A little over a year after the Minsk II accord was signed in February 2015, it is all too apparent that the agreement aimed at ending the war in eastern Ukraine is not working. Nevertheless, Western governments, the EU, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) keep reiterating that Minsk needs to be fulfilled. Since the deadline for the implementation of Minsk II passed at the end of December 2015, it is unclear what this means in practice. A concrete though ultimately unachievable set of security and political measures has been replaced by a vague reference to an end goal. Ukrainian and Russian politicians routinely blame each other for violating the agreement.
It is easy to see why nobody wants to officially abandon the Minsk process. The framework was difficult enough to establish in the first place, and a renegotiation of its principles would increase instability on the ground. But a peace process also needs structure and clear signposts, otherwise it becomes a process for the sake of a process. The key challenge is to carry forward the spirit of Minsk through a more targeted approach and shed some of the baggage that the process has acquired along the way.
The sequencing envisaged by Minsk II started with a full ceasefire on February 15, 2015, the pullout within two weeks of heavy weaponry from a security zone separating the warring sides, and an exchange of prisoners. These steps were to be followed immediately by a dialogue on the modalities of local elections in Ukraine and a law on special local governance measures in particular districts of the eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Within a month of the signing of this law, the exact territories to which the legislation would apply were meant to be specified. And finally, Ukraine’s full control of its state border was supposed to be restored gradually, starting with Ukraine’s overall local elections and ending with the regulation of local elections in the separatist-controlled districts of Donetsk and Luhansk and the completion of wider constitutional reforms by the end of 2015.
The ceasefire has held intermittently, some heavy weaponry has been removed, and some prisoners have been exchanged. Ukraine’s local elections took place in October and November 2015, although on the occupied territories in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and in areas close to the front line, elections were deemed impossible or unsafe.
The law on special temporary local governance in certain districts of the two eastern oblasts was prepared and approved by the Ukrainian parliament. But as of March 2016, its implementation is pending in view of ceasefire violations. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has repeatedly pointed out that the law can be implemented only after local elections have been held in the districts in question.
Wider constitutional reforms, in particular on decentralization, are also pending. The reform package that was approved by a simple majority in the Ukrainian parliament in late August 2015 has remained controversial. That is despite the fact that Poroshenko decoupled the law on the status of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk from the constitutional reform process, which requires the approval of a two-thirds majority in the parliament.
The Minsk process facilitates formal and informal discussions in various formations among representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, the OSCE, and Western governments. Such engagement at different levels is essential for any attempt at conflict resolution.
The negotiation dynamics were reinvigorated by the appointment in December 2015 of Russian Security Council member and former parliamentary speaker Boris Gryzlov as Moscow’s new representative to the Trilateral Contact Group, which brings together Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE. Talks were also revived by a high-level meeting in January 2016 between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and Kremlin aide Vyacheslav Surkov and by the start of the 2016 German chairmanship of the OSCE.
By definition, a peace process remains a moving target. It has to combine a degree of structure and broad sequencing with a necessary element of flexibility for readjustment. Locking in precise start and end dates for overlapping measures and an overall unrealistic timeframe may have been politically necessary in 2014–2015 when the two Minsk agreements were hammered out. Over time, these provisions have come to underpin deadlock.
The situation now requires rethinking without losing the political will of the key actors behind the agreement. The current dual emphasis on greater transparency about ceasefire violations, based on an improved technical capacity of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, and on the issue of local elections is reasonable.
Under French diplomat Pierre Morel, the working group on political affairs of the Trilateral Contact Group is leading discussions to facilitate local elections in the districts of Donetsk and Luhansk that did not hold votes last fall. The principle of organizing these elections on the basis of Ukrainian law has so far proved impossible to square with the idea of giving the political forces on the ground a stake in the process. Determining the voting rights of the displaced remains a difficult issue too.
However, narrowing the agenda to a concrete political issue like the elections is a necessary step. The willingness of the Ukrainian government, the Russian government, and local political actors to discuss the elections rests on their respective hopes to assert and legitimize their political control. If all-Ukrainian parties and independents are able to compete in the contests, the results are not a done deal and therefore have the potential to insert a new political momentum into the stalemate.
The status of particular districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, as embodied in the pending law, and the gradual reestablishment of Ukraine’s control of its border are important, but a detailed discussion of these issues should be postponed until after the elections. A parallel discussion of all of these questions would further complicate the compromise required to allow these elections to go ahead in the first place. The Minsk process should also be freed from its linkage to Ukraine’s wider constitutional reforms. These reforms are too important for Ukraine’s long-term stability as a democratic state to be subsumed under conflict resolution efforts.
In turn, Russia should be given a concrete prospect that parts of the sanctions regime the West imposed after Moscow’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea could be lifted in response to Russia upholding the ceasefire, facilitating local elections, and engaging in the double task of addressing the status issue and restoring Ukraine’s control of its eastern border.
By Gwendolyn Sasse