Intense negotiations over the past several days seem to indicate that there might be a diplomatic way out of Ukraine’s Donbas crisis. After yesterday’s Normandy format talks between Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany in Berlin, all sides emphasised that, despite the lack of a breakthrough, discussions will continue.
Nobody should expect a quick or easy solution to the continuing impasse – but even the most difficult and protracted negotiations are preferable to the spectre of further armed conflict.
The recent flurry of high-level meetings and subsequent press conferences gives a good flavour of the sides’ positions and concerns. Thus Vladimir Putin insisted, at the press conference following his February 7 meeting with Emmanuel Macron, that “there is simply no alternative” to the Minsk II accords of February 2015, which attempted to bring an end to hostilities in the Donbas region of east Ukraine.
That Putin would take this stance is not surprising. But what is worrying from a Ukrainian perspective, is Macron’s acknowledgement that “the Minsk agreements are the only foundation” for a “political solution to the Ukrainian issue”. The Minsk agreements have, over seven years, failed to bring peace to the Donbas.
Perhaps even more disconcerting for Kyiv is that Macron assured Putin that France and Germany would “continue working … to ensure full compliance with the Minsk agreements and to achieve a complete settlement of the conflict in Donbas”.
The problems with Minsk
A few days before the meeting between Macron and Putin, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, gave an interview to the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita in which he stated unambiguously that “there will be no special status, as Russia imagines, there will be no veto power” for any region over national policies. While this was widely reported, Kuleba in the same answer also pointed out that Ukraine was already “carrying out a very deep decentralisation reform, and (was) ready to work on the implementation of the Minsk agreements”.
One issue, therefore, involves the obvious disagreements over what the Minsk agreements actually require – from whom and in what order. The terms of the agreement specify that a ceasefire and withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons will be monitored by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
This will be followed by dialogue on local elections and by Ukrainian legislation “on interim self-government order in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions”. There will also be an amnesty for acts committed during the conflict and an exchange of prisoners.
This must be followed by a resumption of full socioeconomic ties and reinstatement of full Ukrainian control over its international borders beginning after local elections and completed after a comprehensive political settlement. Finally the agreement requires the withdrawal of all foreign military and equipment and disarmament of illegal armed groups.
So, Kuleba’s insistence that the Minsk agreements call for security before political reforms is valid. Putin may be technically correct to say there has been no progress “on such fundamental issues as constitutional reform, amnesty, local elections, and the legal aspects of a special status for Donbas”. But the fact that there is still no stable ceasefire seven years after the agreements were signed means Ukraine is not in violation of the agreements – at least no more so than those who regularly break the ceasefire.
The costs of implementation
Another issue relates to the social, economic, and political costs of implementation. Socially, questions of Ukrainian national identity and statehood were never fully resolved even before the war in Donbas started in 2014. Divisions between Ukrainians living there and in government-controlled territories have since grown.
Opinion polls now suggest that people in government-controlled areas are less and less keen on resolving the conflict through reintegration. Meanwhile the number of Russian passport holders in non-government controlled areas has increased to around 20% of the resident population.
Economically, reintegrating an area devastated by eight years of war would deprive other regions of Ukraine and the public sector in general of much-needed investment. This would have a negative impact on Ukraine’s economic development and do little to mend social divisions between east and west, rural and urban areas, rich and poor.
Above all, there is the political cost of implementing the agreements which are extremely unpopular in Ukraine. And the president, Volodymyr Zelensky no longer has the political capital to make their implementation happen. He would almost certainly face a wave of opposition inside and outside parliament that could sweep him from power.
It would also mean the reintegration of about three million voters who are highly unlikely to support the current government. This is not an attractive prospect for Kyiv. In this, Zelensky is generally in synch with the majority of the population in government-controlled areas. After eight years of war they have little interest in “reuniting” with people with whom they share no sense of common identity and whose reintegration would prolong social divisions and economic hardship for uncertain returns.
Happily ever after?
This is not to say that there is no potential for a negotiated political solution of the crisis in Donbas, nor that there is no possibility of restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The key underlying issue of how to accommodate a future relationship between centre and regions – with all the political and financial issues that would involve – is not unique to Ukraine.
Similar situations have been resolved elsewhere, including in Gagauzia in Moldova, South Tyrol between Austria and Italy, and the Aland Islands between Finland and Sweden. But resolution in Ukraine will require patient and inclusive negotiations and a focus on technical detail rather than political grandstanding.
In this sense, the Minsk agreements are the starting, rather than the end point for resolving this crisis.