New Minsk, Not Quite the Same as the Old Minsk

After a grueling seventeen hours of negotiation, German, French, Ukrainian, and Russian leaders emerged with a compromise agreement aimed at ending the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Although similar to last September’s failed Minsk accords, the new deal provides more details on timing and implementation, which may help a ceasefire to hold. After so many prior failures, strong skepticism is understandable. But if U.S. and European leaders actually commit to the specifics of the deal, it can provide Ukraine with much-needed time to rebuild, reform and address its dire economic problems.

The all-night negotiations between leaders in Belarus showed how far apart the parties were on a number of key issues, including whether the deal should rely on the boundaries laid out in the Minsk I ceasefire, or on the current situation in Eastern Ukraine. Since rebel forces have made substantial territorial gains since September, neither side is keen to concede on the issue. Other issues, including which side will control border crossings into Russia, and the withdrawal of foreign fighters and equipment, proved equally thorny.

Admittedly, the deal still leaves many issues unsettled. It calls for an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and a demilitarized buffer zone in Eastern Ukraine.  It also mandates constitutional reform to allow the eastern regions increased autonomy, as well as amnesty for those involved in the fighting. But the issue of boundary lines is left effectively unsolved, requiring Kiev to adhere to the current front lines when withdrawing weaponry, and the rebels to adhere instead to the boundaries agreed upon in September. There is also no real mechanism to ensure compliance, although the situation will be monitored  by the OSCE.

Still, Minsk II provides more concrete details on each issue, which may help this deal to succeed. Timing is more clearly defined for the start of the ceasefire, the removal of troops and heavy weapons, the creation of the buffer zone, while all constitutional reforms and elections are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015. The sequencing of events is also more clearly defined: the agreement calls for control of the border to be returned to Ukraine only after new elections in the region, which themselves must follow constitutional reform in Kiev. Since Minsk I’s failure can be attributed in part to disagreement between both sides over who would implement such steps first, this is a welcome change. The restoration of social transfers from Kiev to residents in rebel-controlled areas is also welcome, and may serve to reduce some of the misery in the region.

Although an imperfect deal, it is important that U.S. and European leaders support it. In the next few days, we can expect to see hostilities increase as both sides attempt to make last-minute gains before the ceasefire begins on February 15th. But thereafter, particularly during the first two week period, leaders must push strongly for both Kiev and Moscow to implement the deal. A substantive ceasefire will provide Kiev with breathing room, allowing them to begin the process of economic reform. Ukraine’s economy, never strong, has been a major casualty of the conflict, with the Hryvnia falling 65% in just the last year.  A newly-inked IMF deal will provide Ukraine with $17.5 billion in reform-oriented aid, allowing the government to begin the process of reducing government waste, rooting out corruption, and salvaging the badly damaged economy. It will also provide time to bolster the Ukrainian armed forces, which have performed poorly in the conflict due to rampant corruption and inefficiency. Such reforms would be extremely difficult in the absence of a ceasefire.

This week’s Minsk deal doesn’t necessarily offer a viable long-term solution to the crisis, as it fails to address several key issues. But if it can be made to produce a successful ceasefire, even in the short- or medium-term, it will provide Ukraine’s government with time to strengthen itself by addressing its numerous economic problems and widespread corruption. Such reform is far more valuable to Ukraine’s future prosperity than the current military campaign.