by Gordon M. Hahn
UPDATE: On 19 December 2019 the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) held its last session of the year and first since the 10 December Paris communique agreed upon by the Normandy Four (N4) French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy. No progress was made on any of the agreements in the Paris document, according to early Ukrainian media reports (https://strana.ua/news/240219-pochemu-sorvalas-vstrecha-v-minske-18-dekabrja-hlavnye-vyvody.html).
The Paris 2019 meeting of the Normandy Four in its new format (Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy in place of Petro Poroshenko) achieved the minimum necessary to sustain hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and as much as it could have given a series of related circumstances. Most important outcomes were: the parties’ renewed pledge to achieve a lasting ceasefire, agreement on an ‘all-for-all’ prisoner exchange, and consensus on the need to include the ‘Steinmayer formula’ in Ukrainian legislation. A ceasefire and prisoner exchange can stop the bloodletting and ease some of the pain inflicted by the Donbas civil war (and the Western-Russian conflict over who controls Russia’s neighbors). There was little likelihood that the first meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Zelenskiy could solve the more difficult issues involved in implementing Minsk 2 and achieve a ‘breakthrough.’ Nevertheless, this initial Zelenskiy era agreement holds out some hope that the parties can reach the higher hanging fruit that currently eludes Minsk’s signatories. Unfortunately, by then Zelenskiy could still be too weak a player within the rough and tumble oligarchic-ultranationalist Maidan regime to be in a position to deliver on any agreements that may be made; he may even be weaker than he is now. Failure to deliver might very well be the outcome for last week’s ceasefire pledge and other agreed goals. The US’s continued failure to revise its view of the crisis’s causality and its general absence from the Minsk process remains an obstacle to progress as well, and this is likely to persist for at least a year forward.
A reliable comprehensive ceasefire requires a full withdrawal of troops and equipment from the line of contact to out-of range distances for artillery and other weapons to 50, 70 and 140 kilometers, depending on the weapon type, by both the Donbas rebels on the line’s eastern side and the Ukrainian military and volunteer battalions on its western side. Although some of this was accomplished, the ceasefire has been violated repeatedly. The new agreement to achieve a comprehensive ceasefire is a challenged task. To accomplish this in weeks — by the New Year — is likely a bridge too far. A hint that this is so is that the OSCE SMM’s task of extending the withdrawal of forces to three new sectors has a deadline of months (end of March). In these sectors, a ceasefire in the next four months will depend on scarce good will and/or the equally scarce shame of being exposed by the SMM for violations. Moreover, Ukraine’s volunteer battalions, such as the notorious neofascist Azov Battalion, are populated largely by nationalists, ultra-nationalists, and neofascists, have long refused to withdraw sufficiently or permanently from the line of contact, and have been the perpetrators of many of the ceasefire violations to date. The ceasefire and withdrawal will largely depend on their compliance. So will the opening of new crossing points, which the Paris communique stipulates should be accomplished within a month.
The communique’s goal of an ‘all-for-all’ prisoner exchange is achievable but no cake walk. It remains unclear how much preparatory work has been completed already. Presumably some has been; there are people on both sides working assiduously to get this done as a confidence-building measure. So this seems more doable than troop withdrawal and ceasefire. This years’s earlier exchange of 35 for 35 required almost a month and a half of preparations. Each side needs to approve the other’s list of persons to be exchanged, and this will involve examination of several hundred prisoners, not 70. One hope is that even the neofascists are willing to trade withdrawal for the return of their comrades from Donbass imprisonment. However, what they might do after their fellow radicals’ return is a wild card. Another threat to the ceasefire is the less than disciplined Donbass rebel forces, which also include some radicals and criminalized groups that will not benefit from a ceasefire. It is unclear whether Moscow has significant control over the rebels and whether the Kremlin will forego the temptation to test the inexperienced Zelenskiy or to exacerbate his ultra-nationalist problem by provoking them with an uptick in fighting.
The focus on consolidating a firm ceasefire and reining in the ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists (not just along the line of contact but throughout the country) should have been the focus already for at least four years, but Poroshenko’s oligarchic-neofascist hybrid regime and its supporters in the West blocked this, facilitating more bloodshed.
