area have been solved, it has no more economic or financial instruments to pressure Ukraine. Even more, the Ukrainians are even happy that they no longer have economic contacts with the Russians.
In the long run, Minsk 2 will help the US and the EU to ruin Russia’s “Russian World” ideology and to push the country further away from Europe.
What the US and the EU are seeking now is the Russians admitting the collapse of their imperial ambitions. For Russia’s enemies that country’s isolation means punishment for its “imperial revanchism.” What the West and its allies need now is to turn public opinion in Russia from Crimean patriotism into sad defeatism and to present the economic crisis in Russia as the “price” that country is paying for it “military aggression against Ukraine.” The economic crisis is already causing controversy in Russian society. Visa free regime for Ukraine in Europe may become a real challenge for the Russians, who may finally decide to sacrifice their imperial ambitions and independent cultural policy for a chance to freely go to Europe.
Under current external conditions, the execution of Minsk 2 will not become a victory for the Russian leaders. Even if the West lifts it sanctions, Russia will hardly be able to solve its economic problems. The main thing for the United States is to change moods inside Russia. The battlefield for the Americans now is no longer Donbass but the internal Russian controversy about ways to overcome the crisis. If the conflict in Donbass is frozen, the Americans will be able to direct this process in whatever way they like.
In one of our previous articles, we compared Minsk 2 with the Bosnian Dayton. In its time, Dayton failed to guarantee the safety of Yugoslavia and was followed by Kosovo and the Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia. Russia should try to prevent the United States from applying a similar strategy in Ukraine.