Eastern Ukraine’s Problematic Peace Plan

The 2015 Minsk agreement is flawed—but it’s all there is.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
European leaders gather in Minsk, Belarus, to discuss ending the war in Ukraine.
European leaders gather in Minsk, Belarus, to discuss ending the war in Ukraine.
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko (from left), Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko pose during a meeting aimed at halting the war in Ukraine at the presidential residence in Minsk, Belarus, on Feb. 11, 2015. Maxim Malinovsky/AFP/Getty Images

Months of intensive diplomacy by the United States and Europe have made little progress in defusing tensions as Moscow has amassed well over 100,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders. One potential offramp to the crisis that has been invoked by all parties involved is the Minsk agreement, struck in 2015 in the Belarusian capital. The agreement sought to provide a road map for ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where the Russian armed forces and proxy groups have waged war against the Ukrainian military since 2014. 

On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council convened a meeting to discuss implementation of the deal. “These agreements, which were negotiated in 2014 and 2015 and signed by Russia, remain the basis for the peace process to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his remarks to the council.

Russian, Ukrainian, and European officials have also reiterated their support for the deal in recent weeks. “Everyone confirmed today that we have the Minsk agreements. They must be fulfilled,” said Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, last week after several hours of talks of the Normandy format diplomatic grouping with Russia, France, and Germany failed to provide a breakthrough. 

Months of intensive diplomacy by the United States and Europe have made little progress in defusing tensions as Moscow has amassed well over 100,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders. One potential offramp to the crisis that has been invoked by all parties involved is the Minsk agreement, struck in 2015 in the Belarusian capital. The agreement sought to provide a road map for ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where the Russian armed forces and proxy groups have waged war against the Ukrainian military since 2014. 

On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council convened a meeting to discuss implementation of the deal. “These agreements, which were negotiated in 2014 and 2015 and signed by Russia, remain the basis for the peace process to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his remarks to the council.

Russian, Ukrainian, and European officials have also reiterated their support for the deal in recent weeks. “Everyone confirmed today that we have the Minsk agreements. They must be fulfilled,” said Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, last week after several hours of talks of the Normandy format diplomatic grouping with Russia, France, and Germany failed to provide a breakthrough. 

While all parties to the negotiations agree, in theory at least, that implementation of the Minsk agreement offers the best prospects for peace, the deal is seen as highly problematic, and profound differences in interpretation between Moscow and Kyiv have made it impossible to implement. Why then, are diplomats clinging to the deal, and what does it actually entail?


What is the Minsk II agreement?

The Minsk II agreement, so called because it replaced a prior failed attempt at a peace plan, was hashed out by negotiators from Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France, and signed on Feb. 12, 2015. 

Ukraine agreed to the deal, as it was over a barrel after months of fierce fighting. “The Ukrainian military had largely been decimated on the battlefield,” said Kurt Volker, who served as a U.S. special envoy to Ukraine during the Trump administration. 

At the time of the talks, the Ukrainian armed forces in the strategic city of Debaltseve were surrounded by separatist rebels and Russian armed forces who proceeded to seize the town days after the agreement was signed.

The agreement includes 13 steps that seek to end the conflict and restore Ukrainian sovereignty over the breakaway regions in Donetsk and Luhansk, while also providing for greater self-governance in the breakaway regions and eventually allowing for greater local decision-making on certain issues. A central disagreement between Moscow and Kyiv is what order those things should happen in.

What’s in the deal?

Seven years after the deal was signed, there is little end in sight to the war in Ukraine’s Donbass region, and Moscow’s troop buildup has Ukrainian and Western officials deeply alarmed that the conflict may be about to further escalate. The deal brought an end to the fiercest phase of fighting, but violations of the cease-fire, which is monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), number in the hundreds of thousands every year, and civilians and Ukrainian troops continue to be killed. On Thursday, separatists in the Donbass and the Ukrainian government accused each other of firing across the front line, while Russian-backed separatists shelled a kindergarten in the Ukrainian-controlled village of Stanytsia Luhanska, which was full of children at the time of the attack, and injured at least three adults. 

