Encircling Ukraine with thousands of troops, Russia has set up a standoff that’s led many to predict imminent military action.
But a critical driver of the crisis has to do with Ukraine’s domestic politics.
Russia is pushing Kyiv to implement its interpretation of the terms of a 2015 peace deal. Known as the Minsk-II agreement, the deal offers Ukraine control of the breakaway regions in it’s east so long as it delegates constitutional autonomy to the two regions, done in consultation with Russia’s separatist proxies.
The deal could bring an end to hostilities and, if Russian officials are to be believed, ward off their armies.
But, for Kyiv, it’s not so simple: Ukrainian nationalists that make up the country’s political right have for years threatened protests and worse if the agreement, which they see as a capitulation to Russia, is implemented.
That impasse puts Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a tricky spot: keep the Minsk agreement on ice and risk Russian attack, or implement the deal and risk potentially overwhelming civil strife.
“It’s either a rupture within the country or the threat of Russian aggression from without the country,” Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kyiv political analyst, recently said, summing up the situation to TPM.
Barrel of a Gun
Ukraine approved the Minsk-II agreement in February 2015 after a series of battlefield defeats, with Russian troops having encircled a unit of the Ukrainian army.
The country signed the agreement (somewhat literally) at the barrel of a gun, accepting concessions that include giving the two Russia-aligned breakaway provinces in the east special constitutional status. Key to the deal is a provision that gives Russian-backed separatist leaders a vote on how provisions of the agreement are to be implemented.
Minsk-II set a framework for peace, and left many of the details of how it would be implemented to be hammered out.
But the question of when and how the agreement will be put into practice has led to years of negotiations, with a debate ongoing over whether implementing the agreement — giving Russia an internal lever of control over Ukraine — would cause further disorder.
Some think that Kyiv could take up the deal without serious instability.
Others say that an active, vocal minority in the country’s far-right will make good on threats to stage mass, violent protests to counter the agreement. That happened in August 2015, when Ukrainian nationalist protestors lobbed grenades at national guardsmen, killing four, during a parliamentary session devoted to implementing part of the agreement by giving more autonomy to separatist-held regions.
Some of those who worry about unrest stoked by Ukrainian nationalists hypothesize a strategy by Putin in which implementing the Minsk agreement is a kind of trap: As the country’s former national security adviser Oleksandr Danylyuk argued in Politico on Wednesday, the internal rupture that might result from the agreement’s implementation could create enough chaos to serve as a pretext for Putin to deploy Russian “peacekeepers.”
As Russia amasses troops around Ukraine, the agreement remains a central focus of negotiation between the two countries, most recently emerging as a key point in discussions among the so-called Normandy front — France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine. The presence of Russian troops has reignited pressure on Kyiv to implement the agreement, with Putin suggesting on Tuesday that Ukraine was taking a risk by not fulfilling the accords. Russia’s ambassador to the UN, meanwhile, described the agreement as the only path forward.
Vladimir Putin has issued a series of separate but related demands to the U.S. and NATO. Those included stipulations that the U.S. provide legal guarantees that Ukraine would never join the alliance.
“Everything that Putin is demanding in the form of ultimatums to NATO can be achieved if Ukraine implements the Minsk agreements,” Sergiy Garmash, a Ukrainian negotiator on the Minsk agreement, told TPM on Wednesday.
Ukrainian officials have likened the agreement to the destruction of the country’s sovereignty.
“If Russia has that kind of internal leverage, then there won’t be an issue of NATO, of military exercises on Ukrainian territory, of Ukraine joining the EU,” Garmash said.
Garmash, who is pushing for a Ukrainian reading of the agreement’s terms, regards the deal as difficult to implement in part because Ukraine can’t recognize the separatists as negotiating partners without effectively conceding that the conflict is a civil war, and not a fight with Russia.
Ukraine’s current president, Zelensky, was elected in a landslide 2019 election on promises of ending the war in the country’s east, including by implementing the 2015 peace deal.
But his efforts so far have failed, with little substantial progress made on any of the agreement’s key points. Since the Russian troop buildup began, officials in his government have put out scattershot statements about the accords. A top Ukrainian security official said this week that implementing the agreement would cause “chaos,” and the country’s foreign minister has ruled out special status for the breakaway regions.
Army, Language, Faith
Other administration officials have suggested that Kyiv wants to find a way to implement the accords, but has been stymied both by the vagueness of the agreement and the vociferousness of the country’s nationalist opposition.
Volodymyr Ariev, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament with the opposition party to Zelensky, told TPM that he thought Ukrainians would “prefer to resist” instead of accepting a peace deal that would lead to loss of sovereignty.
Ariev’s party took a nationalist line in the 2019 elections, using the slogan “Army, Language, Faith” to resounding defeat. Ariev himself once called the cops on a 1980s theme party in Kyiv because people were wearing Soviet neckerchiefs, and suggested to TPM that implementing the agreement itself would in fact trigger instability.
“It’s a very unstable situation that could undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, and should the government give up to Moscow’s demands, it could trigger at least a very massive protest,” he added.
Aleksey Goncharenko, a member of Parliament from the same political group, echoed Ariev: “Ukrainian society would rise up,” he told TPM.
When asked if this would be a repeat of the country’s 2004 and 2014 Maidan revolutions, Goncharenko replied, “I am not on the side of revolution, but on the side of evolution.”
The idea that the country’s nationalists would stage a coup rather than let the 2015 peace deal be implemented has also been the subject of Russian propaganda.
Oleg Voloshyn, a member of parliament who was sanctioned by the U.S. government last month over allegations of being a supposed Russian agent, likened the situation to Jan. 6.
“Why no one in the US granted second term to Trump to accommodate those radicals that captured the Congress on Jan 6? The answer is clear,” he wrote in a message to TPM. “Then why all of Ukraine (and Europe risking conflict with Russia) should be kept hostage by minority of radicals that threaten to bomb Ukrainian parliament should it vote in the legislation enshrined in Minsk agreements?!”
“Should the West really seek peace it would rather sanction those who derail peace process resorting to threats of open violence than me,” Voloshyn added.
It’s unclear how many people would actually revolt in such a situation. A complicating factor, as many pointed out to TPM, is that any instability could serve as a pretext for Russian intervention.
The agreements themselves were signed under duress, and Ukrainian society has managed to stay intact for nearly seven years since the agreements were signed.
Garmash, the negotiator on the Minsk agreement, told TPM that Ukraine would be unlikely to make concessions without significant pressure from the West — some of which, he said, has already arrived.
He recounted a recent round of deliberations over Minsk to TPM, saying that, in his view, representatives from Russia and the breakaway territories have begun to behave in a sharply different way in recent days. Though Garmash feels their behavior has typically been obnoxious, there’s been a shift, he said — as if they were trying not to blow up potential progress that their side was making.
“They conducted themselves quite delicately,” he remarked. “It seemed that, all of a sudden, they did not want to aggravate the situation.”