Similarly and in parallel, achieving a lasting ceasefire should have been the Normandy Four’s overriding focus from the start. A revived Minsk process or any ‘Minsk 3’ was destined to have to focus on achieving an inviolable ceasefire, since all other issues that need to be tackled in resolving the conflict hinge on a stable ceasefire. Issues such as elections in Donbass, Donbass’s reintegration into Ukraine, de-mining, normalization measures such as resumption of banking services and welfare and pension payments, and Ukraine’s resumption of control over its border with Russia in Donbass can only be negotiated once a firm ceasefire is in place. From the outset, Minsk 2 should have concentrated on: (1) a deeper pullback of all forces and weapons types; (2) deployment of the most comprehensive technical (drones, national-technical means) and human intelligence (OSCE and UN monitors) for monitoring the ceasefire; and (3) a detailed inventory of the location of troops and their equipment and and any movement of them even outside the ceasefire zone in and around the Donbass, including inside Russia and the rest of Ukraine. Drones, national-technical means (satellites), and OSCE monitors then should have spread quickly a web of detection for seeking out violators. US, NATO, Ukrainian, and Russian national-technical and human means should be deployed and their data sent to a central command center manned by OSCE and/or UN personnel for analyzing and publishing the monitored and collected data when disputes over possible violations arise. Each monitoring means should have had its own sub-agreement signed by all parties (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/09/07/minsk-3-keep-it-simple-stupid/).
Access to all of Ukraine’s territory for the OSCE’s SMM and support for an agreement under the Normandy Four and the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) on all legal aspects of Ukraine’s ‘Law on a Special System of Local Self-Administration (Law on Special Status)’ included in the Paris communique are merely declarative statements that will have a longer trajectory if attained at all. The difficulties here for the Ukrainian side created by the ultra-nationalists have forced the Zelenskiy administration to play cagily. For example, when it published its Ukrainian-language version of the Paris communique, the translation read that the parties had agreed to continue work on the Law on Special Status, when in fact the communique stipulated work on “all legal aspects” related to special status. This means work on all the draft bills connected with normalization and special status for the territories under the control of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk Peoples’ Republic (LNR): a law on amnesty for the rebels, law on elections, and the codification of special status for the DNR/LNR territories in the Ukrainian constitution (https://strana.ua/news/238694-kommjunike-normandskoj-chetverki-ofis-prezidenta-poddelal-i-popravil-dokument.html). All these measures are opposed by Ukraine’s ultra-nationalists and neofascists. The DNR and LNR immediately protested the Zelenskiy’s version of the communique, threatening to withdraw from the prisoner exchange, ceasefire agreement and other Paris agreements unless the text was changed, which it was (https://strana.ua/news/238666-v-dnr-otkazalis-ot-obmena-plennymi-poka-kiev-ne-ispravit-nevernyj-perevod-deklaratsii-normandskoj-chetverki.html).
The call for incorporating into Ukrainian legislation ‘the Steinmayer formula’ in a version agreed upon by N4 and TCG marks a shift in positions and is being used to break the troublesome disagreement over the sequencing of two process: (1) the holding of elections in the parts of the Donbass under DNR and LNR control and (2) the return to Kiev of control over Ukraine’s border with Russia in those territories. I discuss this piece of high hanging fruit in the Minsk 2 process further below.
Despite a slew of potential pitfalls and complications, these agreements coming with the first meeting between Putin and Ukraine’s new president hold out some hope that the next meeting scheduled in four months can reach the higher hanging fruit.
Problems of Minsk 2
There was no chance that Putin and Zelenskiy could have addressed the difficult issues in this first meeting. The process has been stagnant for too long, and the leaders needed to feel each other out before moving forward. Also, the other reasons complicating the process remain: the lack of US involvement or even much support; the mismatch between the structure of the Minsk process and the structure of the conflict; Zelenskiy’s weak position inside Ukraine; and the inordinate influence of the ultranationalist/neofascist ‘party of war’ in the corridors of power, on the streets, and on the front lines. The lack of US involvement or even much support makes the Russians drive a hard bargain. The Russians know that it was the US-driven policy of NATO expansion to (plus EU expansion and destabilizing democracy-promotion) countries allied with or adjacent to Russia that caused the Maidan crisis and revolt. The West has not owned up to its role in or the truth about the 20 February 2014 Maidan snipers’ massacre – carried out by the Maidan revolt’s radical wing of ultra-nationalists and neofascists – and instead continues to foster the lie that it was Viktor Yanukovych who ordered police to kill demonstrators, perhaps assisted by ‘Russian wet teams’, as conjured by then US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt. This dictates no less caution to Moscow, than Russia’s seizure of Crimea does to the West; perhaps more. After all Putin’s little green men killed no one, and the Crimean and Donbass revolts were merely imitating what pro-Maidan elements had done in Kiev and Lviv (Lvov).
