With Western leaders in a whirl of shuttle diplomacy seeking to defuse tensions with Russia, a push to revive peace accords for Ukraine after years of inaction is gathering some tentative momentum.
Whether France and Germany can unlock the process in a way that is acceptable to the Kremlin remains uncertain. It could also place Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy under intense political pressure at home and abroad.
The so-called Minsk II peace deal was signed under former Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko in the wake of a crushing 2015 battlefield defeat at the hands of Russia. Its full implementation, according to prominent Moscow foreign policy analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, would give Russia influence over Ukraine’s choice of alliances.
Minsk has long been President Vladimir Putin’s preferred strategy for regaining influence over Ukraine and its governments. The Maidan revolt of 2014 deposed the nation’s then pro-Russia leadership and Putin’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and arming of separatists in eastern Ukraine drove the country to seek further integration with the West.
On Monday, after six hours of talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin again said he saw “no alternative” to the deal’s implementation.
“In Kyiv they either say that they will comply, or they say that this will destroy their country,” Putin said of the deal, before using a crude folk rhyme to make his point: “‘Like it or not, put up with it, my beauty.’ It must be fulfilled.”
The Russian leader previously made clear he had lost patience with the French and German-led talks known as the Normandy Format on the implementation of the Minsk accords. They’ve made little progress since they began in 2014, and talks have only been held at the leader level a handful of times, most recently in 2019. Last year he turned to using shows of force near the border with Ukraine, an attempt to engage the U.S. in talks to roll back the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Putin has repeatedly denied the current buildup of troops is a precursor to an invasion.
“The Minsk agreements are the only way to resolve the crisis of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and to make progress,” Macron said at a joint briefing with the Russian leader. Later, as he flew onto Kyiv, he told reporters it was not a question of pressuring Zelenskiy to make concessions, but it would be complicated because the Ukrainian leader “has some very nationalist people around him, and it involves the implementation of something that was signed by his predecessor.”
Macron revived the Normandy Format in Paris last month. A further meeting of the French, German, Russian and Ukrainian diplomats involved is set for Thursday in Berlin. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, in Moscow for meetings last month, said at a briefing alongside her Russian counterpart she was looking for a way “to return to the negotiating table in the Normandy Format.”
Any progress is likely to be slow.
Ukraine shelved a piece of draft legislation that appeared to conflict with the terms of the Minsk accords ahead of the Normandy Format meeting in Paris, a move Macron welcomed while in Moscow.
But Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of failing to fulfill their responsibilities. On Wednesday, Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a briefing his country was willing to implement the accords, “but we will not implement them on Russian terms, in the Russian interpretation, in particular through direct dialogue with the DPR and LPR,” a reference to the two self-proclaimed Donbas republics.
An official in Macron’s office said France was not pressuring Ukraine, but encouraged it and Russia to move toward implementing Minsk. The official acknowledged that would present some challenges for Zelenskiy.
The implementation terms of the Minsk II deal are complex and open to interpretation, with emphasis on the critical sequencing of different elements –- from a cease-fire, to constitutional change, to the grant of an undefined special status to the separatists in the country’s east, to the restoration of Ukrainian control over its borders.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv accused Russia on Twitter of pushing a distorted interpretation that includes autonomy for the separatist Donbas regions, a term not mentioned in the text.
Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Wednesday said in a briefing that the U.S. was advocating for a revision of the agreements, a move “fraught with the destruction of the peace process.”
The U.S. takes the view that Putin and Zelenskiy should meet within the Normandy Format to unblock the process, according to a person familiar with the administration’s thinking. Russia says Zelenskiy should instead meet with the separatist Donbas leaders. Ukraine considers them Moscow’s proxies and refuses.
Putin could meet Zelenskiy, but first it would be necessary to understand the purpose of such a meeting and what results could be achieved, and right now there is no such understanding, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week on a conference call with reporters.
Macron this week also questioned whether the “ambiguity” that the NATO’s open door policy creates has actually been beneficial for countries like Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, some of whom aspire to join the military alliance.
Seen from Moscow the two questions — implementation of Minsk and halting NATO’s eastward expansion — are closely linked. Enforcing the agreement as envisaged by Russia would federalize the country, giving pro-Russia regions the power to block any attempt to join Western institutions such as NATO or the European Union.
“The Minsk agreement would create a mechanism for Russia and for the West to influence Ukraine in situations when one or another side would be unhappy with hypothetical movement of this country. That would be actually a solution,” Lukyanov, chairman of Moscow’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin, said in a recent webinar.
Such changes to state architecture could be extended to other ex-Soviet republics with so-called frozen conflict zones, Lukyanov said.
A deal on Minsk would just be the most immediate step toward a wider potential agreement between Russia and the West on how to restructure European security that’s likely to take more “escalations” of the kind seen now on Ukraine’s borders until it can be achieved, according to Lukyanov. He added though that only Putin knows and will decide what Russia in fact does.
Finding agreement on Minsk will remain difficult. A key element of the dispute is the agreement’s stipulation that the required changes to Ukraine’s constitution and laws for the separatist-held areas should be made “in consultation with and upon agreement by” separatist leaders in Donbas. A special contact group was to mediate those discussions.
In 2015, Ukraine introduced a decentralization bill that included a reference to special status for Donbas, triggering protests in Kyiv that left three national guardsmen dead and dozens injured in a grenade attack.