We’ll bend it to our awe…
Or break it all to pieces”Henry V, Act 1, Scene 2.
On Sunday, February 15, the guns in Eastern Ukraine are to fall silent. The competing forces of Ukraine and the separatist forces in the East will pull back from the brink of total war and move artillery away from the front lines. Humanitarian missions will be allowed to cross into what had been no-man’s land over the last months of fighting since the previous Minsk Agreement broke down in November, 2014.
The new Minsk Agreement, Minsk II, is an attempt by the West, spearheaded by France and Germany, to halt the destructive and coercive influence of the Kremlin into pro-Western Ukraine. In the short term, Minsk II may save numerous lives. However, the long term result of Minsk II will be prolonged economic depression in Ukraine and a permanent Moscow veto over the policies in Kiev.
Peace is a good thing. The vast majority of people in the world should agree that diplomatic resolution of conflicts is preferable to the death and losses caused by war. Specifically, if the conflict in Ukraine, an area with little strategic importance to the United States but of significant consequence to America’s European allies, could be resolved without any further destruction, the world would be better off. However, the agreement reached in Minsk, while certainly nothing like “peace in our time” or appeasement, will likely lead to the fomenting of an even greater scale of violence in the future.
The first scenario for this violence imagines an unabashedly belligerent Putin. While Western caricatures of the Russian leader often paint the portrait of a tyrant, Putin is still a world leader at the helm of a complex nation. Less a school yard bully and more a mafia don, Putin’s calculations are less about the joys of chaos and more about the extension and influence of Moscow’s power. To this end, Minsk II comes at an opportune time for the Kremlin to double down on its policy towards the rebels in Donbass and Novorossiya. History has taught that fighting a land war in Russia (and, by extension Eastern Ukraine) in winter is a recipe for calamity. Having made significant gains in the past weeks, the “rebels” in Donestk and Luhansk have strong-armed their way to the bargaining table. Minsk II comes at the height of rebel gains and before the inevitable Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Because Minsk II blunts any massive Ukrainian military operation to retake rebel advancements, the consequence of reaching a tentative peace plan is a major public relations victory for the rebels. Moreover, it gives Russia the opportunity it needs to move sophisticated hardware into Ukraine in order to effectively create a hardened battle line within the East. Because the agreement in Minsk only allows Ukraine to control its borders after significant political accommodations to the rebels, there is a wide opening of time for Russia to make whatever improvements it needs to make to fortify the new “people’s republics.”
Assuming that this is the Kremlin’s plan, war will likely begin again in earnest in the Spring when Russian reinforcements are in position and heavy weapons are deployed. It is unclear if this re-escalation would come at the hands of the rebels moving through Southern Ukraine or if it would come as a response to perceived aggression from the Ukrainian military. Sources within the Ukrainian military are already reporting that conscription efforts are being met with difficulty. Even if the United States or other western powers began to ship new weapons and technology to the Ukrainian government, troops would not be able to be outfitted with these enhancements until well-into a new Russian window for engagement.
This opens up an eye on the Russian timetable. The Kremlin will be aware that, even if not publicly demonstrated, there are absolutely steps being taken by western governments to bolster Ukrainian defenses. While the United States is still debating arming Ukraine, there is little doubt that soft assets are already in place to offer training and management advice to the Ukrainian military. Russia, while wanting to make sure its defenses in the East are secure, will not want to see a surge in the preparedness of the Ukrainian military. In the event that it appears that Ukraine will either reach operational levels or create an impenetrable line of artillery, the Kremlin will likely once-more urge its pawns in the East to move forward.
A second scenario imagines the Kremlin as not actually having interest in Ukraine, but having interest in destabilizing the whole of Eastern Europe. To that end, the focus of Moscow would turn to the Baltics while Ukraine and the West imagine that there is a respite from the creeping influence of Russia thanks to Minsk II. Especially in agreeing to many of Russia’s demands in Minsk II, Germany and France played their hand with regards to the way in which Western Europe would respond to additional Russian aggression. The inescapable conclusion is: there will be no military check on Russian aggression by Europe. Consequently, Moscow now has an interesting decision to make: does it directly challenge a NATO member?
In this scenario, while the Germans and French are guardedly optimistic about the temporary reprieve of fighting in Ukraine, Russia is free to turn its attention to Estonia or Latvia, the two Baltic states where nearly one in four persons is ethnically Russian. The go-to strategy of funding insurgency or manufacturing a crisis would likely be the idea in both countries. The Kremlin could, in this scenario, leverage Russian power over the Baltic States in order to cement gains in Ukraine.
A third scenario envisions Russia as playing the “long con.” Minsk II provides that Ukraine’s eventual preservation and its territorial sovereignty rest on its passing constitutional and legal reforms giving the East unprecedented local autonomy. What will be seen by many in Kiev as capitulation to the rebels and to Russia will only get worse when rebels push for the legislation and constitutional amendments to say exactly what the rebels want. The unspoken threat of not passing the exact reforms desired by the rebel forces is that Kiev will not be able to maintain its borders and as many Russian troops as the rebels want can come across the border.
This scenario will allow Russia to assert its dominance over an unwilling, but unable to resist, Kiev. On the one hand, Ukraine’s economy will continue to suffer until the crisis is resolved, but on the other hand, resolving the crisis effectively means ceding much of the nation’s political decision-making power to Moscow. A divergent path in this scenario imagines that the nationalists in Kiev refuse to bow to the demands of the Kremlin and decide to resume the war in the East. This would likely lead to a full-scale Russian counter-offensive aimed at protecting the ethnic Russian peoples in Donbass and Novorossiya. As the numbers stand right now, even with advanced American weaponry, Ukraine would not be able to withstand the full force of the Russian military in open conflict.
Realistically, the third scenario seems the most likely at this early stage of the unfolding truce. There is a possibility that fighting will not stop, Minsk II will go unheeded, and the war will continue to simmer as Russian-backed rebels continue their incremental gains against the government.
The prevalence of cooler heads in this case, ostensibly accepting a Russian veto over Ukrainian politics, will not sit well in Kiev. Clearly there are a myriad of different issues influencing both Russia and Ukraine and their decisions with regards to this conflict. However, what is clear from Minsk II is that there is no easy path forwards and that this peace deal is not an end to the conflict between Western interests and a resurgent Russia.