For related reasons, the structure of the Minsk process does not match the structure of the underlying geostrategic causes and drivers of the conflict. The conflict has two levels. First, there was the international level of geopolitical competition between Russia and the West over Ukraine. Second, there was ground level of a divided Ukraine – split between west and east by ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural, historical and socioeconomic differences – and now the Kiev-Donbass civil war. The international level’s meddling — NATO and EU expansion and destabilizing democracy-promotion — exacerbated the internal schism, which cracked open by dint of the EU’s pressure to get Yanukovych to sign an EU association agreement, Russia’s counteroffer prompting the Ukrainian President to balk at signing, and the Kiev protests these events sparked. A two-tier conflict requires two-tier conflict resolution. Thus, there needs to be a two-tier peace process involving (1) direct Kiev-Donbass talks moderated by the EU, which incidentally would reduce Russia’s leverage in the talks, and (2) West-Russia talks about ending the confrontation in Eastern Europe/Western Eurasia over NATO and EU expansion to Russia’s borders. Otherwise, ‘cleft Ukraine’ will undergo another crisis, next time promising an even larger war.
The weakness of the Ukrainian president continues to plague Minsk 2, even with Zelenskiy’s popular mandate from the presidential and parliamentary elections. Zelenskiy is now weak for several reasons. Just elected and inexperienced, he is being drawn into the depths of Ukraine’s often deadly politics, which can overwhelm him. His popular mandate from the presidential and Rada elections is deceptive in its weakness within the context of the morass of Ukraine’s oligarchic/ultranationalist hybrid regime. Corruption remains rampant, which finances both wings of the hybrid regime. A real anti-corruption campaign can weaken the oligarchic branch of the hybrid regime, but it will take years to weaken the key oligarchs. Poroshenko and Zelenskiy’s own oligarchic ally, Ihor Kolomoiskii, are just the tip of a dirty iceberg, one no less threatening than Russian corruption is to Russian normality. The power of these corrupt patronage networks means public opinion counts for only so much in Ukraine as in the rest of the former USSR (much more than in the West). Moreover, Zelenskiy’s approval rating has fallen precipitously from 72 percent to 52 percent since September. This is the result of Zelenskiy’s proposals to legalize the purchase, sale, and inheritance of land ownership, his efforts to end the war (alienating nationalists), and the failure to fulfill almost all of his campaign promises, in particular in the fight against corruption (https://vesti.ua/politika/359291-krakh-nadezhd-i-poterja-illjuzij-chto-shubilo-rejtinh-zelenskoho).
Finally, there is the inordinate influence of ultranationalist/neofascist ‘party of war’ in the corridors of power, on the streets, and on the front lines in Ukraine. Zelenskiy continues to be weak in the face of this ultra/neofascist threat. It succeeded in coopting and then converting former President Petro Poroshenko to its cause, who embraced them for political rather than ideological reason. While anti-corruption can weaken the oligarchs in a long war, a showdown with the ultranationalist/neofascist danger must come now. The radicals can break and have broken the ceasefire, can and have engaged in terrorism, can and have killed political opponents – and they have threatened Zelenskiy himself – and have high-ranking patrons. The ultra-nationalists and neofascists of the National Corps, Azov, Right Sector, Svoboda Party, C14, and others have threatened another revolt (national revolution’) and promised to continue war regardless of Zelenekiy’s pursuit of peace. On the eve of the Paris talks, such “anti-capitulationists” occupied the area in front of the presidential office, threatening to revolt if Zelenskiy crossed ‘red lines’ they laid down: (no federalization, no special status for Donbass, no Donbass elections or before Kiev regains control over the Donbass/Russian border section). After Paris, they declared the president had not crossed their red lines. They packed up their tents and departed but vowed to continue the war (https://strana.ua/news/238399-nasha-vojna-prodolzhaetsja-mitinhujushchie-pod-ofisom-prezidenta-ne-uvideli-zrady-v-parizhe-no-poobeshchali-novyj-majdan-u-rady.html?fbclid=IwAR0OhcWqVoKNhdlNQfv9pwPsOjdlyeGp9Ah0UI0X8kD4ntVYvTDuKlQDKI8). If talks with Putin and the EU move on to the high hanging fruit, Zelenskiy likely will be facing a crisis at home.
