The Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015, which sought to end Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine, rest on two irreconcilable interpretations of Ukraine’s sovereignty – what could be called the ‘Minsk conundrum’: is Ukraine sovereign, as Ukrainians insist, or should its sovereignty be limited, as Russia demands?
Ukraine sees the agreements as instruments with which to re-establish its sovereignty in line with the following sequence: a ceasefire; a Russian withdrawal from eastern Ukraine; return of the Russia/Ukraine border to Ukrainian control; free and fair elections in the Donbas region; and a limited devolution of power to Russia’s proxy regimes, which would be reintegrated and re-subordinated to the authorities in Kyiv. Ukraine would be able to make its own domestic and foreign policy choices.
Russia sees the Minsk agreements as tools with which to break Ukraine’s sovereignty. Its interpretation reverses key elements in the sequence of actions: elections in occupied Donbas would take place before Ukraine had reclaimed control of the border; this would be followed by comprehensive autonomy for Russia’s proxy regimes, crippling the central authorities in Kyiv. Ukraine would be unable to govern itself effectively or orient itself towards the West.
Western views on how to implement the Minsk agreements are imprecise and inconsistent. One prevalent view is that implementation means finding a mid-point between the Russian and Ukrainian positions. However, attempts to do so have failed – heaping pressure on Ukraine, risking political instability in Kyiv, and not leading to any discernible change in Russian policy. Instead of trying to resolve an unresolvable contradiction, Western policymakers should acknowledge the starkness of the Minsk conundrum.