The February 11−12 Minsk talks will certainly be added to the manuals of diplomacy. It’s too risky to judge so controversial meeting only few days after the event, not in the least because we don’t know whether the Minsk agreements will be implemented or sidestepped without being given a chance.
And yet, the talks invite comment and speculation.
1. So, question number one is what made Angela Merkel (who obviously played first fiddle in this initiative) and Francois Hollande forget domestic and foreign problems, including Greece and its new leaders, and bring certain proposals to Moscow. Incidentally, we still know precious little about what these proposals entailed.
They could have been devised in Berlin after the Germans read Putin’s peace proposals that had been sent to Poroshenko and rejected by him after three days of silence. In all evidence, Berlin, Paris and Brussels also received the letter. The Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Gen. Philip Breedlove, even described the proposals as totally unacceptable.
Merkel possibly had the intelligence data on the southeastern front and feared that the Ukrainian army would be defeated by the self-defense forces.
Prospectively they could be joined by separatists from new areas in southeastern Ukraine and this would inevitably lead to the country’s disintegration.
Finally, the decisive role might have been played by the US establishment pressuring Barack Obama to authorize deliveries of lethal weapons to the Kiev regime. It was feared that the US President, obsessed by his personal rivalry with Vladimir Putin, would be unable to withstand pressure and would eventually approve the shipments. But apparently unlike hysterical US senators, Merkel knows what this will lead to.
I am inclined to think that the above reasons are valid, but the latter apparently prevailed. Merkel could not help but understand that Moscow would interpret legal supplies of lethal weapons to Kiev as direct US and NATO involvement in a military confrontation with Russia, which is absolutely unacceptable for the Europeans (and perceived by Merkel’s and Hollande’s electorate as a “nightmare”).
2. Merkel’s initiative is mostly aimed at achieving a ceasefire. First, this will sustain Obama’s reluctance to open a Pandora’s Box by authorizing arms supplies to Kiev. Second, this will stop the self-defense forces’ offensive and make it possible to avoid the rout of a several-thousand strong Ukrainian force in Debaltsevo, if not that of the entire Ukrainian army. Should the debacle occur, Poroshenko is unlikely to remain President for long, and Ukraine will be plunged into anarchy with unpredictable consequences for a country with 15 nuclear power plant units.
It is likely that Merkel has achieved her aim and that the military operations will stop. This does not mean, however, that the ceasefire is absolute and that there will be no exchange of artillery fire. But we need another couple of weeks to know for certain…
Another aim – disengagement of heavy weapons – is subordinate to the former. If the new truce takes hold and is not breached immediately, this goal will be achieved as well, if not without problems. An all-for-all prisoner exchange is likewise possible, because this is in the interests of Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. Of course, there will be problems with this too because the sides interpret the exchange formula differently.
As for the other points in the Agreement, the possibility of fulfillment ranges from “quite likely” to “totally unlikely.” For example, the restoration of the social insurance system (or at least some of its components, to begin with) is quite likely to happen. The holding of municipal elections under a law coordinated by Kiev and Donbass is possible, but less likely because of various difficult problems. It seems improbable that the current Verkhovna Rada will amend the Constitution before the end of 2015 in a way that would take into account the interests of all regions and the special rights of areas controlled by the DPR and the LPR (in fact, this would make them autonomous), given that this needs to be confirmed by a 300-representative vote. The same goes for the clause on handing over the border to the Ukrainian border guard, as this was made contingent on the introduction of amendments to the Constitution.
In the final analysis, Minsk-2 is offering the first step towards peace. I have reasons to doubt that it will necessarily be followed by any subsequent steps. There are too many people on both sides who would like to disrupt the peace process. The Merkel-Hollande-Putin initiative could do the trick provided Europe (at least Europe!) and better yet the US take a more balanced position with regard to the Ukrainian crisis. But this is not what we are seeing for now. Even though Minsk-2 received positive comments from the leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, they have already placed the blame for any possible disruption of the agreements solely on Moscow. This will in no way motivate Kiev to abide strictly by its commitments and, on the contrary will encourage it to breach them.