The ultras could convince or commandeer the high-ranking protectors to carry out a coup that would strengthen their position in government. The top two candidates for this are the MVD’s Arsen Avakov, who helped organize the volunteer battalion populated by ultra-nationalists and neofascists for the ‘anti-terrorist operation’ (civil war) against Donbass. The other is the former Ukrainian SSR’s KGB, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). The latter has been giving cover to the neofascist group C14, which has carried out pogroms against Gypsies and beatings of gays (https://vesti.ua/strana/360778-shest-voprosov-posle-brifinha-po-ubijstvu-sheremeta). Although Zelenskiy has not been openly active on the SBU front (though this may be changing), he seems to be engaging Avakov and the MVD perhaps as a counter to the SBU. He took Avakov with him to the Paris talks with Putin. Two days after their return to Kiev, they held a joint press conference at the MVD to announce that one of the most resonant of many political murders under the Maidan regime – the July 2016 murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet – was declared to have been solved partially. Avakov had originally blamed the murder on Putin, but now it was announced that five Ukrainian ultranationalists and neofascists, several with ties to the notorious ‘Right Sector’ group had been arrested as suspects in the murder. This adds to a long list of neofascist terrorist attacks since Maidan, beginning with the Maidan snipers, continuing through the 2 May 2014 Odessa pogrom and continuing through the other terrorist attacks and assassinations (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/11/05/europes-new-terrorist-threat/). The snipers’ case, Odessa, and most other terrorist crimes have gone unpunished, and many have been covered up with the assistance of the SBU and MVD. Moreover, Sheremet’s house was supposedly under SBU surveillance in the days leading up to his murder, and activist lawyer Andrei Portnov and others note that the three arrested suspects worked the SBU (https://strana.ua/news/239527-tekst-zakonoproekt-o-detsentralizatsii-kotoryj-pomenjaet-konstitutsiju.html; https://strana.ua/news/239375-andrej-portnov-sbu-pomenjalo-dannye-kamer-nabljudenija-v-rajone-ubijstva.html?fbclid=IwAR38zdi4DUQGuLP_-3iUytXzpQqP2hlnLq8t9jacVijkNy1zC99FJkqae94; and https://strana.ua/news/239094-julija-kuzmenko-podzrevaemaja-v-ubijstve-pavla-sheremeta-kto-ona-takaja.html). After the recent arrests in the Sheremet murder, Avakov and Portnov implied that the SBU was behind the disappearance of tapes connected with the case that could be helping keep the identity of other perpetrators or those who ordered the assassination (https://strana.ua/news/239344-ubijstvo-sheremeta-o-chem-rasskazal-avakov-na-svobode-slova-shustera.html). Some, such as Avakov’s former deputy, Ilya Kiva, and activist lawyer Andrei Portnov are now pointing the finger at the SBU and former president Poroshenko (https://vesti.ua/strana/360778-shest-voprosov-posle-brifinha-po-ubijstvu-sheremeta).
Important is the timing of the disclosure and the complete turnabout on Avakov’s version of the nature of the crime. Questions abound. Why has Avakov remained in his post? Is Kolomoiskii protecting Avakov? Zelenskiy’s ally, oligarch Kolomoiskii, helped finance the volunteer battalions Avakov organized for the civil war. Did Avakov protect Sheremet’s assassins and is now taking them under his control so they will not talk about who, if anyone ‘ordered’ the assassination? Why did Zelenskiy bring Avakov to Paris? To have him share in responsibility for any agreements he made with Putin, since Avavkov’s allied ultranationalists and neofascists were threatening a ‘national revolution’ if the new Ukrainian president crossed several ‘red lines’ they drew? Or did Zelenskiy feel unsure about leaving Avakov in Kiev while he was in Paris dealing with Putin? Is the new turn in the Sheremet assassination’s investigation a sign that Zelenskiy is going to move against the ultras and the SBU and/or that he has convinced Avakov to side with him? The neofascist National Corps seemed to come to the defense of the Sheremet murder suspects holding demonstrations in Kiev at the MVD building, and one member called for firing Grad missiles on Kiev (https://vesti.ua/strana/360771-natskorpus-otkrestilsja-i-zastupilsja-za-podozrevaemykh-v-ubijstve-sheremeta). C14’s leader Yevhen Karas called for obstructing the searches and investigation of the suspects (https://vesti.ua/strana/360778-shest-voprosov-posle-brifinha-po-ubijstvu-sheremeta). Zelenskiy’s inability to rein in the neofascists might very derail fulfillment of last week’s ceasefire pledge.
