The ‘Minsk II’ ceasefire deal agreed between France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia will hopefully bring some welcome relief to the long-suffering citizens of the Donbass region, but it fails to address the key issues and is unlikely to form the basis for a lasting settlement.
In fact, it may be the quiet before a very considerable storm.
The immediate outcome envisaged by the agreement is a full ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weaponry to agreed lines, and mutual amnesty and prisoner exchanges. The agreed lines of withdrawal are favourable to the Ukrainian regime.
While the regime is to withdraw heavy arms relative to their current front line, the DPR/LPR forces are to withdraw relative to the front line as of Minsk I in September 2014, effectively exposing land gained south of Donetsk since September.
The Ukrainian regime could certainly do with some respite. Having lost the second battle for Donetsk Airport in January, and facing encirclement at the major railway hub of Debaltseve, the military campaign has not been going well for the alliance of Ukrainian forces and fascist militias (Azov Battalion, Ukrainian Volunteer Force etc).
Financially, the costs of the war are biting hard, and it is highly revealing that on the same day that the new ceasefire deal was announced, the IMF announced that it had agreed a package of loans to the Ukraine with a total value of $40 billion.
The US Congress has already approved the shipment of ‘lethal defensive’ weapons to the Ukrainian nationalist/fascist forces. While mainly German diplomacy sought to negotiate a deal, the White House used this approval to provide some background sabre-rattling. In light of this it is quite likely that the collapse of Minsk II would function as the pretext for direct US military supplies to the Ukraine.
So in addition to halting the DPR/LPR offensive, and obtaining funding from the IMF, the Ukrainian regime now knows that US military supplies are probably just a broken cease-fire away.
The likelihood that the peace will hold is not ultimately based on the routine short-term stipulations typical of ceasefires – cessation of active hostilities, prisoner exchanges etc. It is based on the more challenging task of negotiating solutions to the underlying political/economic causes of the conflict.
On that score, there is little cause for hope. The key political provisos of Minsk II are that, by the end of this year, there will be some kind of constitutional reform and decentralisation, local elections will be held in Donetsk and Luhansk, and finally Ukraine will resume control of the entire Ukrainian/Russian border.
Alongside these processes, the OSCE is supposed to be monitoring the withdrawal of all foreign armed groups and the disarmament of all ‘illegal’ armed groups. It sounds good in principle, but the devil is in the detail.
Immediately following the Minsk II agreement, Poroshenko gave a press conference in which he stated:
“Despite Russia’s insistence, we did not agree on any status of autonomy. We will do this through constitutional reforms, decentralization that will involve the whole country. We did not agree on ‘federalization’”
This hardly sounds like the kind of recognition that will satisfy the DPR/LPR forces and their supporters. Poroshenko seems to be saying that the decentralisation on offer will be limited (“We did not agree on ‘federalization’“), will require the political assent of the whole of Ukraine, and will apply equally throughout the whole of Ukraine (“We will do this through constitutional reforms, decentralization that will involve the whole country“).
This completely fails to engage with the deep cultural and political divisions that were exposed by the Maidan coup and that almost a year of civil war has only further exacerbated and entrenched. In Ukraine proper, nationalist sentiment is at a fever pitch.
In the Donbass, recent elections showed a high degree of support for the separatist cause. Any idea that the relationship between Ukraine and the Donbass can be restored based on a general Ukrainian constitutional settlement is utterly disingenuous.
Only the citizens of the Donbass Oblasts should decide their future – it is not for the whole of Ukraine to decide on their behalf. Poroshenko’s solution is akin to the recent referendum on Scottish Independence being held not just in Scotland, but also in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Given the duplicitous nature of Poroshenko’s proposed ‘constitutional reform’, it is highly unlikely that the DPR/LPR forces will disarm. Further, the definition of ‘illegal’ armed groups is a moot point when one side in the conflict controls the ‘law’.
For example, are the LPR/DPR supposed to agree to the disbanding of, say, the Vostok Battalion, while the ‘legal’ Neo-nazi battalions (Azov etc) that report to the Ukrainian Security Ministry are left intact? The Azov battalion are fully ‘legal’!
The proposed political measures of Minsk II are wholly inadequate given the political goals of the DPR/LPR, and the short term cease-fire arrangements interrupt what has been a relatively succesful phase of the conflict from the LPR/DPR perspective. It follows that the primary motivation behind the DPR/LPR leadership’s acceptance of terms must have been pressure from the Putin regime.
The Russian regime’s preference has always been for an independent, united and co-operative Ukraine. From the Russian perspective, a Ukraine with the Donbass in is less likely to fully succumb to the strident anti-Russian nationalism of western Ukraine than one with the Donbass out. It is more likely to be open to Russian capital, goods and services, and it is less likely to act as a bridgehead for NATO and US/EU geopolitical and economic interests.
Russia is not willing to stand by and watch the Donbass, an area with whom it has deep historical, economic and cultural ties, crushed by Ukrainian nationalism. Within Russia, there is overwhelming support across all classes for the Donbass rebellion.
But neither is it in Russia’s interests to fragment the Ukraine, assume financial responsibility for a post-war Donbass, and find itself confronted with a thorn in the side in the form of a permanently antagonistic NATO-friendly Ukraine.
The basis for a long-term political settlement has to be a referendum, held in the Donbass Oblasts only, in which a choice is offered of the pre-civil war status quo; a federal constitution with significant political, cultural and economic autonomy; and full independence.
Unfortunately, it is more likely that the limited political proposals of Minsk II will result in an eventual resumption of hostilities and the possible open engagement of US military supplies.
Mr. LIONEL REYNOLDS, Editor of CounterBlast, is one of the frequent contributors for The 4th Media.