Ukraine peace plan follows a familiar path – but there are potholes in the east

Training exercises in Luhansk. EPA/Alexander Ermochenko

More than two years after protests that defenestrated its president and kicked off a conflict, Ukraine remains a starkly divided country, with violence still simmering in the east among Russian-backed separatists. For most of 2016, it has been trying to solve these problems through a deal struck by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France – a plan known as as Minsk II.

Minsk II isn’t a permanent settlement, but it contains a template for one. At its heart is a form of self-governance for territory currently controlled by pro-Russian separatists in two breakaway regions, the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. This is a tried-and-tested solution to separatist conflicts, but it comes with several pitfalls for international mediators to avoid as they edge Ukraine’s conflict parties closer to a permanent settlement.

Giving the separatists of Donetsk and Luhansk some degree of territorial autonomy follows a template that is used in separatist conflicts around the world. Depending on the circumstances, it can range from little more than ceding control over cultural and administrative matters to effectively creating a state within a state.

On the face of it, this is a good strategy for defusing a conflict. Granting separatists some degree of autonomy usually doesn’t require major reforms at the top of the state they want to separate from. It recognises the rights, fears and aspirations of minority groups and grants them self-determination, but it does so without endangering the territorial integrity of the state.

In very intense conflicts, granting territorial autonomy can also help defuse violence by recognising control of battlefields. It also means enemies don’t end up having to coexist in factional and sometimes unstable power-sharing governments.

Understandable, then, that peace processes around the world keep reverting to this formula. But it doesn’t always go to plan. Far from it: in my analysis of peace agreements signed since the end of the Cold War, I’ve identified a number of serious problems. Some of these are already presenting themselves in Ukraine as Minsk II is gradually implemented – and others may be lurking down the road.

Promises, promises

Central governments that promise autonomy to separatists generally aren’t very good at actually delivering it. This is often thanks to domestic opposition; critics of territorial autonomy will frequently decry such a settlement as a reward for violent rebels, and as a dangerous step towards the breakup of the state.

A version of this has happened with Minsk II. There are deep concerns in Kiev that autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” will either lead to secession, or that the Russian-backed territories will remain beyond Kiev’s control. Many are also reluctant to strengthen the breakaway territories and legitimise the separatist leaders.

Another common problem is the use of what Henry Kissinger called “constructive ambiguity”, the use of deliberately ambiguous wording to create extra space for negotiating parties to advance their interests. This can help them reach an agreement, but it can also create problems when it turns out that the two sides don’t agree on what powers the autonomous region should enjoy, what resources it will control, or even what its borders will be.

On parade in Donetsk. EPA/Alexander Ermochenko

Too much ambiguity can spell serious trouble for a settlement. If the central government doesn’t grant sufficient powers to the autonomous region, it can also lead to dangerous local instability. Without sufficient capacity to govern themselves – including the capacity to defeat radical forces opposed to peace – autonomous territories can all too easily become ungovernable altogether.

Broken promises, whether perceived or real, cause deep resentment, which can in turn beget renewed violence. If local violence crops up again, it can spread beyond the region and ultimately undermine the legitimacy and stability of the entire peace agreement. These sorts of problems have contributed to renewed violence in the Philippines’ Mindanao region and Palestine.

But local capacity isn’t just about devolved powers and adequate resources. Rebel forces come in all shapes and sizes, and some will be better placed to govern than others. Effective rule depends on legitimacy and requires reforms. International actors can help encourage and fund them – and a more inclusive settlement.

Don’t forget human rights

Most peace processes are fairly narrow; they typically only involve actors who have the power to wreck an agreement, and shut out everyone less powerful. The rationale is that the fewer parties are involved, the easier it is for international mediators to strike a deal.

The problem is that narrow negotiations often produce narrow settlements. Rights end up granted to a dominant minority group at the expense of less powerful groups – and indeed, of anyone who opposes the armed movement in control of the place where they live. Separatist leaders might present themselves as the true representatives of their community, but these sorts of claims are often backed up with coercion rather than genuine legitimacy.

Without effective human rights provisions, minorities in an autonomous territories can start to feel like they’re being treated as second-class citizens. This can entrench division and stir up new instability. It also increases the risk of an unreformed armed movement clinging onto power. Such movements are, as noted above, not very good at governing and this could lead to instability.

None of this is inevitable. No peace agreement is perfect, and Minsk II certainly isn’t. But it is possible to improve upon the model, if those negotiating it are aware of the potential pitfalls and dangers.