The Minsk "Agreement"
By Alexander Mercouris
Already there is debate about who has "won"
and who has "lost" in the Minsk talks.
The short answer is that as the German
foreign minister Steinmeier correctly said
there is no breakthrough but the Russians
and the NAF have made progress.
One point needs to be explained or
reiterated (since I have explained it
already and many times).
The agreement does not make provision for
federalisation or autonomy for the Donbass
but still only refers to the grant of a law
according the Donbass temporary special
status within the Ukraine.
There could not be an agreement for
federalisation out of the Minsk negotiations
because they are primarily a summit meeting
of five powers - Russia, Belarus, Ukraine,
German and France. The Russians have always
insisted that this is an internal conflict
and civil war within the Ukraine and between
Ukrainians and it is for the Ukrainians and
them alone to resolve their internal
differences between them through
Given that this is Russia's stance, Russia
and the other powers cannot impose a
federalisation scheme on the Ukrainians and
they have not - at least overtly - sought to
do so. What the stated objective of the
Minsk talks is - at least from the Russian
point of view - is to set up conditions and
a process for the constitutional
negotiations that the Russians have been
pushing for (and which were supposedly
agreed on 21st February 2014 and on 17th
April 2014 and 5th September 2014) to take
The Russians have been insisting on these
negotiations since the February coup. The
Russians are not publicly pre-ordaining the
outcome of those negotiations because were
they to do so they would not be negotiations
at all. Whatever a negotiation is, it is by
definition not something whose outcome is
If the Russians sought to preordain the
outcome of the negotiations by insisting on
federalisation as the outcome they would be
imposing their views on the parties and
would be admitting that they are a party to
the conflict, which is what they have
consistently said they are not. They would
in effect be doing what the US has tried to
do in the Syrian conflict, which is insist
on an outcome to negotiations (Assad's
resignation) before negotiations even take
place. The Russians have always opposed this
sort of behaviour and they are being
consistent in not openly adopting it now.
Depending on what the parties agree between
them, the negotiations could in theory
result in decentralisation, federalisation,
a confederation or even outright
independence for the Donbass (the Russians
floated that idea as a serious possibility
in the summer). The latter is not by the way
contrary to the reaffirmation of respect or
even support for the Ukraine's sovereignty
and territorial integrity that we saw in the
statement today. If the internal parties to
the conflict were to decide on a formal
partition as the solution to the Ukraine's
conflict, then international actors like
Russia could recognise it without calling
into question their previous declared
support for the Ukraine's territorial
integrity, as they previously did when
Czechoslovakia split up.
In reality everybody knows that the
Russians' preferred option is federalisation
and the Europeans are now edging towards
that solution. Whether it is a viable
solution is another matter.
Once this key point is understood everything
else starts to fall into place.
Last spring and summer the Russians sought a
ceasefire so the constitutional negotiations
could begin. The Europeans are now also
demanding a ceasefire (they were less keen
on the idea last spring and summer). There
is now therefore an agreement for a
Back in August the Russians demanded the
withdrawal of heavy weapons from the Donbass.
There is now an agreement for the withdrawal
of heavy weapons from the Donbass.
If that happens it will be a major weakening
of the Junta's position in the Donbass
because it is the Junta whose military has
the big preponderance in heavy weapons. If
the opposing sides are left with light
infantry forces, the advantage on the ground
will pass decisively to the NAF.
The political machinery that was supposed to
have been agreed in Minsk on 5th September
2014 to create the conditions for the
constitutional elections is being revived.
Thus there is to be a law of special status
for the Donbass pending the constitutional
negotiations to clarify its current legal
status and provide legal mechanisms for its
internal administration by the NAF (Ukraine
passed one previously and then reneged on
it), more elections etc.
There is a new provision, which is the first
indications of some sort of timeline for
this process with the constitutional
negotiations supposed to have been concluded
by the end of the year.
There are also some ideas for a beefed up
monitoring process via the OSCE.
Will any of this happen? Highly doubtful I
would say. Consider what happened after the
Minsk process of 5th September 2014. The
Junta did not withdraw its heavy weapons. It
did not retreat to the agreed boundary line.
It imposed an economic blockade on the
Donbass (it is now obliged to lift it). It
rescinded the law on the Donbass's special
status. It reinforced its army and in
January it attempted to renew its offensive.
Is there any more prospect of this process
succeeding than did the one that was agreed
in Minsk in September?
The big difference between this process and
the previous process is that the Europeans
are now formally involved. Its success or
failure ultimately depends on whether the
Europeans are going to insist on the Junta
fulfilling its obligations. They
spectacularly failed to do so before and I
have to say I think it is very unlikely they
will do so now. If the Europeans fail to
insist on the Junta fulfilling its
obligations then the process will unravel as
the previous Minsk process did and with the
balance of advantage continuing to shift
every day on the ground towards the NAF we
will see a further renewal of the fighting
and a further NAF advance in the spring.
In the meantime control of the border,
disarmament of "illegal armed groups" etc
are now overtly linked to the successful
conclusion of the constitutional
negotiations, which is supposed to happen
before the end of the year. Of course if the
constitutional negotiations succeed, then
when all these things happen we will have a
different Ukraine from the one we have now.
At that point the control of border posts
etc will be in the hands of differently
constituted authorities from those that
Will those negotiations actually happen?
Will they succeed if they do? I doubt it.
The Junta will resist them tooth and nail if
only because those negotiations put in
jeopardy the whole Maidan project and by
their mere fact call into question the
It depends in the end on what the Europeans
do. This has been true of the conflict from
That it depends on what the Europeans do is
in itself a good reason to doubt this
process will succeed. The probability is
more conflict down the road but in the
meantime Poroshenko's admission that there
is "no good news for the Ukraine" from this
process tells us who is winning.