(This article was written before Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk within Ukraine as independent territories.)
The story so far: As tensions spiral between Russia and the West over Ukraine, the rebel-held self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics (DNR/DPR and LNR/LPR) in Eastern Ukraine have started evacuating civilians to the Rostov region in Russia claiming an impending Ukrainian military offensive.
They have also declared a full military mobilisation. Shelling is going on even in civilian areas between Ukrainian soldiers and Russia-backed rebels; in response, Russia has extended military exercises on Ukraine’s northern borders.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 21, 2022 recognised the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine and paved the way to provide them military support.
The Chairman of the Russian Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin has already said that Russia is ready to protect its citizens in DNR and LNR if their lives are in danger. Moscow is paying everyone arriving from the Donbass 10,000 roubles and giving them refuge. It is also fastpacking passports for people from the region. Meanwhile, the Duma has requested President Putin to initiate proceedings for recognising the independence of the DNR and LPR. Allegations are flying thick and fast with the rebels and Russia accusing Ukraine of carrying out a genocide against the Russian-speaking population in these regions and Ukraine and the West claiming that Russia is manufacturing a crisis as a pretext to invade Ukraine.
How did the crisis start?
The Donbass region, comprising the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine, has been at the centre of the conflict since March 2014 when Moscow invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. In April, pro-Russia rebels began seizing territory (with Russia supporting them through hybrid warfare) in Eastern Ukraine and in May 2014, the rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions held a referendum to declare independence from Ukraine. Since then, these predominantly Russian speaking regions (more than 70% speak Russian) within Ukraine have been witnessing shelling and skirmishes between the rebels and Ukrainian forces leading to the loss of over 14,000 lives by most estimates, creating around 1.5 million registered Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and destruction of the local economy.
In 2013 the population of Donetsk oblast was 4.43 million, which constituted 10% of the overall Ukrainian population, making it the most populous and most densely populated region of the country. According to the 2001 Ukrainian National Census, the ethnic groups within the Donetsk oblast were: Ukrainians – 2,744,100 (56.9%), Russians – 1,844,400 (38.2%), Pontic Greeks – 77,500 (1.6%), Belarusians – 44,500 (0.9%), others (2.3%). The main languages spoken within the oblast were: Russian — 74.9%, Ukrainian – 24.1%.
In the Luhansk oblast, as per the 2001 census, ethnic Ukrainians form 58% of the population. Among the minorities are native Russians (39.1%), Belarusians (0.8%), and others (1.4%). Its population (as of 2004) of 2,461,506 constitutes 5.13% of the overall Ukrainian population. Here more than 68.8% of the population consider themselves Russian speakers, while 30.0% consider themselves Ukrainian speakers.
What has changed now is that the shelling has intensified since last October when Russia began amassing troops along the borders with Ukraine. If the situation in the Donbass escalates, the possibility of a war cannot be dismissed. One way to prevent the outbreak of a war would be to implement the Minsk agreements immediately, as Russia has suggested.
What are the Minsk Agreements?
There are two Minsk agreements, Minsk 1 and Minsk 2, named after the Belarussian capital Minsk where the talks were held. Minsk 1 was written in September 2014 by the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine, i.e. Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) with mediation by France and Germany in the so-called Normandy Format. Under Minsk 1, Ukraine and the Russia-backed rebels agreed on a 12-point ceasefire deal, which included prisoner exchanges, delivery of humanitarian assistance, and the withdrawal of heavy weapons. However, due to violations by both sides, the agreement did not last long.
Following this, as the rebels moved further into Ukraine, in February 2015, representatives of Russia, Ukraine, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk signed a 13-point agreement , now known as the Minsk 2 accord. The new agreement had provisions for an immediate cease-fire, withdrawal of heavy weaponry, OSCE monitoring, dialogue on interim self-government for Donetsk and Luhansk, in accordance with Ukrainian law, and acknowledgement of special status by parliament, pardon and amnesty for fighters, exchange of hostages and prisoners, humanitarian aid, constitutional reform in Ukraine including decentralisation, with specific mention of Donetsk and Luhansk, elections in Donetsk and Luhansk, withdrawal of foreign armed formations, military equipment, mercenaries, full Ukrainian Government control throughout the conflict zone and calls to Ukraine to restore control of state borders, etc.
