Here's How to Save the Minsk II Agreement

In its current form, Minsk II can't solve the Ukraine conflict. Here's how to fix it.

As tensions once again increase in eastern Ukraine, western leaders look for the Minsk II protocol to be carried out as a solution. Unfortunately, due to inherent structural flaws of the agreement, this has proven difficult. Without any constructive progress, there is great trepidation that this current framework will collapse, just as the September 2014 Minsk protocol broke down.

Since the Minsk II protocol was signed on February 15, 2015 the United States has regarded it as the key to resolving the conflict in the Donbas, a region of Ukraine which includes Donetsk and Lugansk. The agreement was negotiated at length by the “Normandy Four”—leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany—but its signatories held far less diplomatic clout. They included Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative Heidi Tagliavini, former president of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma, Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov, and representatives Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, leaders of Donetsk and Lugansk respectively. Minsk II covers a broad variety of issues, from ceasefire procedures, to local elections, to constitutional reform. Although it bears many of the same hallmarks of the original Minsk I protocol of September 2014, it was drafted under significantly different conditions on the battlefield.

The original Minsk protocol collapsed primarily because it did not give the separatists any means to achieve their objectives. While it promised local elections within the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, the agreement failed to give the separatists any real authority over the border with Russia or a say in Ukraine’s alignment with NATO. The January 2015 offensive that followed claimed the transportation hub Debaltseve and moved separatist forces to the port city Mariupol. The original Minsk protocol collapsed, with the new territory allowing the Russian-backed separatists significantly more influence during the new round of negotiations in February. By then, President Poroshenko had few options but to accept the Minsk II protocol and the $17.5 billion aid package offered by the IMF in hope of its success.

Five months later, implementation remains a challenge. The ambiguous language has allowed for different interpretations of key points, including constitutional reform and government decentralization in Ukraine. The agreement optimistically calls for revisions in the Ukrainian Constitution by the end of the year. But, at the moment, negotiations are at a standstill with each side claiming violations of the Minsk II protocol. Trilateral Contact Group meetings continued to take place in Minsk as recently as this week to discuss the implementation process, with little to no success.

In their constitutional proposals of May 12, the separatist leaders of Donetsk and Lugansk demanded more power as part of the decentralization process. This included authority over a regional police force, the judiciary system, natural resources, regional and international borders, and the ability to impose checks on the central government in Kiev, the Verkhovna Rada. As part of their constitutional amendments, they included a stipulation that would require Ukraine to remain neutral and non-aligned, effectively eliminating the possibility of NATO membership. Should this plan be accepted as constitutional reform, Russia would gain the security it seeks in the non-alignment of its neighbor and indirect influence over the central government, as well as reduced western sanctions and support for the Donbas.

Unsurprisingly, Kiev has a very different perspective on decentralization. Poroshenko has repeatedly vetoed the amendments proposed by representatives of Donetsk and Lugansk. Far from allowing the Donbas to make foreign policy decisions and control international borders, the government prefers to give the regions greater power on cultural and regional development, including language, transportation, infrastructure, and education. Most authority, particularly over the border, would stay with the Verkhovna Rada. Only smaller responsibilities would be transferred to local authorities to promote efficiency and theoretically reduce corruption.

The challenge of amending Ukraine’s Constitution lies not only in the negotiations between the Donbas and the Verkhovna Rada, but in the details of the Minsk II protocol. Both parties can confidently say that their demands are in keeping with the protocol’s definition of decentralization, thus neither party will concede. The text of Minsk II protocol reads:

Constitutional reform in Ukraine, with the new Constitution to come into effect by the end of 2015, the key element of which is decentralization (taking into account peculiarities of particular districts of Donetsk and Lugansk regions, agreed with representatives of these districts), and also approval of permanent legislation on special status of particular districts of Donetsk and Lugansk regions in accordance with the measures spelt out in the footnotes, by the end of 2015.