In Minsk Talks, Russia Comes Out Ahead

4 MINS READFeb 12, 2015 | 15:42 GMT
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (L-R) at the presidential residence in Minsk on Feb. 11.

Following marathon talks in Minsk that lasted more than 17 hours, the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement that appears to align with the Kremlin's demands. The agreement reflects Ukraine's increasingly weak negotiating position as well as Germany's wish to avoid confrontation with Russia while trying to save the eurozone. Though the deal includes some notable provisions regarding a cease-fire and the withdrawal of arms, it also contains several points, most importantly constitutional changes, that will challenge Kiev and give the Kremlin control over key parts of the agreement.

The document calls for a cease-fire to begin Feb. 15, the withdrawal of weapons and the enactment of constitutional reforms in Ukraine. Though Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has denied that the agreement includes provisions for the creation of autonomous regions or the federalization of Ukraine, the document on the whole does fulfill several of the Kremlin's long-standing demands with regards to the status of Donbas.

The new cease-fire agreement is based largely on the original one that went into effect Sept. 5. It focuses on the withdrawal of heavy artillery systems, which have been prominent throughout the conflict, within 14 days of the cease-fire's implementation. The new cease-fire requires these artillery systems to be withdrawn far beyond their maximum effective ranges, a move that will create a buffer to prevent escalation and heavy artillery fire on the demarcation line.

Missing from the agreement, however, is a decision on the fate of the still heavily contested Ukrainian positions in Debaltseve. Because both sides will have to withdraw their artillery systems, the result will be a very deep area without artillery cover in the center of the demarcation line.

The agreement's most important impact on the military balance is its requirement to withdraw foreign forces and mercenaries from Ukraine. Separatists have depended heavily on the combat power of the Russian military and Russian volunteer forces. Without these, the separatists would have been incapable of repelling the Ukrainian offensive, and in the future, they will be rendered much weaker than their Ukrainian counterparts.

Ambiguity and Political Will

The political provisions of the agreement largely favor the Kremlin. The agreement prescribes constitutional reforms in Ukraine that would transition the country to a more decentralized system of governance — although it offers few details as to what that decentralization would entail. The accord also outlines a requirement for the Ukrainian government to enshrine into law a special status for Donetsk and Luhansk provinces that would allow them to form local militias and work with the central government to appoint local prosecutors and formulate economic and social policies for the regions.

Nevertheless, local elections and plans for Ukrainian forces to take control of the border areas between Donbas and Russia will not happen under the terms of the agreement unless Ukraine first conducts constitutional reforms. This leaves much room for ambiguity regarding the types of reforms and the extent of decentralization that would be deemed acceptable to the separatist and Russian sides before other elements of the deal could be implemented. At a time when Russia is uncertain about the United States' willingness to provide military assistance to Ukraine, the ambiguity of constitutional changes gives the Kremlin options and allows Russian troops to continue controlling parts of the border, giving them access to Donbas. Moreover, the participation and cooperation of top-level separatist leaders at Minsk highlighted the Kremlin's continued influence over separatist groups, signaling that Russia will likely maintain a strong hold over the local leadership if Donbas receives its special status. 

The German and French leaders who negotiated the deal have highlighted the fact that the agreement does not completely resolve the conflict. Following the talks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there is much work left to do, but she did note that the negotiations offered hope for a solution. French President Francois Hollande referred to the agreement as "relief for Europe." For Europe's leaders, who are facing another major crisis in Greece, de-escalating the situation in Ukraine, or at the very least freezing the conflict, is a top priority. If the cease-fire holds, the European Union will probably suspend the next round of Russia sanctions, which were scheduled to be applied Feb. 16. This would be a relief for the European Union because the sanctions generated significant internal friction. 

Notably, the United States was not formally represented during the nightlong negotiations in Minsk, but its reaction and willingness to support the agreement will be crucial. The German government has repeatedly expressed its concern about the possibility of the United States' arming Ukrainian troops, but Berlin hopes that a lasting cease-fire will reduce the likelihood of that happening. Nevertheless, should the new cease-fire fail, U.S. and some European leaders will likely push to inflict more significant consequences on Russia. 

The signing of the new Minsk agreement, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin's direct participation in the negotiations, points to the Kremlin's willingness to at least partially de-escalate the conflict at this time. The agreement includes some vague measures and conditions that all sides may ultimately chose not to implement. Several key points of contention remain unaddressed from a military and political perspective, and there are still many opportunities for the agreement to break down if they are not resolved. Therefore, political will, rather than the actual terms of the agreement, will determine whether a significant de-escalation is to take place.

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