The intense negotiations of the past few days seem to indicate that there could be a diplomatic solution to the Ukrainian crisis in Donbass. After yesterday’s Normandy format talks between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany in Berlin, all sides stressed that despite the lack of a breakthrough, talks would continue.
No one should expect a quick or easy solution to the lingering stalemate – but even the most difficult and lengthy negotiations are preferable to the specter of renewed armed conflict.
The recent flurry of high-level meetings and press conferences that followed give a good idea of the parties’ positions and concerns. Thus Vladimir Putin insisted, during the press conference which followed his February 7 meeting with Emmanuel Macron, on the fact that “there is simply no alternative” to the Minsk II agreements of February 2015. , who were trying to put an end to hostilities in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. .
That Putin takes this position is not surprising. But what is worrying from the Ukrainian point of view is Macron’s acknowledgment that “the Minsk agreements are the only basis” for a “political solution to the Ukrainian question”. The Minsk agreements have, in seven years, failed to bring peace to the Donbass.
Perhaps even more disconcerting for Kyiv is that Macron assured Putin that France and Germany would “continue to work…to ensure full compliance with the Minsk agreements and achieve a full settlement of the conflict.” in the Donbass.
The problems with Minsk
A few days before Macron’s meeting with Putin, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba gave an interview to Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita in which he stated unambiguously that “there will be no special status, like the imagine Russia, there will be no veto” for any region on national policies. Although it was widely reported, Kuleba in the same response also pointed out that Ukraine “was already carrying out a very deep decentralization reform and (was) ready to work on the implementation of the Minsk agreements”.
One problem, then, is the obvious disagreements over what the Minsk agreements actually require – of whom and in what order. The terms of the agreement specify that a ceasefire and the withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons will be monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
A dialogue will follow on local elections and Ukrainian legislation “relating to provisional autonomy in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions”. There will also be an amnesty for acts committed during the conflict and an exchange of prisoners.
This must be followed by a resumption of full socio-economic ties and the restoration of full Ukrainian control over its international borders after local elections and completed after a comprehensive political settlement. Finally, the agreement requires the withdrawal of all foreign military and equipment and the disarmament of illegal armed groups.
Thus, Kuleba’s insistence that the Minsk agreements call for security before political reforms is valid. Putin may be technically correct that there has been no progress ‘on such fundamental issues as constitutional reform, amnesty, local elections and the legal aspects of a special status for Donbass’ . But the fact that there is still no stable ceasefire seven years after the agreements were signed means that Ukraine is not violating the agreements – at least not any more than those who regularly break the ceasefire. -fire.
Another issue concerns the social, economic and political costs of implementation. Socially, issues of Ukrainian national identity and statehood were never fully resolved even before the start of the war in Donbass in 2014. The divisions between Ukrainians living there and in territories controlled by the government have since increased.
Opinion polls now suggest that people in government-controlled areas are increasingly reluctant to resolve the conflict through reintegration. Meanwhile, the number of Russian passport holders in non-government controlled areas has increased to about 20% of the resident population.
Economically, the reintegration of a region devastated by eight years of war would deprive other regions of Ukraine and the public sector in general of much-needed investment. This would have a negative impact on Ukraine’s economic development and would do little to mend the social divisions between East and West, rural and urban areas, rich and poor.
Above all, there is the political cost of implementing the agreements which are extremely unpopular in Ukraine. And the president, Volodymyr Zelensky no longer has the political capital to bring about their implementation. He would almost certainly face a wave of opposition inside and outside parliament that could sweep him from power.
It would also mean the reinstatement of around three million voters who are highly unlikely to support the current government. This is not an attractive prospect for Kyiv. In this, Zelensky is generally in tune with the majority of the population in government-controlled areas. After eight years of war, they have little interest in “reuniting” with people with whom they share no sense of common identity and whose reintegration would prolong social divisions and economic hardship for uncertain returns.
This does not mean that there is no potential for a negotiated political solution to the crisis in the Donbass, nor that there is no possibility of restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The main underlying question of how to reconcile a future relationship between the center and the regions – with all the political and financial issues that this would entail – is not unique to Ukraine.
Similar situations have been resolved elsewhere, including Gagauzia in Moldova, South Tyrol between Austria and Italy, and the Aland Islands between Finland and Sweden. But the resolution in Ukraine will require patient and inclusive negotiations and a focus on technical details rather than political grandstanding.
In this sense, the Minsk agreements are the starting point rather than the end point in resolving this crisis.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Stefan Wolff receives funding from the United States Institute of Peace. He has previously received grants from the UK Economic and Social Research Council, the British Academy, the NATO Science for Peace Programme, EU Framework Programs 6 and 7 and Horizon 2020, as well as the Jean Monnet program of the EU. He is a senior research fellow at the Foreign Policy Center in London and co-coordinator of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions.
Tatyana Malyarenko receives funding from the Erasmus+ program of the European Union (Jean Monnet Project 2020-2022 ‘Towards a More Secure Digital Europe: Multi-level Governance for Countering Online Disinformation and Hybrid Threats’ and Module Jean Monnet 2021-2024 ‘The EU’s Comprehensive Approach to Security: Tackling Evolving Threats, Building a Strong Security Ecosystem”. It is affiliated with the non-governmental organization “Ukrainian Institute for Crisis Management and Conflict Resolution”, based in Mariupol, Ukraine.