The capture of Debaltseve in Ukraine on Wednesday (Interfax, February 18) by Russian and proxy troops, following prolonged bombardment by their heavy missile systems, is not simply a prima facie breach of the February 12, 2015, “Minsk Two” armistice, which mandated a ceasefire as of midnight, February 15. This assault also breaches the September 2014 “Minsk One” agreements, which had left the Debaltseve area to the Ukrainian side of the demarcation line. Now, Russia’s proxies have seized the biggest railroad and highway junction in all Ukraine. They can henceforth impose their terms on the transportation of goods between this coal-mining and industrial basin and the rest of Ukraine.
The Minsk Two armistice (Kremlin.ru, Osce.org, February 12) purports to aim at implementing Minsk One, which Russia had torn apart since then. The capture of Debaltseve, however, confirms the conclusion that Moscow framed (with Berlin’s acceptance) Minsk Two merely to ratify the breaches of Minsk One as faits accomplis. Ukraine becomes even more vulnerable, and the Russian side gains heavier military and political leverage, under the terms of Minsk Two. This becomes clearly apparent from the analysis of Articles 1 through 4, as well as Article 12, from the agreement signed on February 12 in Minsk (see Part One in EDM, February 13).
Article 5 in the Minsk Two agreement obligates Ukraine to promulgate a law guaranteeing amnesty and/or immunity from prosecution “in connection with the events that took place in certain areas of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.” This is a protective blanket for the armed secessionist authorities and their rogue troops. Unexpectedly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was questioned by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on this point during the debate on the Minsk Two agreement at the European Union’s post-Minsk summit. The government and public of the Netherlands feel strongly about prosecuting those responsible for shooting down the MH-17 Boeing plane on July 17, 2014 (with a Russian missile system, from Russian and/or proxy-controlled territory), killing 298, including 193 Netherlands citizens.
The Dutch government insists that the amnesty or pardon must not cover the perpetrators of that crime. The Ukrainian government shares this position; and the non-promulgated Ukrainian law (see above) specifically excludes the MH-17’s downing from the amnesty or pardon of crimes. But Article 5 of the new Minsk agreement does not provide for any exceptions. Merkel responded in Brussels that this article might be interpretable; and her spokesman Steffen Seibert followed up in Berlin, hoping that exceptions may be possible in individual cases such as MH-17 (EurActiv, February 13; Bundeskanzlerin.de, February 13). However, Russia is in a commanding position to impose its own interpretations of the terms of Minsk Two, as it had done on Minsk One, and proved again in Debaltseve today, even before the ink had dried on the latest agreement.
Article 6 covers exchanges of prisoners and hostages. Article 7 mandates delivery and distribution of humanitarian aid, clearly implying Russian convoys across the Russian-controlled border into Ukraine’s secessionist territories. This has been going on until now de facto. Now, Ukraine is officially required to accept these violations of its sovereignty. To regularize this, some “international mechanism” of an unspecified kind shall be arranged in an unspecified timeframe. In any such mechanism, Russia would undoubtedly press to include the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR, LPR), so as to advance their international acceptance de facto.
Under Article 8, the Ukrainian government shall re-start the payment of pensions and other social benefits to the population of the “conflict-affected areas” (i.e., “DPR-LPR”), as a first step toward restoring socio-economic ties with those areas. The “modalities” and “mechanisms” are yet to be established “within Ukraine’s legal framework.” Any transfers from Ukraine’s budget, however, might ironically work out as indirect transfers from the Western assistance package to Ukraine.
Moscow’s recipe for Ukraine differs on this point from the Moldova-Transnistria paradigm, which the conflict in Ukraine’s east fits in many other ways. Moldova is not required to finance Transnistria’s social expenditures; Russia has long taken charge of that. The “DPR-LPR” is ten times more populous than Transnistria, however. Ukraine is now supposed to subsidize “DPR-LPR’s” social budget.
On this issue, Moscow suddenly metamorphoses into a supporter of Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” and “legal field.” Russian officials from President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov on down are even turning this issue into a test of Ukraine’s adherence to its own territorial integrity. If Ukraine is serious about this, they routinely argue, Ukraine should then re-start social payments to residents of that that territory—they are Ukraine’s citizens after all. Russia has not initiated, as yet, the distribution of Russian passports in that territory seized from Ukraine.