Minsk deadlock: West must reject Russian bid to limit Ukrainian sovereignty

UkraineAlert by Duncan Allan

While the world has been struggling with the coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s ruinous war in eastern Ukraine has entered its seventh year. Diplomatic efforts to end the ongoing conflict, which has killed more than 14,000 people since 2014, have been reinvigorated since the election last year of Volodymyr Zelenskyy as Ukraine’s president. The foreign ministers of the Normandy Format group of nations (France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine) are expected to meet in June, with the aim of paving the way towards another summit of national leaders, who last met in Paris in December 2019 following a three-year gap.

Policymakers face a sobering choice. The Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015 remain the only existing framework for ending the war in eastern Ukraine, but they rest on two irreconcilable interpretations of Ukraine’s sovereignty. This is what I refer to in a new Chatham House paper as the “Minsk conundrum”: is Ukraine sovereign, as Ukrainians insist, or should its sovereignty be limited, as Russia demands?

Ukraine sees the Minsk agreements as instruments with which to re-establish its sovereignty over the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts that are currently under Russian occupation. The Ukrainian interpretation of the Minsk agreements envisages the following sequence of actions: a ceasefire; a Russian withdrawal from eastern Ukraine; return of the Ukraine/Russia border to Ukrainian control; free and fair elections in Donbas; and, finally, in line with a nationwide decentralization program launched in 2014, a devolution of power to the region, which would be reintegrated and re-subordinated to the authorities in Kyiv. As a result, Ukraine would be able to make its own domestic and foreign policy choices. However, this is something that Russia is not prepared to accept.

By contrast, Russia views the Minsk agreements as tools with which to break Ukraine’s sovereignty. It demands that elections in occupied Donbas be held before Ukraine has reclaimed control of the international border. This would be followed by comprehensive autonomy for Russia’s proxy regimes in eastern Ukraine, crippling the central authorities in Kyiv. In this scenario, Ukraine would be unable to govern itself effectively or orient its foreign policy towards the West. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Ukrainians regard such an outcome as wholly unacceptable.

Western thinking about this Minsk conundrum has been imprecise and inconsistent. The prevalent view is that implementing the agreements means finding a mid-point between the Russian and Ukrainian positions. But attempts to do so, including the so-called “Morel Plan” and the so-called “Steinmeier Formula”, have failed to produce the desired results. Instead of achieving a breakthrough, these efforts have succeeded in heaping pressure on Ukraine and risking political instability in Kyiv, while at the same time not leading to any change in Russian policy.

Western policymakers should now stop trying to resolve what is an unresolvable contradiction and instead acknowledge the starkness of the Minsk conundrum: either Ukraine is sovereign, or it is not. In this case, compromise is not an option.

An alternative way to approach implementation of the Minsk agreements would be to make the defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty the unequivocal premise of Western policy. This means support for Ukraine’s interpretation of the agreements. Such an approach would use the Minsk framework as a tool to deescalate and manage the conflict. Western governments would meanwhile support political and economic reform in Ukraine, using Ukraine’s landmark Association Agreement with the European Union as an anchor, in order to strengthen Ukraine’s resilience in the face of Russian pressure.

This alternative approach would also proceed from the assumption that reintegrating the occupied Donbas is, at best, a long-term possibility if the peace process is to avoid imposing intolerable strains on Ukraine. Essentially, this approach would entail a stand-off with Russia that would only end when Russia’s leaders accepted Ukraine as a sovereign country.

The idea of a drawn-out conflict in eastern Ukraine and a lengthy confrontation with Russia would trouble many Western decision-makers. However, any attempts to implement the Minsk agreements that do not start from an unambiguous commitment to support Ukraine’s sovereignty will continue to fail, while also running the risk destabilizing Ukraine itself. Western policymakers need to decide which answer to the Minsk conundrum best serves their country’s interests and most closely accords with their professed principles.

Duncan Allan is an Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House.

(c) Atlantic Council

11 comments

  1. “The idea of a drawn-out conflict in eastern Ukraine and a lengthy confrontation with Russia would trouble many Western decision-makers.”

    I would say 6 years and 14000 deaths is a drawn out conflict. The main problem, is not Russia trying to destroy Ukraine with this one-sided agreement, but the lack of spine from the West overall.

  2. Minsk Shminsk! Those murderous fascist bastards need to honor Budapest!
    As for Normandy, forget it. Anything involving slimey putler lackeys France and Germany is going fucking nowhere.

    • The US and UK need to honor Budapest too. Their response to this memorandum is nothing short of disgraceful.

      • I believe it was signed by John Major and Bill Clinton. As far as I am aware they were virtually silent in 2014.
        I revisited the wiki page for Budapest and found a new (at least to me) edit that I had not seen before:
        ‘According to Stephen MacFarlane, a professor of international relations, “It gives signatories justification if they take action, but it does not force anyone to act in Ukraine.” In the US, neither the George H. W. Bush administration nor the Clinton administration was prepared to give a military commitment to Ukraine, and they did not believe the US Senate would ratify an international treaty and so the memorandum was adopted in more limited terms.’
        Curious. If so, it was not worth the paper it was printed on.

        • Indeed, Mr. Scradge, this passage in the Budapest Memorandum is new to me too!

        • Now this Memorandum has been proved to be nothing more than toilet paper, Ukraine have the full right to develop nuclear weapons on their soil for protection.

          • Yes they do and it should be with our help, since it is clear that neither America, Britain, Canada or any other friendly nation is prepared to put ‘boots on the ground’ ever.
            I wrote in a previous comment about how the British army of the Rhine repositioned itself to be the defence force for West Germany from 1949 onwards. It was a credible formation, being equipped with state of the art (for the time) kit. Numbering 80,000 combat troops and armed with tactical nukes, it was a formidable obstacle to overcome. I think that Ukraine needs to form an elite defence force based on this model in addition to its existing structures and the signatories who let them down so badly need to chip in, including with tactical nukes.

  3. Slowly, I am forced to believe that politicians in Germany and France have Down Syndrom. In regards to Ukraine, all I hear and read in “Minsk”. They repeat it like some mental retard.
    Minsk is DEAD! It was a dead birth! It is a rotten corpse … nearly a skeleton!
    How many more years will it take before these morons will see the light?

    • They cling to Minsk, because the alternative would require a spine, something sadly lacking in Western leaders.

    • Unfortunately we still need Minsk because most of the sanctions use that language. We don’t want to give them any wiggle room to weasel out of those sanctions. We just need 3rd party leaders to explain to the fucking mini dictator what the text of Minsk means. Only the Moskali don’t understand it. Step #1 means step number one, Putler. Step #2 means step number 2 Mr. yellow hazmat bug…
      As for Budapest, I don’t see what the confusion is, except that the Moskali can’t read and are completely incapable of critical thought. Here are the first 3 points of Budapest:
      1. Respect Belarusian, Kazakh and Ukrainian independence and sovereignty in the existing borders.
      2. Refrain from the threat or the use of force against Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
      3. Refrain from using economic pressure on Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine their influence its politics.
      Seems simple enough that even Zakwhoreova should be able to understand it…

What is your opinion?