The Road to a Cease-Fire in Ukraine Is Full of Pitfalls

Any deal must not repeat the fatal flaws of the Minsk agreements, which laid the path to the current war.

By , an analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, and , an analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
Russian President Vladimir Putin waves as he walks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel before talks about the Ukrainian peace process at the Chancellery in Berlin on Oct. 19, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin waves as he walks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel before talks about the Ukrainian peace process at the Chancellery in Berlin on Oct. 19, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin waves as he walks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel before talks about the Ukrainian peace process at the Chancellery in Berlin on Oct. 19, 2016. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues and its global repercussions grow, there is increasing talk about a negotiated deal to end the carnage. How and under which conditions any such agreement might come about, however, is hotly debated and remains nebulous, with many arguing that only a clear Russian defeat stands a chance of putting a check on the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions. What should be clear, however, is that a new cease-fire between Russia and Ukraine must not repeat the fatal mistakes that were made following the last Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. The deeply flawed Minsk agreements, negotiated in 2014 and early 2015, ultimately paved the way to the current war.

Contrary to widespread belief, the Minsk agreements were not a potential instrument of resolution or path to peace. Instead, they were part and parcel of the problem—and in many ways enshrined Russia’s strategies that led to this year’s invasion. In 2014 and 2015, the main Western co-negotiators—German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, and their respective foreign ministers—may have thought they had negotiated a path toward a lasting peace, while Russian President Vladimir Putin saw the agreements as another means to achieve his end of greater control over Kyiv’s decisions. Indeed, the agreements turned out to be just a prelude to this year’s invasion. Can the Western governments that will likely play a role as midwives or guarantors of any future agreement learn the lessons of that sad episode and avoid a new agreement that is another step on the path to yet another war?

In September 2014, at the Battle of Ilovaisk in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, the Ukrainian army suffered a crushing defeat by regular Russian ground forces, which had entered eastern Ukraine under the pretense of being “separatist rebels” with their insignia removed. (Much of the Western media dutifully parroted the Kremlin’s fiction since the objective truth couldn’t be properly “sourced,” but that would be a subject for another article.) Fearing significant further losses, Kyiv agreed to negotiations with Moscow in the capital of Belarus.

As Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues and its global repercussions grow, there is increasing talk about a negotiated deal to end the carnage. How and under which conditions any such agreement might come about, however, is hotly debated and remains nebulous, with many arguing that only a clear Russian defeat stands a chance of putting a check on the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions. What should be clear, however, is that a new cease-fire between Russia and Ukraine must not repeat the fatal mistakes that were made following the last Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. The deeply flawed Minsk agreements, negotiated in 2014 and early 2015, ultimately paved the way to the current war.

Contrary to widespread belief, the Minsk agreements were not a potential instrument of resolution or path to peace. Instead, they were part and parcel of the problem—and in many ways enshrined Russia’s strategies that led to this year’s invasion. In 2014 and 2015, the main Western co-negotiators—German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, and their respective foreign ministers—may have thought they had negotiated a path toward a lasting peace, while Russian President Vladimir Putin saw the agreements as another means to achieve his end of greater control over Kyiv’s decisions. Indeed, the agreements turned out to be just a prelude to this year’s invasion. Can the Western governments that will likely play a role as midwives or guarantors of any future agreement learn the lessons of that sad episode and avoid a new agreement that is another step on the path to yet another war?


In September 2014, at the Battle of Ilovaisk in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, the Ukrainian army suffered a crushing defeat by regular Russian ground forces, which had entered eastern Ukraine under the pretense of being “separatist rebels” with their insignia removed. (Much of the Western media dutifully parroted the Kremlin’s fiction since the objective truth couldn’t be properly “sourced,” but that would be a subject for another article.) Fearing significant further losses, Kyiv agreed to negotiations with Moscow in the capital of Belarus.

The resulting Minsk Protocol—known as Minsk I and shortly afterward clarified in an additional memorandum—paid tribute to Russian interests by ratifying the decentralization of Ukraine and mandating snap elections in the territories controlled by Russia. A fragile cease-fire was established, but the conflict was not resolved. Instead, the cease-fire was soon broken, and in February 2015 Ukraine suffered another overwhelming defeat at Debaltseve. To avoid even deeper Russian incursions into Ukraine, Kyiv signed the so-called Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements, which subsequently became known as Minsk II.

