The Minsk agreements and what they mean for war in Ukraine

A path to peace – or a ‘rotting corpse slumped over the conference table’?

A Ukrainian servicemen from the 25th Air Assault Battalion
A Ukrainian soldier defending the country’s border with Russia
(Image credit: Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

As an armed standoff continues on Ukraine’s border with Russia, Finland’s president has suggested that an existing peace deal could help to avert war.

Sauli Niinisto “said the Minsk agreement had been somewhat forgotten for several years, but in his most recent call with [Vladimir] Putin the Russian leader had emphasised its importance again”, Reuters reported

Both Washington and Moscow have also referred to the deals in recent months, raising hopes that they could provide a framework for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

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What are the Minsk agreements?

The Minsk set of agreements were signed in 2014 and 2015 by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany as a response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

Slate said that the documents “called for a ceasefire, a pullback of heavy weapons from the battlefield, the disarmament of all militia groups” and “amnesty for the pro-Russia separatists involved in the fighting, an exchange of hostages and prisoners” and “the resumption of socio-economic links between Ukraine and the Russian-occupied region of Donbass”.

However, the Chatham House think-tank pointed out that the agreements have a “gaping hole” because although signed by Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine, they do not mention Russia. This omission has been used by Moscow to “shirk responsibility for implementation and maintain the fiction that it is a disinterested arbiter” rather than a player in the conflict.

The agreements have not stopped fighting in Donbass and little effort has been made by Moscow or Kiev to implement the accords. However, the parties seemingly agree that it remains the most likely basis for any future resolution to the conflict.

So could they help avoid war now?

Quite possibly. In January, Alexander Grushko, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said that if the Minsk accords were implemented, it could “de-escalate” the conflict, leaving the issue of Ukraine as no threat to Russia.

The previous month, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, also pointed to the accords as a potential way forward. After meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, he said he had “made clear” the US is prepared to work to “support a diplomatic resolution through implementation of the Minsk agreements in any way that we can”.

Meanwhile, said Slate, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has been “pursuing his own diplomatic initiative with Russia” in the form of a 10-point plan, including an exchange of prisoners, and the opening of crossing points for civilians, that “fits comfortably into the Minsk formula”.

Therefore, the “dangling” of the Minsk agreements – first by Blinken and now by Grushko – “shows all parties the way to a finessing of the present confrontation”, it added.

The ‘Normandy Format’ countries – France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine – have confirmed their support for the Minsk 2 part of the agreements. The nations will hold a meeting later this month, in which the agreements may form the basis of discussion.

What obstacles do the agreements present?

Niinisto conceded that one of the most intractable topics to settle in the agreement will be Moscow’s demand to give the Donbass area or the breakaway east Ukraine regions an autonomous status and the right of veto on Ukraine’s foreign relations.

The Interpreter argued that by accepting Moscow’s terms, Ukraine would risk “becoming liable to rebuild and support the economy of an autonomous region with vast political powers and legitimised pro-Russian leadership”. Therefore, it added, Moscow and Kiev “fundamentally disagree on the provisions of the only peace plan they have”.

Writing in the Moscow Times, Mark Galeotti was scornful of the idea that the agreements were a sign of hope. “It is time to recognize that the Minsk process has run its course – and may if anything be blocking any more meaningful dialogue,” he argued last year.

He would prefer to see the parties scrap the agreements and return to the drawing board. In a separate piece, for the Council on Geostrategy, Galeotti said: “Minsk is not only dead, it is a rotting corpse slumped over the conference table”. Not only are the agreements “failing to bring peace to the Donbas” but they are preventing “potential new negotiations, or even an honest conversation about the conflict”.

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Chas Newkey-Burden has been part of The Week Digital team for more than a decade and a journalist for 25 years, starting out on the irreverent football weekly 90 Minutes, before moving to lifestyle magazines Loaded and Attitude. He was a columnist for The Big Issue and landed a world exclusive with David Beckham that became the weekly magazine’s bestselling issue. He now writes regularly for The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Metro, FourFourTwo and the i new site. He is also the author of a number of non-fiction books.