Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine has been embroiled in a now six-year war with Moscow and its proxies in Ukraine’s eastern territories. Over this period Russian-backed separatists as well as Russian forces have employed a hybrid system of warfare encompassing fronts across land, sea, and cyber environments. In response, both NATO and Western partners have supplied Ukraine with a myriad of economic and resource-focused assistance packages to help Kyiv hold the line and bolster their defensive capabilities. It was in this context that the 2014 and 2015 Minsk I & II agreements were brokered to establish a pathway to peace and the cessation of violence, which has clamed thousands of lives and displaced millions. This article will explore how the Minsk protocols have held up in the face of over half a decade of warfare and whether or not respective stakeholders have taken action toward the goals and strategies espoused by the agreements. Specifically, it is crucial to understand what NATO’s response to Russia’s war in Ukraine has been since 2014 as well as what these policy responses have looked like. Not only a war for Kyiv to grapple with, the current hostilities in Eastern Ukraine have reintroduced the spectre of war on NATO’s border—a war that has and will continue to require modern, holistic, and nuanced policies from NATO.
By Zachary Popovich
The ongoing war in Ukraine has now entered its sixth year, claiming the lives of over 13,000 people, a quarter of them civilians. Despite “landmark” meetings in 2014 and 2015 establishing the deflated Minsk I and Minsk II protocols, the stalemate in Eastern Ukraine continues.
Ukraine’s abrupt armed conflagration in its eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk along with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 not only presented direct and immediate threats to Ukraine’s sovereignty but also established new and active frontlines between the West and Moscow.
Russia’s strategy in Eastern Ukraine has mirrored patterns witnessed in Georgia and Moldova. In 2008, Moscow was able to leverage pro-Russian separatist tensions in Georgia to invade South Ossetia and Abkhazia and has since maintained a military presence in the region. Looking at Moldova, Russia’s military presence in Transnistria since 1992 was an early example of Moscow’s manipulation of localized pro-Russian sentiment buttressed by its military mobilization to secure political, strategic, and economic dominance across the former Soviet empire. The West’s, NATO’s, and Washington’s inability to combat this approach has allowed Russia to seize territory in direct contravention of established international law and mutual agreements.
The 1994 Budapest Memorandum was an early attempt after the dissolution of the Soviet Union to address geopolitical and strategic concerns and protect the sovereignty of newly independent states. The agreement was supported by the pledges of Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom and secured the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan in return for the transfer of their nuclear arsenals to Russia. Clearly, such explicit guidelines for Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity failed to prevent Russian aggression in the long term.
The Minsk I and Minsk II protocols, penned in 2014 and 2015, respectively, were the first attempt to avoid a repeated stalemate and shifting status quo in Ukraine, on par with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. These packages attempted to establish a manageable consensus in both ending hostilities in Eastern Ukraine and creating a tangible political solution for the reintegration of the rebelling Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. The periods between both Minsk I and Minsk II as well as after the 2015 Minsk II agreement witnessed repeated ceasefire violations and bloodshed, with no tangible moves on either side to implement the line items of the peace plans. Despite these failures, international actors, states, Ukraine, and Russia have regarded the Minsk protocols as the best vehicle to bring peace.
Failures of Minsk I & II
The combined Minsk packages represent a continuum of meetings between organizations and states such as the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Germany, France, Ukraine, Russia and the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics between the fall and winter of 2014/2015. During this period, Ukraine witnessed massive amounts of bloodshed that baptized its security forces in fire as well as the rise of overwhelming security and humanitarian concerns.
The very existence of a Minsk II agreement naturally indicates that the previous Minsk I package failed to achieve its goals. The content found within the 2014 Minsk I deal was the inheritor of the assumptions and principles of then Ukrainian President Petro Poreschenko’s June 2014 Peace Plan. These plans took Ukraine for what it was at the time: a nation at war with active political separatists fuelled by a Russian machine with adversarial interests. As such, its proposals introduced the now infamous (temporary) special status provisions granting the separatist regions particular political autonomy with future local elections to take place once Ukraine regains control across such regions and the Ukraine-Russia border. President Poreschenko’s logic followed that political concessions would come after security considerations were addressed.[i]
Although signed by Russia and their separatist puppets, the provisions applied no costs either politically or militarily to the Moscow war machine. Despite Western economic sanctions against Russia and clear Western pro-Ukraine rhetoric, Russian President Vladimir Putin faced no real challenges from Europe, the United States, NATO, or the fledgling Ukrainian military. Almost immediately after the agreement on Minsk I, Russia led massive invasions culminating in the Second Battle of Donetsk Airport, resulting in hundreds of casualties and one of the bloodiest battles of the Ukrainian conflict.
