Minsk Never More: Lessons For The West About Negotiating With Putin
The longer the war in Ukraine continues, the louder calls will grow for a ceasefire . Stockholm-based analysts explain how the West can reach a viable deal on this: primarily by avoiding strategic mistakes from last time following the annexation of Crimea.
Each new day the Russian assault on Ukraine continues, the wider and deeper is the global impact. And so with each day, there is more and more talk of a ceasefire. But just how and under what conditions such an agreement might be reached are wide open questions.
What is already clear, however, is that a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine must not repeat mistakes made since the open conflict between the two countries began more than eight years ago.
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Contrary to widespread opinion, the so-called Minsk ceasefire agreements of 2014-2015 were not meant as a definitive solution. And as we now know, they would not offer a path to peace. Instead, the accord negotiated in the Belarusian capital would indeed become part of the problem, as it fueled the aggressive Russian strategies that led to the escalation in 2022.
In early September 2014, the Ukrainian army suffered a crushing defeat at Ilovaisk against unmarked regular Russian ground forces. Fearing further losses, Kyiv agreed to negotiations with Moscow.
The Minsk Protocol (“Minsk I”) – followed shortly thereafter by a clarifying memorandum – baldly served Russian interests. For example, it envisaged a “decentralization” – i.e. Balkanization – of Ukraine. An uneasy truce came about; but the conflict was in no way resolved.
Instead, Ukraine suffered another heavy military defeat at Debaltseve in February 2015. Faced with the threat of a deeper Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv signed a so-called "Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements," which became known as Minsk II.
Ukrainian laws and borders
Minsk I and II included security measures such as a ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy equipment from the line of contact, and the disarmament of all illegal paramilitary groups. Further, the agreements provided for political measures such as local elections in non-government-controlled areas under Ukrainian law and some autonomy for the regions. They proclaimed a future restoration of Ukrainian control over Ukraine's border with Russia along the occupied territories.
The agreement offered immediate relief of humanitarian suffering, and the theoretical prospect of a future conflict resolution.
Many observers think of this story when they speak of the Minsk agreements. However, there were at least three fundamental problems with the form, content and outcome of these agreements as the supposed basis for conflict resolution, which must be avoided in the future.
Problem 1: Legitimizing nihilism under international law
The main problem with the Minsk accords was their enactment of a blatant disregard for international law: that is, Russia's violation of Ukraine's political sovereignty and territorial integrity. The agreements were only concluded by Ukraine under enormous duress.
What was worse was a lack of accompanying Western pressure on Russia.
Moscow deliberately increased armed pressure on Kyiv prior to their conclusion. This allowed the Kremlin to determine the definition of the conflict and its presumed resolution. What was worse, however, was that the implementation of the agreements was characterized by a lack of accompanying Western pressure on Russia, as well as support for Ukraine.
The fiction of a domestically driven secession, expressed in the imposed text of the Minsk agreements, was aggressively propagated by Russia. It was also accepted by many Western observers, although this narrative was at odds with the origins, determinants, and course of the war. Although Russia was the decisive cause of conflict in eastern Ukraine, it was assumed that it would implement the agreements in good faith.
The Moscow-orchestrated "Donbas uprising" was an obvious violation of Ukraine's independence and borders, and thus of the European Security Order. Nevertheless, these violations were barely punished in the West, by no means commensurate with the scale of the violations or the geopolitical significance of the war since 2014.
Problem 2: Disregard for basic democratic standards
Another fundamental issue, closely related to the interpretation of the conflict, was: who would be Kyiv's negotiating partner in reintegrating the occupied territories? Initially, Ukraine was ready to swiftly fulfill the crucial Minsk I political commitment, the demand for new elections in the non-government-controlled territories. Thus, Kyiv scheduled local elections in the occupied territories under Ukrainian law for December 2014.
However, a month before the scheduled elections, in early November 2014, the two Moscow-controlled de facto regimes, the "Donetsk" and "Lugansk People's Republics," or DNR and LNR, illegally held their own public votes. These staged elections took place without the participation of Ukrainian parties, including pro-Russian ones. They provided the leaders of the Moscow-controlled eastern Ukrainian puppet states with a semblance of legitimacy.
