On New Year’s Eve, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the nation. "For years," he said, "Western elites hypocritically assured us of their peaceful intentions, including to help resolve the serious conflict in Donbass." He then went on to charge that "[t]he West lied to us about peace while preparing for aggression, and today, they no longer hesitate to openly admit it."
Putin was referring to his European and Ukrainian interlocuters in the Minsk agreements, each of whom has recently publicly admitted that they lied to Russia about peace while preparing for aggression.
The Minsk agreements were the best chance for peace for the already serious conflict in Donbas. They were negotiated in 2014 and 2015 between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande. They intended to solve the conflict in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine by peacefully returning the Donbas to Ukraine but granting it full autonomy.
After the US supported coup of 2014 that removed a democratically elected pro-Russian government and replaced it with a US selected pro-West government, Russia annexed Crimea. But they could have gone further.
Dmitry Trenin, professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, points out that when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Putin was acting "on a mandate from the Russian parliament to use military force ‘in Ukraine’ not just in Crimea." But Putin stopped short of annexing the Donbas and agreed, instead, to autonomy for the Donbas within Ukraine under the Minsk agreement.
Putin, at the time, “believed that we would manage to come to terms, and Lugansk and Donetsk would be able to reunify with Ukraine somehow under the agreements – the Minsk agreements.” Russian hardliners have criticized Putin for that restraint. They have long criticized him for stopping at Crimea and not annexing the Donbas as well. They have chastised him for trusting Germany and France’s promise to ensure the implementation of the Minsk agreement.
In 2014, Russia had the motive and the means to incorporate the Donbas into Russia. They could have protected a largely Russian ethnic population, who wanted to follow Crimea back to Russia, from oppression from nationalist forces that had attained prominence after the coup. And they had, at the time, the invincible military capability to do it.
Putin’s critics may have been right all along. They may have been right that Putin should not have trusted Germany and France to see to it that the Minsk agreements were implemented. All three of Putin’s Minsk partners have recently gone public with the admission that the Minsk negotiations were a deliberate deception to lull Russia into a ceasefire with the promise of a peaceful settlement while buying Ukraine the time to build up an armed forces capable of achieving a military solution.
In a December 1, 2022 interview with Der Spiegel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to have made that shocking confession. According to Der Spiegel, Merkel said that she believes that “during the Minsk talks, she was able to buy the time Ukraine needed to better fend off the Russian attack. She says it is now a strong, well-fortified country. Back then, she is certain, it would have been overrun by Putin’s troops.”
Merkel had never made that shocking claim before. It amounted to the claim that Europe had simply been lying to Russia that there was a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine while they, under the cloak of diplomacy, prepared for a military solution. It suggests that Ukraine and the US intended to take back the autonomy seeking Donbas militarily all along.
It has been plausibly suggested that Merkel is engaging in an Orwellian act of rewriting the past. It has been suggested that "Merkel is under very harsh critique not only in the U.S. but also in her own conservative party. She is now out to justify her previous decisions as well as the current bad outcome in Ukraine." Fedor Lukyanov, professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, has made a similar point, suggesting that Merkel’s claim is a rewriting of the past to fit a present in which "diplomacy with Putin itself, even in hindsight and seemingly for good purposes, is considered a criminal conspiracy."
The problem is that, if Merkel is rewriting the past, she is harming the present. Her narrative confirms what Russian hardliners had been telling Putin at the time and results in an even greater Russian distrust of negotiations to stop the current war. Hence, Putin’s New Year’s Eve comment that "[t]he West lied to us about peace while preparing for aggression."
If Merkel’s claim is an example of Orwell’s mutability of the past, then it was not a slip of the tongue or an unrehearsed rewriting of history. Merkel had a week to think about her claim before claiming it again. On December 7, Merkel repeated that admission in an interview with Die Zeit. “[T]he 2014 Minsk agreement was an attempt to give Ukraine time,” she said. Ukraine “used this time to get stronger, as you can see today. The Ukraine of 2014/15 is not the Ukraine of today.”
It was also a well coordinated claim. Merkel not only made the claim twice, but she was joined in the claim twice.
Discussing the Minsk agreement in his biography of Putin, Philip Short says that “Poroshenko said later he had agreed because it was the only way to stop the fighting, but he had known that it would never be implemented because neither the political establishment nor public opinion in Ukraine would accept it.” There have also been reports that "the US, the only party who could have really pressured him, told him not to follow up on the agreement." Others report that Merkel may even have advised Poroshenko not to sign it at the time.
But, in May 2022, Poroshenko went beyond the claim that he signed the Minsk agreement knowing there wasn’t the political will to implement it and seconded Merkel’s claim that the deception of Russia had been deliberate. He told the Financial Times that Ukraine "didn’t have an armed forces at all" and that the "great diplomatic achievement" of the Minsk agreement was that "we kept Russia away from our borders – not from our borders, but away from a full-sized war." The agreement bought Ukraine time to build its army. Poroshenko told the Ukrainian media and other news outlets that "We had achieved everything we wanted. Our goal was to, first, stop the threat, or at least to delay the war – to secure eight years to restore economic growth and create powerful armed forces."
Poroshenko says not that the result of the Minsk agreements, but the intent of the Minsk agreements, was to offer Russia a deceptive peace in order to buy Ukraine time to create an armed forces powerful enough for a military solution to the loss of the Donbas.
Though it may not be surprising for Poroshenko to make the same claim as Merkel, a more shocking support was yet to come.
On December 28, three weeks after Merkel’s statements to the German media, former French President François Hollande seemed to confirm Merkel’s interpretation not as a rewriting of the past, but as an accurate report of the past.
In an interview with The Kyiv Independent that seems to have gone entirely unnoticed by the media outside of Ukraine and Russia, Hollande was asked if he "believe[s] that the negotiations in Minsk were intended to delay Russian advances in Ukraine." He responded, “Yes, Angela Merkel is right on this point.” He then said, “Since 2014, Ukraine has strengthened its military posture. Indeed, the Ukrainian army was completely different from that of 2014. It was better trained and equipped. It is the merit of the Minsk agreements to have given the Ukrainian army this opportunity.” Hollande’s second sentence is open to interpretation, since it is on the "merit" of the Minsk agreements. The first, though, specifically says that Merkel is correct that the deception was the intent of the negotiations.
It is striking that, in a short time, all three of Putin’s partners in the Minsk negotiations have gone public with the claim that the agreement was a deliberate deception intended to convince Russia that there was a peaceful solution to the crisis in Donbas while, all along, preparing for a military solution. If it is true, then that is an incredible admission with serious historical consequences that reach to the present war. If it is not true, if it is a rewriting of history to make it fit with the present, then it has equally serious consequences for the present war, since it seems to have substantiated and reinforced a Russian belief that the West is not to be trusted in negotiations.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.