Second Minsk accords: Putin forces his terms on the West

Whether the new Minsk accords are fully or partially implemented, or not implemented at all, Russia has nothing to lose and much to gain.

Vladimir Putin (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Vladimir Putin
After 16-hour-long talks Russian President Vladimir Putin looked surprisingly energetic, even joyful. No wonder – he got almost everything he wanted, maybe everything. The new Minsk accords are extremely flimsy, vague and difficult to implement – but if implemented clearly favor the Russians. If not, Russia has nothing to lose.
Judging by the published agreement, the break-away republics should remain part of Ukraine, but will retain de-facto political independence from Kiev along with heavy dependence on Moscow’s patronage. Russia is freed of the economic burden of supporting the two republics and shifts the responsibility for social payments and the reconstruction of the ruined cities onto the struggling Ukrainian budget. Accordingly, Moscow will gain long-desired influence on Ukraine’s domestic politics and a de-facto veto on its alignment with the West, without having to bear any financial responsibility.
As long as the break-away republics keep their military forces, Ukrainian territorial and political integrity remain illusionary. Formally, Ukrainians should regain control over the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) borders with Russia, which will disconnect the republics from any outside support.
This is a key issue in accords’ implementation, but currently a nearly infeasible goal.
Moreover, the suggested cease-fire arrangements potentially favor the LNR and DNR armed forces in case the truce collapses. The agreement provides for the creation of a no-heavy-weapons zone around the current engagement line, but because separatist forces’ superiority over the Ukrainian army is leveled only by Ukrainian artillery, excluding it from the engagement zone will give the separatists a significant advantage.
Significantly, it seems Putin managed to displace the Crimea issue from the international agenda, and from the general context of the Ukrainian crisis. At least for now, he has managed to change the terms of the deal on Ukraine by cutting Crimea out of the equation.
The current Russia-West deal looks like “peace in Europe” and “formal integrity of the Ukrainian state” for Novorossiya’s autonomy, and possibly normalization of Russia-West relations. Although the Minsk agreements do not mention anti-Russian economic sanctions, it is plausible the issue was an informal part of the deal, and in upcoming days we will see if this is indeed the case.
Whether the new Minsk accords are fully or partially implemented, or not implemented at all, Russia has nothing to lose and much to gain. It has preserved all its leverage vehicles, and improved its international image. If the accords are successful Russia may achieve its main geopolitical goals and even reduce the economic price it has to pay for them. Importantly, to maintain the current terms of the deal, Russia will struggle to preserve the two break-away republics as a constant political and military threat to Ukraine.
The author is a postdoctoral Scholar in The University of Manchester and a founding member at the Israeli Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies (ICRES).