Implementing the Minsk Agreements Would Pose a Russian Trojan Horse for Ukraine, but There Is a Third Way
BY ANDRIAN PROKIP
Since late October, numerous Western media have been reporting on Russian troops gathering on the Ukrainian border and on the risk of a major attack on Ukraine (see here or here). Initially, Ukrainian officials denied the reports, but recently official Kyiv has begun confirming the risk of a Russian military attack in early 2022. The Kremlin denied having any such intentions, saying instead it was expecting provocation from Ukraine. Contradicting this official posture, however, Russia’s Security Council head Nikolai Patrushev said that fire might swallow Ukraine soon and lead millions of refugees to flee the country.
Everyone is guessing at Russia’s real intentions, but very likely the amassing of troops on the border is so much muscle flexing aimed at pushing Ukraine into negotiating with the Kremlin—and the West into supporting such negotiations.
For the Kremlin, Kyiv’s pro-Western orientation and the weakening of pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine is a problem. Russia helped establish the unrecognized republics in the Donbas and threatened Kyiv with war to accept “peacemaking” and the fulfillment of the Minsk Agreements, expected to yield political benefits for Russia in the near future.
In 2019 the Kremlin expected that Volodymyr Zelensky’s victory in the presidential elections would change Ukraine’s agenda, making peace in the Donbas a top priority. But contrary to expectations, President Zelensky has not shown any signs of making concessions to the Kremlin. And all his attempts to establish a ceasefire regime in the Donbas in 2020 ended up in the return of active military conflict since last February, while the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk has become less and less effective.
Zelensky’s recent imposition of sanctions against Viktor Medvedchuk, member of parliament and cochair of the political party Opposition Platform—for Life, was another step toward reducing the Kremlin’s presence in Ukraine. Medvedchuk was subsequently arrested on several charges, including high treason. Medvedchuk, whose child’s godfather is Vladimir Putin, appeared to be functioning as some sort of Kremlin ambassador to Ukraine.
Russia’s strong network of influence in Ukraine has led the Kremlin to persevere, however. Just as in early 2020, when the Security Service of Ukraine reported on the Russian footprint in the increasing public protests against rising gas prices and communal tariffs, the SSU today is calling out Russian support of the anti-vaccination movement in Ukraine and public protests against the authorities. Russia has also started playing the antisemitic card in Ukraine.
But these efforts are not enough to put Ukraine in Russia’s pocket. To gain at least partial control of Ukraine, the Russian authorities need to achieve two intermediate goals: to have stronger pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine and to weaken the West’s support for Ukraine.
The pro-Russian political opposition in Ukraine can start blocking pro-European reforms, so much disliked by the Kremlin. And implementation of the Minsk Agreements as they are currently designed could contribute to stalling reforms. The Minsk Agreements stipulate establishing a ceasefire and separating the opposing military forces, providing a special constitutional regime for the Donbas (with requisite amending of Ukraine’s constitution), and the holding of elections in the noncontrolled territories, with Kyiv thereafter to have control over the Russia-Ukraine border in the Donbas. In this way the Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas could become a political force in Ukraine, quite likely under the control of the Kremlin, with the chance of gaining representation in parliament and, eventually, executive power. This plausible evolution of affairs is risky for Ukraine. In particular, the stipulation that Ukraine should gain control of its state border with Russia only after elections in the Donbas is untenable, nor is there any guarantee of transparency of these elections for Kyiv. The quality of elections conducted under the Kremlin’s control was well demonstrated during the 2014 referendum on the status of Crimea, when 97 percent of Crimean voters approved integration with the Russian Federation in a plebiscite held in the midst of a heavy Russian military presence.
Besides the potential political benefits to be realized with implementation of the Minsk Agreements, the Kremlin expects to solve an economic problem. Ukraine’s implementation of the Agreements would reduce Russia’s defense spending on the Donbas and decrease the financial burden for the Kremlin.
Another problem with the current design of the Minsk Agreements is legal: if implemented, the Agreements would violate the Ukrainian constitution and legislation. Viktor Shyshkin, an outstanding lawyer, the first general prosecutor, and a former member of the Constitutional Court, has many times provided numerous arguments as to why these Agreements are void. Among the core counterarguments to the Minsk Agreements is the need for any international accord to be approved by the Verkhovna Rada (this was not done since the Agreements were signed); further, amendments to Ukraine’s constitution cannot flow from an international agreement.
In short, implementation of the Minsk Agreements would violate Ukrainian law and most probably provoke mass protests comparable with the Euromaidan of 2013–2014. Russia’s interventions in Ukraine stepped up considerably after the Euromaidan, on the excuse of Russia wanting to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Russian citizens. In the case of new mass protests, no one can be sure that the Russian government will not leverage the same reasons to invade Ukraine again.
The threat of a Russian attack on Ukraine appears to be an attempt to push Kyiv to implement the Minsk II Agreements. Moreover, the threat coincides with the start of winter, for which Ukraine’s energy sector is poorly prepared. Ukraine failed to stock the necessary supplies of coal before winter and may face energy shortages. So this winter Ukraine will be more dependent on electricity, coal and oil products from Belarus and Russia, and hence will be more vulnerable to energy blackmailing.
Certain respectable experts in the United States believe their government should pressure Kyiv to follow the Minsk Agreements instead of making Russia pay for annexing Crimea and prosecuting the war in the Donbas. Such actions pose serious risks to Ukraine’s stability. Far from representing a solution, they could instead reopen a Pandora’s box of conflicts in Eastern Europe.
Both fulfillment of the Minsk Agreements and their nonfulfillment create huge risks for Ukraine. Both negative scenarios can be avoided by amending the Agreements. The amendments should include a refusal of Donbas autonomy and a change in the timeline of the Agreements’ implementation: the Ukrainian government should insist on first gaining control of the Russia-Ukraine border, and hold local elections only after peace and stability are achieved in the region. Tertium datur, actually: it just needs more diplomatic efforts.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
About the Author
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more