Minsk’s Higher Hanging Fruit
The atmospheric results of the Paris meeting are not very promising for any near-term attainment of agreement on Minsk 2’s higher hanging fruit. Putin’s spokesman Dmitrii Peskov noted days after the meeting that Putin and Zelenskiy “are far from agreement on a series of issues” and “use different terminology” (https://vesti.ua/politika/putin-i-zelenskij-daleki-ot-soglasiya-po-ryadu-voprosov-peskov). Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov said he “did not see a difference between the teams of Poroshenko and Zelenskiy” (https://vesti.ua/politika/surkov-ne-vidit-raznitsy-mezhdu-komandami-poroshenko-i-zelenskogo). However, there was some minor progress on the thornier issues, but they came with mixed signals.
The Paris communique signed by the Normandy Four reiterates Minsk 2’s requirement that Kiev adopt constitutional amendments both on decentralization and on the special status of the territory encompassing the breakaway DNR and LNR entities—the better part of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (Regions). In similar language, Minsk 2 orders changes in the constitution to codify the special status of the DNR and LNR territories. On December 13th, two days after Paris, the Zelenskiy administration submitted to the Verkhovna Rada a draft of a ‘Law on Decentralization’ rather than a draft of a ‘Law on Special Status’ or in the clumsier formulation a ‘Law on on a Special System of Local Self-Administration (Special Status).’ The announcement of the submission of the Law on Decentralization was posted on the Rada’s website. Not only does this draft law’s title not refer to ‘special status’ for the territories under the control of the DNR and LNR (Donbass) rebels, but the text also lacks the term ‘special status’ or language defining anything remotely similar, according to sources who spoke with journalists. (https://strana.ua/news/239527-tekst-zakonoproekt-o-detsentralizatsii-kotoryj-pomenjaet-konstitutsiju.html).
Moreover, the draft ‘Law on Decentralization’, as described by Rada working group members to the website ‘Strana.ua’, does not secure Ukraine’s regions with any greater degree of power, authority or competencies. In other words, there is no decentralization in the draft ‘Law on Decentralization.’ To the contrary, it reiterates the constitution’s stipulation that “Ukraine’s territorial structure is based on the principles of unitariness, unity, and the integrity of the state’s territory.” Although the relevant Donetsk and Luhansk districts do not receive any special status in this draft bill, the capitol city of Kiev does. Under the draft law, Ukraine’s oblasts will have their Cabinet-nominated, presidentially-appointed governors replaced by “prefects” also appointed by the president of Ukraine at the suggestion of the Cabinet. Instead of the former governors’ term coinciding with the president’s term in office, the prefects’ term will be limited to three years, after which a particular prefect may not head the same region again but can head another. The prefects’ main function will be to coordinate the regional branches of government and ensure the execution of central and regional governmental programs. The prefect also will have the power to block any decision adopted by their region’s legislature if the prefect believes the decision violates Ukraine’s Constitution. The president will then have the right to suspend that regional legislature’s chairperson until a verdict is issued by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court as to the blocked measure’s legality. If a prefect believes his/her regional legislature has adopted a decision that threatens the territorial integrity of Ukraine, the prefect has the power to abrogate the decision without a court decision (https://strana.ua/articles/analysis/236487-avtory-reformy-detsentralizatsii-ne-uspeli-podat-ee-prezidentu-do-1-dekabrja-.html). These constitutional changes strengthen the Ukrainian president’s control over the regions, rather than decentralizing power, and cannot possibly be the result of “dialogue” with representatives of the DNR and LNR as required by Minsk 2’s fourth point. They give the president indirect control over Ukraine’s regional parliaments. The draft law was submitted to the Rada two weeks after the December 1st deadline indicated in the president’s order, meaning the process of its final adoption could take many months.