From then on, Moscow increasingly invoked these and other bogus votes. It portrayed the leaders of the DNR and LNR as representatives of the population of the Donbas and the quasi-state entities in conflict with Kyiv.
This early violation by Moscow of the Minsk Protocol and Memorandum disavowed subsequent negotiations. Elections not recognized by Ukraine and the West ruled out a meaningful reintegration process as early as November 2014.
These pseudo-elections never triggered an adequate response from the West. Instead of materially punishing these and other violations of the Minsk agreements, only the sectoral sanctions adopted before the signing of the Minsk agreements were left in place. Only some minor additional sanctions were added before February 2022.
Meeting in the "Normandy Format" in 2019, in an effort to resolve the War in Donbas
Problem 3: Letting the aggressor reap the fruits of aggression
Kyiv signed the Minsk accords amid the threat of even deeper Russian military intervention on Ukrainian territory. It completed the 2014 and 2015 accords despite the fact that they contained provisions apparently aimed at undermining Ukraine's sovereignty, integrity and stability. That was bad enough in itself.
Even more questionable was that Moscow was allowed to use the Minsk provisions to put pressure on Kyiv from then on. Instead of opposing these and similar Russian tactics, Western officials repeatedly tried to persuade Kyiv to make concessions that would have further undermined Ukrainian sovereignty.
They urged Ukraine to give special constitutional status to non-government-controlled areas and to hold local elections before irregular Russian proxy forces were either withdrawn or disarmed. Western politicians and diplomats failed to adequately counter Russian obstruction of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission's monitoring of the Ukrainian-Russian state border.
Thus, the various geographic, power-political and pseudo-legal gains made by Russia during the first intense phase of its covert aggression against Ukraine in 2014-2015 became new facts on the ground. They were largely perceived by Western politicians and diplomats as the baselines of their mediation efforts.
The Kremlin tried to transform it from an international territorial conflict into a domestic political one.
In international negotiations and debates, Russia's conquests in Ukraine became accepted starting points for would-be rapprochement between the two countries. Instead of being constantly reminded that this is unacceptable, the Russian aggressor was often assisted by foreign mediators. In various consultations and confrontations with its Ukrainian victim, Moscow was able to reap new fruits of its military aggression.
Between 2014 and 2022, the Kremlin tried to transform the conflict from an international territorial one into a domestic political one. It wanted to use the two pseudo-republics as tools to undermine Ukraine's internal resilience, international relations, and foreign policy – an approach the Kremlin had practiced in Moldova and Georgia for more than two decades prior to 2014.
Moscow's price for partially abandoning the eastern Ukrainian conquests was to regain a foothold in all Ukrainian politics. Around late 2020 and early 2021, when the Kremlin decided that this goal was unattainable, it began to devise a Plan B to subdue Ukraine. After massing enough troops on the Ukrainian border, Moscow launched a traditional and now undisguised military invasion in on February 24.
A 'dictated no-peace'
Putin's "dictated no-peace" of 2014-2015 should never have been accepted by the West. As we know today, the Minsk agreements did not calm down the Russian-Ukrainian conflict but fueled it further.
Questionable documents like the Minsk Accords serve as a cover.
Pleasant-sounding terms such as "peaceful conflict resolution," "confidence-building," or "promoting dialogue," typically used in attempts to implement such agreements, may be subjectively believed by Western politicians and negotiators. Objectively, however, they acted as a cover for the Donbas, behind which the victim of aggression was largely left alone in relation to the aggressor. Moscow only felt strengthened in its assertiveness, and saw Western overtures as a sign of weakness.
Questionable documents like the Minsk Accords serve as a cover for substantive inaction, if not worse, for both the mediator and the attacker. They merely postpone, conserve and exacerbate conflicts and do nothing to resolve them.
The two agreements and subsequent negotiations have led Russia to conclude that it can always reap new fruits of its aggression. In the period from 2014 to 2022, the West's handling of the Minsk agreements gave the Kremlin the impression that, by creating new facts on the ground, it could shift the basis for negotiations in the direction desired by Moscow. Let's hope lessons will be learned from the wrongheadedness of the Western approach that helped allow this anomalous situation to happen.
*Hugo von Essen and Andreas Umland are analysts at the Stockholm Center for East European Studies (SCEEUS) at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs (UI).
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