Simmering Tensions: Russia’s Position in Eastern Ukraine

In February 2017, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed an order to legally recognize documents issued by separatist leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. According to Kremlin, this decision is guided by humanitarian interests, and is intended to protect the rights of individuals living in the separatist territories. In reality, this decree undermines the principles of the Minsk II agreement, adds tensions to the already soiled relations between Russia and Ukraine, and pushes prospects of a diplomatic resolution to the back burner.

 

On September 5, 2014, Ukrainian officials and the representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement. However, the agreement, named Minsk Protocol, broke down within days. Shortly after that, on September 13, a unilateral ceasefire was announced by separatist leaders, but it also failed to hold. By January 2015, the fighting was once again in full force, and a month later an agreement known as “Minsk II” was announced. One of its main stipulations was the immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons from the frontlines, and it was to be monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). On the political spectrum, the agreement called for constitutional amendments on the decentralization of authority, special recognition for the rebel-held area of Donbas, reclamation of Ukrainian control over the Russia-Ukraine border, and a full prisoner exchange.

 

Both Russian and Ukrainian officials have claimed that Minsk II has no alternatives. But its implementation was shaky and unsubstantial, placing both sides in a deadlock, with Ukraine refusing to follow through with the political stipulations of the agreement until a full ceasefire, and Russia accusing Ukraine of failing to follow through on its political guarantees. The leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk also do not accept the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty. Minsk II might have helped to alleviate the fighting, but the ceasefire agreement is regularly violated by both sides. Putin’s decree to legally recognize separatist documents further undermines the goals of the protocol.

 

Moscow’s ties with the separatist leaders play a key role in this simmering conflict. The Kremlin has the power to enforce a ceasefire, seeing that the Russian military has control of the command structure for rebel forces and supplies them with weapons, ammunition, and funding. However, it is unclear whether the Kremlin actually wants to see Minsk II implemented. The public mood in Ukraine is also weary of granting Russia political concessions. Popular attitudes towards Putin and the separatists in Ukraine have significantly dropped over the last two years, and securing the needed votes for a constitutional amendment on decentralization of authority would be very difficult. It has been two years since the passing of Minsk II, and still these provisions have not been fulfilled.

 

The decision to allow people from the rebel-held territories to travel to, work and study in Russia only increases tensions in the conflict and has been heavily criticized by Ukrainian officials. Oleksander Turchynov, Ukraine’s national security council lead, expressed strong concern that this decision signifies the Kremlin’s abandonment of the Minsk II agreement, and legitimization of rebel leaders. Poroshenko also expressed that the decree violates international law, and further proves Russia’s involvement with the separatists. The Ukrainian central bank stated that, following this decision, it would likely see implementation of sanctions over the local subsidiary of Russia’s Sberbank. Sberbank is the largest bank in Russia and Eastern Europe, and has five branches in Ukraine. It has expressed willingness to provide services for individuals with documents from Donetsk and Luhansk separatist republics.

 

The decree was declared as temporary, until a political solution to the conflict could be reached. The vagueness of this claim leaves a trail of unanswered questions. Minsk II has left the situation in a simmering conflict rather than ending it, and there is no guarantee of either sides following through on their political promises in the short-term future. Nevertheless, there are no viable alternatives to the protocol, nor can the status quo be considered an end to the war. The legitimization of separatist documents is seen as a direct violation of the protocol by the Ukrainian governing body, and as it stands, the prospects of peace in eastern Ukraine are low.

 

By all indications, Minsk II is not working. The routine violation of the ceasefire has no clear end in sight, and neither side seems to be willing to take active measure to comply with the provisions of the protocol. In all likelihood, chances of peace in eastern Ukraine are low, and Kremlin’s mystifying stance does not favour a definitive end to the conflict. The unilateral decision to grant legitimacy to the self-proclaimed separatist territories severely undermines Minsk II and disputes any doubt over Russia’s political support of the rebels. Putin’s claim that the decree is temporary until such time that a political solution can be reached is unsubstantiated and questionable, since the Kremlin has neither made concrete attempts to follow through with the political promises of Minsk II, nor sought an alternative diplomatic resolution.

Photo: Vladimir Putin celebrating the 70th anniversary of D-Day (2014), by The Presidential Press and Information Office via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY 3.0.


Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

About Mary Zelenova

Mary Zelenova is a second-year student at the University of Toronto, working towards a specialist in Political Science and a minor in History. She holds a fervent interest in international affairs and security, as well as global development and international law. Mary currently serves as a Compliance Analyst for the G20 Research Group with the Munk School of Global Affairs, and sits on the editorial boards of POLIS and The Future of History undergraduate research journals. Additionally, she is involved with several Model UN organizations on campus. After graduation, Mary hopes to study political science or law at the graduate level and to pursue a career in foreign affairs.