Sustainable Peace Process in Ukraine?

15 March 2015

Minsk I, Minsk II, and the Security Council

With at least 5,820 dead and 15,270 wounded between April 2014 and March 2015, the War in the Donbass region of Ukraine has elevated geopolitical tensions between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to heights not seen since the Cold War. What began as the “Euromaidan” protests to oust then-President Viktor Yanukovych, promptly evolved into mass unrest and subsequently armed conflict between the post-revolution government in Kiev and pro-Russian insurgents in the eastern and southern regions of the country.

"The battle for Donetsk Airport rages, 2014." (Business Insider)

Despite the failure of the September 2014 Minsk Protocol (Minsk I) to stop fighting in Donbass, the implementation of the internationally-brokered Minsk II package of February 2015 does contribute to the hope of a potentially lasting ceasefire within the region. This second agreement, passed unanimously by the UN Security Council on 17 February, has been sporadically violated along the front lines of the conflict, but the recent withdrawal of most heavy weapons by both government and separatist forces signals the relative upholding of Minsk II, at least in the short-term (with the rebel siege of Debaltseve being a glaring exception to this progress).

While the origins of this conflict can be traced back much further than the 2014 Euromaidan protests, the escalation into outright war was the product of several catalysts. When Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted that the formal annexation of Crimea had been planned weeks before the (much disputed) 16 March 2014 referendum on self-determination, new light was shed on Russia’s calculated moves in countering what it perceives to be the spreading influence of NATO into former Warsaw Pact states.

The appearance of “little green men” in February 2014 and the subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia came with relatively little blood being shed in the southern peninsula. In eastern Ukraine, however, the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk – collectively known as Donbass – saw the formation of the self-declared pro-Russian separatist groups of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic (DPR and LPR respectively).

Following references to the historical region of southern Ukraine as “Novorossiya” (New Russia) by President Putin, the DPR and LPR formed a confederation under that name on 24 May. On 16 September, both groups merged their respective militias into the “United Armed Forces of Novorossiya.” Regarded as a terrorist group by Ukraine, the militia is composed of volunteers from Donbass itself, with ranks bolstered by foreign mercenaries from within the EU and beyond, as well as regular Russian forces, although the Kremlin continues to deny this.

Minsk I Agreement
The Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine was formed after the May 2014 election of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. It is composed of representatives from Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) with the purpose of facilitating a diplomatic resolution to the War in Donbass. The Group met on several occasions throughout 2014, including after the 17 July downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

A new round of peace talks was initiated on 31 July 2014 in Minsk, Belarus, and began the drafting what would become the 5 September 2014 Minsk Protocol agreement, which largely resembled the “15-point peace plan” developed by President Poroshenko. Signatories to the agreement include Swiss diplomat and OSCE representative Heidi Tagliavini; former president of Ukraine and Ukrainian representative, Leonid Kuchma; Russian Ambassador to Ukraine and Russian representative, Mikhail Zurabov; and DPR and LPR leaders respectively, Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky.

The Protocol outlined 12 key points:

  1. To provide for an immediate and bilateral ceasefire;
  2. To provide monitoring and verification of the ceasefire by the OSCE;
  3. To decentralize power, including through the adoption of the Ukrainian law “On temporary order of local self-governance, in particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts;”
  4. To ensure the permanent monitoring of the Ukrainian-Russian border and verification by the OSCE with the creation of security zones in the border regions of Ukraine and the Russian Federation;
  5. To immediately release all hostages and illegally detained persons;
  6. To pass a law preventing the prosecution and punishment of persons in connection with the events that have taken place in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts;
  7. To continue an inclusive national ­dialogue;
  8. To take measures to improve the humanitarian situation in Donbass;
  9. To ensure early local elections in accordance with the Ukrainian law “On temporary order of local self-governance, in particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts;”
  10. To withdraw illegal armed groups and military equipment, as well as mercenaries, from Ukraine;
  11. To adopt a program of economic recovery and reconstruction for the Donbass region; and
  12. To provide personal security for participants in the consultations.

In the two weeks following the implementation of the Minsk Protocol, reports of violations by both sides and even surges in violence were widespread. A follow-up memorandum was agreed to in Minsk by the same parties on 19 September. Some of its measures included were:

  • To pull heavy weaponry 15 kilometres back on each side of the frontline, ­creating a 30-kilometre buffer zone;
  • To ban offensive operations;
  • To ban flights by combat aircraft over the security zone;
  • To withdraw all foreign mercenaries from the conflict zone; and
  • To set up an OSCE mission to monitor implementation of the Minsk Protocol.

The aftermath of the battle for Donetsk Airport, 2014. (PHOTO: Dimitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

Despite the intended reinforcement of the ceasefire plea with the follow-up memorandum, the Minsk I Agreement quickly disintegrated. Sporadic skirmishes in the following days culminated in the successful DPR assault of the government-held Donetsk Airport, beginning on 28 September and ending finally in January. The four-month long defence of the terminal by Ukrainian soldiers – nicknamed “cyborgs” by Kiev – has evoked a legendary symbolism by the national media, for their outgunned and outmanned ability to resist constant waves of attack, amidst a battle that has seen some of the worst violence of the war. With the capture of the airport by the DPR, all of the city of Donetsk was now in the hands of the separatists, despite the fledgling peace agreement.