Points one and two of the deal call for a cease-fire and for heavy weaponry to be pulled back, both of which are to be monitored by the OSCE. The rest of the agreement calls for local elections to be held in the breakaway territories, an amnesty, prisoner exchanges, distribution of humanitarian aid, the reintegration of the separatist regions into the Ukrainian financial and tax system, handing control of the borders back to Ukraine, the withdrawal of foreign fighters, and constitutional reform in Ukraine to allow for greater regional self-governance. 

On paper, the agreement provides a pathway to end the war and reestablish Ukrainian sovereignty over the Donbass region, while conferring a greater degree of political decision-making to the region. In practice, not a single point in the deal has been implemented in full. 


Why hasn’t it worked?

While Russia’s role in arming separatist rebels and sending in ground forces to support the fighting has been widely documented by Western governments and investigative journalists, Moscow continues to deny its involvement in the conflict. “The No. 1 thing is that Russia refuses to acknowledge that it is a party to the Minsk agreements, and that it has obligations under the Minsk agreements, which it has never fulfilled,” Volker said. Despite being a signatory to the deal, Moscow insists that it’s up to the Ukrainian government and separatist leaders in the east to resolve the standoff. 

The deal also does not include any guidance on the sequence in which the 13 points within it should be carried out. Moscow has insisted that local elections be held in the breakaway regions first, and that the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics be granted political autonomy. Ukrainian officials fear that this would cement Moscow’s leverage over the region, undermine the country’s sovereignty, and kneecap its aspirations of joining NATO or the European Union. Moscow has followed a similar model in Georgia, where it has sent troops to the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and recognized their independence. 

Ukraine insists on regaining full control over its borders and for foreign fighters to withdraw before any elections are held in the Donbass. Any move by Kyiv to devolve power to the breakaway regions at this stage would likely be deeply unpopular and seen as capitulation to Moscow. In 2015, three law enforcement officers were killed in the capital when violent unrest broke out over proposed legislation that would have granted greater autonomy to the region.

Such unrest would only benefit Moscow. “Russia’s real goal is to use such protests to internally destabilize Ukraine—to organize attacks on the government and military command-and-control system using attackers disguised as protesters and to assassinate top officials,” Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former special advisor to the head of Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence Service, wrote in Politico earlier this month. “Such chaos would disorganize the Ukrainian armed forces and justify its military invasion of Ukraine in the guise of restoring order.”


If they’re so challenging, why haven’t the accords been abandoned? 

In short, because there are few other viable options for a path to peace. “Everybody keeps clinging to the Minsk agreements because at least they say, with Russia’s signature attached, that they respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. So, nobody wants to give that up,” Volker said.

Despite flaws in the deal, Ukraine has passed legislation to lay the groundwork to implement its obligations under the Minsk agreement. U.S. officials continue to see it as the best path forward and have urged Moscow to fulfill its obligations under the deal. “I think if you look back over the requirements established in the Minsk agreements, three agreements over the course of several months, it is a fair assessment to say that Ukraine has sought to move forward on most if not all of them, while Russia has made good on virtually none of its obligations under Minsk,” Blinken said earlier this month.

Andrii Zagorodniuk, Ukraine’s former minister of defense, said that he considered statements by Russian officials, urging the United States to pressure Ukraine to implement the Minsk agreement, to be part of a Russian disinformation play. “It creates the false assumption that whatever was agreed about before, is not delivered by Ukraine,” he said. “It just moves the responsibility from Russia for starting all of that to Ukraine. And that is exactly what they want to do.”


Will Russia recognize the independence of the breakaway regions? 

On Tuesday, the Russian parliament voted to urge Putin to recognize the independence of the two breakaway Ukrainian regions, the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Asked about the measure during his press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin reiterated that implementing the Minsk agreement was the best way forward to resolving the conflict in the Donbass, but he did not rule out recognizing the territories as independent countries. Doing so would likely spell the end of the Minsk agreement.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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