Implementing the Minsk Agreements Might Drive Ukraine to Civil War. That’s Been Russia’s Plan All Along
In less than five years, a peace agreement negotiated between Russia, Ukraine, and Western Europe has become the object of acrimonious opposition and anti-Putin conspiracy theories. All pro-Western Ukrainian presidential candidates criticize the Minsk Agreements. How did this happen?
After Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan revolution, Russia invaded its vulnerable neighbor to stop Ukraine’s Western realignment and consolidation of its century-old movement to liberate itself from pro-Russian political forces, which Ukrainian activists deem internal occupation. Moscow makes other justifications too — invoking Kyiv’s provocative and controversial rehabilitation of World War II-era Ukrainian Nazi collaborators, the threat ostensibly posed to Ukraine’s Russian minority by ethno-nationalists, and promises Western interlocutors made to the collapsing Soviet Union in the 1990s that erstwhile Soviet socialist republics would never join NATO.
The long-simmering crisis in Donbas — the Donets river basin on Russia’s border, made up of Ukraine’s two south-easternmost regions, Luhansk and Donetsk — that Russia intensified and then dubbed a civil war still threatens to mushroom into conflict between Russia and Western allies.
The mechanism intended to bring about peace in Donbas, the 2014–15 Minsk Agreements, is unlikely to succeed. Ukraine, Russia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and two deposed separatist leaders signed these documents, which stopped heavy fighting and eased suffering, but also provoked nationalists who quickly cast it as favoring defiant rebels over other loyal Ukrainians. In an effort to level the playing field, strengthen distant loyalties, and ensure equal constitutional rights for all citizens, Minsk also calls for nationwide government decentralization as an olive branch to remaining pro-Russian federalists in Ukraine’s restive southeast.
But Minsk is broadly perceived as a bad agreement that Ukraine has little incentive to implement because its essence runs directly counter to Ukrainian interests of Euro-Atlantic integration, national unity, social cohesion, and true equal rights for all. Russian President Vladimir Putin was the only one smiling when it was finalized in February 2015. Russia’s looming regional presence, European eagerness to make a deal with the continent’s largest army, and U.S. reluctance to ever fight that army have left Kyiv with Minsk as its only option. While it has not stopped Russia’s intervention, the agreement has been a useful tool to keep all parties at the table and kinetic activity low. But as usual, Moscow remains poised to invade; Russian forces have been arrayed along the border ever since it was created in 1991. Ukraine will always be where Russia wants it: right next door and at the Kremlin’s mercy.
If Ukraine cannot prevail militarily, there are really just two alternatives: Partition is the only way to resolve the conflict, but Ukraine and allies have opted for long-term non-recognition instead. No other humane solution aside from mass resettlement exists. “Frozen conflict is better than a hot one” has become vernacular. Drastic resolutions have disappeared from debate: Either surrender secessionist enclaves to focus on realigning the rest of the country West; or swap Crimea for Donbas, long the fear of many as a surreptitious goal of any Trump-Russia channel. Others hope more quixotically for Russia’s implosion — a fantasy that animates Ukrainians regarding not only the future of occupied Donbas and annexed Crimea, but also of long-lost Kuban, the Cossack region of southern Russia adjacent to Ukraine’s separatist areas. This region was largely depopulated of ethnic Ukrainians by the Holodomor and is hence subject of the underground irredentist slogan, “On to Kuban!”
There is little political space for de-escalation in Ukraine, but also little likelihood of escalation. No Ukrainian senior officials really believe they can win a war against Russia. The problem is that some don’t think Russia can win either, generating false hope that Ukraine can somehow prevail in the stalemate. From 2015–18, I interviewed hundreds of Ukrainians and international experts about conflict scenarios in Donbas and used those insights to map outcomes for government, humanitarian, and peacebuilding organization crisis management. I came to the unpleasant conclusion that Putin’s Russia wins all variants: status quo, de-escalation, and escalation.