Minsk II Agreement
The rapid collapse of the Minsk I Agreement in September saw a surge of heavy fighting throughout Donbass. A further attempt at securing peace was brokered between 11 and 12 February, with attendees including President Putin of Russia, President Poroshenko of Ukraine, Chancellor Merkel of Germany, and President Hollande of France, as well as DPR and LPR leaders Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky respectively. With negotiations continuing for 16 hours straight, President Hollande claimed that the plan was the “last chance” for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Key points of the new agreement included:

  • Immediate and full bilateral ceasefire;
  • Withdrawal of all heavy weapons by both sides;
  • Effective monitoring and verification regime for the ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons;
  • From day one of the withdrawal, begin a dialogue on the holding of local elections;
  • Pardon and amnesty by banning any prosecution of figures involved in the Donetsk and Luhansk conflict;
  • Release of all hostages and other illegally detained people;
  • Unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid to the needy, internationally supervised;
  • Restoration of full social and economic links with affected areas;
  • Full Ukrainian government control will be restored over the state border, throughout the conflict zone;
  • The withdrawal of all foreign armed groups, weapons, and mercenaries from Ukrainian territory; and
  • Constitutional reform in Ukraine, with adoption of a new constitution by the end of 2015.

Security Council Deliberations
On 17 February, in its 7,384th meeting, the Security Council met at UN headquarters in New York City. With China acting in its temporary role as President of the Council, the four additional permanent members included the representatives of the U.S., the UK, France, and Russia.

Additional members of the Council in attendance were the representatives of Angola, Chad, Chile, Jordan, Lithuania, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Spain, and Venezuela.

Ukraine and Germany took part in the deliberations by invitation of the President. The agenda for the meeting was consideration of the text of a draft resolution submitted by Russia, with hopes of passing it into a Security Council resolution.

With 15 votes in favour for Minsk II, the draft passed unanimously as Resolution 2202 (2015). While seen as being excessively complicated (similar to the failed Minsk I Agreement) and a perceived attempt by Russia to transfer the blame as catalysts (if not facilitators) of the conflict, all members of the Council agreed that it was, indeed, better than nothing.

Two major issues had contributed to the tense deliberations – the downing of Flight MH17 in July 2014, and the status of the Ukrainian city of Debaltseve, which had continued to be under siege by Separatists as the agreement was drafted. The separatists did not consider the city as being part of the deal, as their assault was already underway by the time Minsk II was signed.

As of early March, those government forces still able to do so retreated from the city, at President Putin’s urging, and the city fell to rebel troops.

Promptly following its adoption, the Council President gave the floor to the permanent representative of Russia, Vitaly Churkin. Speaking in Russian, Mr. Churkin said that he was “grateful to the members of the Council for the unanimous adoption of the Russian Federation’s draft resolution in support of the arrangements to settle the Ukrainian crisis reached in Minsk on 12 February.”

Speaking in Russian, Mr. Churkin said that he was “grateful to the members of the Council for the unanimous adoption of the Russian Federation’s draft resolution in support of the arrangements to settle the Ukrainian crisis reached in Minsk on 12 February.”

Churkin said that the events within that territory “have been truly tragic,” and that the Minsk II protocol presented “a genuine opportunity for Ukraine to turn this tragic page in its history.”

He concluded his opening statements with a word of warning: “We most avoid the adoption of unilateral measures that would clearly contravene the letter and the spirit of the documents adopted in Minsk on 12 February.”

An example of such “unilateral measures” is found in Kiev’s recent request for a UN peacekeeping mission, something that the DPR, LPR, and Russia all cite as being not only counterproductive to peace efforts, but a deliberate violation of Minsk II.

While a formal decision has yet to be made on the topic of a potential peacekeeping operation, it is almost certain that Russia would veto this.

The vast majority of the opening statements from the permanent and temporary members of the Security Council alike deployed the same rhetoric – thanking the Council for convening its session, thanking Russia for spurring the peace draft, and reflecting on what Mr. Marchesi of Spain called, this “crucial moment in the evolution of the conflict in Ukraine.” For the most part, representatives expressed a complete and unreserved respect and collaboration for the contents of the resolution. Notable exceptions included the representatives of Lithuania, Malaysia, New Zealand, the UK, and the United States.

Speaking on behalf of Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, the Netherlands, and the Philippines, the representatives of Malaysia and New Zealand focused their opening statements by reminding the Council of their urgings that amnesty for separatists in eastern Ukraine does not extend to those who, as Mr. McLay of New Zealand stated, “illegally launched a surface-to-air missile at a civilian passenger aircraft, murdering 298 people on board”, in reference to MH17.