The tragedy of Minsk I was not due to its failure to achieve its goals—it was equally a tragedy in its own design and policy prescriptions. Both the success and failure of Minsk I spelled negative outcomes for Ukraine, with the success of the agreement arguably leading to a worse long-term position for Ukraine in retaining its sovereignty.
The revamped Minsk II agreement outlined in February 2015 did not fare much better in either ending hostilities or establishing a long-term, defendable position for a sovereign and free Ukraine. Russia’s strengthened military position after repeated clashes granted Moscow a stronger hand in creating a deal more suitable for Russia and its puppet states—all the while pretending to play the role of international peace maker.
In this equally disastrous deal, the territorial focus on Ukraine regaining control of its state borders was replaced with the need for a demilitarized pull-back zone between separatist regions and formal Ukrainian forces. Here, both sides would agree to disengage heavy artillery and establish a cold front. Politically, Minsk II not only solidified the existence of the special status provisions for Donetsk and Luhansk but also required constitutional reform to grant these regions autonomy and particular economic and political independence from Kyiv.
Again, as in Minsk I, the more recent Minsk II deal both in logic and practice fails to secure a free and sovereign Ukraine independent of external Russian influence.[ii] By its design, necessitating constitutional reform to ensure autonomous statuses for separatist regions, Russia is guaranteed a hand in Ukraine’s domestic affairs and constitutional considerations—a position that would never be accepted by any European nation. Such an agreement followed until its conclusion would not only create a perverted pseudo-system of federalism in Ukraine but would allow Russia political, economic, and military control over Ukraine’s eastern territories. Furthermore, the Minsk provisions do not include any robust performance measures that would assess whether or not Ukraine has followed through and enacted decentralized constitutional provisions, thus leaving Russia to judge if such actions meet Moscow’s standards.
Beyond the inadequate and indefensible line items of the Minsk protocols, context here does matter. As stated, almost immediately after signing the Minsk I provision, Russia and its proxies expanded their positions militarily. A deal enacted by an invading nation is not a deal: it is a demand. As witnessed, Russia’s military leverage not only allowed Moscow to establish a structurally weakened Kyiv but even allowed it to press its position immediately after signing. Minsk II further ceded Russia more control over its proxy states in Ukraine and created a long-term vision for Ukraine that gives Moscow power over its own political, security, and economic considerations. Both the success and failure of Minsk II stand to weaken Ukraine and surrender its sovereignty.
Despite the protocol’s failures, both in content and implementation, parties to the agreement and the West hold Minsk II as an icon to peace in the region. This past December, members of the Normandy front met for the first time since 2016 to attempt a breakthrough at peace in Ukraine.[iii] Unsurprisingly, Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was unable to achieve any dramatic concession by Russia or gain any momentum in enacting the Minsk II provisions. However, this meeting did set the stage for low-level agreements, namely an agreement on prisoner exchanges that followed soon after. Additionally, that same month President Zelensky and parliament passed a one-year extension on the special status of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts until the end of 2020.[iv]
As the war continues and with neither side willing to take significant steps to enact the Minsk protocol, many analysts suspect that the best-case scenario for Ukraine may in fact be the status quo. In a recent article, Atlantic Council’s James Brooke relates how a positive path for both Ukraine, Russia, and separatists may be reached, allowing for movement and trade so long as security is achieved.[v] Here, one of the most powerful questions is asked regarding the goals of the conflict: should security or politics come first?
Since the pre-Minsk I Poroschenko peace plan was introduced, Ukraine has held firm to ending hostilities and protecting security interests before political considerations for the east could be discussed. To the contrary, Russia has and continues to push for political protections for separatist regions before any meaningful withdrawals can take place.
Therefore, as the question of how to end the war in Ukraine remains, many believe that the best middle-road, short-term alternative is to ensure a baseline level of security with limited trade agreements allowing people across battle lines to rebuild, engage in commerce, and take part in civil institutions long overlooked. Security may therefore provide confidence to markets and foreign investors—a situation similar to that of post-2008 Georgia, which continues to enjoy relatively strong industries despite Russian occupation.
