In the often acrimonious back-and-forth between Russia and Ukraine in recent years, “fulfilling Minsk” has become something of a meaningless mantra: all sides agree to abide by the 2015 Minsk accords in public, but neither has any real intention of implementing the provisions of the agreement.
Yet in his intensive peacemaking efforts this week, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, appears to be pinning his hopes on a renewed attempt to breathe life into the seven-year-old agreement.
“The solution of the Ukraine question can be only political, and the basis of the solution can only be the Minsk agreements,” said Macron in Moscow on Monday.
The next day in Kyiv, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, reaffirmed to Macron what he has been saying for months: Ukraine is committed to fulfilling the Minsk accords, as long as this happens in the way Kyiv interprets them.
Privately, however, Ukrainian officials are more downbeat. “Minsk is impossible to fulfil. It would lead to the destruction of Ukraine as a state if we did,” said one high-ranking government official.
The Minsk accords were signed in February 2015, after a 16-hour overnight negotiating session in the Belarusian capital. Of the four leaders involved: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko, France’s François Hollande and Germany’s Angela Merkel, only Putin is still in office.
The document called for an immediate ceasefire in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and did bring major military hostilities to an end, but the conflict has continued to simmer and little progress has been made on any of the political steps.
The agreement calls for the withdrawal of foreign troops and mercenaries, as well as constitutional reform in Ukraine that would provide for decentralisation and elections in the current territories, which are financed and administered by Moscow.
For a long time, the main stumbling block was over sequencing. Kyiv insisted the separatists should first disarm, while Moscow demanded political reform first.
There is little appetite in Ukrainian society for any Minsk-based settlement that could give parliamentary seats to Russia’s proxies, and essentially give Moscow a say in the running of Ukraine.
There is also the fact that seven years have elapsed since the accords were signed. A de facto line of control now snakes through the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and since the coronavirus pandemic hit, crossings have fallen dramatically in number.
“The people on the other side have spent eight years being subjected to propaganda about Ukraine, most of them have been given Russian passports. Their leaders are Russian citizens. How are we expected now to integrate them back, and have their representatives sit in Kyiv? It doesn’t make sense,” said the high-ranking official.
Russia has given out more than 700,000 passports to residents of the territories, according to a recent statement by a Russian official.
Critics of the Minsk agreement say Poroshenko signed it in 2015 because a gun was pointed at Ukraine’s head, as Kyiv’s forces faced total military defeat from an enemy that was receiving covert support from the Kremlin.
“From my point of view, the Minsk agreements were born dead,” said Volodymyr Ariev, an MP from Poroshenko’s party. “The conditions were always impossible to implement. We understood it clearly at the time, but we signed it to buy time for Ukraine: to have time to restore our government, our army, intelligence and security system.”
He said many of the points in Minsk were incompatible with the Ukrainian constitution, and that with Russia, Ukraine could not be expected to fulfil its demands.
“Macron cannot compel Ukraine to do it Moscow’s way,” said Ariev.
Asked during his press conference with Macron about Ukraine’s reluctance to implement the Minsk accords, Putin used a phrase that some interpreted as carrying sinister undertones: “Like it or not, you’ll have to tolerate it, my beauty.”
The next day, Zelenskiy responded that Ukraine was indeed “tolerant”, as it put up with so much from Russia. But keen to avoid a Russian invasion, as well as to remove the looming threat of one which is eroding Ukraine’s economy, Zelenskiy is also pushing Minsk as a viable solution, at least in public.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, said the accords could still provide a viable roadmap if interpreted correctly.
“Within the Minsk framework it is really possible to pass to peace through any difficulties, but the steps and their content can only be those that fully respect the sovereignty of Ukraine,” he said.