Angela Merkel’s weakness is making the failure of Minsk 2.0 inevitable. Feeling no western pressure, Kiev is unwilling to make the political concessions necessary for its implementation.
As predicted by everyone (but as the Western media has barely noticed), Minsk 2.0 is falling apart. The reason this is happening is the same reason that caused the collapse of Minsk 1.0.
Minsk 1.0 and Minsk 2.0 both contain two parts. One is for a ceasefire and military disengagement. The other is for a political process involving first a law for the special status of those of Ukraine’s eastern regions that are resisting Kiev and for a negotiation process that would result in a new constitution that would grant the same eastern regions significant autonomy within Ukraine. Minsk 2.0 requires that this new constitution should be agreed before the end of the year.
The story of Minsk 1.0 is that the ceasefire and military disengagement part was partially implemented but the political process never was. Ukraine did briefly pass a law for the eastern regions’ special status, but then quickly cancelled it. It refused to negotiate with the eastern regions about a new constitution. Instead, it mobilised its army and in January 2015 it relaunched the war.
As for the Western powers, though they pretended to support Minsk 1.0, they did nothing to criticise Ukraine for failing to carry out the political part of it, putting all the blame for the eventual failure of Minsk 1.0 on Russia instead.
Exactly the same thing is happening now with Minsk 2.0.
Once again, the ceasefire and military disengagement parts of Minsk 2.0 have been partially implemented. However the political part of Minsk 2.0 has not even got started and given Ukraine’s position, there is no chance it ever will.
Contrary to the commitments Ukraine made under Minsk 2.0, Ukraine has unilaterally made changes to the law of special status instead of negotiating its terms with the eastern regions. The purposes of these changes is to keep the eastern regions legally subordinate to Kiev. The negotiations for a new constitution have not started and there is no chance they ever will, since Ukraine still refuses to speak to the leaders of the eastern regions, continuing to call them separatists and terrorists.
All this was completely predictable and was indeed widely predicted. As we explained months ago, there is no possibility that the present government that is power in Kiev will ever willingly negotiate or compromise with the eastern regions so as to grant them any significant measure of autonomy. Here is what we said )Ukraine goes to war – and always will as long as Maidan holds power, Russia Insider, January 20, 2015):
The basic truth about the crisis in Ukraine and why there is a war there – the one that many people especially in the West refuse to acknowledge – is that the faction that seized power in Ukraine through the February 2014 coup is structurally incapable of negotiation or compromise with those it considers its opponents.
… the whole purpose of the February coup was so that the faction in Ukraine that holds power now could achieve the unrestricted dominance of Ukrainian society which is its only way of making true its vision of a unitary, monolingual, monocultural Ukraine that is forever distanced from Russia.
Given the diversity of Ukrainian society, it cannot compromise with its opponents since were it to do so that would jeopardise the entire project that is the reason for its existence and the justification for its hold on power.
… Though the Maidan regime is deeply divided and factionalised, its drive to remake Ukraine and to eliminate all opponents of its vision, is the common denominator of all its factions. As factional differences intensify as the economic situation deteriorates, fulfilment of the drive through war increasingly becomes the way the regime retains coherence, making a renewal of the war inevitable.”
All this remains as true now as when we said it on 20th January 2015.
The only way that a peaceful settlement of the crisis in Ukraine can be achieved is if the Western powers put overwhelming pressure on Ukraine to carry out its commitments under Minsk 2.0. The problem is that not only do the Western powers not speak with one voice. The hardliners in Washington, Warsaw and London are actually egging Ukraine on to abandon Minsk 2.0 and to restart the war. Those Western powers that can and do know better, such as Germany and France, show no willingness or ability to do what is necessary to make Minsk 2.0 work by putting pressure on Ukraine to honour the commitments it made under its terms.
The key figure is Angela Merkel.
Merkel was partly responsible for Minsk 2.0. Here however is what we said about her when we discussed Minsk 2.0 (Merkel in Moscow and Minsk: Der Spiegel Says Putin has Won, Russia Insider, February 18, 2015):
… The Der Spiegel article shows that Merkel still sees the conflict as a case of “aggression” by Russia. However her bruising encounters with Putin in Milan and Brisbane showed her that Russia would not change its policy.
When it became clear in January that the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian economy were facing disaster, she had no option but to reverse course.
The result is the peace initiative that has resulted in the agreements that were reached in Minsk, which she is now trying to justify by invoking Realpolitik.
Does this however mean that the Ukrainian conflict is coming to an end?
The short answer unfortunately is almost certainly no.
Though it does appear that Putin and Merkel have finally reached an understanding, it is far from certain that they can impose it on the two sides so as to end the war. What happened in Minsk shows why.