The problematic nature of Minsk is just one of many control mechanisms that give Putin’s Russia the upper hand in its tug of war with the West over the fate and future of Ukraine.
From Normandy to Minsk: How the Accords Were Born
The Minsk format was created by the “Normandy Quartet,” which consists of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France at heads of state level, and the Trilateral Contact Group, comprising Ukraine, Russia, and OSCE at the working level. To assuage Ukraine’s nationalists and delegitimize the Kremlin’s narrative of the conflict as a civil war instead of an act of Russian aggression, Ukraine and its Western allies have attempted to exclude separatists from official negotiations. Yet pro-Russian rebels have nevertheless remained involved in the Minsk process: They have signed key documents; are identified in them as “representatives of certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions;” and work in the four political, security, humanitarian, and economic subgroups.
After Ukraine’s ignominious retreat from Donbas following the Ilovaisk encirclement six months into the crisis, Trilateral Contact Group negotiators signed a ceasefire agreement in Minsk in September 2014. The OSCE chose the capital of Belarus because it is convenient for all sides to reach, viewed at least superficially as a neutral broker, and has hosted negotiations since 1992 on another frozen conflict rooted in Bolshevik-era concepts of ethnic autonomy for national minorities: Nagorno-Karabakh. The Ukraine ceasefire swiftly collapsed when separatists, with Russian help, dealt Kyiv two strategic defeats at Donetsk airport and the Debaltseve rail hub.
Talks continued into 2015, and separatists continued to consolidate strategic gains. In February 2015, the Normandy Quartet drew up a new peace plan known as Minsk II. Hopes for its success were always low. The New York Times pointed out:
… none of the leaders themselves signed the agreements, but left it to other representatives of the antagonists and European truce observers, sending a discreet signal that they were not taking full responsibility for the outcome. [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel noted Mr. Putin had to pressure the rebel leaders to sign.
Minsk lays out the conditions necessary for ceasefire and the peaceful reintegration of occupied Donbas back into Ukraine, but also presumes separatists should have a voice. Initially, all sides — Ukraine, Russia, the European Union, and the United States — called for negotiations including the rebels. However, Western demands for a change in separatist leadership have at the same time been a chief obstacle to talks. Now Russia can absurdly claim to have met this longstanding precondition, following the overthrow of Luhansk proxy Igor Plotnitsky, assassination of his Donetsk counterpart Alexander Zakharchenko, and unrecognized elections in the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (LDPR) last year. LDPR first held elections in November 2014, but only Russia recognized them.
In a sign of the accords’ diminished credibility, one of the original authors is now backing away from his achievement. Much of what eventually became the Minsk accords hails from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s June 2014 peace plan, on which he campaigned and won election at a time when peace was still popular and not yet perceived as just another tool for Moscow to destabilize Kyiv. But now, Poroshenko publicly dissociates from the agreements. In 2018, he mollified nationalists by asserting, “There is no Minsk … only Normandy.” In early 2019, Poroshenko again publicly sided with ultra-nationalists, agreeing that Donbas should never get constitutional special status, in spite of spending four years leading parliament to extend that same status.
The People’s Front, a coalition party, has now mutinied against Minsk too: Its interior minister Arsen Avakov says “Minsk is dead,” contrary to the official state position that Ukraine will meet its Minsk obligations. Despite this party’s moderate reformer image and close relationships with Western diplomats, People’s Front is also home to several MPs aligned with paramilitarism and social-nationalism, who loudly criticize Minsk and any compromise with Russia. A year out from Ukraine’s 2019 elections, this party — which, at less than one percent approval, no longer even meets the statistical margin of error in most opinion polls anymore — still led parliament to legislate that Russia is an occupier and aggressor in Donbas and Crimea when passing Ukraine’s reintegration/de-occupation law. People’s Front also worked closely with pro-Western independent MP and Maidan fire-starter Mustafa Nayem — Ukraine’s closest thing to a liberal — to prevent any reference to Minsk under constitutional law.
