Daniel Hamilton works in government relations and is a former Conservative councillor. He writes solely in a personal capacity.
In the early hours of yesterday morning, a ceasefire agreement was concluded between the Presidents of Russia and Ukraine to bring about an end to bitter fighting in South East Ukraine’s Donbas region.
The deal, which was forged under the supervision of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, has met with a cautiously optimistic response in western capitals.
It should, of course, be welcomed in respect of the impact it may have on ending the current bloodshed in Eastern Ukraine, which has claimed the lives of 5,000 people and seen more than 500,000 flee their homes in fear of their lives.
In the short to medium term, however, its provisions risk reinforcing the division of the country and emboldening Russia to engage in further revanchist adventures beyond its borders.
As a starting point, any discussion of the agreement cannot gloss over the fact that inaction on the part of western powers played a considerable role in leading Ukraine to the position it finds itself in today.
While progress has been made in imposing economic sanctions upon the Russian Government and Kremlin-aligned business leaders, the failure to provide Ukraine with defensive weaponry following the annexation of Crimea has only served to embolden Putin’s push deeper into the Donbas region.
As such, we have moved from a situation where the subject of any deal between Ukraine and Russia ought to have been about the future territorial status of Crimea to a position where its annexation has been de facto recognised in order to reach a deal over Donbas.
Allowing a perception to take hold that the west is flexible when it comes to the territorial integrity of sovereign states will only serve to embolden revanchist Russian movements in the Baltics, the Moldovan province of Transnistria and northern Kazakhstan.
It is with these festering powder kegs in mind that the Minsk Agreement’s provision calling for a “new [Ukrainian] constitution with… a permanent law on the special status of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions” is particularly concerning.
While nobody would doubt that the introduction of a degree of decentralisation is necessary to resolve local tensions, several provisions contained within the Minsk Agreement risk allowing separatists to build local power bases that undermine the integrity of the Ukrainian central government.
Of particular concern is the ability of rebels to create “people’s militia units to maintain public order“. This, coupled with a pledge to involve separatists in the appointment of prosecutors and judges, risks making the enforcement of criminal justice in the Donbas impossible.
When it comes to having faith in the Russian Federation’s sincerity in implementing the agreement, one must be mindful of the fact President Putin has spent the best part of a year bitterly disputing the presence of his country’s military on Ukrainian territory.
The pledge, therefore, to “withdraw foreign armed forces, military equipment and mercenaries” from Ukraine only serves to expose the President as a brazen liar.
As the talks themselves were underway in Minsk on Wednesday evening, Ukrainian forces detected the transfer of fifty tanks, 40 Grad, Uragan and Smerch rocket launchers and 40 armoured personnel carriers from Russian to Ukrainian territory.
With the formal ceasefire only due to start at midnight on Sunday 15, it is likely that this weaponry will be used to further entrench the positions of separatist forces verses Ukrainian troops over the coming hours. Even (perhaps naively) assuming Russia is sincere in its intentions to honour agreements to withdraw heavy weaponry within two weeks commencing Tuesday 17, plenty of time remains for separatists to secure their gains.
Given that the provisions of the agreement apply to both parties, the ban on all foreign military assistance will disproportionately harm Ukraine. The terms of the Minsk Agreement only require the removal of “artillery systems of 100mm calibre of more” and “multiple rocket-launcher systems“, not a wholly demilitarised zone.
As such, separatists will be free to hold on to the bulk of the expensive, high-calibre kit provided to them by Russia in recent months while Ukraine’s army will be forced to continue its reliance upon decrepit, Soviet-era weaponry. This simply isn’t a level playing field and risks leaving Ukraine very badly exposed.
This is not the first time that a deal of this kind has been struck in the former Soviet space. The provisions agreed in Minsk are eerily familiar to the conclusions of the Sochi agreements reached in 1992 and 1993 between the Georgia and Russian-backed separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with commitments to withdraw troops from the frontline, swap prisoners and pursue a “political settlement” to the conflicts.
Indeed, the same oversight body – the Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) – was charged with policing adherence with the respective agreements.
Rather than ensuring peace and guaranteeing the integrity of the Georgian state, Sochi only served to create the conditions for separatist-run frozen conflict zones that – with Russian military support – still remain in place more than two decades later. It is quite possible that the Minsk Agreement’s provisions will lead to the same reality emerging in the Donbas.
Backed into a corner, Ukraine’s government has been brow-beaten into making intolerable compromises. Far from being a document to be welcomed, the Minsk Agreement is a text that ought inspire fear and regret on the part of western-policy makers.
If the Minsk Agreement is to result in any positive gains for the people of Ukraine and its occupied territories, the United States and European Union governments must commit to scrupulous scrutiny of Russia’s adherence to the terms of the deal. Regrettably, the expectation can be that it will be breached post-haste.
Vladimir Putin is said compare political moves to manoeuvers on a chess board. Western leaders have allowed themselves to be continually checkmated by Putin and his increasingly thuggish impulses throughout the Ukraine crisis. They must now be ready with their next move.
The United States Congress has already authorised Senator John McCain’s Ukraine Freedom Support Act authorising the provision of lethal weapons to the country’s military to aid its defence. It’s high time that the United Kingdom and our NATO allies made similar such preparations.
Vladimir Putin and his administration don’t understand words; only actions. It is a surfeit of noble words and lack of any meaningful military assistance to Ukraine that has led us to today’s impasse. We cannot let it happen again.