The latest cease fire promulgated in Minsk on February 12 provides both opportunities for peace and leaves lingering doubts about Russia’s intentions in Ukraine. What Ukrainians need most is a durable peace plan that ensures the country’s territorial integrity and allows the nation to move forward, develop the economy and political system, and heal from a year of war and foreign aggression.
With Ukraine’s economy in near free fall, a pro-Russian offensive fueled by Russian weapons and soldiers, and the worsening humanitarian situation in the east, Ukrainians are suffering badly at the hands of an aggressive and vindictive neighbor. Although the entire country is suffering dearly from economic decline, this desperation is particularly pronounced in the war torn Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. As with nearly all wars, civilians are the first victims of conflict. In Volnavokha, Donetsk, Mariupol, Kramatorsk, and numerous other cities and towns, peaceful citizens have died under the hail of mortar and rocket fire. It is for this reason that peace is desirable and necessary. What is not clear is whether the second Minsk cease fire agreement can both ensure Ukraine’s territorial integrity and restore peace and stability.
On paper, it would appear that Minsk 2.0 has the potential to serve as a more durable road map for peace than the first Minsk Agreement in September. Among the more hopeful points of the new agreement is the creation of a 50 kilometer de-militarized zone, the withdrawal of heaviest artillery as far as 140 kilometers from the frontline, the retreat of foreign soldiers (read: Russian military), and the Ukrainian government’s eventual control of Russia-Ukraine border. In addition, the agreement secured the release of Ukrainian pilot and Member of Parliament Nadiya Savchenko, who has been illegally held in a Russian prison related to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
Unfortunately, the new Minsk agreement carries the same fatal flaws as the first Minsk cease fire. The agreement relies on enforcement and monitoring from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose 400 unarmed personnel are hardly sufficient to ensure peace. Furthermore, Kyiv is expected to soldier the costs of rebuilding the war torn Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, which has suffered heavy losses in its industrial potential, skilled workforce, and socioeconomic system as a result of Russia’s invasion. Even more worrisome is that Ukraine’s control of its border with Russia will be stalled until at least the end of 2015, after the completion of local “elections” in occupied territory. In other words, weapons, fighters, and contraband will continue to flow unimpeded into Ukraine for at least the next ten months. The agreement legitimizes Russia’s territorial gains against Ukraine over the past month, allowing Russia’s proxy forces control of territory formerly under the control of Kyiv.
The success of any cease fire agreement will ultimately require President Putin’s consent. Given that Russia’s proxies in Ukraine tore up the last cease fire agreement, is there any doubt that they are ready to do the same in the future? Even as President Putin was signing the new agreement in Minsk, credible reports surfaced that at least 50 Russian tanks had entered Ukraine. President Putin signed the new Minsk Agreement in one hand, while ordering or at least allowing a new assault on Ukraine with the other. Hardly an auspicious beginning. And with the cease fire expected to go into force on Saturday, Russia’s deadly assault on the city of Debaltseve continues unabated. Russia is using Minsk to seize Debaltseve before Sunday. There’s little that prevents Putin from again escalating the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, grabbing new territory, and suing the international community to once again legitimize Russia’s land grabs.
The international community must not let cautious optimism get in the way of realism. Despite the reprieve that the newest cease fire gives to civilians in the conflict zone, there’s little evidence that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is reaching its end. Sanctions against the Russian Federation must stay in place until the Ukrainian government has secured its borders with Russia, the Russian military is removed from the country, and there is lasting stability in Donbas. France must not deliver the Mistral warships to Russia, which would not only reward Russia for misbehavior but could very well end up in Sevastopol’s harbor as floating monuments to Western vacillation. Minus these prerequisites, Putin’s aggressions against Ukraine will only continue. Although unmentioned in the Minsk Agreements, the world must likewise not forget the cynical annexation and occupation of Crimea. International pressure must continue to push for Ukraine’s entire territorial integrity, including Crimea, and acknowledge Russia’s responsibility for the physical and humanitarian destruction of the Donbas.
Ukraine Crisis Media Center Editorial Board