Ukraine, therefore, must outline realistic goals for how it wishes to see the fighting ended and what tangible goals it hopes to achieve. If Kyiv wishes to see its political auspices returned across all of Ukraine, including the east, with complete control of its borders, then the current Minsk II vehicles do nothing to arrive at these objectives. There is no mechanism to incentivize or convince Russia to simply withdraw from its well-defended and maintained position as viceroy of Eastern Ukraine. Until pressures outside the Minsk framework can shift the strategic winds, Ukraine, Europe, NATO, and the West must continue to build Ukraine’s political and military capacities not as a way to overwhelm Russian positions but rather to hold onto the territory it already controls and increase the costs of Russia’s occupation. The worst enemy President Putin can face is a confident and equipped Ukrainian military backed by a robust democratic political establishment.
NATO and Ukraine
Even before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO and Ukraine worked to increase cooperation and align Ukraine’s civilian-military standards along Western principles. The NATO-Ukraine Commission was established in 1997 as a body to formulate the growing relationship between NATO and Ukraine and has spearheaded various agreements aimed at investments in Ukraine’s military and civilian infrastructures.[vi]
Since former Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s ouster and Crimea’s annexation in early 2014, NATO has expanded and formulated new regimes to funnel financial, military, and political support for the fledgling Ukrainian military. At NATO’s Warsaw Summit in 2016, the NATO-Ukraine Commission endorsed the Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP) establishing trust funds and other mechanisms to incorporate Ukraine’s security and defence sectors under NATO standards. Along with particular bureaucratic and philosophical overhauls, NATO has taken significant steps in unifying Europe’s readiness to combat Russian aggression, increase confidence across eastern member states, and reinforce deterrence against the Russian threat to European peace and stability.
NATO’s campaign to assist Ukraine has followed a two-fold approach by both increasing Ukraine’s capacity to deter future Russian aggression and presenting a united European front, highlighting consistency across the Alliance’s 29 member states.
The latter strategy has involved a myriad of robust drills by air, land, and sea in coordinating strategic efforts and establishing contingencies. Prior to the U.S. Army Europe’s Defender-Europe 2020 exercise, NATO’s 2018 Trident Juncture between 25 October and 7 November was the Alliance’s largest military drill in 25 years, since the fall of the Soviet Union.[vii] These exercises involved all member states, plus Sweden and Finland, and brought together thousands of personnel, vehicles, naval vessels, and aircraft. The drill’s setting in Scandinavia and the Baltic States was also purposefully chosen to highlight NATO’s particular preparedness in defending its periphery.
In June 2018, the U.S. Army Europe’s Saber Strike 18 operation was one of the earliest exercises to project readiness along the West’s periphery. These drills took place from 3-15 June in Poland and the Baltic States—bringing together over 18,000 troops from 19 NATO member states.[viii]
Such operations have not only projected NATO’s military preparedness and unity in defence planning but also provide lessons for nations like Ukraine. The United States and Ukraine co-hosted the Summer 2019 Breeze 19 and Sea Breeze 19 Black Sea naval exercises, which directly connected Ukraine’s navy with NATO member state naval forces in testing capabilities and increasing interoperability standards.[ix]
Clearly, Ukraine is willing, able, and dedicated to inserting itself into the NATO bulwark and structural mechanisms. Besides issues of lack lustre military hardware, one of the biggest obstacles for Ukraine’s military has been shedding Soviet-era security philosophies and organizational frameworks. Although cultural confidence in Ukraine’s armed forces has grown significantly since 2014, 80% of military personnel did not renew their military contracts within the first year of the conflict.[x] Fundamental reforms have been made across two presidential administrations since 2014; however, Ukraine finds itself with the continuing need to increase its capacity to incorporate post-Soviet, modern, Western frameworks in order to build a military capable of standing up to a Russian juggernaut.
It is here where NATO should find its comparative advantage in defending Ukraine and, therefore, Europe. Ukrainian support for the idea of NATO and what it stands for has grown exponentially over the past half-decade across the government and the general population. In February 2019, President Zelensky and Ukraine’s parliament even approved of language in the constitution that would identify membership in the European Union and NATO as strategic national goals.[xi] NATO, the West, and the United States need to capitalize on this upswell in political capital. These decisions cut directly into long-espoused Moscow propaganda of an expansionist and invasive NATO-led network, on par with hostile takeovers.
