Was Putin Really Serious About the Minsk Accords?

The trouble started in 2014. A US supported coup took out the democratically elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, with his eastern base, and replaced him with a West leaning president who was handpicked by the US. Victoria Nuland, who is now Acting Deputy Secretary of State and who was then Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, can be heard on an intercepted phone call selecting Arseniy Yatsenyuk as America’s choice to replace Yanukovych. He did.

The new government changed Ukraine. For the first time, the government had been changed by western Ukraine and its monist vision of the country crushing the ethnic Russian regions of Ukraine and the pluralist vision it had hoped for. The pluralist dream died, and the ethnic Russians of the Donbas would suffer attacks on their language, their culture, their rights, their property and their lives.

After the coup, the first election brought Pyotr Poroshenko to power. Nicolai Petro, Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island and the author of The Tragedy of Ukraine, says that Poroshenko would transform into the “prime sponsor . . . of Ukrainian nationalism.” Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at Kent, says that Poroshenko’s government represented “a monist vision of Ukraine statehood that denied the pluralist alternative demanded by the Donbas. . ..”

By May 2014, the people of the Donbas had rebelled against the coup government and had approved referendums declaring some form of autonomy. Civil war followed.

The solution with the greatest signs of life was the Minsk Accords, which were brokered by France and Germany, agreed to by Ukraine and Russia, and accepted by the US and UN in 2014 and 2015. The Minsk Accords would peacefully return the Donbas to Ukraine in exchange for autonomy.

Recent corrections to the historical record have revealed the Minsk Accords to have been a deception. Recent statements by each of Putin’s partners in negotiating the Accords, Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, have unmasked the Minsk Accords as a deceptive soporific designed to lull Russia into a ceasefire with the promise of a peaceful settlement while actually buying Ukraine the time it needed to build up an armed forces capable of achieving a military solution.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and a host of Ukrainian officials have added their signatures to that testimony. Petro says that “From the outset, Ukraine’s strategy was to prevent the implementation of Minsk-2.” Former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, Petro reports, says that “Ukraine’s sole objective in signing Minsk-2 was to rebuild the Ukrainian army and strengthen the international coalition against Russia.” He then adds, reinforcing the deception, that “That was understood from the very first day.” According to Petro, “[t]he Minsk-II Process . . . was explicitly rejected by senior Ukrainian government officials at the end of 2021.”

Former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock has said that “The war [in Ukraine] might have been prevented – probably would have been prevented – if Ukraine had been willing to abide by the Minsk agreement, recognize the Donbas as an autonomous entity within Ukraine, avoid NATO military advisors, and pledge not to enter NATO.” Since Ukraine, Germany, France and the US – who failed to pressure Ukraine to implement the Accords nor to provide Zelensky the support he needed were he to implement them—were not willing to abide by the Minks Accords, that raises the crucial question, Was Putin? Had his negotiating partners been sincere, would the Minsk Accords have been implemented and the current war possibly avoided?

In his important biography of Putin, Philip Short says he was: “For Moscow, progress needed to come through implementation of the Minsk accords.”

In a recent article on the reasons for the failure of Ukraine to implement the Minsk Accords, sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko gives several reasons why Putin was serious about implementing the accords, including, that “It would most likely have stalled Ukraine’s Western integration by partially restoring the electoral base of the pro-neutrality ‘Eastern’ parties” and “the transformations implied by the Minsk Accords would have prevented Putin’s feared ‘anti-Russia’ from developing in Ukraine, leaving open the possibility of Ukraine and Russia evolving peacefully as two separate states . . ..”

Prior to the war, Putin had consistently resisted annexing the Donbas. In 2014, when the Donetsk and Lugansk regions held referendums on autonomy, Putin asked them to delay them. When they went ahead with them anyway and voted for autonomy, Putin did not recognize the results. Sakwa says that Putin “repeatedly reject[ed] requests to accept the territory as part of Russia.”

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 resisted pressure from Russian nationalists to annex the Donbas and instead remained committed the Minsk Accord’s plan to keep the Donbas a part of Ukraine.

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 and blamed it for the current crisis. They have 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 Accords.

But Putin’s commitment to the Minsk Accords did not seem to waver until the revelations by Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko proved his hardline critics right. Following their revelations, Putin told the nation that “For years, 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.”

Right up until the war, Putin remained committed to the Minsk Accords. Geoffrey Roberts, in an article called “Now or Never: The Immediate Origins of Putin’s Preventative War on Ukraine,” in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, quotes Putin as saying that he is “convinced” there is “still . . . no alternative.” In August, 2021, in response to a question from the press following talks with Merkel, Putin said “we have no other tool to achieve peace, and I believe they should be treated very carefully and with respect.” Roberts says that, in a November 13 interview, Putin “reiterated Russia’s commitment to the implementation of the Minsk agreements, saying there was no other mechanism to resolve the Donbass problem.”

At the same time Putin complained to Merkel that “Ukraine has adopted a number of laws and regulations that essentially contradict the Minsk agreements. It is as if the leadership of that country has decided to give up on achieving a peaceful settlement.” Putin was referring to laws that prohibited the use of Russian language and culture from official use and education and the shutting down of all ethnic Russian television and media outlets.

Putin continued to speak with the French and German brokers of the Minsk Accords in the days right before the war. Roberts reports that Putin spoke with Macron on February 12 and complained of the West’s failure to prompt Kiev to implement the agreements. The next day he told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that he believed a solution within the Minsk agreements was still possible but that Germany and France had to pressure Ukraine. But, though the key players in the Minsk negotiations continued to meet in the days right before the war, “it was clear,” Sakwa says, “that Ukraine was in no mood to fulfill the Minsk-2 agreement.”

Though perhaps no one else was – not Ukraine, not the US, not Germany or France – Putin seems to have been serious about the Minks Accords. Since their implementation may have prevented the war, the implications are significant. Although it does not absolve Putin from the decision to launch the war, it does suggest, along with the December 2021 proposal on mutual security guarantees Putin sent to the US and NATO, that he was trying to prevent it.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.