Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Power Vertical

A Flawed Deal In Minsk

High stakes in Minsk
High stakes in Minsk

Three presidents and a chancellor pulled an all-nighter in Minsk.

And after marathon talks they produced a cease-fire agreement that -- if implemented -- might stop the fighting between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's Donbas region.

But even if it does that, the agreement does little to address the real issue at the heart of the conflict between Kyiv and Moscow: Ukraine's future political direction.

In fact, the agreement fudges that in a way political commentator Leonid Bershidsky described in Bloombeg as "a time bomb...that Russia could detonate at any moment."

For the Kremlin, the conflict in the Donbas was never really about the Donbas. It was about exerting pressure on Ukraine's leaders to abandon their aspirations about integrating with the West. And the agreement reached in the Belarusian capital will allow them to continue -- and possibly even increase -- that pressure.

But first the good news.

The clearest part of the agreement, by far, involves the actual cease-fire, which is slated to come into force on February 15.

By the second day after the cease-fire, both sides are required to pull back heavy weapons from the front line to create a 50-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone that will be monitored by the OSCE. Long-range rocket launchers must be pulled back farther, creating a security zone of 70 to 140 kilometers.

The wider buffer zone is a clear improvement over the cease-fire agreement reached in Minsk in September, which established just a 30-kilometer demilitarized area.

The wider zone will be easier for the OSCE to monitor and it will put major population centers like rebel-held Donetsk and government-controlled Kramatorsk beyond the range of heavy weapons.

But even here, there are sticking points. Chief among these is the ultimate status of Debaltseve, a government-held town and strategic railway depot that is currently surrounded by separatist forces. After much haggling, the sides could not come to an agreement on Debaltseve, and its status was not mentioned in the final agreement.

"Putin’s plan to invade first & negotiate later paid off. Haggled over Debaltseve, not Crimea. Aggression rewarded again, encourages more," Russian opposition figure Garry Kasparov tweeted

Ok, now for the bad news. The rest of the agreement is fraught with peril and pitfalls.

Most importantly, it requires the Ukrainian authorities to grant the separatist-held regions special status, including the right to form their own police forces and a say in appointing prosecutors and judges. Moreover, Kyiv would be barred from stripping officials in the rebel regions of their powers.

Moreover, Ukraine would be required to complete constitutional reform and a decentralization of power that recognizes the "special status" of the separatist regions by the end of this year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that he views this as Ukraine agreeing to what it calls "federalization" -- one of the Kremlin's key goals.

Russia is hoping that devolving power to Ukraine's regions would allow its proxies in the east to wield a veto over any attempt to bring the country closer to NATO or the European Union.

In remarks after the talks, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tried to put a brave face on this, insisting that he "did not accept any proposals of federalization or alike -- there will be neither federations nor autonomies."

Poroshenko added that "a special status" would be worked out for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions "in the framework of constitutional changes on decentralization which will be applied for the whole of Ukraine."

And a key Ukrainian demand, control of its porous border with Russia in the rebel-held areas, will not come into force until the constitutional reform and decentralization plan becomes law.

And then there is all the ambiguity and language that is open to interpretation.

What, for example, is an "international armed unit"?

The agreement says they must be withdrawn from Ukrainian territory along with "military equipment and mercenary forces."

To the Ukrainian side, this clearly means the thousands of Russian troops and weapons they say are present in Donbas. But Moscow insists -- in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary -- that it has no forces or weapons in Ukraine.So what's to withdraw?

And what, exactly, is meant by the terms "hostage" and "detainee"? According to the text, "all hostages and detainees are to be released in prisoner exchanges based on the 'all for all' principle."

Does that include Nadia Savchenko, the Ukrainian military pilot currently in the ninth week of a hunger strike in a Russian prison? Savchenko, who disappeared in eastern Ukraine in June and emerged under arrest in Russia in July, said she was abducted by separatists and spirited across the border.

Poroshenko has explicitly said Savchenko's release is part of the agreement. Moscow, which claims Savchenko was involved in the deaths of two Russian journalists and was arrested illegally crossing the Russian border, has been silent.

The agreement reached today in Minsk might stop the fighting in Donbas. But it does little to resolve the battle for Ukraine.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Ukraine Crisis,Minsk agreement

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Bennie Martinali from: Netherlands
February 12, 2015 18:15
(Been reading this blog for a while now, keep up the good work!) All your points are valid. However, I feel like I might as well throw in my opinions as a random internet person.

