‘Ah, it is easy to deceive me.’ What were the Minsk agreements for the West, Russia and Ukraine?

February 15, 2023
  • Sergey Mikhailov

    Independent Analyst
Sergey Mikhailov writes about the way politicians who crafted Minsk agreements are clarifying their own position and the meaning of the agreements in retrospect and argues that Angela Merkel and François Hollande chose not to notice the agreements were essentially unworkable.
The original text in Russian was published in Republic and republished here with their permission.

This winter, the topic of the Minsk agreements, which, it seemed, had irreversibly faded into oblivion, suddenly emerged again as the subject of comments by both current and former state leaders. In particular, those who took part in the talks eight years ago found it necessary to rehash the events of 2014-15. Why?

Sure, out-of-office politicians tend to reminisce: it’s nice to go back to the glorious past and give comments to the press, especially if a memoir is on the horizon. But there is another possibility. Sometimes there is a desire to explain some action or decision that looks dubious in hindsight: the Minsk agreements could not prevent the war in Ukraine, and now their crafters have decided to clarify both their own position and the meaning of the agreements.

In December 2022, Angela Merkel, in an interview with Die Zeit, said that the Minsk agreements “bought time” for Ukraine to strengthen its army: “it was obvious to us that the conflict would only be frozen without the problem being solved,” though thanks to the agreements Ukraine won “precious time.” Later, the former chancellor was echoed by former French President François Hollande, who noted the strength of the Ukrainian army and attributed that to the Minsk agreements. In addition, former UK PM Boris Johnson and former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko interpreted the Minsk agreements similarly.

Moscow was predictably delighted by these comments, distorting them to make it seem that Merkel and Hollande had perfidiously been preparing Ukraine for a new war with Russia, even though they had only been talking about a well-used window of opportunity by Kyiv. Vladimir Putin, with an offended look, noted the “insincerity” of Russia’s Western partners, claiming that “we were simply led by the nose.” Other Russian officials spoke in the same vein, as did commentators on state channels. In Moscow, they once again – and not without pleasure – accused the West of hypocrisy and expressed their lack of trust in the West.

Nevertheless, the resurgent topic of the Minsk agreements demonstrates the cognitive chasm separating today’s Russia and the West, which calls into question the durability of any future peace negotiations.
The leaders of Belarus, Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine at the 11–12 February 2015 summit in Minsk, Belarus. Source: Wiki Commons
Context: the West preoccupied by problems other than Donbass

First of all, it must be recalled that the Minsk agreements, both Minsk I and Minsk II – the latter would become the final deal – were concluded as Ukraine was suffering defeats. In the spring of 2014, Kyiv tried to take back the Donbas, where Russian sabotage groups and local separatists had established a parallel government that they called the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics (DNR and LNR), yet unrecognized by any other country. Even Ukraine’s very weak regular army at that time would likely have easily regained control over the Donbas if it was not for strange “militias” with heavy weapons that emerged and turned the tide of the conflict. Russia has always denied that its regular troops were involved in the battles, and Putin mockingly said it was “miners and tractor drivers.” Still, no observer had any doubt that in one form or another, Russia was using its own military in the Donbas, meaning talking about the resistance as being solely by “rebels” is senseless.

The ambiguity surrounding the rather heated conflict made problematic the negotiations that Ukraine was forced to enter to stop the Russian offensive.
"Moscow insisted on a direct dialogue between Kyiv and the separatists, claiming that a civil war was underway. Ukraine claimed that Russia was a party to the conflict and that the puppet leaders of Donetsk and Lugansk could not be agents of an agreement."
The mediation of Germany and France helped to remove these obstacles and find a suitable format for negotiations, which created the possibility of signing any agreement in the first place. However, it is also important to recall the global political backdrop.

In the summer of 2014, the “Islamic State” (deemed a terrorist organization and banned in many countries, including Russia) was proclaimed on the territory of Iraq and Syria as a caliphate. It declared as its goal nothing less than to spread its influence across the world. Its medieval practices, such as public executions, oppression of women, terror on the territory it occupied, horrified even the most cold-blooded Westerners. Around that time, France launched a military operation against Islamic radicals in Mali, while terrorist attacks were taking place in European cities. In January 2015, Islamic terrorists attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The spread of radical Islam looked like a civilizational challenge, terrifying voters and forcing governments to look for an answer while putting other things on the backburner.

In 2015, Europe was rocked by a large-scale migration crisis as hundreds of thousands of refugees crossed the Mediterranean Sea or the Turkish border, taking advantage of the carelessness of European authorities. At that time, the EU did not know how to react, and migrants just kept coming and coming.

In the US, the Obama administration refused to intervene in the Syrian conflict after the Assad regime used chemical weapons in the summer of 2013, thus giving an unambiguous signal that Europeans should themselves find a deal with the problems closer to their own borders and not count on American support.

On top of this, Europe was still clawing its way out of the economic crisis of 2008. This is the general backdrop against which Merkel and Hollande arrived in Minsk for the negotiations.
Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, François Hollande at the Kremlin, February 6, 2015. Source: Wiki Commons
Merkel and Hollande’s goals

Putin caught everyone off guard in 2014. Of course, tensions had gradually been rising in Russia-West relations, though no one in the West could have imagined that a change of power in Kyiv would make such a strong impression on Putin that he would decide to outright annex Ukrainian territory and redraw internationally recognized borders. Western leaders called Putin, trying to figure out what was going on. In some sense, they could not believe their eyes. It is from that time when Merkel made her infamous remark about Putin losing touch with reality.

