The Joseph Biden administration has recently learned the Russian MinskSpeak, chapter and verse. Following direct discussions with Moscow (see EDM, October 20, December 8, 9, 14), the White House and State Department have adopted key parts of Russia’s specific terminology regarding the Minsk “agreements.” And based on this terminology, they are asking Ukraine to fulfill the terms of what can only be characterized as a Russian diktat.
– Definition of the problem at hand: White House and State Department officials no longer speak unambiguously of a Russian war, or ongoing Russian aggression, against Ukraine. While those terms are still present in the administration’s language, different terms are increasingly creeping into the United States’ official statements: “crisis in eastern Ukraine,” “conflict in Donbas,” “differences over the eastern Ukraine and Donbas.” The term “aggression” has, in recent weeks, been used primarily when asking Russia not to invade Ukraine again, and less so in connection with the aggression perpetrated prior to the current war scare.
– “Agreements”: The Minsk documents are no “agreements.” They were written almost entirely by the Kremlin (main author: Vladislav Surkov) and imposed on Ukraine through military force. Ukraine yielded under the threat of even wider Russian land grabs. To adopt this term is to accept a Kremlin travesty.
– “Obligations”: Based on that pretense, the Biden administration’s diplomats are now asking Ukraine to fulfill its “obligations” or “commitments” under the purported “agreements.” The Minsk documents, however (be they “agreements” or diktat), do not constitute an international treaty, have not been ratified by any government or international organization, have no legal force whatsoever and are not binding on Ukraine. The Barack Obama administration had, in its time, attempted to hold Ukraine to “Minsk obligations” and even orchestrated the endorsement of the Minsk “agreements” by a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution (Russia could never have managed that by itself; only the US could, and did, ensure the necessary unanimity). Moscow argues ever since that the UNSC resolution gives the Minsk documents the force of international law, hence Ukraine’s “obligations.”
– “Sides to the Conflict”: White House and State Department officials no longer speak clearly and unambiguously about a conflict pitting Russia against Ukraine. Instead, a measure of ambiguity is creeping into their official statements, obscurely hinting that the two sides are Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk. For example, the Biden administration is issuing calls for “all sides to restore the ceasefire to the July 2020 levels,” echoing Moscow’s and Donetsk-Luhansk’s calls on Ukraine to do this. The Ukrainian army had been pressured at the contact line in 2020 to agree upon a ceasefire with the Donetsk-Luhansk forces. This served Russia’s purposes to change the conflict’s definition, from a state-on-state into an internal Ukrainian conflict, and to equalize Kyiv with Donetsk-Luhansk as negotiating parties (see EDM, August 6, 2020). Ukraine, however, withdrew from the July 2020 agreement in September of the same year. Now, Biden administration officials are seconding Russia (and Donetsk-Luhansk) asking Ukraine to return to that arrangement. Some other administration statements also speak of “the sides” without naming them, but seeming to imply that Donetsk-Lukansk is a side to the conflict, for example when calling for confidence-building measures between “the sides.”
– “Confidence-Building Measures”: Biden administration diplomats are now asking Kyiv to enter into confidence-building measures with the (unspecified) other party to the conflict. This panacea, from Russia’s classic playbook on the “frozen conflicts,” concerns the military situation at the contact line between Russia’s proxies and those of the attacked country (Georgia, Moldova, now Ukraine). Given the current situation on the ground in Donbas, any confidence-building measures could only be envisaged between Kyiv and the Donetsk-Luhansk authorities. In Ukraine as in the other cases, this is a recipe for freezing the territorial gains of Russia and its proxies in the field and eliciting acceptance of those proxies as a party to an eventual settlement. Meanwhile, confidence-building measures serve as a substitute for a political settlement, until such time (if ever) when Russia deems the situation ripe for a settlement on its own terms. Admittedly, Russia is never alone in promoting “confidence-building measures” to freeze its gains in place. Governments unwilling to stand up to Russia resort to calling for confidence-building measures with Russia and its proxies. Following Russia’s systematic actions to subdue or destroy Ukraine, calls from the Biden administration for Kyiv to enter into confidence-building measures are likely received gleefully in the Kremlin.
– “Special Status”: Under the Minsk “agreements,” the political settlement of this conflict should take the form of a “special status” for the Russian-controlled Donbas. Those “agreements” stipulate an almost full-fledged statehood, complete with armed forces, security services, and direct relations with Russia bypassing Kyiv: in practice, a state (and an armed state at that) nominally within the Ukrainian state, a Russian satellite in practice. At present, Biden administration officials are publicly asking Ukraine to enshrine the concept (not yet the specific powers) of a special status for Donetsk-Luhansk in Ukraine’s constitutional law. Under the Minsk “agreements,” the specific powers for the special-status territory are not simply to be granted by Kyiv but are to be negotiated between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk.
– “Unwavering Support for Ukraine’s Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity”: The Biden administration’s support is, in fact, wavering, as it reveals by asking Ukraine to accept the Russian-written Minsk “agreements.” Under those documents, Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and the recovery of its borders in Donbas are all conditional on Ukraine’s compliance with the political clauses of the Minsk “agreements.” Ukraine must first accept the staging of “elections” in the Russian-controlled territory (under a special electoral law other than Ukraine’s), negotiate the “special status” with Donetsk-Luhansk, and enact some other political measures before regaining a purely nominal sovereignty in Donbas and nominal access to the Donbas section of the Ukraine-Russia border. The Minsk “agreements,” therefore, are designed to override Ukraine’s title to sovereignty in the Donbas and sovereign control of that border. Those “agreements” purport to prevail over international law. Any US exhortations to Ukraine to fulfill the Minsk “agreements” imply acceptance of Russia’s view that international law does not apply in this case, unwittingly showing US support to Ukraine to be of the “wavering” kind.