Experience shows these deals don't last anyway, so everything beyond the actual temporary ceasefire is baked air until proven otherwise. In all likelihood the fighting will continue in localized areas. Terrible, but manageable for Ukraine logistically, even if they keep losing terrain and men. Not only that, but as long as low-intensity battles continue, so will the pressure on the EU to maintain sanctions. They have already stated they will base their sanction regime on facts on the ground, not promises. (YMMV)
Ukraine has been granted a big financial aid package, with a big reform clause. A few kilometres or even the city of Debaltseve are not strategically important to Ukraine - the money, reforms, and time to rebuild the army *are*.

This could perhaps be seen as a tactical victory for Putin: His proxies capture a few more destroyed towns, Ukraine and the West are humiliated, and no new sanctions are applied. But also a strategic loss for Russia: Every time fighting breaks out, Ukraine and Europe become more lost to Russia, and Putin doesn't get to deliver a coup de grace to Ukraine (yet), while the Russian economy continues to suffer. Putin's power is short-term. His achilles heel is the long term. The longer this draws out, the worse his position relative to the West.

Also, a Ukraine that is reformed and doesn't collapse would be a strategic victory for the West. Not to mention, Russia doesn't invade Ukraine in force, which would have required a massive escalation of sanctions from the EU, which it would have been unable to do and expose the West as fundamentally corrupt and broken. Now at least it still has the dubious benefit of the doubt.

Granting special status to the occupied territories is going to get tossed out during the next major escalation anyway. Unless Putin has a big change of heart, we're going to be moving from one broken treaty to the next for a while I suspect.
In Response

by: Suleiman Kahani from: Genoa
February 13, 2015 14:19
Do you really believe the incredible amount of horseshit you just barfed up?
Because if you really do I can boast with reason to have met the most stupid and gullibe dutch bumpkin evar!

In Response

by: Steven Hart from: Canada
February 13, 2015 18:04
Your "reply" speaks for itself. I guess that's an Internet troll's way of admitting that Mr. Martinali's post is spot on.
In Response

by: Steven Hart from: Canada
February 13, 2015 18:06
That's a great analysis. You've framed Putin's mindset and ambitions quite accurately.
In Response

by: Shubhra Sasmit from: India
February 14, 2015 23:38
It staggers my belief that people in the West think that its all russia's fault, no doubt Russia shouldnt have done what it did in Ukraine,but Ukraine shouldn't have put Russia's security in jeopardy, there is only one organization that has expanded right to Russia's border and its NATO, it has an anti Russia bedrock since inception, and all this glorious morality, where was this when Iraq was invaded and 100,000 iraqi civilians dies in a false war, when the President of the US and PM of UK lied on national television blaring IRAQ HAS WMD's, where were u guys then, this is a result of western triumphalism,when u gloated that West has won the cold war, Russia was not defeated militarily by the West, and it never will be. You dont like it, too bad, but you will have to take russia's security interest. There are no economic sanctions big enough to deter Russia,and try cutting Russia from Swift, you will feel the repercussions from Iraq, N.Korea to Iran, and the whole world. Belgium wont do it first and then you are looking for a global war with Russia, good luck to the clown who wants that
In Response

by: Brian Dunn from: USA
February 15, 2015 15:17
Yeah, Ukraine threatened Russia's security.

Just like India threatened Pakistan's security by moving closer to Pakistan in Kashmir, eh?

What was Ukraine thinking trying to be a sovereign state that determines its own future rather than accepting its role as Putin's buffer state!
In Response

by: Matt from: UK
February 23, 2015 18:36
Actually he's dead right.

Puttin probably is a KGB tyrant - but the world is full of tyrants, and some of those are super powers with nuclear weapons, and all of those have regional security concerns one needs to mindful of (including our own!).

Importantly ALL of those have done similar things inside (and outside) their own “sphere's of domain" - China in Tibet, US in Pacific, Latin and Central America and them Middle-East. Heck the West still has forces in Japan, Germany and Korea - 50 years after the events...

Russia has (like it or not) a legitimate long-term security concern with "enemies at the gates" - and anyone who couldn't see that clearly hasn't read their history from Napoleon to Hitler; or had ideological blinkers on.

