ANALYSIS- The end of 2015 did not deliver on its promise of peace. Instead the agreement to end the fighting between Russia and Ukraine has been extended. Will the agreement have more success in 2016 if it failed so spectacularly within its original time period? Do France and Germany have what it takes to tame the bear?
What’s happened so far…
Ukraine has long suffered from its geopolitical location, and today the situation is no different. The pull from Russia, strongest in the Soviet era, has now shifted to closer relations with European Union countries, much to Russia’s dislike.
The tension came to a head when the Russian friendly Viktor Yanukovych was elected to President under allegations of vote rigging, and was subsequently ousted by protests in 2004. In his place, Europe friendly Viktor Yushcenko became president, infuriating Russia, who briefly cut off Ukraine gas supplies in 2008.
The 2010 elections, which were deemed fair and free, saw Russian friendly Yanukovych re-elected. Shortly after, he announced that Ukraine would abandon an agreement to strengthen ties with the EU, instead rekindling the relationship with Russia.
Huge protests broke out in Kiev’s independence square, with dozens of protestors killed by military and police. Yanukovych disappeared and the protestors installed a new government. Russia’s response was to march into Ukraine’s territory of Crimea, thus disregarding Ukraine’s sovereignty.
The international response was to condemn Russia’s actions, with President François Hollande declaring, “What has happened in Ukraine, and more specifically in Crimea, is unacceptable. It can’t be tolerated that borders are moved and a region passes from one country to another, without the international community being required to act. This is what Europe must do …”
Heavy fighting in the Dontesk, Luhansk and others areas required the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, known as the Normandy Quartet, to begin negotiations in an attempt to end the conflict. After sixteen hours of negotiations in February last year, Merkel and the other members of the Normandy Quartet emerged with the Minsk protocol signed and agreed upon. Merkel admitted, weary but triumphant ‘I am under no illusion, we are under no illusion – there is still an enormous amount of work to be done.’
It was a start, but just under a year later and the Minsk agreement has passed its deadline with pretty meagre success.
Minsk Health Check
The Minsk Agreement includes 13 measures, whose implementation is designed to lead to the end of the conflict. The implementation is going painstakingly slowly to the point of disaster.
Russian separatists continue to shell Ukrainian positions, using heavy weapons whose existence was prohibited by the agreement. According to the Organisation of Security and Co- Operation in Europe (OSCE), the main EU tool for managing the crisis, heavy fighting continues almost daily. In the Donetsk region ‘23 undetermined explosions and approximately 40 bursts of small arms fire’ were reported by OSCE on the 10th of January. This report was followed by a resident of Novhorodske, a town close to Donetsk, claiming that shelling had exploded in his garden, which was confirmed by ‘two relatively fresh craters’.
The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission has been experiencing difficulty in accessing the Ukraine- Russia border, which is currently being held by pro- Russia separatists. So far, limited access has been granted to the Donetsk region, an area controlled by rebels and considered a terrorist organisation by Ukrainian officials. Similar efforts to access the Easterly Luhansk region has met with even less success.
The key target of the Minsk agreement ‘monitoring and verification of the ceasefire regime and the withdrawal of heavy weapons by the OSCE’ has therefore been ultimately unsuccessful.
No matter how you look at it, the Minsk agreement is not in a healthy state.
Although according to Gustav Gressel, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the agreement served its purpose, which was to ‘end the shooting and the killing’. The signing of the agreement and the subsequent ceasefire accomplished this.
And yet the conflict still drags on. In the haste to stop the fighting, Gustav explains, the agreement was written in ‘vague terms’, which is being interpreted uncooperatively by Russia.
Beyond its ambiguous paragraphs, Dr. Olena Prystayko, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels clarifies, ‘None of the sides are happy with it’. Especially Putin, who has no intention of ending the conflict, ‘they (Russia) simply do not want to stop the conflict. They need it’. The instability within Ukraine as a result of the conflict, serves Russian interests. Dr. Prystayko continued ‘The authoritarian regime inside of Russia has developed to such a scale that they need external military invasions in order to keep power inside the country’. Russian authorities do not want Ukrainian democracy to succeed, and risk setting an example for Russian civilians.
And so Minsk has reached an impasse. Instead of going back to negotiations or admitting that the agreement has failed, its been extended in a last ditch hope that the sanctions, combined with a falling oil price, will start to hurt Russia.
And yet, according to Gustav, sanctions are not answer. ‘There are some countries in the EU that, for their national interest, want the sanctions gone by tomorrow because they want to reestablish business and energy ties with Russia’.
Notably Italy, who blocked a move to extend the sanctions in December last year.
Italy stands to lose a lot of business from the sanctions, with its energy supply tied closely to Gazprom, the Russian state- run gas exporter. Many Eastern countries are also suffering from the sanctions, through both export and imports. Unfortunately with the Minsk agreement flapping in the wind, sanctions are all there is.
Merkel stood behind the agreement saying ‘a possible lifting of the sanctions against Russia is linked to the full implementation of the Minsk package. We are not there yet’. The debate around sanctions has moved to a debate about Europe’s economic ties with Russia, rather than the events taking place in Ukraine.
So what’s the next step?
Well according to Gustav Gressel, its elections in Donbass. Part of the agreement is the inclusion of a ‘special status law’, which grants the area of Donbass political autonomy, meaning they can elect leaders outside of the Ukrainian government. However the special status law has a condition that the elections must be held according to Ukrainian law and within international standards. In doing so they created a catch-22 situation for Russia. Russia wants to prevent free and fair elections, yet also want to legitimise self-governance in Eastern Ukraine. If elections are undertaken Gustav explains, ‘Putin can sell this at home as a victory’, and bring the conflict to some form of a resolution. Yet Gustav continues ‘Putin wants to keep them on his own terms, which is fake elections organised under the barrel of a gun’. The quickest way to end the conflict would be to allow Russia to hold its unfair elections, and thus return Europe to business as usual. However, this is not the way the European Union operates.