The new plan for peace in Ukraine’s east, disclosed by Ambassador Martin Sajdik (see EDM, January 30, 2019) and the reactions to it from Kyiv, Moscow, Donetsk and Luhansk (see below), illustrate three basic facts about the Russian-imposed Minsk “agreements” and their non-implementation from 2014/2015 to date.
First, as is generally recognized, “the Minsk agreements do not work”; more to the point, they do not work the way Moscow designed them against Ukraine, because Ukraine has immunized itself militarily, legally and politically from those “agreements’ ” destructive potential.
Second, the Minsk dispensation is not one “without alternatives”; hence Sajdik’s plan itself (for all its flaws) seeks to move the negotiations from the level of the Minsk “agreements”—a bilateral Russia-Ukraine affair—to a new level, that of a multilateral international settlement. Sajdik’s plan, in turn, repackages Washington and Kyiv’s initiative (2017–2018) for a United Nations–led peacekeeping mission in Ukraine’s east, designed to circumvent the destructive political clauses of the Minsk “agreements”: an alternative to them, while still paying the inevitable diplomatic lip service to them.
And third (as a corollary), Russia can fiercely defend the system of Minsk “agreements” and forums because this system helps to preserve Russia’s gains in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Moscow, Donetsk and Luhansk have instantly perceived Sajdik’s plan as threatening their own conception of the Minsk “agreements” as inviolable, immutable and “obligatory” on Ukraine. In particular, Sajdik’s plan jeopardizes the status of the Minsk dispensation as “without alternative,” since Sajdik’s plan itself outlines a possible alternative—albeit suboptimal, compared with the 2017 US-Ukrainian initiative for a UN-led peacekeeping operation. Although parts of Sajdik’s plan contravene Ukraine’s interests while favoring Russia’s (see EDM, January 30, 2019), Moscow and Donetsk-Luhansk have attacked Sajdik’s plan vituperatively, and his person scurrilously.
The Kremlin’s authorized voice, Aleksei Chesnakov, responded: “The Minsk agreements must be fully carried out. Any talks about ‘adding to’ and ‘further development of’ Minsk, are manipulative attempts at enabling Ukraine to avoid its obligations”. Initially assuming that Sajdik was acting on his own initiative, tolerated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Chesnakov warned the latter: “The OSCE’s own representative is casting this organization’s effectiveness into doubt. The OSCE’s official, responsible for the fulfillment of the Minsk agreements, is attempting to renege on them.” Sajdik’s was an “empty document,” “unworthy of serious consideration,” “incomprehensible to anybody…even to him.” “Obviously fatigued at the end of his career, he tries to propose at least something, so as not to look so helpless” (TASS, January 28, 2019).
Chesnakov is generally deemed the public voice of Vladislav Surkov, Kremlin overseer of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR, LPR). Shortly after his initial reaction, Chesnakov reconsidered and exculpated the OSCE: “It has now become obvious that the United States is behind Sajdik’s plan. This is not Sajdik’s plan, not even the OSCE’s plan. This is [Kurt] Volker’s plan. Sajdik was simply ordered to air it. Volker unleashed Sajdik” (TASS, January 31, 2019).
The US State Department’s special representative Volker was the counterpart to Chesnakov’s own chief, Surkov, in the negotiations on a possible UN-led peace mission in Ukraine’s east (2017–early 2018), which Surkov has broken off. The Kremlin suspects, not entirely without reason, that Sajdik’s plan seeks to float a B-grade version of that 2017 concept.
Moscow’s chief representative in the Minsk Contact Group, Boris Gryzlov, also attacked the OSCE and personally Sajdik, his regular counterpart in the Minsk forum: “The OSCE’s Special Representative [Sajdik] is thereby admitting to his own incompetence… The road to peace in Donbas leads through the exact fulfillment of the Minsk agreements.” Within the Contact Group, Gryzlov said, “Russia continually works to impress upon the parties that a political settlement under the Minsk agreement has no alternative” (TASS, January 29, 2019).
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has preserved the diplomatic decorum (at least pending foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova’s weekly spectacle). The ministry’s pan-European cooperation department director, Andrei Kelin, pointed out that “Sajdik’s personal plan is not supported by the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. Only with their agreement would it be possible to move forward” (TASS, January 29, 2019). This is, in Russia’s view, an iron-clad component of the Minsk “agreements” and the Contact Group’s negotiations: decisions require a negotiated consensus between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk (i.e., their veto power).
The DPR’s and LPR’s “foreign affairs ministers,” Natalia Nikonorova and Vladislav Deynego, respectively, followed the Surkov-Chesnakov cue in attacking Sajdik and the OSCE. The Sajdik plan is “irresponsible, in view of his coordinator’s role”; it “casts the OSCE’s effectiveness into doubt” and aims to “sabotage the Minsk process. Any disruption of the implementation of the Minsk documents is unacceptable. They codify the only peaceful settlement plan, without alternative.” The OSCE and Sajdik must react to Ukraine’s evasion of its obligations under the Minsk agreements” (TASS, Donetskoye Agentstvo Novostei, Lugansk Infotsentr, January 28, 2019).
Moscow’s and its proxies’ remarks demonstrate, in their content and their tenor, a fierce resolve to preserve the status of the Minsk dispensation as the sole basis for negotiations, at least in theory. From a different perspective and different motives, the German and French governments also insist on the sacrosanct nature of the Minsk “agreements.” This stance both explains and guarantees deadlock in the forums that those “agreements” begat, namely the Normandy Forum (Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine) and the Minsk Contact Group (Russia, Ukraine, OSCE, “DPR” and “LPR”). Secondly, Moscow and even Donetsk-Luhansk apparently feel free to show their disrespect for the OSCE—which is hardly surprising in view of this organization’s displays of weakness vis-à-vis Russia in the “frozen conflicts” during the last 25 years.
All of this vindicates Ukraine’s serial decisions from 2015 to date to protect itself against the implementation of the political clauses of the Minsk documents. It vindicates, as well, the Donald Trump administration’s policy (unlike that of the preceding administration) to work in tandem with Ukraine around, not within, the traps set by the Minsk system.