Yes - it sucks to be the Ukraine - who the west encouraged over many years to align to us, backed by Billions of aid and empty vague military promises..

But to pretend for an iota that they are a worthy member in their own right of the EU was delusional. Similarly to pretend NATO membership (and loss of Russia's only warm-water naval port) was not going to perceived by Russia an an existential threat was self-delusional.

Look at how the US responded in Cuba, Iraq, South and Central America, etc…

We can curse Putin all we like, however in the Russian mindset of threats to the motherland this was both predictable and a clearly telegraphed red-line.

Yes - its not democracy - but we are friends with an awful lot of undemocratic countries; and we aren’t supplying their enemies with arms…

Its clear that the Western policy of encouraging economic and military alliance upto Russia's doorstep, with empty promises of economic aid and military backing backfired spectacularly - exactly as they did in Georgia.

I also think there must be some serious questions being asked (on both sides..) if NATO is -really- willing to go to war to defend recent peripheral members such as Albania, Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia & Bulgaria...(difficult as that is to say) so I suspect those countries will be treading gently while cosying up close to the US for the next few years...[certainly no-one will be deploying ABM missiles on Russia's borders in the near future...]

Its clear provoking the Russian bear is a dangerous game, next-time lets hope for a little more real-politic when messing about in each other's back-gardens...

And for those useful idiots promoting US military aid - look at a map...if you want Russian divisions in Keiv one can think of no quicker way to cause it than giving US military aid to Ukraine...

Want peace?
Declare directly that the Ukraine will never joint NATO or the EU, as long as the civil war doesn't go beyond a line in the ground; and independence to the separatist regions.

Yes, thats partition and partial satellite status in all but name..but whats your better alternative..? WW3..???

by: George from Georgia from: USA
February 12, 2015 19:39
Yeah, Putin signs a cease-fire agreement on behalf of the rebels he has nothing to do with and in 3 days he is going to withdraw the international armed units with their equipment and mercenary forces (which he denies exist) from the Ukrainian territory (which he doesn't recognize as he made very clear by talking about the people's republics).
I'm starting to think this whole farce was needed to pave the way for the American military aid to be delivered to Ukraine when the peace process obviously fails.
Either that, or it is not Putin, but rather Merkel, Holland, and Obama that are delusional and have lost their minds...

by: Democracy from: Earth
February 12, 2015 20:47
An act in Putin's play for his audience. They even let him announce the deal has been reached in hope this facesaving gesture will inspire some sanity in his paranoid mind.

Wrong. He the peacemaker will only have to protect the "agreement" after it has been violated by "...." fill in anything from NATO Legion to Kyiv Junta.

I am sorry but I am really hoping this fails as soon as possible so that we can help Ukraine with arms and cut Russia from SWIFT.

But the European self sabotage led by Hollande and Merkel is a clear obstacle along the way.
In Response

by: octagon from: Scandinavia
February 13, 2015 13:35
- couldn't agree more.
In Response

by: Bill Rice from: United staes
February 15, 2015 06:11
The so called cease fire has already failed. Was there any doubt? The deal was a joke from the beginning. Who negotiates a cease fire and then waits 3 days for it to take effect? Obviously, Merkel and Hollande do since all along they have been unwilling to do what it takes to stop Putin because of their dependence on Russian oil, trade, and their exposure to Russian debt.
Let's just see now how long Merkel and the rest of Europe continue to try to appease Putin. Will it stop when he has taken over the Ukraine, or will have to go into other former Soviet countries such as Moldova.
Scary part of this whole thing is that this is exactly how Europe behaved with Hitler before World War II. Putin isn't Hitler but, he sure is starting to sound more and more like him. Hopefully, the world has not forgotten history and does not let this get too far out of control. it is getting close to that already.

by: Roman Serbyn from: Montreal, Canada
February 12, 2015 21:30

A good article with insightful analysis, except for one crucial misunderstanding on the part of the author. Putin's endgame is not what Brian Whitmore claims: "For the Kremlin, the conflict in the Donbas was never really about the Donbas. It was about exerting pressure on Ukraine's leaders to abandon their aspirations about integrating with the West." Putin's aggression aims much further than just the Donbas, or even the prevention of Ukraine from joining the West.