Minsk I and II included provisions on security measures, such as a cease-fire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the contact line, and the disarmament of paramilitary groups; as well as political measures, such as local elections under Ukrainian law in the so-called separatist territories and some degree of autonomy for the regions. The agreements also stipulated the restoration of Ukrainian control over the border between the territories and Russia. By enshrining the Kremlin’s fiction that these territories were acting under their own volition, the agreements were denigrating to Ukraine. Russian-occupied Crimea was excluded from the agreements.

The Russian aggressor was in fact often assisted in its goals by German, French, and other mediators.

The positive results of the agreements were a fragile cease-fire, partial withdrawal from the contact line, mitigation of humanitarian suffering, and the theoretical prospect of a more permanent future resolution of the conflict. To the agreements’ critics even at the time, it was always clear that they were just a vehicle for Putin to cement a frozen conflict that would give Russia various options to exert control over Ukraine and sabotage its further progress. That the Minsk agreements turned out to be just another step on the road to an even bloodier war is the result of at least three fundamental problems with the emergence, content, and implications of these accords. They need to be clearly recognized and avoided in the future.

First, the Minsk agreements rewarded and legitimized the subversion of international law. The principal defect of the agreements was their manifest disregard of Ukraine’s sovereignty by Russia and their clear violation of numerous previous treaties. The deals were concluded by Ukraine under enormous duress. Moscow deliberately increased military pressure on Kyiv before and during negotiations, which allowed the Kremlin to frame the conflict’s definition and presumed resolution. Worse, the agreements’ subsequent implementation was characterized by a glaring lack of Western pressure on Russia to abide by the letter and spirit of the accords, let alone support for Ukraine.

The Minsk agreements’ premise was based on a fundamental lie promoted by Russia and lazily passed over by many Western interlocutors: that Ukraine’s regions were yearning to secede. This idea was, to anyone who looked a little more closely, clearly contradicted by the war’s genesis, determinants, and course. To the extent that German, French, and other Western negotiators even considered Russia a party to the conflict, they assumed that the Kremlin would accept and implement the agreements in good faith.

The so-called Donbas rebellion orchestrated by Moscow was a series of massive, manifest violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty, integrity, and borders—and of the overall European security order based on nonaggression and inviolate borders. These breaches were only punished in the West by relatively minor sectoral and select individual or corporate sanctions, not commensurate with the magnitude of the violations or with the war’s geopolitical salience.

Second, the Minsk agreements ignored basic democratic standards. Since Berlin and Paris went along with Moscow’s fiction that the conflict was between Ukraine and its own “separatists,” the question was, who would legitimately represent the allegedly secessionist regions in Kyiv and internationally? Who would be Kyiv’s negotiation partner for the implementation of the agreements, since Russia did not accept the local and regional governments legally elected before the war?

Initially, there was Ukrainian readiness to swiftly fulfill the denigrating Minsk I commitments. Kyiv scheduled local elections in the occupied territories according to Ukrainian law, as stipulated in the agreement, for December 2014. One month before the scheduled elections, however, the two Moscow-controlled “people’s republics” in the Donbas conducted their own public votes, a clear violation of the agreement. These heavily manipulated polls excluded Ukraine’s political parties—even the pro-Russian ones—and provided the leaders of Russia’s puppet statelets in Ukraine with some fake legitimacy. Moscow would, from then on, refer to these and other staged votes in order to portray its puppet regimes in the Donbas as representing the will of the population.

This early, fundamental violation of Minsk I by Moscow spoiled all following negotiations—and should have made clear to all that the Kremlin had no intention of abiding by any negotiated settlement, was tightening its control over its puppet statelets, and intended ideally to use them as a means to influence politics in Kyiv. Even before Minsk II, the election fiasco precluded any genuine political process that could be agreed with Kyiv. The consolidation of the so-called people’s republics and their heavy support by Russia—another violation of the agreement—undermined Ukrainian sovereignty further. Russia was creating one stumbling block after another to any feasible reintegration of the territories into Ukraine.

