Minsk 2: The big farce of Western policy on Russia
By Roman Sohn
The New Year began with optimism that the Ukraine crisis will be solved quickly. But the solution appears to be on Russia’s terms and at the cost of Ukraine’s national interests.
The problem goes back to the ceasefire accords endorsed by France and Germany in September 2014 (Minsk) and in February 2015 (Minsk 2), the latter precisely one year ago today.
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On both occasions, Russia's envoys sat at the table as observers, not as the representatives of an aggressor state.
The EU leaders and the US played along with the farce. It showed that their main objective was to avoid a large scale war in Europe at almost any cost to Ukraine.
They showed it again by doing nothing when Russian forces, a few days after Minsk 2, captured the Ukrainian town of Debaltseve amid a devastating artillery assault.
In the past 12 moths of “ceasefire” its hybrid forces have killed about 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers.
Nato and Ukrainian intelligence say there are still 8,500 regular Russian troops in east Ukraine and that Russia is preparing to escalate the war at any moment.
In fact, Russian leader Vladimir Putin hasn't complied with a single point in the Minsk texts.
But the EU and the US are once again showing their true intentions.
The EU is instead piling pressure on Ukraine to fulfil its part of Minsk by devolving power to Russia-occupied Ukraine. US diplomats, as in Kaliningrad in January, are talking to Russia over Ukraine’s head.
It fills Ukrainian people with deep apprehension and mistrust.
Yes, the EU economic sanctions are to stay in place until July. But Putin has enough foreign reserves to keep playing his games for much longer than that.
The game is quite simple.
While the West keeps saying there’s “no military solution”, the Russian military keeps killing people and capturing land to strengthen Russia’s bargaining position.
Putin knows that it’s much easier for the West to put pressure on Ukraine to accept bad terms than to forge a consensus on even tougher Russia sanctions.
He’s convinced that at the end of the day the West will pick Russia over Ukraine.
That’s why he’s keeping the Ukraine conflict on soft boil, while creating other problems, as in Syria - to make himself indispensable to their solution.
The West should have set a limit to how long Russia can be a party to the peace process while continuing to wage war.
Instead, the new messages we’re hearing, from Paris to Ottawa - that the West should rebuild relations with Russia - appear to prove him right.
At the same time, Ukraine is completely dependent on the West.
Its economy is so bad it needs Western money to maintain even a semblance of normal life. It depends on Western sanctions to restrain Russian aggression to some extent.
Ukrainian people are grateful for Western support. But they also have questions.
For instance, how come EU economic sanctions aren’t tied to Russia’s withdrawal from Crimea? The annexation is a gross violation of international laws and a dangerous precedent.
Also, how come no one sees that tying the sanctions to Minsk compliance is catastrophic for Ukraine’s democratic leadership?
When he went to war in Syria, Putin knew Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko wouldn’t take the opportunity to strike back in east Ukraine - Poroshenko’s hands were tied by Minsk: if he tried to make territorial gains, he’d lose Western support.
Putin also knows that Poroshenko’s political survival relies on Minsk.
The Ukrainian leader has promised to bring peace without bloodshed. The West, by making him cling to that fiction, even as Russia’s forces keep killing Ukrainian people, is making him look more ridiculous each day.
So what will be the final scene in this theatre of the absurd - that the West drops Russia sanctions because Ukraine unilaterally complied with the ceasefire accord?
One year down the line, we can see Minsk 2 for what it is: Russia dictating Ukraine’s future by securing its de facto control of the territory which it conquered in the Donbas region.
Minsk 2 is a gross violation of our constitution and our sovereignty. It even includes provisions for us to grant amnesty to and pay the bills of Russia-sponsored terrorists.
Its looming outcome is the legalisation and institutionalisation of Russia-controlled paramilitaries - the very structures by which the Kremlin keeps Ukraine hostage.
Is this what the people in the Maidan revolution or on the battlefields of Donbas died for? To give it all away in EU-sponsored back-room diplomacy?
Opinion polls show that the vast majority of people, including people from Donbas, don’t want Donbas autonomy.
Poroshenko’s attempt to force Minsk 2 constitutional changes through parliament has enraged not just civil society but millions of average Ukrainians.
We’re beginning to see that unless Poroshenko says “enough is enough” both to Western pressure and to Russia he won’t last long.
At the same time, the Ukrainian public is becoming disillusioned with the West.
It’s not just because the EU and US endorse Putin’s Donbas model. It’s because they aren’t willing to face reality more broadly speaking.
There is no “Ukraine crisis.” Russian revanchism is a global crisis which threatens world peace.
For two years, Western diplomacy has refused to say that Russia and Ukraine are at war.