In politics, satellites prove to be temporary phenomenon. Poland and the Baltic states are a case in point. Even the "federated" soviet colonies proved unreliable, when the opportunity presented itself for leaving the empire. What Putin wants is the recreation of the Russian Empire, à la tsariste. Both Ukraine and the West think he's bluffing.

But he is not. Putin feels he needs Ukraine, not as a satellite state, not even as part of a federation, but as an integral part of the "Russian world" (russkii mir), the Orthodox Ecumen. , He has spoken of this often enough, if only we took him seriously. "Ukrainians are not a nation, but Little Russians, and Ukraine is not a state, just Little Russia, taken over by the Galicians, who are not really 'Ukrainian', to start with"

If we could only get used to the idea that Putin wants all of Ukraine (except possibly troublesome Galicia). then we would better understand Putin's intermediary steps to achieving this goal.
In Response

by: Lev Havryliv from: Sydney
February 13, 2015 10:35
You are correct. Putin is obsessed with destroying Ukraine as a national entity. He embodies old style Russian chauvinism and imperialism.

Putin will drive his forces into Ukraine as far as he can. Only military force will stop him.

Unfortunately the West has put economic considerations ahead of principle and is failing to assist Ukraine to adequately defend itself from Russian aggression.

by: jojnjo from: Dublin
February 12, 2015 23:12

Of're right. Do you know if I went to bed right now, and didn't wake up till Monday the 16th, the ceasefire on waking up would already be broken. I have no faith in what Putin agrees to...because he keeps lying & playing with Ukrainian lives.

Now if he told his media...he was allowing a free press again starting on Sunday...& that he'll call a new election next week & promise he'll allow outsiders to witness the voting at all the polling stations of Russia's major cities. I might then just believe him. I emphasise the word, "Might".

by: Jack Kastel from: Meghri, Armenia
February 13, 2015 03:53
You mean you're disappointed that Ukraine won't be able to slavishly sell their sovereingty to Brussels and Washington to keep the NATO encroachment March going? Awww too bad. You poor babies....

Why don't you just accept the fact that a sizable portion of Ukraine doesn't want your empty rhetoric and confetti. Only to end up like Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.
In Response

by: Michael Steele from: VULCAN
February 13, 2015 09:18
"Sizable portion of Ukraine" ? Surely you jest? Ukraine is not Armenia. It can't be bought by Putin anymore. They got rid of Yanukovich. Armenia, on the other hand, is still one of Putin's Puppets. Sad story really......
In Response

by: Bill Rice from: United States
February 15, 2015 06:40
That was pretty funny Jack! First of all. The Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in all of Europe. What do they have to sell? Bailing out the Ukraine financially will cost Europe far more then it will benefit them. NATO's encroachment? NATO is a defensive organization. It was falling part before Putin invaded the Ukraine. the world's defensive contractors should send Putin a thank you card! At best, the Ukraine was years away from becoming a NATO member. As for Washington, what does the U.S. have to gain? We do very little trade with Russia. Again, bailing out the Ukraine will cost us far more then it will benefit us. So, why will do it? We will do it because we are the United States of America. Freedom and democracy are the principles we live by even if that means making mistakes sometimes. When Iraq invade Kuwait did we respond? Yes we did. We freed Kuwait and left Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq when we could have very easily over-thrown him then. Yes, the second invasion of Iraq was wrong. We don't claim to be perfect. We tacitly supported the Arab Spring in Egypt even though Mubarak was supported by the U.S. and when his successor was elected we did nothing even though we knew he would alienate a large portion of the Egyptian population. Why? Unlike Russia we have no desire or intention of imposing our will on other countries.
You bring up several member countries of the EU. All of those countries have or have had serious economic problems. Has the EU abandoned them. Not yet but, Greece is on thin ice. Even so, I would trade life in any of those countries over life in Russia under Putin.
If you like your life in Armenia Jack, that is fine. Just don't tell the people of the Ukraine they have to be Putin's lap dog too!
Oh! I won't even comment on the sizeable portion of the Ukraine comment! Have you ever been there Jack or did you just pull that one out of your a**? I have many times. While most people speak Russian they consider themselves and are very proud to be Ukrainian. We will just chalk that comment up to you drinking cheap Russia vodka or jealousy that they had the ba**s to stand up to Putin!

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or