STOLYPIN: Minsk deal offers Ukraine tough long-term opportunities

By bne IntelliNews February 17, 2015

Mark Galeotti of New York University -


With the ceasefire brokered in the second Minsk summit seemingly in trouble, the gap between a brittle and temporary ceasefire and a true and lasting peace remains broad and unlikely to be bridged by Minsk-2. Instead, what we are likely witnessing is the transformation of the conflict to a new stage, one dominated by a longer-term struggle over governance as much as warfighting capability. This is a struggle in which Moscow begins stronger, but Kyiv actually has some opportunities to level the field.

The Minsk-2 accords lay out a roadmap for peace which envisages first a withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line, then local elections in the rebel-held areas and also constitutional changes in Kyiv to decentralize powers to the regions, and then the return of control of the border to the government. This all makes sense in theory, but as many have already noted, there are numerous weak links in this chain of events.

The rebel leaderships, for example, have hardly demonstrated themselves to be self-effacing servants of the democratic principle. They are unlikely to allow a free and fair election campaign in the regions under their guns, let along surrender or share power if others won. These will be at best tainted and at worst wholly fraudulent snap elections, which Kyiv and outside observers will essentially have to accept or watch the whole peace process unravel. Given that Moscow is also relying on the local leaders in this new confederalized Ukrainian state to be its agents and veto, especially in case of renewed moves to align the country more directly with the west, Russia also will need to ensure its allies win.

Furthermore, while Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko may be willing to commit Kyiv to this constitutional reform, he needs to get it through a fractious and divided Rada. Already nationalists have been making bloodcurdling threats, not least to assassinate any pro-Russian legislators elected from the Donbas region in the east, and they may well spearhead resistance to reforms that appear to reward rebellion. Should the ceasefire fail, then the risk is magnified that the nationalists might be able to surge on the resulting public anger and push for an even more intransigent line.

Without these changes, without accepting deeply questionable local elections in the south-east of Ukraine, and without being able to control its own soldiers, including the notoriously freewilled ultra-nationalist militia units, then Kyiv will be unable to enjoy the fruits of Minsk-2. Not least among them is regaining control of the border over which currently freely flow Russian troops, volunteers and weapons.

There is thus a depressingly good chance that this ceasefire will not hold, especially not long enough for the full peace process to be carried forward.

Advantage Kremlin

Whom does this benefit? Moscow may well be calculating that this is in its advantage. The outcome is likely to be a frozen conflict, the creation of local pseudo-states under its control that are not valuable in themselves — unlike Crimea, the south-eastern Ukrainian campaign was never intended as a simple land grab — but as instruments to continue to destabilize and influence Kyiv. With part of its country outside its control, and an economy continuing to be depressed by the war and Russian maneuvers, then regardless of its aspirations, Ukraine would not be joining Nato or the EU in the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is likely calculating that without actual fighting taking place, Western attention will soon waver and redirect. Some new crisis will monopolize public attention, perhaps one in which Moscow’s help might be convenient. Those convenient voices calling for a more placatory policy would be more likely to be heard. Businesses suffering because of sanctions would lobby for a relaxation. At the very least, the pressure to arm and fund Kyiv will diminish.

Of course, an unspoken central assumption of the Kremlin’s is that this is a moment of temporary and unexpected weakness. This is a product of the fall in oil prices, as well as the unusually sustained and vigorous Western outrage at events in Ukraine, stoked by the “bad luck” — as the Kremlin would see it — of the MH17 shootdown. Thus, a delaying action makes tactical sense. If Kyiv cannot be forced to acknowledge Russian hegemony now, freeze the conflict and wait a while for the correlation of forces and circumstances to be more propitious.

However, it could well be that time is not on Russia’s side. Already, the economic crisis is having an impact on the security apparatus. The intelligence and law enforcement agencies are having to absorb cuts of 10% or more in their budgets and some military procurement plans are quietly being put back. Russia’s economic woes are not going to end soon, as so the costs of supporting client states, continued military reform and balancing the guns vs. butter equation — perhaps best regarded as “might abroad vs. popularity at home” — will become all the more onerous.

Counterattack on 3 fronts

Ukraine, of course, hardly looks in a good state. Even with the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) latest $17.5bn loan, it faces lean, hard years. To that can be added the challenges of a still largely unreformed bureaucracy (sad to say, but Ukraine’s is more corrupt and arguably even less efficient than Russia’s), sharp political divisions, and unrealistic public expectations.

However, with a right combination of domestic political will and external financial and technical assistance — and it is hardly a given that either will actually materialize — then it is not impossible that the country will begin to find its feet. In this context, then Kyiv actually can begin slowly to mount a counter-attack on three fronts.

The first is geopolitical. Kyiv has been assiduous in courting the West, but as a victim more than a partner. If the Ukrainians begin seriously to start tackling the fundamental economic, political and administrative challenges they face, while maintaining a strong but dignified stance towards Moscow, they may begin to gain serious credibility in the West. At present, they are, to be honest, viewed with more pity than respect.

The second is governance. Whatever the flaws of the actual vote, it is hard to question that most Crimeans genuinely did want to join Russia. This owes less to historical affinity than to a sense that Kyiv had failed them for more than two decades. If rump Ukraine can develop as a better-run, transparent, working liberal democracy and market economy, then the people of the south-east may well see their future in the west. Just ask the ethnic Russians of the Baltic states, who may grumble about “prejudice” against them, but have no desire to head to Russia instead.

Finally, Kyiv could use the time to prepare the ground militarily, too. One of many reasons for its lack of success in the war has been that its underfunded and undertrained army was still in many ways a shadow of its Soviet self, geared for a mass war in the west rather than counter-insurgency in the south-east. Over the coming months, even if Kyiv cannot afford to mobilize larger forces, it can at least retrain, reorganize and rearm for this mission.

In short, Minsk-2 is just a lull in the war, not an end. However, while Moscow clearly feels it is getting the best out of the deal, it does offer Kiev some interesting opportunities. But only if it is serious, daring and determined enough to take them — and the West continues to be willing to help.

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the Center for Global Affairs,  New York University. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows (


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