Former French president François Hollande says in his memoirs that Merkel largely wrote Minsk II. But nationalists adopt the separatist speculation that the real author is Putin minion Vladislav Surkov — ostensible architect of the Kremlin’s long-term plot to dismantle Ukraine into successor states. The Surkov theory convinces many Ukrainians that Minsk cements separatist and Russian gains more than it affords just resolution of a conflict they say Russia started in their country and then rebranded as a civil war to mislead outsiders.
Why Are Ukrainians So Skeptical of Minsk?
At this point, only pro-Russian Ukrainians support Minsk, putting Western allies like France and Germany in the strange position of advocating a peace deal that they negotiated but that many think is a boon to Putin and the separatists. A broad understanding has developed that settlement per Minsk makes unwanted concessions to Russia. Indeed, Ukraine has fought a war for five years against exactly what Minsk calls for: increased autonomy and language privileges for rebellious regions that no other citizens now enjoy after Russia’s annexation of similarly autonomous Crimea. Minsk could make Donbas — like Crimea — ripe for the picking too.
According to this prevalent view, Minsk’s ultimate goal — peaceful political reintegration and social reconciliation of Donbas back into a unitary state — is not in Ukraine’s national interest. It risks subverting Kyiv’s fledgling transitional democracy. Minsk also essentially gives Donbas autonomy like Crimea had, cultivating perceptions of a double standard whereby the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk get special privileges not enjoyed by other regions of Ukraine that have remained loyal since Maidan.
From Ukraine’s independence in 1991 until Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Crimean Tatar ethnic autonomy — the Bolshevik answer to the nationalities question — provoked Ukrainian nationalists, who argued that it created an enabling environment for separatism. Revanchist fears led Ukraine to not extend similar privileges to other regions with significant ethnic minorities, like Romanian Bessarabia and Chernivtsi, or Hungarian Transcarpathia. After Maidan, other ethnic Russian regions outside Donbas dallied with autonomous separatism too — most notably Odesa and Kharkiv — but Kyiv quickly suppressed this movement, also known as “anti-Maidan.”
To paraphrase preeminent Ukraine scholar Alexander Motyl, reintegrating millions of pro-Russian voters into a democracy that also aspires to NATO and E.U. membership is a bad idea. Resumed representation of occupied Donbas in parliament is not an element of Minsk, but remains a widely understood end result of reintegration. Ukraine might even violently oppose the idea of pro-Russian separatists back in the national parliament; any election leading to peace in Donbas could destabilize the rest of the country. Minsk serves Russia’s interest by forcing Ukraine to amnesty anti-government militants, welcome them back into Ukrainian democracy, and reward their insurrection with increased sovereignty. Re-including either Crimea or Donbas in Ukrainian elections could plausibly jeopardize the country’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions and social cohesion.
For these reasons, suspicions of the agreements run deep, with assertions that ex-KGB still working for the Kremlin wrote Minsk’s special status and amnesty elements specifically to provoke Ukrainian patriotic pride and force the country to either federalize or fracture. Negotiations loaded with charged names only fuel such speculation; these include controversial ex-president Leonid Kuchma and oligarchs who are allegedly also close Putin confidants, like Viktor Medvedchuk and Nestor Shufrych. Viability and credibility of the entire process is low.
Despite Ukraine’s many good reasons to be skeptical of Minsk, it remains the only official format for brokering peace in the Donbas conflict. It is, however, diplomatic theater because neither Kyiv nor Washington wants to implement it — they just say so publicly to neutralize criticism. Kyiv rightly suspects every outcome is to Moscow’s benefit and hence recoils. Why Western allies don’t is the real question.
Fully implementing Minsk could push Ukraine toward another revolution or civil war by strong-arming Kyiv into enacting controversial political provisions on an unsustainable timeline. This, of course, serves Russian interests nicely. NATO allies coercing Kyiv to implement peace accords that nationalist activists swear will provoke violence and unrest is just one example of reflexive control: relatively unambitious goals set by the Kremlin that serve its own interests, yet that Ukraine and the West also pursue.
