Ukrainian, Russian, French, and German leaders announced this morning, after a marathon meeting in Minsk, a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine between the central government and separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. The meeting took place amid an offensive by separatist forces reaching further west. While tenuous, the agreement hopes to provide a new basis to build a lasting peace after the failures of the previous ceasefire in September.
The short-term gains from the ceasefire are unlikely to translate into a long-term peace for Ukraine however. Not only have the separatist leaders been recalcitrant throughout the peace process, they have shored up their gains by placing themselves in a strong military position should the agreement be violated. For Ukraine, the military losses are doubled by a financial crisis that threatens the state’s ability to effectively raise and field a defense. Moscow’s own intentions may be uncertain, but the extent to which it has continued to support Donetsk and Luhansk despite strong incentives to cease indicates that President Putin is doubling down in the Donbas.
While several details of the ceasefire are yet to be solidified, the Minsk II stipulates that in the two days following the ceasefire’s implementation on Sunday, 15 February, military forces will withdraw heavy weapons. The location of the agreed weapons withdrawal was a major sticking point in the negotiations. Kiev and the rebels finally agreed to create a demilitarized zone with separate lines of withdrawal. Kiev will pull heavy weapons from frontline as it exists on Sunday, while separatists will similarly withdraw heavy weapons from the frontline that existed when the September ceasefire started.
Ukraine will additionally initiate constitutional reforms that will provide greater autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. The stipulation is similar to reforms made following the September ceasefire. However, Kiev withdrew from granting autonomy after separatists held unrecognized elections in late October that, according to Ukraine and its Western supporters, violated September’s agreement. Russia recognized the results of these elections that bolstered separatist assertions of full independence from Ukraine.
Other stipulations include: an OSCE mission to monitor the demilitarized zone, an exchange of all prisoners between Kiev and rebel forces, a declaration of general amnesty for combatants, and a withdrawal of all foreign fighters.
For President Poroshenko, the agreement in Minsk represents a bare deal that, at best, gives Kiev an opportunity to solidify its defenses and enter into a sustained negotiation period with the People’s Republics in Donetsk and Luhansk. Reuters reports that Poroshenko appeared “visibly downbeat” when announcing the details of the general ceasefire.
Further, Kiev accused Russia of continuing to supply the rebels while negotiations were taking place in Minsk. Meanwhile, the battle for a key transportation hub in Debaltseve, the site of fierce fighting this past week, persisted throughout the talks.
The financial strain on Ukraine’s government significantly impedes Kiev’s bargaining strength going forward while minimizing its ability to continue to pay for the unbudgeted military costs of maintaining a sustained defense in eastern Ukraine. Nevertheless, the IMF announced the preliminary terms of a four-year, 40 billion USD bailout package for Kiev to avert an imminent financial collapse and stabilize the country’s resources over the medium term.
Donetsk and Luhansk
The People’s Republic of Donetsk and neighboring People’s Republic of Luhansk were largely uncompromising during the negotiations, while Merkel and Western sources report that only after Putin put significant pressure on the separatist representatives did they agree to the new demarcation lines and stipulations of the new ceasefire. Kiev’s agreement to withdraw heavy weapons from the fighting frontline and separatists from the old September demarcation line gives the separatists time to extend their area of control prior to Sunday.
In the previous ceasefire originally negotiated in early September, Donetsk and Luhansk military forces took advantage of the ceasefire to recruit, arm, and train their forces. While initial violations of Minsk I by either Kiev or the separatist were minor, the lull in the fighting prior to the main separatist offensive in December-January was arguably crucial to the secessionists’ strategy.
President Putin’s strategy appears to continue unchanged and mirrors the “doublespeak” used in previous negotiation rounds. While Kiev and Western governments assert that Moscow augments the separatist forces with its own military personnel and hardware, Moscow denies all such claims despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
The domestic drivers for the Kremlin’s policy in Ukraine aside, there is little to indicate that the continued support for Donbas rebels will decline even after Minsk II goes into effect. The economic hardships Russia faces as a result of Western sanctions, its own counter-sanctions, and curtailed oil revenues have not precede a decline in Putin’s popularity.
By quickly supporting a resolution in Minsk, Russia appears officially supportive of a negotiated peace in Ukraine while securing multiple benefits for both itself and the Donbas. Separatists retain control over the border with Russia, allowing Moscow to continue supplying Donetsk and Luhansk, while supposed humanitarian aid convoys that have been the subject of much accusation by Kiev and the West are protected under Minsk II.
European Hopefulness and Washington’s Ante-up Counter
Berlin and Paris’ policy remain committed to a peaceful resolution to Ukraine’s civil war. Merkel and Hollande drove Minsk I, which was fruitlessly propped up despite significant violations, and appear unlikely to shift away from a sanctions-centric strategy vis-à-vis Moscow.
Meanwhile, Minsk II has dampened the likelihood that Washington will supply lethal aid to Ukraine, a policy that while upping the ante for Moscow, may prove to be more costly financially and in human life.
What to Look For
While all parties have officially endorsed the statements made in Minsk on Thursday morning, the conflict is far from resolved. The terms set this week are largely the same as those agreed to in September and do not provide an incentive for any participant to change their long-term strategy.
- Ukraine’s financial woes come to the fore: While the ceasefire is in place, Kiev’s financial stability will become the largest threat to Ukraine. Without the currently negotiated 17 billion USD bailout from the IMF and economic support from the West, Ukraine won’t have to fail militarily for separatists to secure their goals.
- Limited withdrawal by separatists: leaders in the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk regions are committed to eliminating government control over territory in the Donbas. It is highly unlikely that under similar circumstances to the failed Minsk I agreement they will fully withdraw heavy weapons or enforce the withdrawal of foreign volunteers.
- Tensions will remain particularly high in the region around Debaltseve is a likely location for violations of the ceasefire by either Kiev or separatists.