February 14, 2015
The Meaning Of The Minsk Agreement
By Niall FergusonThe Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University
The devilish detail of this document is highly advantageous to the Russians, writes Niall Ferguson
The world loves a peace agreement. The beauty of any deal like the Ukraine ceasefire agreed in the early hours of Thursday morning is that it can be presented in two equally interesting ways. Either it is “Camp David”, a transcendent moment of reconciliation between sworn enemies. Or it is “Munich”, a lapse back into the appeasement of dictators.
I have disappointing news. The Minsk agreement was neither. Russia and Ukraine are not about to make perpetual peace. Nor is Ukraine about to be carved up by Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Czechoslovakia was once carved up by Hitler with the connivance of Britain and France.
Enough fairy tales. The Minsk deal was not even a formal agreement, according to some involved; more a to-do list that might (but might not) produce a truce in eastern Ukraine. Although the German chancellor and the French, Russian and Ukrainian presidents were present, they signed nothing. The document was agreed by representatives of the “contact group”, comprising the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Ukraine and pro-Russia secessionist rebels fighting in the east.
The things to be done include the creation of a demilitarised zone in eastern Ukraine; an exchange of all prisoners of war; pardons for all individuals who might have committed war crimes; the resumption of economic relations between Kiev and the contested region of Donbass, comprising Donetsk and Lugansk; and a complex process of constitutional decentralisation to increase the political autonomy of Donbass.
To the armchair strategist, this all sounds fair enough. But read the small print. The original Minsk accords of September 2014 stated that Ukraine would regain full control of its national boundaries immediately – aside, of course, from the one around Crimea, annexed by Russia last year. But the new document delays the transfer of border control in Donbass until late 2015. Moreover, the separatists will gain control of 500 sq km of Ukrainian soil not included in the earlier agreement. Finally, all constitutional changes mandated by this week’s document must be approved by the separatists.
In short, the devilish detail of this document is highly advantageous to the Russians and their sidekicks. And that should not surprise us. For Ukraine’s position is a classic one in the history of international relations stretching back into antiquity: it is weak.
“You know as well as we do that right…is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” So said the coolly menacing Athenians to the doomed Melians in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. That is essentially how the Russian government feels about the Ukrainians.