Don’t Expect Quick Resolution to Europe’s Only Active War

The most disputed point about the Minsk agreements has been whether to hold local elections in the Donbas before Ukraine regains control of its border with Russia, or after. Ukraine has insisted that security and the return of the border should precede elections, while pro-Russian separatists and Moscow have been pushing for the opposite, as agreed to in Minsk. At the time of Minsk II, Kyiv found itself at a disadvantage in the negotiations since it had been enduring an offensive on the city of Debaltseve and suffered an assault on Mariupol.

Russia has been violating the terms of Minsk, which led Kyiv to postpone constitutional reform and argue for the reverse sequence: security and border control first, then local elections.

Two weeks ago, France, Germany, and others sided with Ukraine when the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed an important resolution that laid out strict preconditions for elections to be held. But at the Normandy Four Summit in Berlin last week, the sides surprisingly changed their views. The host of the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed Ukraine to adopt the law on elections and stated that “Ukraine will regain full control of the border only at the end of the Minsk process.”

After a five-hour heated discussion in Berlin, they agreed to develop a road map by the end of November, introduce an OSCE armed police mission, and pull troops out of four more areas along the contact line, including Debaltseve. But Moscow has since objected to demilitarizing Debaltseve, and the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics have opposed the OSCE armed mission.

Volodymyr Ohryzko, Ukraine’s former foreign minister, summed up the summit as the sides merely “agreed to continue agreeing.” Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first president, pointed out that the parties only considered the steps but did not make decisions. But, “since there is no other alternative, the sides must deal with what they have,” said Kravchuk. Despite all its flaws, the Minsk deal has ensured international solidarity, kept sanctions, reduced shootings, allowed prisoner exchanges, and partially demilitarized the front line.

Searching for a compromise, Germany proposed that Russia and Ukraine implement their parts of Minsk in parallel rather than in sequence. Ukraine will get what it wants (the OSCE armed police mission) when it adopts the election law. Russia will get what it wants (elections, special status, and amnesty) when it accommodates Ukraine’s security concerns and allows OSCE full access to the border. Realizing the impossibility of standing against Russia, President Petro Poroshenko agreed to adjust Ukraine’s position.

Upon his return to Kyiv, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin made an unexpected statement to the Verkhovna Rada. Although he still emphasized the need for real security to be implemented prior to “discussing any other issues,” he said that Ukraine will regain control of the border “on the second day after the elections.” He justified this change in position by stressing the logic of the Minsk agreements, doubting it will ever change in Ukraine’s favor. Poroshenko confirmed that the entire security package, including permanent control of Ukraine’s border with Russia by the OSCE, remains as a precondition to the elections.

Some analysts say Klimkin’s formula is not in Ukraine’s interests. The key question, argues political scientist Petr Oleshchuk, is how Russia will exit the Donbas and what kind of presence it will try to retain for leverage over Ukraine. Control of the border is critical in halting the continuous flows of Russian forces and overseeing their withdrawal. It’s uncertain whether the OSCE can handle this mission. Ukrainian politician Semen Semenchenko rejects the idea of an OSCE armed police mission as unprecedented, and has called for the border to be controlled by the Ukrainian Armed Forces as a precondition to elections.

In terms of the disputed elections, the problem is that the separatists are not interested in free and fair elections. Vitaly Portnikov, a Ukrainian political analyst, argues that “the separatists want to hold a Putin-style election, where the winners are appointed by the Kremlin.” He believes that under these conditions, Ukraine might not restore its territorial integrity “on the first day, nor even on the second,” but would have to wait until Putin’s regime collapses.

Despite the Normandy agreements, several pitfalls lie ahead. Given strong differences between the warring parties, the development of a road map could drag on past November. Ceasefire violations continue to occur, and troop withdrawals may stall again. It is premature to hope for a quick resolution.

Vera Zimmerman, a UkraineAlert contributor, is an independent research analyst and translator. She holds an MA in Political Science from George Mason University and tweets @verzimmer.

Image: A Ukrainian serviceman fires a 2S7 Pion self-propelled gun during military exercises near the village of Divychky in Kyiv region, Ukraine, October 21, 2016. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko