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In Ukraine, even peace accords can be a Russian weapon

In their frenzied diplomatic effort to dissuade Russia from a new invasion of Ukraine, Western leaders are pinning renewed hope on the long-stuck Minsk peace accords.

The Minsk agreements, first negotiated in 2014 and 2015, were intended to bring an end to the war with Russian-backed separatists, then raging in eastern Ukraine.

But the pact is fiercely disputed and flawed, with ambiguous provisions open to conflicting interpretation and serious contingencies unplanned for.

Since 2015, Russia has refused to put in place basic conditions required for its implementation and top Ukrainian officials say the peace deal itself is a weapon that Moscow is using to try to destroy their country.

All of that makes the accords, named after the Belarusian capital where they were developed, an unlikely vehicle for resolving the current crisis — even as world leaders insist there is no other option.

Standing with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron proclaimed the Minsk accords to be “the only path allowing us to build peace, the only path allowing us to build a viable political solution.” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and U.S. President Joe Biden have issued similar statements.

Macron also insisted that he had received a personal commitment from Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow the previous day to respect the Minsk agreement. “I believe that now is the time for all participants in these negotiations to engage in a dialogue in good faith. The path is possible,” he declared.

In fact, there is no path — just a dead end, according to senior officials and diplomats who have participated directly in years of tortured negotiations over the agreement and who know a lot more about its terms and its flaws than Macron does.

Russia insists that the Minsk deal once implemented will grant the now-occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk political autonomy that would give the Russian-backed authorities there a veto over major decisions in Kyiv, such as whether to join NATO or the EU. Kyiv says the deal provides for a degree of local self-governance but no such sweeping powers over the whole country’s future.

The Kremlin maintains that Ukraine is obligated to rewrite its constitution and immediately call local elections in the occupied territories. Ukraine says that the deal sets out a series of preconditions for elections that have never been met, including disarmament, removal of Russian fighters, and restoration of Kyiv’s legal authority.

Each side insists that only their interpretation of the deal is the correct one — and their interpretations are flatly contradictory.

On Monday, standing with Macron, Putin accused Kyiv of working to undermine the peace deal.

“In my opinion, it is obvious to everyone that the current authorities in Kyiv have set a course for the dismantling of the Minsk agreements,” Putin said. “There is no progress on such fundamental issues as constitutional reform, amnesty, local elections, legal aspects of the special status of Donbass.” He added that Ukraine “continues to ignore all possibilities for the peaceful restoration of the country’s territorial integrity through direct dialogue” with the Moscow-backed regional authorities in the east of the country.

Putin has urged Western powers to compel Kyiv to bow to his interpretation of Minsk. “Like it or don’t like it, be patient, my beauty — you must comply,” he said, using a Russian rhyme that parents use when forcing children to eat food they don’t like, and that has also been used in cruder contexts.

But Putin has also shifted his focus to three broader security demands that he has presented to NATO and Washington — leaving some analysts fearful that he has concluded Minsk will never be adopted to his satisfaction and that only military action will achieve his aims for eastern Ukraine.

Senior Ukrainian officials, including Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and the secretary of the National Security Council, Oleksiy Danilov, have said that Kyiv can never accept Russia’s version of the Minsk accords. Danilov has said that it would be tantamount to the “destruction” of the country. Long term, such officials say, Moscow could gain a permanent lever to control Ukrainian politics and thwart the country’s ambitions to join NATO and the EU. But more immediately, they warn, public anger over such concessions could lead to mass unrest and political instability, potentially splitting the country apart.

Zelenskiy, standing with Macron, answered Putin’s jab with one of his own that spelled out the fundamental differences between the two sides. “Ukraine is a beauty,” he said. “As far as ‘my’ is concerned, that’s a bit much.”

Kyiv’s fears

In recent weeks, as Russia has massed a giant military force on Ukraine’s borders, officials in Kyiv have quietly fretted that the West will use the Russian threat to strong-arm Ukraine into accepting Moscow’s version of Minsk, especially because Putin is the only leader left who was at the table when the deal was negotiated. The German, French and Ukrainian leaders at the time — Angela Merkel, François Hollande and Petro Poroshenko — are all no longer in office.