The most outspoken members of the Council, against the resolution’s contents, were those of the U.S. and Lithuania. Representative Murmokaité of Lithuania opened by saying that “it is with a heavy heart that we voted for today’s resolution […] with a clear understanding of the terrible toll that this uninvited war has imposed on Ukraine.” She reported the land grab by separatists of at least 550 square kilometres of Ukraine’s territory since the announcement of the original Minsk ceasefire in 2014. She made a clear and explicit reference to “Russian-sponsored militants” and “heavily armed criminals,” and said that the only way peace can be sustained is if “Russian troops and armaments […] be withdrawn from Ukraine’s territory.”

The U.S. representative, Ms. Samantha Power, invoked some of the strongest words for the resolution, the conflict, and the actions of Russia. She opened her statements with the following:

“We have gotten used to living in an upside-down world with respect to Ukraine. Russia speaks of peace and then fuels conflict. Russia signs agreements and then does everything within its power to undermine them. Russia champions the sovereignty of nations and then acts as if its neighbours’ borders do not exist. Yet even for those of us growing accustomed to living in an upside-down world, the idea that Russia – which manufactured and continues to escalate the violence in Ukraine – has submitted a resolution today calling for the conflict’s peaceful solution is ironic, to say the least.”

Permanent Representative of the U.S. to the UN, Samantha Power. (UN photo)

Ms. Power invoked stories of real people in Ukraine – a 73-year-old man named Aleksey Kravchenko who reportedly spends his nights huddled with his grandchildren in a bomb shelter in Debaltseve, amidst shelling by Russian-sponsored militants.” She spoke directly to the Russian representative, saying that “we look to Russia, which manufactured and fuelled this conflict, to leave the upside-down world it has created and to honour the resolution it introduced today in support of efforts to end it.”

Following opening statements by the Council members and those of Ukraine, which said it was placing its faith in the Security Council to “assume its responsibility at this crucial juncture in the conflict,” a tense exchange of dares and hyperbole took hold of the chamber. Seeing the evident dismay with the resolution, Mr. Churkin reported that he was “disappointed by the discussion, because some colleagues decided to begin with their usual rhetoric, which was often offensive.”

He singled out Ms. Power directly for her use of the term “upside-down world,” with the following comment: “She accused Russia of starting the crisis, but did we topple the legally elected President? Throughout all of the events that took place in Ukraine a year ago, Russia continually called for a bloodless political solution. We supported the 21 February agreement. We then insisted on its implementation, even after the lawfully elected President had been toppled.”

Mr. Churkin went on to say that “a German public opinion group conducted a poll among Crimean residents and came to the conclusion that 93% of the people in Crimea supported unification with Russia… 82% said that outright; 11% said they would prefer it; 4% were against it,” but he would not make further reference to this poll or the methodology or legitimacy of those behind it.

The session reached a near-boiling point when the President had to remind Council members that the meeting was “not an open debate.” The representatives of Lithuania and Russia continued to exchange rhetoric as to the latter’s suggestion that Kiev would have been better served to have merely “capitulated” its territory to the separatists when the conflict began.

With what was thought to have been the last words from any delegation, the representative of Ukraine said, “I am sorry, Mr. President, but what we have heard from our colleague [Mr. Churkin] is unacceptable. Our leaders met in Minsk and they made very clear statements. They supported very clear provisions, and we cannot agree with the interpretation of the Minsk agreements that has been heard from the Russian side. I am so sorry, but we are not here to launch a third round of Minsk negotiations and reinterpret what our leaders agreed upon.”

And finally, as the President readied to conclude the session, Churkin retorted with rapid words, so that his interpreters were barely able to keep pace. “The members of the Council have continued to provoke me. We are not interpreting anything. We are taking the Minsk agreements and interpreting them word by word, and we think that everyone should read the document word by word and implement it.”

Without further bombast, the President concluded the session and pounded his gavel into the desk mount. Mr. Churkin was out of his seat and headed to the door before either his aides could do the same, or his fellow delegates even rise to their feet.

For a resolution that was showcased on the world stage as a seemingly revolutionary compromise between nations, it was an unpleasant opening to the Minsk II ceasefire package – particularly for one that was passed unanimously. This, in conjunction with the separatists’ siege of Debaltseve now completed, and their assault on the port city of Mariupol still ongoing, there remains many evident gaps in the Minsk II protocol, as well as, perhaps more importantly, the long-term intentions of those who drafted it on both sides of the conflict.

Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN, Vitaly Churkin. (UN photo) The Security Council votes on 15 March 2014 in an emergency session on the disputed Crimea referendum – ultimately vetoed by Russia.  (UN photo)

As of 12 March, heavy weapons remain kilometres from the front lines, and Kiev has recently enjoyed several 24-hour periods without a soldier being killed. That being said, it was only a few shots that unleashed this crisis to begin with – and in a war defined by deception and (mis)information at both the operational level in Donbass and the strategic level in the Security Council – it is very possible that a few more could bring the conflict back into full force at any moment.

Casey Brunelle is a member of the Primary Reserves.
© FrontLine Security 2015