They used the fraudulent formula of “Russian support” for “Ukrainian separatists” in the hope of luring Putin to the negotiating table. By engaging with the Kremlin's big lie, they made it harder to find real solutions to the real problem.
The Maidan generation doesn’t understand how you can trust a man who has the blood of Chechnya, Georgia, Donbas, MH17, and Syria on his hands.
It doesn’t understand why Western businesses are queuing to invest in Russia even as pro-Kremlin media demonise Western societies and Kremlin stooges trample on the rule of law at home.
It doesn’t understand why European socialists and communists praise Putin’s ultra-right-wing regime.
But the absurdity of absurdities is Russia being invited to join an “anti-terrorist” coalition against Islamic State.
Putin’s terrorists tried to murder Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine’s first democratic leader. They left a trail of nuclear poison across London when they killed Alexander Litvinenko. They shot down MH17. They knowingly hit civilian targets in Donbas.
They also conducted terrorist attacks in other parts of Ukraine, in Kharkiv and in Odessa, highlighting Putin’s total disregard for innocent lives.
It’s understandable that no one wants to start an all-out war with a nuclear-armed state or to give Putin a pretext, as in Georgia, for a full-scale conventional assault.
This is why the US and EU powers invoke the hypocritical dogma that “there’s no military solution” to Crimea or Donbas, even as they pursue military solutions in other theatres.
This is why they never gave arms to Ukraine or fired a shot in its defence, despite solemn promises under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which they pledged to protect Ukraine in return for nuclear disarmament.
The unilateral dismantling of the world’s third biggest nuclear arsenal saved Western nations billions. But Ukraine can’t get a single rifle in return.
By the same logic, or fear, Nato gave Russia a veto on Georgia and Ukraine enlargement.
This is also why Western sanctions, which don’t touch Russian oil and gas sales, are designed to stop short of causing an economic crisis in Russia.
It’s all meant to leave the door open for Putin to pull back without losing face.
But it’s also seen for what it is by the Kremlin’s revanchist masters - shameful cowardice.
It has already emboldened Russia to open a new front in Syria and to escalate provocations against the Baltic states and Turkey. The day oil prices go back up, we’ll see just how effective Western policy has been.
It's left Ukraine in a surreal position.
We’re left on our own to fight a war which we can’t call a war, against an aggressor which the UN does not recognise as an aggressor.
It's left Russia free to fight a ‘clandestine’ conflict in full view of international observers.
It has created an unreal situation which fuels bogus media coverage of the Russian invasion as internal Ukraine unrest. It has created a hall of mirrors in which the Western public cannot hold their governments to moral account if they drop the sanctions regime.
The old Western democracies think they’re immune to Russian propaganda.
If you ever wondered why nations, in huge numbers, blindly follow brutal dictators just watch Russian TV for a week and you’ll also start to lose your inner compass of what’s right and wrong.
Putin’s sick ideology is bleeding into mainstream EU media by exploiting Europe’s old anti-Americanism and its fear and loathing of Muslim refugees.
Serious Italian newspapers and serious French broadcasters are turning into 'Putin-understanders'.
His concept of the “Russkyi mir” - the idea the Kremlin has the right to do what it likes in the “Russian world”, the old Soviet sphere of influence - is gaining ground in the public imagination.
It’s being propagated by increasingly popular far-left and far-right political parties.
It’s being fortified by EU leaders shaking hands with Putin on TV. It’s being fed by Russian money in European banks, by Russian gas in EU pipelines, and by the CEOs of EU firms turned Putin lobbyists.
Why don’t Western media tell the story of the suffering in Crimea and in Donbas?
Nine thousand dead. Tens of thousands wounded. Hundreds of prisoners. A million and a half made homeless. Three million or more under occupation, deprived of basic rights.
Tell the truth
Why don’t EU leaders tell people that every euro they invest in Russia is a euro which buys arms for their self-proclaimed enemy?
Instead, we hear, in the spirit of Minsk 2, of the need to reset Russia ties. We hear the world-turned-upside down idea that the West made Russia turn rogue under Putin.
If you had any doubt the Russkyi mir has occupied territory in European hearts and minds just look at the opinion polls on the Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine treaty.
The free-trade pact opens Ukrainian markets to European exporters while extending limited privileges to their Ukrainian competitors.
But one of the world’s oldest trading nations now appears to believe that rejecting free trade is in its interest.
In the Cold War, the West saw Warsaw Pact states as a buffer against Soviet aggression. In the new Unreal War the buffer is Ukraine and Belarus.
The big farce is that the West defends its values and people who espouse them. But the show is getting old and nobody's clapping anymore.
Roman Sohn is a civil society activist and a columnist for Ukrainska Pravda, an investigative website