Meanwhile, the situation continued to escalate. Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia – at first moderate sanctions, but then more and more hard-hitting, especially after MH17 was downed. Intense battles began in the Donbas, with the death toll in the thousands, including civilians. The idea of negotiations in Minsk with the mediation of the French and German leaders seemed like a way out. So, what guided Merkel and Hollande?

Firstly, it was necessary to stop the conflict and “take it off the heat” so that a potential political settlement could be reached. That said, the line along which the warring parties would be divided was hardly a critical matter for the leaders of Germany and France, who before the conflict may not have been aware of the existence of any separatism in the Donbas. They considered it more important to establish a peace, basically freezing things as they stood, and get back home to deal with the pressing problems of Islamic terrorism, uncontrolled migration and the economic recovery, which all seemed more of a priority at that time.
"Secondly, they sought to not completely spoil relations with Russia – so they would not have to rethink European energy supplies – while at the same time maintaining Ukraine as an independent state."
Thirdly, all these goals had to be achieved within the framework of international law so that the foundations of European security would not be threatened by the practice of arbitrarily redrawing borders.

You can speculate about the intentions of other participants in the talks. The then new president of Ukraine, Poroshenko, clearly sought to achieve a truce and pay the lowest possible price for it. Representatives of the DNR and LNR did not have an independent position, though they wanted to raise their status. The case of Putin is somewhat more difficult. At that time, he did not seem ready for a complete break with the West and agreed with the formal, legal arguments of Merkel and Hollande, who in turn did not touch the issue of Crimea. Putin likely was satisfied with his military victory and believed that from now on he would be able to dictate terms to Kyiv. The mechanisms to de facto limit Ukraine’s sovereignty and put the country under Moscow’s political control were securely embedded, it seemed to Putin, in the Minsk agreements.

Thus, everyone left with the feeling that they had achieved their own goal, though reality disproved these illusions.

Who deceived whom

It is not surprising that owing to such conflicting intentions and attitudes, what emerged out of Minsk was practically impossible to implement. The stumbling block was the status of the Donbas inside Ukraine and the procedure for resolving the crisis. Moscow insisted on a constitutional reform that would have led to virtually complete independence for the DNR and LNR vis-à-vis the central government. Kyiv did not reject the idea of a special status for the rebellious territories but did not want a state within a state. Essentially, the implementation of the Minsk agreements in the form that Russia demanded would have meant Ukraine giving up sovereignty.

Today, however, the issue is not the durability of the agreements – already disproven by history – but whether Germany and France negotiated in good faith. It is no accident that Merkel and Hollande considered it necessary to explain themselves publicly on this issue years later.

The problem with the talks between the belligerents with the participation of mediators was that there was an objective conflict of interests. Russia planned on dictating its terms from a position of strength, seeing what had transpired on the battlefield as a military victory. Though that position cannot be called friendly in relation to Ukraine, it is at least not surprising. Ukraine, in turn, was forced to resort to some cunning to produce a very confusing document, remove the threat of a collapse at the front and buy time to then bargain at length on individual points and not fulfill what it found to be the most unacceptable obligations. For the belligerents, these tricks are generally excusable.

But for the mediators, who are neutral by definition and should seek a lasting peace, the existence of clear contradictions in the agreements should have raised red flags. The fact that Merkel and Hollande chose not to notice the essential unworkableness of the Minsk agreements says something. But what exactly?

Today, Moscow is trying to pass off their position as a deliberate deceit, though that is not supported by the facts. Back in 2008, France and Germany openly objected to any status for Ukraine in NATO, while the moderateness of the sanctions in 2014 reflects an attempt to preserve what was deemed the most valuable component of relations with Russia – economic cooperation. The fate of Ukraine worried Merkel and Hollande only to the extent that it was part of a set of higher priority issues. They reasoned that the Ukrainians had signed the document – now let them figure out how to make it work.
"Of course, Merkel and Hollande did not deny Ukraine agency, as Putin did, though they would have let Kyiv voluntarily enter Moscow’s sphere of influence."
It is this ambiguity that Merkel and Hollande now want to pass off as a far-sighted plan.

Of course, Ukraine managed to buy time in the end and prepare for a new Russian aggression. However, for that it should thank its own leaders who undertook skillful diplomatic maneuvers rather than out-of-office Western politicians.

But even stranger is the interpretation of Moscow, which for some reason considered its mission accomplished and placed the responsibility for the implementation of the Minsk agreements on Germany and France, as if they had taken on the obligation to promote the Kremlin’s plan to subjugate Ukraine. The fact is that they were only intermediaries in the signing of a conflicted document, the prospects for which seemed very doubtful from the start. Merkel and Hollande decided that a bad deal was better than no deal and to give Moscow and Kyiv the opportunity to continue talking in a calmer atmosphere – maybe something would come out of it. However, from inside the “besieged fortress” of the Kremlin, it is probably hard to see these nuances.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy