Addressing Russia’s populace and, implicitly, Ukraine in his annual phone-in dialogue (see Part One in EDM, April 23), Russian President Vladimir Putin torpedoed the Minsk Two agreement beyond repair: “I say outright and unequivocally: there are no Russian forces in Ukraine” (Kremlin.ru, April 17).
Quite apart from the United States’ and North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) intelligence consistently proving Russia’s military deployments in Ukraine’s east (one new operative term is “combined Russian-separatist forces”), Putin’s brazen denial is tantamount to saying “no deal” under Minsk Two.
Indeed, it was Moscow who designed the February 12 agreement and the ensuing “Minsk process” basically as a tradeoff: Ukraine would legitimize the Donetsk-Luhansk secession in return for a promised withdrawal of “foreign forces” from that area. Putin now repudiates Russia’s part of that bargain by denying the facts of Russia’s military presence there. Some of the Russian forces carry Donetsk-Luhansk flags by now. In unison with other Russian officials, Putin maintains with finality that there is nothing for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine.
Yet, Putin continues demanding of Ukraine to accept the de facto secession of Donetsk-Luhansk, which Russia has framed as Ukraine’s part of the Minsk Two deal: “It is possible to devise some (kakie-to) elements to restore some sort (kakoye-to) of common political framework with Ukraine. But ultimately, the right to pronounce the decisive word—who would live with whom, and on what conditions—must be accorded to the people who live in those territories. This will largely depend on the flexibility and wisdom of Ukraine’s leadership.”
With that, the armed Donetsk-Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR, LPR) would reserve a right of full secession; and Russia, the power militarily in control, would be given the decision on whether or when to enforce such a secession. The “common political framework” implies Donetsk-Luhansk being “in” Ukraine’s political institutions to the degree of wielding blocking powers, as well as receiving social subsidies; while separating from Ukraine at the same time in all other respects, as the Minsk Two agreement foreshadows.
During this interim period, Putin wants Ukraine to pay salaries, pensions and other social benefits to residents of the Russian-occupied territory. Having Kyiv finance the “people’s republics’ ” social budget is currently the main criterion by which Moscow acknowledges Ukraine’s “unity” (an emergent operative term, instead of “territorial integrity”).
Apparently, for the first time since the start of this war, Putin ventured to suggest a “little-homeland” Donbas identity: “I know that the residents of Donbas are great patriots of their small ‘motherland’ (rodina).” The subtext seems to acknowledge the defeat of Russia’s more ambitious Novorossiya (“New Russia—Tsarist-era term for lands comprising southeastern Ukraine) project at this stage. The open message to Donetsk-Luhansk, however, is “away from Ukraine” but “not yet in Russia.”
Asked whether he would consider bestowing Russia’s official recognition on the DPR-LPR, Putin replied in a follow-up interview that Russia could do so on its own timing: “I would rather not address this for now. We shall assess the matter according to how things develop in practical terms (v realnoy zhizni).” As to “whether there would be a full-scale war,” he answered, “I proceed from the assumption that this would be impossible” (Rossiya 1 TV, April 18). Again, it all seems to be a matter of practicality. The Kremlin implicitly reserves the option to resume limited-scale offensive operations of the kind that have already compelled Ukraine to sign Russian-framed armistice agreements. Moscow treats those agreements as binding on Ukraine only, not on Russia and DPR-LPR.
Beyond the specific terms and beyond even the obvious loopholes of the Minsk agreements, it is the ambiguities leaving room for interpretation that threaten Ukraine with more Russian warfare and potentially more Minsks. Putin had alluded to that possibility promptly after the signing of Minsk Two (see EDM, February 20); and “DPR president” Aleksandr Zakharchenko threatened Ukraine with more “Minsks” following Putin’s phone-in session (DNA, April 20).
Given Russia’s in-theater military superiority, the German-led appeasement of Russia in Europe, Washington’s exit from the negotiation format, and Moscow’s successful crippling of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) monitoring mission, Russia can enforce its interpretation of the military clauses of the Minsk Two agreement almost by default. German and French underwriting of Minsk Two in the accompanying “Normandy Group” declaration and subsequent Normandy meetings has merely resulted in sanctifying Russia’s unilateral interpretations and ensuing breaches. The post-armistice grab of Debaltseve by elite Russian military units, without consequences from the Berlin and Paris “guarantors,” is one example of this process.
The Minsk Two deal was, from the outset, an illusory trade-off. While Ukraine was supposed to legitimize the Donetsk-Luhansk secession, Russia’s quid-pro-quo promise to withdraw its forces from that territory was patently a false promise. The military clauses, as written, would allow Russian forces to stay on indefinitely, without technically violating the Minsk Two agreement (or any of the ancillary subsequent documents). That deception was meant to induce Kyiv to legitimize the existence (not yet officially the outright secession) of the Donetsk-Luhansk “people’s republics.” It was also meant to facilitate German-French endorsement of Minsk Two as an ostensible trade-off.
Putin has now terminated that supposed deal. His highly publicized remarks maintain irrevocably that Russia has no forces deployed in Ukraine, hence nothing to withdraw. And he reserves the right to either delay or precipitate the “DPR-LPR’s” full official secession, depending on circumstances, including (as he implies) military opportunities. Putin’s interpretation of Minsk Two is unchallengeable precisely because of its unilateral character in a situation of military superiority. It merely demonstrates the dangers to Ukraine inherent in the Minsk process. Rather than offering protection, Minsk Two opened a trap to Ukraine.
President Petro Poroshenko and the Verkhovna Rada, however, have found an exit from that trap with the legislation approved on March 17, which should (if consistently implemented) rule out any political legitimization of the DPR-LPR. Following Putin’s latest remarks, Ukraine has every justification to stop the creeping process of legitimizing the DPR-LPR; and German diplomacy no longer has any excuse to hope for OSCE-blessed “elections” to be held in the DPR-LPR.