The Minsk II Agreements in Relation to Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

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The conflict in Donbas, since 2014, and Russia's Invasion of Ukraine have resulted in the deaths of more than thirteen thousand people, most of them members of the Ukrainian troops and separatist fighters (“Death Toll Up To 13,000 In Ukraine Conflict, Says UN Rights Office”). To stop the casualties, representatives from Ukraine, Russia, the separatists, and the OSCE came together twice to sign the Minsk agreements. It does not offer an exact solution on how to stop the fighting, but rather a framework that all parties involved can use to engage in dialogue and work towards peace. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that Minsk II, the most recent agreement, will be properly implemented because of the parties’ incompatible goals when it comes to Ukrainian constitutional reform, the security of Donbas, and how elections in Donbas should be held.

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First and foremost, neither side is in complete agreement with any other about the political and legal status of Donetsk and Luhansk. Point eleven of Minsk II calls for “approval of permanent legislation on the special status of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk” (Minsk Agreement on Ukraine Crisis), but none of the parties are in agreement on what special status entails.

Even within the two breakaway republics, there is no clear consensus on what should happen when the war ends. In a recent interview with Denis Pushilin, the leader of the People’s Republic of Donbas (DNR), stated that “the DNR’s main goal is to accede to Russia like Crimea did in 2014” (“Rebel Leader Says East Ukraine Wants to Join Russia”). However, not all civilians of the People’s Republic of Luhansk (LNR) and the DNR agree with this idea. According to a recent survey of civilians living the DNR and LNR, 35% of respondents stated that both republics should rejoin Ukraine with special autonomy, 20.6% responded that the republics should rejoin Donetsk and Luhansk without any autonomy, 11.4% said that both republics should join Russia without any autonomy, and 33.1% said that both republics should join Russia with some autonomy (Sasse, fig.13). Most people want these two regions to enjoy autonomy and be semi-independent, but no one option has a clear majority. If the governments of the LNR and DNR take any of the above options, there will likely be an incredible amount of backlash from the population. It will be impossible for the breakaway governments to make any decision about the future status of the region while claiming that they are doing what the population wants, so they cannot agree to any international mediation while still claiming to be a legitimate government of the people. As a result, the LNR and DNR have no clear stance on this issue.

Russia, on the other hand, has an unexpectedly clear goal: keep the LNR and DNR part of Ukraine. At first, this may seem odd considering they annexed Crimea in 2014 to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, but that was very costly to do. Instead, Russia now wants to keep the LNR and DNR as parts of Ukraine with special status enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution. With this special status, they would have “veto power over key decisions, such as economic and political alliances” (Gregory). This would cement Russian influence in Ukrainian politics because the people of the LNR and DNR are pro-Russia, so they would essentially be representing Russian interests with their veto power in the government. For a while, Russia has been trying to cement its influence in neighboring countries (such as Ukraine and Belarus), so securing this outcome is in Russia’s best interests.

Ukraine, however, firmly stands against giving the LNR and DNR special status. According to a recent survey, 56% of Ukrainians oppose giving Donbas any sort of special status, which is “a pivotal element of both the Minsk Accord and the Steinmeier formula which Ukraine agreed to” (Coynash). Furthermore, a constitutional amendment ensuring Donbas’ autonomy was proposed and failed spectacularly. In October 2014, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a law guaranteeing the region’s autonomy. In 2015, President Poroshenko proposed enshrining this law in the Ukrainian constitution. This was so unpopular that it sparked protests in Kyiv several people died and many more were injured. Since then, the amendment has been shelved (Fischer 20). From this alone, it is clear to see that Ukraine does not want to grant Donbas any sort of autonomy. Although Ukraine officially agreed to the Steinmeier Formula this past October, which calls for Ukraine to give Donbas special status, these past events show that this happening is unlikely. These three parties have different interpretations (or no clear consensus) of what special status means, which will make implementing it nearly impossible.

Secondly, it is highly unlikely that point ten of the agreement, which calls for the “Pullout of all foreign armed formations, military equipment, and also mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine” (Minsk Agreement on Ukraine Crisis), will be implemented. While all parties that signed onto Minsk II agreed to this, the only foreign party with troops in Ukraine, Russia, denies that they have any soldiers there, even though satellite imagery, photographs of Russian military equipment in Ukraine, and social media posts by Russian soldiers say otherwise (Fischer 23). This means that despite claiming they want peace and want to follow Minsk II, Russia likely will not pull out of Ukraine since they deny their presence there. This creates a crisis of trust: how can Ukraine follow Minsk II if Russia clearly will not? They likely will not follow through on their end of the bargain until Russia does as well. Furthermore, one key demand that Kyiv has is that local elections take place in demilitarized territory so no voters are intimidated by armed forces, so Russian forces have to withdraw before elections are held and special status is given (“Red Lines Ukraine Can’t Cross in the Minsk Process”). Russia will not make their position on this public since they would have to admit they have troops in Ukraine to do so, but it is safe to assume that they would not want to leave Ukraine until special status is given to Donbas to ensure that their interests are secure. This results in a standoff between the two nations which severely lowers the change of any peace plan being implemented.

Third, point four of Minsk II calls for participants to start a dialogue about how local elections in Donbas should be held (Minsk Agreement on Ukraine Crisis), but Ukraine and Russia’s ideas of how Donbas’ elections should be held are very different. As mentioned earlier, Ukraine has made it very clear that they will not hold elections in Donbas until Russian forces withdraw while Russia insists they have no military personnel in Donbas (“Red Lines Ukraine Can’t Cross in the Minsk Process”). Furthermore, many Ukrainians want people who have been internally displaced by the conflict to be able to vote if they can prove they lived in Donbas before the conflict started (“Red Lines Ukraine Can’t Cross in the Minsk Process”). There is no official Ukrainian stance on whether refugees who fled to Russia will be eligible to vote in these elections and if they are, whether they must return to Donbas to vote. It would be in Russia’s best interests to make sure these refugees can vote since they probably will vote for pro-Russian candidates. There is no guarantee this would happen, but considering these people fled to Russia, there is a strong likelihood that their political views are pro-Russian. Furthermore, Russia probably does not want Ukrainian armed forces to be present in Donbas during the elections, but this poses a major problem: if only one side is allowed to have troops in Donbas during the elections, how can the safety of people with different views that are running for office be ensured? In other words, how can a pro-Ukraine candidate run in Donbas if it is controlled by Russian forces? They will likely end up hurt or worse. Furthermore, what should happen to the separatist forces on election day? They live in Donbas, after all, so they cannot withdraw from the area. Should they disarm themselves? In that case, who will enforce laws during the elections? No outcome here is desirable to everyone, so it is hard to see everybody agreeing on how to implement these local elections. It will likely take one side getting desperate to agree to withdraw their military forces voluntarily.

The Minsk II Agreements cannot be implemented as they stand right now. All parties involved have differing ideas of what special status for Donbas means, what security in the region should look like, and how elections should be held that are irreconcilable. The recent talks in Paris between Russia, Ukraine, and the Western Powers highlights this unfortunate fact. Very little was agreed upon: the full agreement “didn't even fill two pages — despite being published in large font” (Herszenhorn and Momtaz). For any substantial implementation of Minsk II to occur, this war will sadly have to continue until one side is ready for peace at any cost.

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