Russia’s War in Ukraine Sinks the Minsk Negotiations (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 22

Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko in Minsk. (Source: Reuters)

Russia’s and its proxies’ military advantage (see EDM, January 22, February 3) is increasingly shaping the Minsk process of negotiations to Ukraine’s detriment. That process maintains the fiction that Russia is not a party to the conflict in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s official position in Kyiv and internationally is to uphold the September 2014 armistice to the letter. President Petro Poroshenko has reaffirmed this position in declining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s January 15 proposal to revise the armistice agreement de facto (Dzerkalo Tyzhnia [Zerkalo Nedeli], January 28). In the Minsk consultation process, however, Ukraine is being drawn into negotiating about terms and conditions of implementation of the armistice by Russia and its proxies.

The Contact Group, consisting of representatives of Ukraine (former president Leonid Kuchma), Russia (the ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE—the chairmanship’s special representative Heidi Tagliavini), met with the representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR, LPR) on January 31 in Minsk. This long-awaited meeting collapsed because the DPR-LPR representatives were not content with Ukraine’s concessions, and pressed to extract more.

This meeting had been planned to refloat the “Minsk consultations” process which had broken down on December 24, 2014 (, December 24, 26, 2014). The stated goal of that meeting and, again, of the January 31 meeting (Interfax, February 1) was to negotiate an “armistice implementation plan,” or road map, toward compliance with the September 2014 armistice, amid wholesale breaches by the Russian/DPR-LPR side.

The very idea of negotiating about fulfillment of the armistice, however, implies to some extent re-negotiating the armistice itself. That risk is all the clearer since Moscow is conditioning its implementation of the armistice on Ukrainian concessions above and beyond the armistice terms. Moreover, Russia has unilaterally announced a certain sequence of implementing the core armistice terms over a long period of time, meaning in practice never, unless Ukraine renounces its sovereignty in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces (see EDM, December 16, 2014; January 27, 2015).

Compelled, apparently, to negotiate in Minsk about armistice implementation conditions, Kyiv has also been maneuvered into asking the “DPR-LPR presidents,” Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky (rather than their representatives) to attend the Minsk negotiations personally and sign the resulting armistice implementation document. Kuchma (presumably on non-public instructions from Kyiv) argues that, since Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky had signed the September armistice agreements, they possess the necessary authority to sign follow-up agreements in Minsk and carry them out (Interfax, January 31, February 1; Donetskoye Agentstvo Novostey [DNA], January 31, February 1).

That argument is unfounded, given that Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky (under Russia’s protection) torpedoed the armistice, from September to date. Moreover, making them responsible for delivering on any new agreement would misleadingly cast Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky as independent actors, exonerating Russia of its responsibility for compliance with the armistice. Finally, inviting Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky to sign agreements in their current capacity as “presidents” (which they were not when signing the September 2014 armistice) would imply their recognition in a co-equal status with Kyiv as negotiating parties.

That plays into the hands of Moscow, Donetsk and Luhansk, all of whom demand “direct dialogue” and negotiations on an equal footing between the “DPR-LPR” and Kyiv. Accordingly, the Russian and OSCE representatives in the Contact Group had sent invitations to Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky with alacrity to attend the meeting in Minsk. Sensing Kyiv’s vulnerability, the “DPR-LPR presidents” adopted the attitude that their participation would amount to a favor. They demanded more concessions in return for these “presidents’ ” attendance and even for continuing negotiations as such, at any level.

Their new demands are clearly designed to advance Russia’s increasingly ambitious objectives in Ukraine. According to Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky in Donetsk and Luhansk, and their representatives Denis Pushilin and Vladislav Deynego in Minsk, during and after the meeting (Interfax, RIA Novosti, Donetskoye Agentstvo Novostey, January 31–February 3), their new demands include:

– De-recognition of the September 19, 2014, ceasefire line. The “DPR-LPR” envoys declared in Minsk on January 31 that their “presidents” had not signed the appendix to the September 19 armistice agreement, but only the main document. The appendix, however, defined the ceasefire (demarcation) line in minute technical details. Ukraine takes the position that the appendix constitutes an integral part of the agreement (Ukrinform, February 2), but the “DPR-LPR” are now saying that they do not recognize the validity of the appendix. They had until recently paid lip service to the observance of the armistice agreement, but they no longer do so now.

– Ukraine to accept a separation-of-forces (demarcation) line that existed de facto as of January 31, instead of the line stipulated in the September 19, 2014, Minsk armistice agreement. The currently existing line, if accepted, would confirm additional territorial gains for the “DPR-LPR.” Moscow has hollowed out the armistice agreements unilaterally, but President Putin recently sought President Poroshenko’s consent to revising the armistice, so as to devalue the armistice agreements even further (see EDM, January 27, 29).

– Ukraine to appoint a negotiator (whether Kuchma or another) with official status and corresponding credentials from the president or government. The “DPR-LPR” regard Kuchma’s status as that of a “private player.” Elevating Kyiv’s representative to official status would mark a step toward Ukraine’s recognition of the opposite side in the negotiations. To avoid such a step, the Ukrainian government has tasked Kuchma to negotiate in a personal capacity, without official status, from the Contact Group’s inception (June 2014) to date.

– Ukraine to declare a unilateral ceasefire, phrased as “an end to shelling of peaceful Donbas cities by Ukrainian security forces,” according to the joint “DPR-LPR” statement, without stipulating reciprocal obligations on their part. Otherwise, their forces (“opolchenie”) “will have to push Ukrainian troops away from towns. At the moment, we are prepared to consider the currently existing demarcation line” (TASS, February 1; RIA Novosti, February 3)—a threat to continue offensive operations beyond even the existing line.

Unless Ukraine begins giving in to those conditions, the “DPR-LPR” leadership warns it will no longer participate in the Minsk process.

*To read Part Two, please click here.