Article by: Serhiy Sydorenko
Despite the fact that at the end of the negotiations in Minsk all the parties made statements (and the text of the signed document has already been released), there are quite a few details that remain behind the scenes.
First of all, the question remains unanswered — has Ukraine won in Minsk?
The situation, as always, is not straightforward.
However, the fact that the Russians and their satellites tried to disrupt the signing (of the document) is indicative: for Russia this document was not completely desirable.
In the end, after additional negotiations in private, the document was signed. It appears that the European leaders had to explain to Putin one more time that they would consider him personally responsible if the agreement failed.
Therefore, all parties today, including Ukraine, have stated publicly that they are pleased with the agreements. After all, they include a complete ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons (in 16 days), the exchange of hostages (in three weeks), the (eventual) restoration of Ukrainian control over the border with Russia. We will try to explain where the biggest problems of the “new Minsk document” are hidden.
September agreement still valid
First, it is important to note that the documents signed on February 12 does not change the September Minsk agreement. The old agreements are still valid.
The fact that the Ukrainian side has prevailed on this point is an undeniable victory. After all, numerous sources have maintained since January that the Russian side (including the Russian “DNR” and “LNR” satellites) has been insisting on replacing the September document with a new one.
And that would have completely undermined Kyiv’s international line of defense, since all existing decisions of the European bodies, the EU countries and the US, who demanded that Russia fulfill its Minsk obligations, would have been automatically voided.
Unfortunately, however, quite a few other key point do not represent a victory by Kyiv. Rather, we can consider them problems or even losing decisions for Kyiv. They include the confirmation of the potential loss of territories controlled by the central government, guarantees of immunity for the terrorists and even their official recognition as legitimate powers in the Donbas territories controlled by the militants.
Unfortunately, on several of these points, Kyiv did not receive the desired support from the European negotiators.
“Immediate ceasefire,” in three days
However, this victory was achieved through difficult concessions made by Kyiv. Surprises are found already in the first point of the document : “Measures for implementing the Minsk agreements.”
The parties (Ukraine, Russia, “DNR” and “LNR”) have agreed to the “immediate and complete ceasefire in specific regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine and its strict implementation starting at midnight (Kyiv time) on February 15, 2015.”
This is a strange combination of words — “immediately” and “starting February 15.”
Sources consulted by this publications claim that from the beginning of the project another date has been considered — the truce was to begin at midnight on February 14. However, Russia and its satellites insisted on pushing back that date, arguing that the negotiations that began on February 11 had also been moved by a day.
One could wonder why postpone the truce if it had been agreed to? However, the pro-Russian terrorists badly needed the additional 2 1/2 days.
The reason is simple — it is called Debaltseve.
Vladimir Putin, by the way, during the concluding press conference focused specifically on the issue of the Debaltseve cauldron, claiming that he knew the situation better than the Ukrainian government.
“There (the separatists) have surrounded a significant group of the Ukrainian army, from 6,000 to 8,000 people, and they are expecting this group to lay down its arms. The Ukrainian government believes there is no encirclement. However, I have always had doubts about this,” Putin stated, expressing confidence that Ukrainians will now be forced to break through the encirclement.
“We expect the attacks to intensify,” one of our sources said. “The Russians will do everything to encircle Debaltseve in 2 1/2 days.”
Within a few hours after the meeting in Minsk, a statement by the ATO press center confirmed these assumptions.
The separatists really need Debaltseve. To understand why it is enough to take a look at the transportation maps of the region.
This is the key transportation hub of the Donbas. All the electrical train lines connecting Donetsk and Luhansk go through Debaltseve. The main roadway corridor between these two centers — the M04 highway — also goes through Debaltseve.
Under current conditions, when Russia is systematically supplying troops to Donetsk and Luhansk, it necessarily needs to control the rapid traffic corridor between them.
In addition, Debaltseve is necessary for the militants to trade coal from the mines that are currently on territories they control. If the militants gain control over the railway junction, they will have additional leverage to dictate the terms of the coal supplied from mines they control, for example, by the DTEK company of Rinat Akhmetov.
And even if the separatists do not succeed in three days, they have a good chance of recapturing Debaltseve later. This is stated in paragraph 1 of the agreement.
According to this paragraph, Ukraine must withdraw heavy weapons to a distance of at least 50 km from the current contact line. And this means that in long “branch” controlled by Kyiv there will be no heavy artillery at all. Therefore, the territory leading to Debaltseve will become easy prey.
And the fact that the militant will be ready at any moment to violate the new Minsk agreements is obvious, perhaps to all. Furthermore, finding a pretext for accusing Kyiv of violating the agreement (and to violate it “in response”) will be quite simple for the Russian propaganda machine.
Freedom for terrorists
How often have we heard from President Poroshenko that pardons or amnesty will not apply to the terrorists who committed grave crimes ( murder, torture, kidnapping)? It is impossible to count how many times this was discussed.
The next such declaration will allow “DNR” to accuse Kyiv of violating the agreements. After all, paragraph 5 of the February 12 agreement does not provide for any exceptions under the amnesty. Under this agreement “the prosecution and punishment of persons connected to events in specific regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in Ukraine is prohibited.”
