There are two incompatible narratives on the meaning of last Saturday’s agreement in Minsk. There is also, as usual, the complex reality which the partisans of the warring sides refuse to recognize, and which escapes the attention of major Western media commentators.
The Ukrainian nationalists accused Petro Poroshenko of surrendering to Putin. Kiev’s New Times (Novoye Vremya, www.nv.ua – not to be confused with its Russian namesake) bewailed his acceptance of Ukraine’s de facto federalization, which allegedly gives the insurgents everything except formal independence. This view was summarized by the editor of the Kyiv Post who declared that “Putin’s side wants war and conquest [so] there are only two alternatives: wage war or surrender to Putin’s terms.” The U.S. hawks argue along similar lines, specifically accusing Merkel and Hollande of strong-arming Poroshenko into submission to Moscow’s dictate. While bewailing the lack of European fiber, they dismissed the Minsk agreement as another “Munich.” Predictably, John McCain declared that “Vladimir Putin must be very pleased with this deal” and insisted that the U.S. provides “defensive lethal assistance to Ukraine.” On the liberal-interventionist side Strobe Talbott, among others, made the same demand.
The Russian nationalists accused Putin of stabbing “Novorossiya” in the back. That accusation has been present in nationalist circles ever since the insurgents’ retreat from Slavyansk last summer and the subsequent replacement of Igor Strelkov as commander of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic’s armed forces. Editors at the nationalist site www.sputnikipogrom.com called Minsk II “a betrayal”. Far from heralding a meaningful self-rule for the two republics, it merely refers to “certain districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk Regions” which are promised “a clownish, semi-autonomous status… The agreement contradicts not only all the goals of the uprising but all the objectives of Russian policy in Ukraine.” “It is generally shocking, of course,” conservative commentator Dmitry Olshansky wrote of Minsk II. The Russian president “did not even get the status of official autonomy for the DNR and LNR… You’d have to be Putin to obtain such an impressive result. I take my hat off.”
Neither view is correct, as should be clear from the actual text of the Minsk agreement. The most important by far is
9. Restoration of full control over the state border of Ukraine by the government throughout the conflict zone, which should begin on the first day after the local elections and be completed after a comprehensive political settlement (local elections in some areas of Donetsk and Lugansk regions on the basis of the Law of Ukraine and constitutional reform) at the end of 2015, subject to paragraph 11 — in consultation and agreement with the representatives of individual areas of Donetsk and Lugansk regions in the framework of the Three-Party Contact Group.
It does not promise federalization or even “autonomy” to the two eastern regions, but only refers to the Ukrainian law granting them temporary special status. Looks like a win for the Kiev government. But the purpose of Minsk was not to define the framework of Ukraine’s future constitution, it was to create the preconditions – i.e. the absence of shooting war – for future talks on that status. Crucially, however, control of the border with Russia is specifically made contingent on the agreement being reached first, and the elections conducted “in consultation and agreement with the representatives of individual areas of Donetsk and Lugansk regions” – which looks like a win for the insurgents. Poroshenko still refuses to talk to them directly, and the agreement was yet again signed by the former president, Leonid Kuchma, whose legal standing in the proceedings is at best moot – advantage Kiev. But the presence of both Donbass leaders in Minsk at least implies the recognition of their legitimacy by the two European leaders – deuce.
In reality, as I wrote here last week, the character and scope of the two eastern regions’ self-rule is one of those issues on which there can be no agreement without another fight: “What Poroshenko is willing to concede, now that he hopes he can up the ante with American weapons, is nowhere near what the people in the east are ready to accept.” Nothing has happened in Minsk to alter that verdict. This war probably will continue come spring because all of its structural causes are still present.
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