“The problem is these agreements were imposed on us and forced by Russians,” Ukraine’s ambassador to London, Vadym Prystaiko, told BBC radio on Tuesday.

“The most hated word right now in Ukraine is ‘progress’ when it is pronounced in a French or German accent, when we understand that something has to be done at our expense.”

So far, the feared Western strongarming has not materialized. But the lack of familiarity with the terms and history of the deal was on display during Macron’s visit to Moscow.  “When the Minsk agreements were signed, there was no such intensive Russian military presence on the border, and this seriously changes the situation,” Macron said.

In fact, at the time the Minsk agreements were brokered, full-fledged war was raging in Donbass, active Russian military personnel and Russian tanks and other weaponry had crossed the border and were directly involved in the conflict, and Ukraine was pressured into accepting unfavorable terms precisely to avoid mass casualties and a serious defeat.

“This was negotiated under the barrel of a gun,” said a Western diplomat now based in Ukraine, who has followed the process from the start. “And that’s why the Russians were unwilling to change it.”

Minsk misunderstandings

Russia and Ukraine disagree on nearly every point in the Minsk accords, which is actually not a single coherent peace treaty but rather two core documents — an initial cease-fire deal reached in September 2014, and a follow-up 13-point plan aimed at implementing the truce and outlining steps to a political settlement — and an array of other supplemental texts.

The main 13-point plan, formally called “the Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreement” and known in shorthand as “Minsk 2,” was agreed in February 2015, and has been followed by a series of diplomatic correspondence, annexes, addendums and appendices, none of which carries any force of law. The best-known of these is the “Steinmeier Formula” — named after current German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who as foreign minister tried to resolve disagreements about what steps needed to be taken and in what order.

A key problem, according to senior officials and diplomats who have participated directly in years of tortured negotiations over the agreement, is that Russia was designated as a guarantor — essentially a referee like France and Germany — rather than as a party to the conflict.

That distinction, which Putin and Vladislav Surkov, then his top adviser on Ukraine, insisted on during negotiations in 2014 and 2015, has allowed the Kremlin to insist that the Ukrainian government should negotiate directly with leaders of the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, the separatist pro-Russian puppet authorities in occupied Donbass, even as those leaders take all their instructions from Moscow.

“You have a text that is so very convoluted and complicated and contradictory at times — and this is obviously on purpose,” said a diplomat who has worked directly on the issue. “This complicated text requires interpretations and agreement on interpretations, step by step. And so as soon as one of the sides says ‘it is like this, and not otherwise,’ you cannot implement anything because … actually, at every step, you need to agree on the next step.”

“This is a frame, it’s not a law,” the diplomat said. “It’s not a legally binding thing.”

Despite the lack of legal force behind the whole package, the Minsk 2 agreement was endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, which approved a resolution on February 17, 2015 calling for its “full implementation.”  

Putin cited the U.N. resolution during his news conference with Macron, as he often does to emphasize the agreement’s legitimacy, and he also showed off his command of the legal fine print as he insisted that the Ukrainian government should be forced to negotiate with the separatist authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk, which Kyiv has refused to do.

“It won’t work otherwise,” Putin said. “They do not want to talk directly with representatives of Donbass. It is written directly in Point 12, in Point 9, Point 11 that such and such issues will be discussed and agreed upon with representatives of these territories,” Putin said. “Discuss and agree with them. How else can you work then? Impossible.”

Lost roadmap

Independent analysts and experts say that the differences between the Russians and Ukrainians on Minsk are virtually irreconcilable.

“We are a long way from a roadmap ahead, that’s for sure,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and co-author of a 2017 book titled, “Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia.”

“I don’t see any side moving off of its positions at the moment,” Charap said.

At the same time, some of the most bitterly disputed provisions in the Minsk accords could prove useful — in the unlikely event a compromise can be found, Charap said.

