Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Glimmer of peace

The Minsk-2 agreement struck earlier this month augurs some hope for peace in Ukraine, but significant obstacles remain, writes Nourhan Al-Sheikh

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 12 February, the Minsk-2 agreement, aimed at ending the conflict in Ukraine, was reached. The agreement came after 16 hours of arduous negotiations in the Belorussian capital. Present were the heads of state of the Normandy Quartet, including Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine.

There were also parallel talks within the framework of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. Representatives from the Ukraine, Russia, the OSCE and the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk took part.

The agreement crowned the efforts of the French president and German chancellor, who brokered the indirect negotiations that took place on 5 and 6 February in the Ukraine and Russia, and that Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed with US President Barack Obama in Washington on 9 February.

The 13-point peace plan calls for a ceasefire between government forces and the eastern defence forces, beginning on 15 February, followed by a series of measures that include the withdrawal of heavy weapons to equal distances from the front.

The purpose is to create safe zones ranging from 50 kilometres for artillery to 70 kilometres for missiles and 140 kilometres for ballistic missiles. The plan calls for this measure to be completed between two to 14 days.

In tandem, talks would commence between Kiev and eastern Ukraine over local elections and the granting of autonomy to Donetsk and Luhansk. This would be within the framework of constitutional reform that would introduce a decentralised system of government, though not a federal one, which Kiev has rejected.

In exchange, Kiev would regain sovereignty over the whole of Ukrainian territory. Ukrainian border guards would return to all crossings along the Russian border by the end of this year. At the same time, Kiev would resume payments of social assistance in the areas it currently does not control, after the situation stabilises and “Ukrainian sovereignty is restored.”

The parties to the accord also agreed to strengthen confidence-building measures. These would include a general amnesty and the exchange of POWs within at most five days of the disengagement.

The exchange might also include the release of the Ukrainian army helicopter pilot Nadia Savchenko, who is being held in Russia on charges of murdering two Russian journalists in east Ukraine. A first stage of the process has already taken place, with 139 prisoners from Kiev exchanged for 52 prisoners from eastern Ukraine.

The Minsk-2 agreement marks a major step not only towards settling the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but also towards ending a crisis that has exhausted Russia and Europe and revived a Cold War climate between Moscow and Washington.

The civil war has decimated eastern Ukraine, destroyed the Ukrainian economy and threatens to destroy the country’s territorial unity. According to IMF estimates, it will take around $40 billion over the next four years to restore fiscal and economic stability in the country.

The situation remains extremely delicate and all sides will have to take great pains to ensure the success of the agreement and to overcome a number of obstacles that observers fear could hamper prospects for a true and lasting peace. Such fears are not unfounded, given the breakdown of the first Minsk accord of September 2014.

More significantly, the 13-point document has not been signed by the four Normandy Quartet leaders, making it more in the nature of an agreement of principle, or a “word of honour”, with no legal binding force, as strenuously as the various parties assert their commitment to it.

Undoubtedly this explains why Moscow has submitted a proposal for a UN Security Council resolution to back Minsk-2 and thereby lend that agreement binding authority. Sources of further concern are Kiev’s refusal to enter into direct negotiations with representatives from eastern Ukraine, mutual accusations of breaking the ceasefire and Kiev’s cut-off of gas supplies to the east.

More significantly, there remain political forces in Ukraine that oppose the peace agreement and are bent on settling the conflict by force of arms. Moscow refers to them as the “war party” in Kiev, and it appears they have considerable influence. It was reported that President Poroshenko left the room several times during negotiations to phone parties in Kiev or elsewhere who were not present at the negotiations.

What is clear is that those parties reject the principle of a general amnesty and the notion of freeing persons they believe are responsible for events in the east from legal prosecution. More ominously, the Ukrainian deputy foreign minister, in an interview with Canadian CBC radio on 21 February, said that Kiev is preparing for a comprehensive war with Russia and asked the Canadian government to help equip and train Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian ultranationalists, who were present in full force in the fighting in the east, refuse to recognise Minsk-2. The extremist Right Sector leader Dmitry Yarosh has announced that his movement and its paramilitary units in eastern Ukraine reject the Minsk peace deal and that any orders from the Ukrainian armed forces command to lay down arms and withdraw artillery and heavy weaponry will be refused.

Naturally, such a position calls into question the ability of the Ukrainian president to abide by his commitment to enforce a ceasefire and carry out the withdrawal of all foreign-armed units and disarmament of illegal paramilitary groups and factions.

Indeed, Poroshenko suggested as much when he said that no party is fully convinced that the points of the Minsk accord can be implemented, and that he is not certain that all parties will implement the agreements that have been reached.

Although the agreement states that the OSCE will be responsible for monitoring the implementation of the ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons, no arrangements exist on the ground as of yet that would ensure its ability to undertake this task.

Moreover, on 21 February, the head of the OSCE observer team announced that the Ukrainian army had prevented it from crossing the inspection point in the south.

Europe supports the peace plan. But the sound of war drums seemed to be coming from the US following Chancellor Merkel’s visit to Washington, during which differences emerged again between Europe, which calls for diplomatic solutions to the Ukrainian crisis, and Washington, which is still keen to arm Ukraine, in spite of Minsk-2.

The latest bundle of EU sanctions against Russia that went into effect on 17 February, after having been suspended to give peace talks a chance, plus Washington’s announcement that it will up its sanctions against Russia, cast additional shadows over the prospects for a peaceful solution to the Ukrainian crisis.

It therefore seems that peace will be difficult if not impossible to attain. Minsk-2 remains a candle in the darkness that envelops Ukraine, a mere glimmer of hope for progress towards the restoration of stability and peace for all Ukrainian people.

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