Russia is unlikely to back down from its aggression in Ukraine. Disputing rumors that sustaining Donbas is too costly for Moscow to bear, a defense attaché at a Five Eyes embassy in Kyiv told me privately that allied interagency experts calculate it costs the Kremlin less than one percent of its annual GDP. Ukraine will also lack territorial integrity so long as it disputes Russia’s Crimea claim and Donbas narrative. Similar to Cyprus, this may not keep Ukraine out of the European Union but will keep it out of NATO — the key Russian goal — per the alliance’s enlargement study of 1995.
The first obstacle to implementing Minsk is that there is no plausible way to reintegrate Donbas into Ukraine. Two MPs have now publicly referred to Donbas as gangrene that must be severed before it infects the rest of Ukraine. “Trojan horse” is a term used to slur the idea of reintegrating the at least half-million remaining pro-Russians estimated to still inhabit Donbas; this rhetoric was semi-vindicated when it was revealed that Russia’s plot to erode central government control in neighboring Zaporyzhya region was codenamed Operation Troy. Donbas has also now twice flirted with secession. Its gambit during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution resulted in constitutional changes benefiting Ukraine’s pro-Russian fifth column, laying the basis for renewed conflict 10 years later in 2014. It is not in the national interest of a stable, coherent democracy reorienting West to reintegrate Donbas again.
Nationalist opposition to Minsk also contributes to its unimplementability. After the suppression of anti-Maidan separatists in regions beyond Donbas, only far-right extremists are still armed to the teeth and full of disgruntled military-aged males deeply invested in blocking concession to Russia. Andriy Biletskiy, leader of the ultra-nationalist Azov Battalion, said in 2017 that “Minsk implementation means federalization and collapse of the country.” To the delight of anti-Ukrainian press, the movement he leads holds torch marches against Minsk that also evoke Third Reich imagery, fueling Kremlin propaganda about creeping ethnic nationalism. But although Ukraine has a rich tradition of underground, right-wing paramilitarism, many today argue that Russia has a hand in stoking the fringe far right to make this young democracy look bad. That conspiratorial view also predominates among Western officials, where the consensus is largely that Ukraine’s radicals are a Kremlin-amplified phenomenon.
Despite great potential for escalation, it remains unlikely. Russia doesn’t want a failed state on its border, separatist capabilities are limited without Moscow’s blessing, and Kyiv doesn’t want to risk more deaths — or the chance its Western allies might choose not to protect it — by launching an offensive. At the same time, neither side wants to win, as evidenced by both Ukrainian and Russian unwillingness to assume reconstruction costs. A common joke is, “Loser gets Donbas.”
But how might the conflict escalate? Victory by pro-Russian revanchists in Ukraine’s 2019 elections could lead to this outcome, as might rapid far-right growth and violent resistance to Minsk should Russia ever create conditions in Donbas that oblige Ukraine to implement the agreements. In either case, radicals at both extremes might be emboldened, potentially leading to protests or renewed violence outside the conflict zone that Russian propaganda could use to further slander Ukraine as illiberal and ungovernable. Barring that, however, it seems likely that the conflict will freeze further.
Can Ukraine implement Minsk? No. Does Ukraine want to reintegrate residents of pro-Russian breakaways Crimea and Donbas? No. Do anti-Ukrainian separatists want to reunify with Ukraine? No. Ukrainian patriots think Minsk is designed to destroy their country. Ukrainians — especially the nationalist activist part of civil society — care a lot about the damage they claim Minsk could inflict on their country, and remain prone to revolutionary rhetoric a mere five years after their last unfinished revolution. Only a pro-Russian government would ever dare to implement Minsk as currently written — and that might spark a real civil war.
Jonathan Brunson investigates asymmetric warfare, its influence on perennial Ukrainian instability, and how much of the post-Soviet democratic grassroots is actually astro-turfing — first at U.S. Embassy Kyiv, then with Crisis Group, and now as an independent consultant.
Image: Аимаина хикари