The latest bid to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine is under threat amid an upsurge in ceasefire violations. But even before the outbreak of violence, the slow pace of the Minsk II peace plan had raised questions over whether the government in Kiev and the separatist authorities would meet the end-of-year implementation deadline.
Repeated violations of ceasefires have long frustrated efforts to end the Ukrainian conflict. The most recent effort to do so, the Minsk II agreement, came into force in February 2015. A Franco-German initiative, it was drawn up because of concerns that American proposals to arm the Kiev government would escalate the conflict. French President Francois Hollande described the peace plan as the “last chance” to bring an end to the fighting.
Among the key elements of Minsk II are an unconditional ceasefire; the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front lines; constitutional reforms granting the rebel-held areas some degree of autonomy; Kiev-administered local elections in rebel-held areas; and the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over its eastern border with Russia. The end of December was set as the deadline for the peace plan’s implementation – completion of which would, in turn, lead to the lifting of sanctions against Russia.
After a troubled start, the ceasefire was largely respected throughout September and much of October by both the Ukrainian government forces and the pro-Russian rebels. The two sides began to pull back light weapons, such as mortars. The Ukrainian parliament approved the first reading of law on self-rule for the separatist Donbass region. Though the Russian-backed rebels say the new legislation does not offer them sufficient powers, they have agreed to postpone local elections until next year, raising hopes that the vote will be conducted under Ukrainian jurisdiction.
But there has been little progress on other conditions of the peace plan. Russia and the leaders of the separatist republics are said to be refusing to even discuss the mechanism for restoring Ukrainian control over the eastern border. Kiev is reportedly reluctant to offer an amnesty to rebel fighters. Just a few hundred prisoners have been exchanged. And there are said to be credible reports that Russian troops and volunteers remain in the rebel-held regions, despite Moscow’s denials that its forces are involved in the conflict.
However, most worrying of all has been the upsurge in ceasefire violations since the beginning of November, along with reports that both sides have moved military equipment back to the front lines. On 14 November the Ukrainian military said five soldiers had been killed in the space of 24 hours, the highest death toll for two months. The OSCE, which monitors the ceasefire, has warned that the increase in violence threatened to derail the peace process.
On 2 October, even before the latest outbreak of fighting, Francois Hollande said that it was “likely, even certain” that the peace plan deadline would be extended into 2016 because of the slow progress on Minsk II, in particular the delay over local elections in rebel-controlled territories. This leaves the thorny issue of sanctions: will they remain in place? President of the European Council Donald Tusk has hinted as much, stating on 4 November that Russia was not fully complying with the terms of the peace plan, which would be reflected in a review of sanctions later in the year.
This would be a blow to the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin said on 13 November that “despite some difficulties”, the terms of the peace plan are being implemented and “their provisions, principles and logic are not questioned”. It was, Putin said, just a question of extending the time frame, though he warned ominously that there remained a risk of the situation in eastern Ukraine turning into another “frozen conflict”. With its economy deteriorating, Russia can ill afford the possibility of being hit by even tougher sanctions if Minsk II collapses.