Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Minsk "Agreement"

by Alexander Mercouris

Already there is debate about who has "won" and who has "lost" in the Minsk talks.

The short answer is that as the German foreign minister Steinmeier correctly said there is no breakthrough but the Russians and the NAF have made progress.

One point needs to be explained or reiterated (since I have explained it already and many times).

The agreement does not make provision for federalisation or autonomy for the Donbass but still only refers to the grant of a law according the Donbass temporary special status within the Ukraine.

There could not be an agreement for federalisation out of the Minsk negotiations because they are primarily a summit meeting of five powers - Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, German and France. The Russians have always insisted that this is an internal conflict and civil war within the Ukraine and between Ukrainians and it is for the Ukrainians and them alone to resolve their internal differences between them through negotiations.

Given that this is Russia's stance, Russia and the other powers cannot impose a federalisation scheme on the Ukrainians and they have not - at least overtly - sought to do so. What the stated objective of the Minsk talks is - at least from the Russian point of view - is to set up conditions and a process for the constitutional negotiations that the Russians have been pushing for (and which were supposedly agreed on 21st February 2014 and on 17th April 2014 and 5th September 2014) to take place.

The Russians have been insisting on these negotiations since the February coup. The Russians are not publicly pre-ordaining the outcome of those negotiations because were they to do so they would not be negotiations at all. Whatever a negotiation is, it is by definition not something whose outcome is preordained.

If the Russians sought to preordain the outcome of the negotiations by insisting on federalisation as the outcome they would be imposing their views on the parties and would be admitting that they are a party to the conflict, which is what they have consistently said they are not. They would in effect be doing what the US has tried to do in the Syrian conflict, which is insist on an outcome to negotiations (Assad's resignation) before negotiations even take place. The Russians have always opposed this sort of behaviour and they are being consistent in not openly adopting it now.

Depending on what the parties agree between them, the negotiations could in theory result in decentralisation, federalisation, a confederation or even outright independence for the Donbass (the Russians floated that idea as a serious possibility in the summer). The latter is not by the way contrary to the reaffirmation of respect or even support for the Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity that we saw in the statement today. If the internal parties to the conflict were to decide on a formal partition as the solution to the Ukraine's conflict, then international actors like Russia could recognise it without calling into question their previous declared support for the Ukraine's territorial integrity, as they previously did when Czechoslovakia split up.

In reality everybody knows that the Russians' preferred option is federalisation and the Europeans are now edging towards that solution. Whether it is a viable solution is another matter.

Once this key point is understood everything else starts to fall into place.

Last spring and summer the Russians sought a ceasefire so the constitutional negotiations could begin. The Europeans are now also demanding a ceasefire (they were less keen on the idea last spring and summer). There is now therefore an agreement for a ceasefire.

Back in August the Russians demanded the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the Donbass. There is now an agreement for the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the Donbass.

If that happens it will be a major weakening of the Junta's position in the Donbass because it is the Junta whose military has the big preponderance in heavy weapons. If the opposing sides are left with light infantry forces, the advantage on the ground will pass decisively to the NAF.

The political machinery that was supposed to have been agreed in Minsk on 5th September 2014 to create the conditions for the constitutional elections is being revived. Thus there is to be a law of special status for the Donbass pending the constitutional negotiations to clarify its current legal status and provide legal mechanisms for its internal administration by the NAF (Ukraine passed one previously and then reneged on it), more elections etc.

There is a new provision, which is the first indications of some sort of timeline for this process with the constitutional negotiations supposed to have been concluded by the end of the year.

There are also some ideas for a beefed up monitoring process via the OSCE.

Will any of this happen? Highly doubtful I would say. Consider what happened after the Minsk process of 5th September 2014. The Junta did not withdraw its heavy weapons. It did not retreat to the agreed boundary line. It imposed an economic blockade on the Donbass (it is now obliged to lift it). It rescinded the law on the Donbass's special status. It reinforced its army and in January it attempted to renew its offensive.

Is there any more prospect of this process succeeding than did the one that was agreed in Minsk in September?

The big difference between this process and the previous process is that the Europeans are now formally involved. Its success or failure ultimately depends on whether the Europeans are going to insist on the Junta fulfilling its obligations. They spectacularly failed to do so before and I have to say I think it is very unlikely they will do so now. If the Europeans fail to insist on the Junta fulfilling its obligations then the process will unravel as the previous Minsk process did and with the balance of advantage continuing to shift every day on the ground towards the NAF we will see a further renewal of the fighting and a further NAF advance in the spring.

In the meantime control of the border, disarmament of "illegal armed groups" etc are now overtly linked to the successful conclusion of the constitutional negotiations, which is supposed to happen before the end of the year. Of course if the constitutional negotiations succeed, then when all these things happen we will have a different Ukraine from the one we have now. At that point the control of border posts etc will be in the hands of differently constituted authorities from those that exist today.

Will those negotiations actually happen? Will they succeed if they do? I doubt it. The Junta will resist them tooth and nail if only because those negotiations put in jeopardy the whole Maidan project and by their mere fact call into question the Junta's legitimacy.

It depends in the end on what the Europeans do. This has been true of the conflict from the start.

That it depends on what the Europeans do is in itself a good reason to doubt this process will succeed. The probability is more conflict down the road but in the meantime Poroshenko's admission that there is "no good news for the Ukraine" from this process tells us who is winning.