The agreement, for instance, calls for amendments to the Ukrainian constitution to provide for special status for the occupied areas of Donbass. Theoretically, Charap said, a constitutional reform process could be used to replace provisions requiring Ukraine to work toward membership in NATO with a provision committing to nonalignment.

Such an amendment would address Russia’s demand for a guarantee that Ukraine never joins the alliance, without requiring NATO to reverse its “open door” policy, which Western leaders have insisted is not up for negotiation.

But realistically, such constitutional amendments seem highly unlikely at the moment. “There’s also reason to be skeptical that Zelenskiy is in a position to negotiate a new constitution with Russia’s proxies at the moment,” Charap said. “Given that everyone in Ukraine is preparing for fighting not negotiating.”

Some Ukrainian officials have insisted there is no need to change the constitution because the Ukrainian parliament has adopted legislation on a broad decentralization plan that redirected budgetary and decision-making authority to local governments from Kyiv.

Charap, however, said Russia would call that insufficient to meet the provisions in Minsk that call for special status for the currently occupied areas. “I don’t think Russia would be cool with just implementation of current Ukrainian law. I don’t think that’s what they think they signed up for,” he said.

Leaders lacking

Another headache when it comes to Minsk is that nobody in a real position of authority actually signed anything. Although Hollande, Merkel, Poroshenko and Putin were at the negotiating table in the Belarusian capital, the documents were signed by others. Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma signed as his country’s representative, along with the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov, and Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

The agreement was also signed by representatives of the separatist areas, Alexander Zakharchenko of Donetsk and Igor Plotnitsky of Luhansk. Zakharchenko was killed in a bombing in August 2018. Plotnitsky survived a car bombing in 2016, resigned from his position amid political in-fighting in 2017 and fled to Russia where he is believed to be living.

Overarching responsibility for implementation of the Minsk accords rests with the leaders of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine — or their designates, either foreign ministers or presidential advisers — who meet as a quartet in the so-called Normandy format. The next meeting at adviser level is scheduled for Thursday in Berlin.

On a technical level, however, managing the details was put in the hands of a Trilateral Contact Group, consisting of representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE.

In 2015 and 2016, with the sides deadlocked and the accords stalled, Steinmeier proposed a series of steps aimed at kicking the process back into motion.

A joke now circulating among officials and diplomats is that at this point not even Steinmeier knows what’s in the Steinmeier Formula. But back when it was first proposed in diplomatic letters, the formula clearly called for a law on the special status of Donetsk and Luhansk to come into force at 8 p.m. on the same day as voting in local elections.

Russia has used that to insist that the first steps in moving forward with Minsk should be holding the elections and granting special status. But Ukrainian officials point to other provisions in Steinmeier’s letters declaring that the voting should be “scheduled and held in accordance with the Constitution of Ukraine” and also in “compliance” with “OSCE and international standards for democratic elections.”

Ukrainian officials insist those standards cannot possibly be met until Kyiv reasserts control over the occupied areas, journalists are granted unfettered access, and candidates from across the political spectrum are given a free and fair opportunity to participate. There are also numerous other obstacles, including the absence of voters: More than 700,000 people are estimated to have been displaced from the regions because of the ongoing war.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said that Russia had weaponized the peace accords. “Putin’s goal is to have his hand in our belly fat via the implementation of the Minsk deal in his interpretation,” he said.

Yatsenyuk, Poroshenko and other former officials who were in power at the time the Minsk deal was reached say that Ukraine would be more than ready to implement the accords as Kyiv interpreted them at the time.

“If Russians share the Ukrainian interpretation of the Minsk deal, well, we are ready,” Yatsenyuk said. “We can hold free and fair elections, not elections under the barrel of Russian guns.”

Poroshenko, in an interview with POLITICO last month, said that Russia was overreaching by insisting that special status for the occupied territories would permit a veto over major decisions on Ukraine’s international status.

“Excuse me, but foreign policy is not local self-governance,” Poroshenko said.

Macron, however, said Minsk is the only answer if Ukraine wants to regain control of Donbass. “The agreements of Minsk,” the French president said, are “the best protection of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

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