Since Moscow invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, pro-Russia rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions began seizing territory in Eastern Ukraine and held a referendum to declare independence from Ukraine. Since then, these regions within Ukraine have been witnessing skirmishes between the rebels and Ukrainian forces leading to the loss of over 14,000 lives, creating around 1.5 million registered Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and destruction of the local economy. This shelling has intensified since last October when Russia began amassing troops along the borders with Ukraine.
There are two Minsk agreements, Minsk 1 and Minsk 2. Minsk 1 was written in September 2014 by the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine, i.e. Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE with mediation by France and Germany. Under Minsk 1, Ukraine and the Russia-backed rebels agreed on a 12-point ceasefire deal, which due to violations by both sides, did not last long.
In February 2015, representatives of Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE and the leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk signed a 13-point agreement, now known as the Minsk 2 accord. However, the provisions under the agreement have not been implemented because of the ‘Minsk Conundrum’. Russia believes that the agreement asks Ukraine to grant the Russia-backed rebels in Donbas comprehensive autonomy and representation in the central Government. Only when this is done will Russia hand over control of the Russia-Ukraine border to Ukraine. Ukraine, on the other hand, feels that Minsk 2 allows it to first re-establish control over Donbas, then give it control of the Russia-Ukraine border, then have elections in the Donbas, and a limited devolution of power to the rebels. Ukraine believes the accord supports its sovereignty fully while Russia believes it only gives Ukraine limited sovereignty. Thus, the Minsk 2 agreement has been rightly criticised for being too hastily drafted, ambiguous and contradictory, making it difficult to implement.
However, these provisions have not been implemented because of what is popularly known as the ‘Minsk Conundrum’. This essentially means that Ukraine and Russia have contradictory interpretations about the agreement, particularly about when each part of the agreement is to be fulfilled. Russia believes that the agreement means that Ukraine has to grant the Russia-backed rebels in Donbas comprehensive autonomy and representation in the central Government, effectively giving Russia a veto over Ukraine’s foreign policy. Only when this is done is Russia ready to hand over control of the Russia-Ukraine border to Ukraine. Ukraine, on the other hand, feels that Minsk 2 allows it to first re-establish control over Donbas, then give it control of the Russia-Ukraine border, elections in the Donbas, and a limited devolution of power to the rebels —in that sequence. So, Minsk-2 is ambiguous.
While Ukraine believes the accord supports its sovereignty fully, Russia believes it only gives Ukraine limited sovereignty. Thus, the Minsk 2 agreement has been rightly criticised for being too hastily drafted, ambiguous and contradictory, making it difficult to implement. Moreover, the fact is that Ukraine has been reluctant to implement it for fear of Balkanisation of the country as other regions might also come up with such demands and because any Government which agrees to the kind of autonomy for LPR and DPR that Russia wants will lose domestic support. Russia, on the other hand, wants it to be implemented because it will guarantee protection of the Russian minority and Russian language and culture while increasing its leverage over Ukraine. Its fears about this are justified to some extent because in 2014, the new Ukrainian government had banned Russian as an official language despite almost 30% of its population being native Russian speakers.
Can implementing the Minsk Agreement avert war?
One of the principal demands Russia has made of the West is the immediate implementation of the Minsk 2 agreement.
While the agreement is far from ideal, it could be a baseline from which a diplomatic solution to the current crisis could be found and reviving it could be the ‘only path on which peace can be built’ as French President Emmanuel Macron has said.
For Ukraine, it could help it gain control over its borders and end the threat of a Russian invasion for the time being, while for Russia it could be a way to ensure that Ukraine never becomes a part of NATO and ensure that Russian language and culture are protected under a new federal Constitution in Ukraine.
However, there could be very prolonged negotiations on the type of autonomy the LNR and DPR could get. The latest news about a Biden-Putin summit followed by talks among all relevant parties, might just be the start to dialling back this crisis which could otherwise escalate into a cataclysmic war.
Uma Purushothaman is Assistant Professor (Senior Scale) at the Department of International Relations, Central University of Kerala