Furthermore, the draft law appears to lack other elements stipulated by Minsk-2. Minsk’s ‘Note’ mandates that any constitutional changes and laws for decentralization and special status provide for: (1) “linguistic self-determination” (to allow Donbass and perhaps other regions to use minority languages such as Russian); (2) participation of local governments in appointing the heads of prosecutorial bodies and the courts in certain areas of Donbass (Donetsk and Lugansk); the possibility for the central executive authorities to conclude agreements with authorities in the Donbass on economic, social and cultural development in certain regions; the establishment of People’s Militia by order of local councils for maintaining public order in Donbass; and several other clauses. None of this so far has been shown to be part of the draft ‘Law on Decentralization.’
For now, Kiev agreed to and last week did prolong the Minsk-mandated ‘Law on the Special Aspects of Local Self-Administration of ORDLO (the Occupied Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts) through 2020 (https://www.rferl.org/a/ukrainian-lawmakers-extend-donbas-special-status-law-until-end-of-2020/30321863.html). Moscow had demanded this, threatening it would ‘tear up’ the Minsk 2 accord, if Kiev went ahead and adopted a new version of the law, which it was preparing to replace the present, now prolonged law that had been set to expire on 1 January 2020. The prolonged law de facto will serve as the legal basis for rule in the DNR/LNR territories next year until it is renewed at the end of next year or the Law on Special Status is adopted.
The Steinmeyer Formula, Donbass Elections, Kiev’s Border Sovereignty
A key agreement contained in the Paris communique is that the ‘Steinmeyer formula’ should be incorporated into Ukrainian law and in a form agreed upon by the Normandy Four and TCG. The Steinmayer formula – named after Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmayer – clarifies the issue of sequencing the holding of elections in the DNR/LNR territories under Ukrainian law and the return to Kiev of full control over its eastern border with Russia in the same territories. The Steinmayer formula reflects the Russian position, which supports the ‘elections first’ or simultaneity models, and thus rejects the Ukrainian position, which supports return to Kiev of its sovereignty over the noted borders before any elections. The Paris communique’s stipulation that Steinmayer’s formula be incorporated into Ukrainian law means, therefore, that all the constitutional changes and other legal measures, the holding of elections in the region under Ukrainian electoral law and approved as free and fair by OSCE observers, and the withdrawal of all mercenary and other forces illegally inside Ukraine’s borders must take place before Ukraine takes control of its eastern border in DNR/LNR territory. The sequencing of elections and border handover was not immediately clear in the Minsk 2 agreement, depending on one’s reading of the document.
Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Zelenskiy acknowledged at the post-Paris meeting press conference with Putin, Macron, and Merkel that the elections issue had been the thorniest in the talks (https://vesti.ua/politika/360382-zelenskij-nazval-samye-slozhnye-voprosy-normandskoj-vstrechi). That Zelenskiy signed onto the Paris communique, therefore, signifies a major compromise on Kiev’s part regarding this sticky sequencing issue. Yet, at the post-talks press conference, Zelenskiy said he and Putin remained at odds over this issue, and “conditions and algorithms” on holding elections would need to be decided by the next Normandy Four meeting set for March 2020 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KO_JFoSpJ4). These claims seem to contradict the text of the Paris communique, which incorporates Steinmayer’s formula for holding elections first.
It is good that this last year or so saw a focus on what I noted four years ago was a gaping hole in Minsk 2: the lack of a clause on peacekeeping troops (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/02/13/minsk-2-0-the-road-to-minsk-3-0-or-a-bigger-war/). UN peacekeeping forces likely will be needed on the ground in addition to OSCE monitors once a ceasefire is established and the withdrawal of heavy weapons is complete. They should be deployed both at the Donbass-Russian border and along the line of demarcation for the de-militarized zone designated in the agreement. Unfortunately, the new Paris pledge to achieve a ceasefire by year end still lacks a peacekeeping measure that could consolidate the ceasefire, and there is no indication the issue was discussed during the Paris talks.
