The latest session of the Minsk Contact Group (see EDM, February 18) lifted a curtain’s corner on several disputed issues that had not been publicly aired thus far. The Ukrainian delegation had raised these issues in a position paper within the Minsk Group in November 2020 (see below) but refrained from unveiling them outside this forum until now. The issues stem, largely, from the Minsk One “agreements” (September 5, 2014, Protocol and September 19, 2014, Memorandum) and Russia’s multiple violations thereof, which were carried over into the Minsk Two “agreement” (Package of Measures, February 12, 2015) and were promptly compounded by Russia’s violations of Minsk Two (conquest of Debaltseve, February 14, 2015).
The just-held Minsk Group’s session coincided with the sixth anniversary of the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) resolution (February 17, 2015) that had unanimously blessed the Minsk Two “agreement,” thereby also accepting Russia’s massive violations of both the Minsk One and Minsk Two documents. Farcically, Minsk Two is titled “Package of Measures to Implement the Minsk Agreements [Minsk One],” notwithstanding the fact that Minsk Two ratified Russia’s violations of Minsk One, rather than implementing it. Moscow takes the position that the UNSC’s resolution conferred on the Minsk Two “agreement” the standing of an international law. On these grounds, the Russian delegation asked the Minsk Contact Group to profess allegiance to the Minsk Two “agreement” in connection with the UNSC resolution’s sixth anniversary (TASS, February 17, 2021).
This prompted the Ukrainian delegation to respond that the Minsk One and Minsk Two “agreements” form together an indissoluble whole. Kyiv had recently asserted this view in its November 2020 position paper, titled “Plan of Reciprocal Steps,” to implement the Minsk “agreements,” which remains unpublicized. Bringing Minsk One back to the Contact Group’s agenda clearly implies amending Minsk Two so as to reverse Russia’s violations of Minsk One.
The political clauses of both Minsk “agreements” (negotiations with Donetsk-Luhansk toward their special status and “elections” there) are unacceptable to Ukraine. Hence, Kyiv is refocusing the discussion on certain non-political clauses of Minsk One, demanding the reversal of Russia’s breaches, and thus implicitly the revision of Minsk Two, which incorporates those breaches. Three issues are the most salient: territory, border and international presence.
The Minsk One document clearly delineated the Russian-controlled territory of “certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions” (Russian acronym: ORDLO), where “elections” would be staged and to which a special status would apply. From September 2014 to February 2015, however, Russian and proxy forces pushed that demarcation line deeper into Ukraine, culminating with the seizure of the Debaltseve area. Six years later, Kyiv’s position paper in the Minsk Contact Group (see above) seeks a return to the September 2014 demarcation lines. It argues that the territory potentially eligible for a special status must be clearly defined on the map before any further discussion. Moreover, it is up to Ukraine’s parliament to delineate that territory, namely along the September 2014 demarcation lines, according to Deputy Prime Minister and Reintegration Minister Oleksiy Reznikov commenting on the Minsk Contact Group’s session (Ukrinform, February 18).
Minsk One also instituted a security zone on either side of the Russia-Ukraine border in the conflict theater. That border, 410 kilometers in length, is internationally recognized as a section of the Ukraine-Russia border, but Russia treats it de facto as an ORDLO-Russia border. Russia was not supposed to use that security zone for military purposes such as staging military operations or funneling war materiel. Yet the Russian military have done just that from day one to the present. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was supposed to have a monitoring presence in that putative security zone on a regular basis, but Russia has thwarted this also.
The OSCE’s moderator of the Minsk Contact Group, Ambassador Heidi Grau of Switzerland, has publicly endorsed Ukraine’s position regarding the unity of the Minsk One (memorandum and protocol) and Minsk Two (complex of measures) documents. Following the Contact Group’s session, Grau declared that all three Minsk documents “constitute a unified political basis for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Ukraine’s east” (Ukrinform, February 18). This, however, is only a theoretical proposition, given the discrepancies between Minsk One and Minsk Two. A unified basis would require harmonizing its components, presumably through negotiation involving Kyiv and Moscow as parties to the Minsk “agreements,” and bypassing Donetsk-Luhansk as they were not parties.
Donetsk and Luhansk’s envoys proposed that the Minsk Contact Group convene a large-scale international conference, to be hosted in the Belarusian capital, in order to form a generally agreed interpretation of the Minsk documents. Promptly endorsed by Moscow (the likely author), the conference proposal would bring together government officials and independent experts from the Contact Group’s participating sides, the Normandy forum’s countries (Russia, Ukraine, France, Germany), the UN Security Council’s member countries, and relevant international and European organizations. The proposal was clearly designed to seek international acceptance for Donetsk and Luhansk, beyond their capacity as Minsk Group participants. Ukraine unsurprisingly turned it down (TASS, February 17, 18; Donetskoye Agentstvo Novostey, Lugansk Infotsentr, February 17–20).
Outside the Minsk Contact Group, Russia proposed a draft resolution to the OSCE’s Permanent Council to endorse the Minsk Two “agreement” on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of its blessing by the UNSC (see above). The United States and the European Union countered this in the Permanent Council on the grounds that Minsk Two cannot be considered separately from Minsk One; and that Russia is responsible for respecting all three documents (Ukrinform, February 19).
Kyiv’s move in the Contact Group signifies an oblique challenge to Minsk Two’s legitimacy, while stopping carefully short of repudiating the Minsk “agreements” as such. This tactic, if pursued consistently, would enable Ukraine to deflect Russian pressures to implement the unacceptable political terms of all Minsk “agreements.” At a minimum, it would improve Kyiv’s bargaining position regarding the political terms. And it would gain time for Ukraine to consolidate itself internally before undertaking to reintegrate the ORDLO on Ukrainian-defined, not Russian-defined terms.