There are no additional conditions.
Many have pointed out that two dividing lines have been noted in the agreements. The first one is the so-called “line of September 19” — this is the one recorded in the first version of the agreements of the tripartite group. This is the line to be used for withdrawing the weapons of the militants.
The second line is the “actual line of contact” from which the Ukrainian army is to withdraw its heavy weapons.
However, and this is important to understand, the withdrawal rule applies only to heavy artillery. Nobody has agreed on the withdrawal of the infantry. Therefore, in reality the militants will retain control over territories they have seized.
“By agreement, the operational control over this zone remains with them at present,” admitted one of our sources who was informed about the details of the Minsk agreements. And the truce requirement prohibits Kyiv from returning the zone under its control.
Meanwhile, according to the signed agreement, these territories will not be attached to “DNR” and “LNR.” They are in the classic “gray zone” the status of which is currently undefined.
The fact is that paragraph 4 of the new agreement obligates Kyiv to adopt a law on the special status only of the territory defined by the line of September 19. What will be the status of the other territories seized by the militants but not formally included in the “special regime” is difficult to predict.
What about the border?
The issue of establishing control over the border remained one of the most difficult during last night’s negotiations. According to sources, the Russian side insisted that at least for some time certain parts of the border must remain under the control of the separatists. Ukraine, of course, insisted on full control of the international border by Kyiv.
After all, the uncontrolled border is the main reason for the continuous supply of Russian weapons, troops and mercenaries to the Donbas. Unfortunately, the final agreement is similar to the Russian proposition. The restoration of Kyiv’s full control over the Ukrainian-Russian border will be possible only by the end of 2015 (if the agreements reached are carried out during the entire year, which is doubtful in itself) and only under certain conditions.
For this Kyiv must ensure:
- The adoption of a law on the special status of the individual territories
- Local elections in the DNR and LNR territories in accordance with such law.
- Constitutional reforms, under which the special status of the “people’s republics” will be protected by the constitution. Moreover, the constitution not only needs to be adopted but it must also take effect by the end of the year.
In all honesty, this schedule is more than tight. And any failure to comply with it will become an additional reason for the separatists to declare that Ukraine is in violation of the agreement.
One of the conditions for regaining control of the border is the holding of local elections on the territories controlled by the militants.
And this is no small thing.
Unfortunately, in this matter the Russian positions was supported by our European partners. Ukrayinska Pravda has already noted that the key element of the proposal that Merkel and Hollande took to Kyiv and Moscow last week had to do with elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
“As a result, you will have government by those who can speak on behalf of the region…We will be able to conduct direct negotiations and possibly we will no longer need to have a tripartite contact group for our work,” Merkel explained.
Sources in the French diplomatic corps confirm this data. One source, a highly placed French official, in a private conversation recently tried to convince journalists that such a step was needed, frankly not understanding the anxiety that this generated among his listeners.
Therefore it is worthwhile to find out what the new Minsk agreement guarantees to the “political leaders” of the “republics” :
- After conducting local election in specific territories, Kyiv is obligated to recognize the legitimacy of Zakharchenko/ Plotnycky and others. Additionally, the honesty of these elections and the correctness of the results will be beyond the control of the central government. The fact that many of them are de facto and de jure terrorists is something Ukraine is forced to simply forget.Of course the Minsk agreement states that the elections must be honest and must be conducted according to OSCE standards. But let us face the truth. Is it possible to ensure a competitive election campaign and a real political alternative in the militarized DNR and LNR?
- The DNR and LNR military units, based on the election results, will be legalized, which Kyiv, again, will be forced to accept.Of course the agreement states it differently, but the essence remains the same: “The creation of units of the people’s militias by local councils with the purpose of maintaining order in the separate regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.” We emphasize that there is no provision for the participation in, or control over, this process by the central government.
- Whatever the results of the elections and actions of the “new government of the Donbas,” Kyiv has no influence over it. Early elections are expressly prohibited in the Donbas by decision of the central government, which are possible in all other regions of the country.”The authority of the members of the local councils and officials elected in early elections cannot be abrogated by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine,” the new Minsk agreement states.
- All the whim s of the Donbas will have to be financed by Kyiv. Ukraine is obligated to find ways to pay all the social benefits. Of course, the agreement provides for the “full restoration of social payments, such as pensions and other benefits (revenues and earnings, timely payments of all utility bills, and renewal of taxation within the legal framework of Ukraine).”It is suspected, however, that at least initially the tax revenues from the ruined economy of the Donbas, which operates outside the control of the central tax authority, will be minimal.
The new Minsk agreement is in no way a victory for Kyiv. Unfortunately, it had to give up a lot, and much of the blame falls on the Franco-German tandem. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the decisions reached will be honored. Perhaps the best description of the “new Minsk” agreement was given by the President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite. The agreement is “extremely weak,” she said. “The main part of the agreement is control over the border. And it has not been agreed to and has not been resolved,” she said.
However, this agreement is not a defeat for Ukraine. The operational control of the Donbas is currently lost in any case. Active battles kill our soldiers every day and bleed the Ukrainian economy. Therefore, it is rather a chance, an attempt to grasp at straws. Will it succeed and how quickly it will fail we will find out with time.