To the extent that Western negotiators even considered Russia a party to the conflict, they assumed that the Kremlin would accept and implement the agreements in good faith.

However, the fake elections and subsequent manipulated votes never triggered an adequate reaction from the West. Instead of sanctioning these and other violations of the agreements, the sectoral sanctions adopted earlier were merely left in place, with just a few minor—and largely symbolic—sanctions added.

Third, the Minsk agreements created a new baseline for Russian behavior that the West seemed willing to accept. Kyiv signed the Minsk deals in view of the prospect of even deeper Russian military incursions into Ukrainian territory. It did so despite the fact that the 2014 and 2015 agreements contained provisions obviously designed to subvert Ukraine’s sovereignty, integrity, and political process. This was bad enough by itself.

What was worse was that Moscow would, from then on, be allowed to use the Minsk provisions to exert pressure on Kyiv. Rather than opposing these and similar Russian tactics, Western representatives repeatedly tried to talk Kyiv into one-sided concessions that undermined Ukrainian sovereignty. They suggested that Ukraine provide the Russian-controlled areas with a constitutionally fixed special status and conduct local elections before Russia’s irregular proxy troops had been either withdrawn or disarmed. Western politicians and diplomats also failed to sufficiently oppose Russia’s obstruction of permanent observation of the Ukrainian-Russian state border by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission.

As a result, the various territorial, political, and legal gains made by Russia in the first high-intensity phase of its aggression against Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 became the new baseline, not only for the Kremlin. They were largely accepted by Western politicians and diplomats as new facts on the ground. In international negotiations and debates, they became an accepted starting point for a rapprochement between Kyiv and Moscow. Rather than being constantly reminded that these conditions were unacceptable in principle, the Russian aggressor was in fact often assisted in its goals by German, French, and other mediators. Moscow was thus continuously allowed to harvest the fruits of its military aggression in various consultations and confrontations with its Ukrainian victim.

Between 2014 and 2022, the Kremlin sought to redefine and transform the conflict from a cross-border territorial aggression into a domestic Ukrainian dispute. It wanted to use the two pseudo-republics in Ukraine’s Donbas as instruments to undermine the domestic stability, international relations, and foreign policy of Ukraine—an approach the Kremlin had, by 2014, already been implementing for more than two decades in Georgia and Moldova.

Moscow’s price for partially giving up the eastern Ukrainian fruits of its hybrid aggression was to get a foot back into the entire Ukrainian polity. When the Kremlin, at some point in late 2020 or early 2021, concluded this was unobtainable, it began preparing a Plan B to subjugate Ukraine. After it had amassed sufficient troops on the Ukrainian border, it launched a traditional, large-scale military invasion.


Putin’s dictated conditions that allowed him to leverage and continue his 2014 aggression should never have been accepted by the West. As we now know, the Minsk agreements did not de-escalate the Russian-Ukrainian conflict but fanned it and could not prevent an even bigger war.

Insisting on respect for deeply flawed deals such as the Minsk agreements is not just normatively and morally questionable but also strategically unwise, as the catastrophic fallout of the agreements has demonstrated. Even if Western leaders and negotiators believed their own lofty phrases, such as “peaceful settlement,” “confidence-building,” and “promoting dialogue,” they objectively enabled the construction of a smokescreen, behind which the victim of aggression was largely left alone vis-à-vis an aggressor. Moscow only felt encouraged in its assertiveness and saw Western attempts at rapprochement as signs of weakness.

For the Western governments mediating in the conflict, the Minsk agreements served as an excuse for inaction and avoidance of support for Ukraine. Documents such as these merely postpone, conserve, or sharpen conflicts and do not contribute to their solution.

The two agreements and subsequent negotiations led Russia to conclude that it could harvest the fruits of its aggression. It sent the wrong signals to all parties involved. Between 2014 and 2022, the Minsk agreements created the impression in the Kremlin that establishing new facts on the ground could further move everybody’s baseline for negotiations in the direction desired by Moscow. We see the results in Ukraine today. Hopefully, lessons will be learned from the fact that the Western approach helped pave the path to war.

Hugo von Essen is an analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs’ Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies. Twitter: @HugovonEssen

Andreas Umland is an analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs’ Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies. Twitter: @UmlandAndreas

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