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Commentary | 8 March 2017

Minsk II’s future looks bleak, but what alternative?

Image of Steven Pifer

Steven Pifer |Former Special Assistant to the President, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Director of the Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative

Europe International Law Russia-West Relations Ukraine Euro-Atlantic Security

The Minsk II agreement marked its second anniversary in February. Brokered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, it sought to bring peace to the Donbas region, where Russian and separatist forces have been in conflict with Ukrainian troops since April 2014.

Minsk II’s first three elements dealt with security: ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons from the line of contact, and access for monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Other elements provided for a constitutional amendment on decentralization of authority, exchange of prisoners, an election law and special status for the Russian/separatist-occupied part of the Donbas, and restoration of Ukrainian control of the Ukraine-Russia border. Unfortunately, little of this arrangement has been implemented.

Minsk II arguably helped mitigate the fighting, but the ceasefire regularly breaks down. Both sides share responsibility, though observers attach more blame to the Russians and separatists. No one considers the agreement a success, as the death toll has climbed to nearly 10,000 lives.

The problem appears to be that the Kremlin and separatist forces prefer a simmering conflict to settlement. Leaders of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” repeatedly state they will not accept restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty, which is a key goal of Minsk II.

Moscow has the power and influence to make implementation happen. The Russian military runs the command structure for separatist forces, and those forces depend heavily on Russia for weapons, ammunition, supplies and funding. There is no real evidence, however, that the Russian leadership wants Minsk II implemented—even if that would allow the Kremlin to dramatically alter the story about the Donbas conflict.

Say that the Russians made a ceasefire stick, withdrew heavy weapons away from the line of contact, and ensured OSCE monitors access—that is, they fulfilled Minsk II’s first three provisions. (In order to prevent the Ukrainian military from taking advantage, Russian military units could visibly position themselves just across the border from Ukraine.)

If Moscow took these steps, that could make things difficult for Kyiv. Popular attitudes in Ukraine toward Russia and the separatists have hardened over the past two years. President Petro Poroshenko and his government would have a difficult time securing the 300 votes needed in the Rada (parliament) for a constitutional amendment on decentralization. Passing an election law or special status for the Donbas could prove equally challenging.

If domestic politics prevented Kyiv from delivering on these provisions, the Kremlin could successfully change the narrative, shifting the major portion of blame for the failure to implement Minsk II to the Ukrainian side. That would affect attitudes, particularly in Europe, regarding questions such as whether to sustain economic sanctions on Russia.

Oddly, the Russian leadership has not tried such a move. Two reasons could account for that. First, Moscow might believe that Kyiv could deliver on the political provisions, in which case peace would take hold. That would mean, however, that the Kremlin could not use a simmering Donbas conflict to pressure, distract and destabilize the Ukrainian government.

Second, Vladimir Putin may calculate that developments in the West over the next seven months will deliver changes in U.S. or EU policy without concessions on his part. Moscow could hold out hope that President Donald Trump—who said during the campaign that he would consider lifting sanctions and recognizing Russia’s seizure of Crimea—would attempt a reset in relations without first seeking a correction of Russia’s egregious misbehavior.

In Europe, the beginning of the Brexit negotiations on Britain’s departure from the European Union will burden an already full EU agenda. Moreover, elections loom in the Netherlands, France and Germany.

The Dutch electorate votes on March 15. Polls show the far-right party led by Geert Wilders in the lead. Wilders likely will not become prime minister, because other parties would not form a coalition with him, but his desire to take the Netherlands out of the European Union certainly makes him attractive in Moscow.

In France, polls show Marine Le Pen will likely make the early May run-off in the presidential election. While she would probably fall short in the second ballot, Le Pen interests the Kremlin. She has suggested she would recognize Crimea’s illegal annexation and has toyed with a Brexit-style referendum for France. Her party took a loan from a Moscow bank.

Germans vote in September. While Merkel remains her country’s most popular politician, her numbers have slipped, and she is running for a fourth term when Western electorates seem inclined to vote for “change.” The Russian government would like to see her out of office.

If one is sitting in the Kremlin, these developments offer significant pay-offs, even if some are long shots. It is difficult to see Russian policy on Ukraine and Minsk II changing in a major way between now and October.

This is a grim prognosis for the prospects for peace in the Donbas. There is little probability of Minsk II’s implementation in the near term. The Ukrainians’ frustration is understandable, but Kyiv has little choice other than to stick with the agreement.

No viable alternative is on the table. Were Ukraine to abandon the Minsk process, it would remove the basis for EU sanctions, which Merkel has tied to full fulfillment of Minsk II. Those EU members that are weary of sanctions and wish to get back to “business as usual” with Moscow would press harder for ending the sanctions regime. Moreover, it is not clear that Kyiv could later get Germany, in particular, back into a new negotiating format. With everything else on Merkel’s plate, she would hardly be eager to join a new negotiation if Ukraine were responsible for ending the process that she launched two years ago.

Ukraine thus could find itself facing off against Russia alone over the Donbas (to say nothing of Crimea). It is hard to see how that would be better for Kyiv than the current situation, however unhappy it might be.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.