Der Spiegel says that on one occasion Putin had to put pressure on the rebel leaders to get them to sign the final agreement (known as the Minsk Memorandum) that came out of the negotiation. The Russians have in fact repeatedly shown that they are prepared to put pressure on the rebels to get them to agree to what they want.
Merkel however is still not able or willing to put analogous pressure on the Ukrainian government.
… The overall conclusion therefore continues to be that the Minsk agreements will not end the Ukrainian conflict. As I have recently discussed, the Ukrainian government has never abided by a single agreement it has made and it will certainly not abide by agreements made verbally and to which it is not a party. Judging by her behaviour over Debaltsevo, it seems that Merkel is still unable or unwilling to exert the necessary pressure on them to do so. The probability, bordering on certainty, is therefore that the conflict will continue.
There has been much discussion here on Russia Insider and elsewhere about who the “real” Angela Merkel is and what explains the inconsistencies of her Ukraine policy. The independent analyst Mark Sleboda sees her as a committed EuroAtlanticist. Dr. Gilbert Doctorow thinks she may be pursuing a German “Mitteleuropa” policy similar in some ways to those pursued by German leaders before the First World War.
On the evidence of her behaviour during the Ukraine crisis, it seems more likely that Merkel is simply a weak and indecisive leader, aware at some level of some of the truth of the Ukraine conflict and of the dangers it holds for Germany and Europe, but unwilling to put her political position on the line by standing up to the hardliners in Kiev and Washington.
Consider for example the weak way Merkel conducted her part of the negotiations that led to Minsk 2.0. Merkel would not go to Moscow on her own but took Hollande with her to provide her with political cover. When she and Hollande met with Putin in Moscow one-to-one, she sent her aides away so as not to have them witness her conversations and report to Kiev and Washington on the concessions to Putin she was making. In Minsk, she refused to press Poroshenko to withdraw his troops from Debaltsevo even though saving them was one of the reasons for her going to Moscow and Minsk in the first place.
Instead of providing a clear and public explanation of her actions in Moscow and Minsk, Merkel has hidden behind a long convoluted article in Der Spiegel that gives her account at second or even at third hand. In that article, instead of a straightforward and intelligible explanation for her actions that calls a spade and spade – and which says who is really to blame for the failure of Minsk 1.0 and for the war and why – we got instead a tedious philosophical lecture about realpolitik (see our discussion of the Moscow and Minsk talks and our in-depth analysis of the Der Spiegel article in Merkel in Moscow and Minsk: Der Spiegel Says Putin Has Won, Russia Insider 18th February 2015).
Subsequently, when Merkel’s policy came under attack from hardliners like Victoria Nuland and General Breedlove, who badmouthed Merkel as an “appeaser” and made claims about the Russian military in Ukraine that Merkel knows are untrue, she could not bring herself to complain about this publicly but turned to Der Spiegel again (see our article Ukraine Conflict has Strained US-German Relations, Russia Insider, March 9, 2015)
It is difficult to see these as the actions of a strong leader determinedly carrying out a policy. Rather, they suggest a weak leader concerned about her popularity and unwilling to take risks. Whatever Merkel’s skills as a leader who looks for and achieves consensus within Germany, the Ukrainian crisis has found her wanting and seriously out of her depth. This crisis calls for a strong and self-confident leader, which, as it turns out, Merkel is not, showing that the strength people tend to attribute to her is really Germany’s strength rather than hers.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Merkel’s behaviour since Ukraine has failed to carry out the political commitments Ukraine took on itself through Minsk 2.0. It is the same as it was when Ukraine failed to carry out its commitments under Minsk 1.0.
She has uttered not a single word of criticism of Ukraine. Certainly she has not done what the situation really calls for, which is go to Kiev, bang the table and tell Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk in public and to their face that they will get no more help from Europe unless they scrap the amendments they have just made to the law of special status and unless they immediately enter into constitutional negotiations with the eastern leaders as Poroshenko promised they would do in Minsk.
Nor is there any prospect that she will do any of these things. Instead her response is the same as it was after Minsk 1.0: hope the ceasefire holds despite the absence of the promised political process and then blame Russia if or rather when things go wrong. Incredibly, Merkel continues to demand an extension of sanctions against Russia, even though she undoubtedly knows it is Ukraine which by its behaviour is putting Minsk 2.0 at risk.
This weak and short-sighted behaviour guarantees the failure of Minsk 2.0. Its final collapse and the resumption of the war is probably some weeks away. Both sides will want to use the spring and early summer to reorganise and refit their forces before fighting resumes in earnest. At that point, however, the fighting will resume. Given the balance of forces, it will end with another Ukrainian defeat and another militia victory. Ukraine’s downward spiral will continue until the process ends in the only way it can with the collapse of the present government in Kiev.