Peace talks in Minsk to end the war in Ukraine finished early on Thursday morning with the signing of agreement by representatives of Russia, Ukraine, and the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR). Almost any agreement is a step in the right direction, but many people had expected more. After all the hype which preceded the talks in Minsk, as well as Sergei Lavrov’s statement about ‘super’ progress, the final result is something of a disappointment.
Before the Minsk document was revealed, there had been considerable speculation that it would involve a demilitarized zone separating the two warring armies in Ukraine, to be occupied by some sort of international peacekeeping force. Had this been the case, we could have been reasonably confident that any ceasefire would hold. As it is, the agreement only mandates a variation of what was agreed in September last year, namely a withdrawal of artillery. Other weapons systems as well as the soldiers who use them will not have to withdraw. The two sides will therefore remain in close contact, creating lots of opportunities for ceasefire violations.
The agreement also doesn’t stipulate what the ceasefire line should be: Ukrainian artillery has to withdraw from the current line, and rebel artillery from the line held in September, but other forces will apparently stay where they are. This in effect recognizes rebel gains since September, but leaves unanswered the question of what will happen to the Ukrainian forces currently surrounded in the area of Debaltsevo. Being on the verge of destroying the Ukrainian forces in Debaltsevo, the rebels are not likely to observe a ceasefire which allows the Ukrainians to remain there. Vladimir Putin remarked that the rebels ‘assume that this grouping lays down its arms and ceases resistance’. But the Minsk agreement doesn’t address the issue, and the Ukrainians may well see things differently. Are the Ukrainians to remain in place? In which case, how are they to be resupplied? Or are they to be withdrawn? We do not know.
Then, there is the thorny question of the final political settlement. The Minsk agreement calls for Ukraine to introduce a constitutional amendment providing for decentralization of power in Donbass by the end of 2015. But it doesn’t lay out any specifics, saying only that the amendment should take into account the peculiarities of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions ‘as agreed with the representatives of these regions’. This suggests that the constitutional amendment must not be unilaterally imposed by Kiev but must be the result of negotiation. But who are these ‘representatives’ with whom it must be negotiated? The leaders of the DPR and LPR will no doubt say that they are, and that any constitutional change requires their agreement. Kiev will very possibly claim that the ‘representatives’ of the region are the Ukrainian government officials in the parts of Donbass it controls. One can easily foresee a situation in which Kiev insists that it has fulfilled its obligations under the Minsk agreement while the rebels say that it has not. It is in any case very difficult to see what sort of decentralization Kiev and the rebels could agree on.
Article 9 of the agreement says that Ukraine will regain control of its border with Russia once it has carried out constitutional reform and elections have been held in Donbass. But again, we are likely to run into problems as to who defines elections as legitimate. Kiev will probably say that only elections held under Ukrainian law are valid. The rebels will insist that those held in the DPR and LPR in November were legitimate. Again, it is hard to see how these differences will be reconciled.
Finally, there is the matter of what becomes of the rebel army. The Minsk document calls for the ‘withdrawal of all foreign armed formations, military equipment, and also mercenaries from Ukrainian territory,’ and the ‘disarmament of all illegal groups.’ The Ukrainian position is that the majority of the rebel forces are ‘foreign armed formations’ or ‘mercenaries’, while any which are not are ‘illegal groups.’ The Ukrainian government will therefore almost certainly interpret the document as meaning that the rebel army must disband completely. The rebels, however, will equally certainly claim that their troops are not foreigners nor mercenaries, and that since their governments received a popular mandate in the elections of last November, their military units are not ‘illegal’. The rebels have built up an army perhaps 30,000 strong, with tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, and artillery. They are not going to just disband it and trust that the Ukrainian Army won’t come in and take over.
None of these problems are insurmountable. As German Chancellor Angel Merkel commented, ‘There’s a real chance to turn things for the better.’ But serious obstacles remain to a lasting peace.