The anniversary of the signing of the second Minsk Peace Agreement passed a few days ago, without fanfare. The deal has little public support and it widely viewed as a failure because the fighting and killing in eastern Ukraine has not stopped.
I have written about and debated about Minsk extensively, and so have seen all of the arguments. Many interpretations about what the deal does and does not say exist, often these opinions are simply based on incorrect information. The misgivings and concerns about Minsk are genuine, but the basis for them, by and large, is not. In fact, some of the incorrect assumptions about what is said in Minsk that are propagated in Ukraine or in Ukrainian communities worldwide are actually helping to cement into the minds of many parts of Russia’s wish-list when Minsk was being negotiated.
One of the commonly held misconceptions about Minsk is that it lacks sequencing – that there is no clear step-by-step plan as to what needs to happen when, or which party has to fulfill which obligation before other elements of the plan can be carried out. This is where there is a fundamental disagreement between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine wants to see the security related elements of Minsk first, while Russia is talking about the political aspects of Minsk being put first. This disagreement represents a fundamental roadblock towards a return to peace, and it is an absurd argument being put forward by Russia and being accepted by some in other countries.
One does not need to have a university degree in mathematics to know that four follows three, three follows two, and two follows one. The initial steps in Minsk are clear, for the record:
Russia, in essence, wants the rest of the world to think, and accept, that four comes before one, two or three. In a nutshell, that is the stupidity of the Russian position on Minsk implementation. Forget the university degree in mathematics analogy, counting correctly from one upwards is a milestone for toddlers.
Russia signed up to a deal that was designed to end bloodshed in eastern Ukraine, and has since that signing done little more than ignore or avoid their obligations in that deal. Now the obstacle to peace is a perverted idea that four must happen before the guns can be silenced. When Germany’s Ambassador to Ukraine said last week that, in fact, it might be possible to hold elections on the occupied territories while there are approximately 700 Russian tanks there, some people were rightly angry at such a suggestion, one person (a normally reasonable Ukrainian MP) was unfortunately so angry that he expressed his opinion through an act of vandalism, unfortunate and unhelpful.
It is more helpful simply to say eins, zwei, drei, vier than it is to spray-paint the word NEIN on a monument of immense historical importance, a remnant of the Berlin wall, a poignant reminder to the world (for those who need it) of what utterly abhorrent things walls dividing civilizations are. No doubt that act of vandalism (which was quickly reversed, thankfully) was motivated by an anger from that person at the fact that his countrymen continue to die in this senseless war, but, his actions were inexcusable regardless of how misguided the statement of the German Ambassador was.
As stated at the outset, there are many opinions about Minsk that are not grounded in reality, the most common of these is the notion that Minsk has somehow conferred “autonomy” to the parts of Ukraine that are presently occupied by the Kremlin proxies. This is not true. Nowhere in Minsk is there any reference to “autonomy” or even anything similar.
That some international commentators have come to accept this as true and then pass it off as fact is problematic, because in fact “autonomy” for those areas is something that the Kremlin wishes to see, it is not something that has been agreed to. That many people inside of Ukraine believe the “autonomy” notion to be true as well is, well, the fault of the government (and Ukraine’s oligarch controlled media) for not informing the public more accurately about what Minsk does or does not mean for the country.
Some scholars have advanced the not-unreasonable argument that issues that are in Minsk that relate to the temporary local self-administration and the Special Status should be reviewed and even cancelled. The argument is that these concessions were made at a time when there was a belief on the parts of the mediators, France and Germany, that there was some kind of local agency that was at the root of the war, and so the central government had to address the fears and grievances of the people of the Donbas somehow.
As anybody who has studied the revelations in the recordings of telephone conversations of senior Putin advisor Sergey Glazyev, and/or the revelations in the leaked Email communications of the Kremlin’s “grey cardinal” Vladislav Surkov, will know that there exists significant evidence that the entire conflict was directed by the Kremlin from day one, and the self-declared “republics” are administered in minute detail by Moscow today.
However, the cold hard reality is that Minsk exists, and nobody should be talking about revising it. All efforts should be made towards implementing the deal.
Let’s start by dispelling the rumors. Minsk isn’t about “autonomy” for the Donbas. The common extrapolation of that idea, and why it is so dangerous, is that an autonomous Donbas would somehow have veto power over state decisions. The “Trojan Horse” theory is common, and wrong. We know, of course, that this is Vladimir Putin’s desire, but what Putin wants and what Putin gets are not the same thing. Certainly not as a reward for killing 10,000 people.
Once the general public are informed about what Minsk means, the resistance to applying it is minimized. The “Special Status” is objected to – why? Because people read more into it than it says, rather than simply reading it. People are angry at a term? I am angry because people are dying and arguing over semantics in this case contributes to inaction on implementing a deal to stop that tragic loss of life.
No, Mr. Putin, the political side of the Minsk deal will not be put before the security elements of the deal. Ukraine should stick to Minsk, as Russia should stick to Minsk. The steps to peace start with a ceasefire, then a pullback of heavy weapons, then complete access for the OSCE to monitor, then we will work out how elections that need to be free and fair can take place.
The “Trojan Horse” theory relies on one more, probably massively erroneous, assumption. The idea that the Kremlin would once again be able to control Ukraine (although no mechanism exists in Minsk to allow any degree of control) assumes that those currently holding parts of the Donbass at gunpoint would win an election. It is beyond doubt that the Kremlin wishes to host “elections” in their own style, as in, absolutely dishonestly, but, again, that’s not what Minsk says. Minsk says that elections have to be held according to Ukrainian law, and to the standards of the OSCE, and monitored by the ODIHR. The Kremlin knows that on that level playing field their proxies will lose, and that’s why they have sought to frustrate the process all along, and that is precisely why the international community should force them to abide by the deal, to eventually get Russia out of Ukraine. Using the ballot box.
The only way that any of this works is for the international community to be resolute on costs to Russia for their continued failure to abide by Minsk. Logic, four comes after three, three comes after two, and two comes after one.
First start with a ceasefire – and sanctions with real teeth follow a failure to abide by this. Second: pull back weapons – and sanctions with teeth follow a failure to abide by this. Third: allow the OSCE to do their jobs – and sanctions with teeth follow a failure to abide by this.
And the next point, organizing elections, point four, is fourth – not first.