The real strength in NATO’s network lies not only in its obvious military capabilities across member states but also in members’ ubiquitous commitments to the principles of shared defence commitments, freedom, and sovereignty. As such principles gain support in Ukraine, NATO must continue its efforts in bringing Kyiv in line with the Alliance’s framework and partnership mechanisms. The United States needs to continue providing Ukraine with the funds, leadership, and hardware it needs to secure its sovereignty. The worst enemy of Russia’s desires for renewed expansionism is a united NATO in league with a capable Ukraine standing in the frontlines.
After half a decade of fighting, belligerent parties in Ukraine and occupying Russian forces have been unable to deliver on the promises outlined by Minsk II in 2015. Since then, ceasefire violations and broken commitments have been the rule rather than the exception in the fight for Ukraine. In this environment Ukraine finds itself in a lose-lose situation—failure to achieve Minsk goals consigns the nation and its citizens to an unacceptable status quo while even successful implementation of the agreement sacrifices Ukrainian sovereignty and allows Russia decisive influence over the territory it currently occupies.
While the long-term question of peace in Ukraine may need to wait, there are immediate steps that Kyiv can take to protect the territory it holds and defend against further Russian encroachment. Already, Ukraine’s military and political establishments have found success in overhauling state structures through long sought collaborations with the West and NATO. By engaging in critical partnerships with the Alliance, Kyiv has and will continue to increase its security capabilities and become a key player in Eastern European security. More than a political consideration, the war in Ukraine has provided a silver lining as there has been a significant increase in domestic support for NATO and its principles. In tandem, Ukraine’s political paradigm has reflected pro-democracy and pro-nationalist sentiments that will continue to unite the nation in its campaign for identity and independence. NATO must continue to foster these sentiments and help support a capable Ukraine able to defend against an adversarial Russia.
Zachary Popovich is a young professional and graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in Public Administration at James Madison University and holds a bachelor’s degree in International Affairs. His main area of interest includes Eastern European security policy, with a focus on post-Soviet states. Zachary has been able to conduct research and build his expertise alongside senior research fellows, most recently through an internship with the American Foreign Policy Council based in Washington, DC.
[i] Alya Shandra, "Minsk-2 is the real problem for Ukraine, not 'Steinmeir's Formula'," Euromaiden Press, 6 November 2019, accessed 31 January 2020, http://euromaidanpress.com/2019/11/06/minsk-2-is-the-real-problem-for-uk....
[ii] Judy Dempsey, "Judy Asks: Can the Minsk Agreement Succeed?" Judy Dempsey's Strategic Europe, Carnegie Europe, 22 February 2017, accessed 31 January 2020, https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/68084.
[iii] Katya Gorchinskaya, "The Normandy Summit Ended With No Breakthroughs. What Has It Achieved?" Forbes, 10 December 2019, accessed 31 January 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/katyagorchinskaya/2019/12/10/the-normandy-s....
[iv] UNIAN Information Agency, "Zelensky enacts law on extension of Donbas special status," 18 December 2019, accessed 31 January 2020, https://www.unian.info/politics/10800197-zelensky-enacts-law-on-extensio....
[v] James Brooke, "A frozen conflict may be Ukraine's best option," Ukraine Alert, Atlantic Council, 20 January 2020, accessed 31 January 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/a-frozen-conflict-may....
[vi] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, "Relations with Ukraine," last updated 4 November 2019, accessed 31 January 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_37750.htm.
[vii] Rikard Jozwiak, "NATO Launches 'Biggest Military Exercise Since the End of the Cold War,'" Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 24 October 2018, accessed 31 January 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/nato-set-to-start-biggest-military-exercise-sinc....
[viii] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, "NATO Launches Massive Saber Strike Maneuvers in Poland, Baltics," 3 June 2018, accessed 31 January 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/nato-s-massive-saber-strike-maneuvers-in-poland-....
[ix] Allen Cone, "U.S. joins 11 NATO allies for Breeze 2019 maritime exercise in Bulgaria," UPI, 15 July 2019, accessed 31 January 2020, https://www.upi.com/Defense-News/2019/07/15/US-joins-11-NATO-allies-for-....
[x] Denya Kiryukhin, "The Ukranian Military: From Degradation to Renewal," Foreign Policy Research Institute, 17 August 2018, accessed 31 January 2020, https://www.fpri.org/article/2018/08/the-ukrainian-military-from-degrada....
[xi] Steven Pifer, "NATO's Ukraine Challenge," Order from Chaos, Brookings Institute, 6 June 2019, accessed 31 January 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/06/06/natos-ukraine....