There are numerous other Minsk conditions that need to be fulfilled that will be no less vexing, especially when it comes to Kiev’s ultras. Kiev still has not lifted the blockade to the separatist Donbass regions, reopened Ukrainian banking operations or renewed welfare and pension payments in those regions, nor issued the across-the-board amnesty for the rebels required by the agreement. It is unclear whether the above-mentioned inconsistencies between various documents or between some documents and President Zelenskiy’s statements as well as delays in submitting legislation are the product of his and his team’s inexperience or represent efforts to signal resistance or reduce the publicity given to their compromises in Paris. Why would Bankovaya (Ukrainian presidential offices) need to mask its agreements and concessions? They will be politically sensitive if not explosive in Ukraine. When Kiev first attempted to introduce constitutional amendments for a very limited decentralization in August 2015, it provoked a near neofascist revolt and bloody violence near the Rada building. After the violence, President Poroshenko backed down telling the nation in a televised address that ultimate decision on decentralization would depend on ‘the situation in Donbass.’ (http://gordonhahn.com/2015/08/31/ukraines-neo-fascist-tea-party-throws-grenades-shoots-at-police-attempts-storm-of-rada/).
Unfortunately, all the efforts of the Normandy Four may come to naught, given the larger context in which the conflict they are trying to resolve was born and festers. The Russian-Western security dilemma along Russia’s borders created by Western expansion, most of all, by NATO expansion is the dark shadow that haunts the Minsk process. If there has been no progress on various ‘conditions and algorithms’ after several more Normandy Four meetings, neither Kiev nor Moscow will long see it in its interests to continue to pursue peace, risking a return to war.
Some Missing Pieces Towards a Way Forward to the High Hanging Fruit
There are a few steps that have not been taken that could ensure more war is not the outcome, despite the Minsk process. Peacekeeping measures should be pursued aggressively now, so there is no delay between their implementation and fulfillment of Minsk 2, something that is unlikely under the present format and ‘new cold war’ atmosphere but possible perhaps 2-3 three years from now. It would to the good to convince Kiev to talk directly with the Donbass rebel leaders. If Western parties and Kiev are interested in limiting Moscow’s role in the crisis, this is one way to accomplish that goal and could induce the Kremlin to be more cooperative. To be sure, this could spark a nasty reaction, usually overreaction, on Moscow’s part.
To prevent this, the international tier of the conflict must see more conflict resolution. Since the driver of the conflict is NATO expansion, Washington should engage Moscow directly and agree to cease NATO expansion or institute a ten-year moratorium on NATO expansion. During the moratorium, negotiations on a new Eurasian security infrastructure between Washington, Brussels, and Moscow should be held. Under those talks, first, Russia and the West should agree and impress upon Ukraine that it should move towards military non-bloc status through a referendum and constitutional amendments. This will require the US to get involved in the Ukraine crisis’s resolution and abandon the passive/destructive approach that the Obama Administration took and the Trump Administration has basically continued. Unfortunately, given impeachment and the central place ‘Russiagate’ and ‘Ukrainegate’ occupy in the US polity at this point, prospects for any constructive US role are very poor compared to the period during which I first proposed US involvement in the peace process. Second, the EU and Russia should negotiate the design and implementation of the proposed free trade space from Lisbon to Vladivostok suggested by Chancellor Merkel or at least engage in trilateral talks with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Zelenskiy must restore the Ukrainian state’s monopoly on the use of force by cracking down on illegally armed formations such as the neofascist volunteer battalions and National Corps and bring to justice all those who have perpetrated crimes, at least those committed away from the front. Any war crimes by Kiev’s forces, legal or illegal, could be included under a general ‘amnesty for all,’ that under Minsk 2’s agreement, must include the Donbass rebels.
Finally, four months between N4 meetings is too long. Granted, this break comes during the holiday season, which perhaps lengthened it necessarily. Nevertheless, the longer Zelenskiy is in power without concrete results on his other campaign promises and the war festers, his ratings will decline. That will make it all the more difficult for Zelenskiy to move against the interests of the oligarchs and ultras on any issue, especially achieving peace in Donbass. Similarly, as Russian President Putin’s 2024 problem approaches and the possibility of a ‘Belarus golden parachute’ grows, the situation in Moscow and the region may also become less conducive for peacemaking, perhaps dangerously so, threatening a larger war. In sum, time is of the essence.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, www.cetisresearch.org; an expert analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com; and an analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), www.geostrategicforecasting.com.
Dr. Hahn is the author of four well-received books, most recently Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2018). Previously, he authored: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.