Ukraine crisis: What are the Minsk accords, and could they defuse the crisis?

Protesters at a Unity March demonstrating amid soaring tensions with Russia, in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb 5, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

KYIV (NYTIMES) - The Ukraine crisis is entering a critical phase this week.

Military analysts say the final elements of a potential Russian invasion force, such as field kitchens and hospitals, are falling into place in camps and bases of the Russian army near Ukraine's borders.

At the same time, President Emmanuel Macron of France has described the outlines, hazy for now, of a diplomatic resolution.

Mr Macron is shuttling from Moscow to Kyiv to Berlin, exploring whether a French- and German-brokered negotiating channel between Russia and Ukraine, first established seven years ago to resolve the regional conflict in eastern Ukraine, could be repurposed to defuse the wider crisis.

Mr Macron is focused, at least in part, on this negotiating process, known as the Normandy Format talks - a grouping that includes Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany.

These talks revolve around a series of notoriously ambiguous cease-fire agreements from 2014 and 2015, known as the Minsk accords, that were forged after Russian-backed separatists attacked and grabbed territory in eastern Ukraine.

Here is a guide to the Minsk accords, how Russia and Ukraine interpret them, and whether they might become the basis of a deal now to defuse the Ukraine crisis.

The Minsk accords were signed to stop a conflict that has never quite ended

In the middle of the last decade, Ukraine signed on to two agreements in an unsuccessful effort to resolve a war in eastern Ukraine, which Russia had fomented after street protesters deposed a pro-Russian president in an uprising in Kyiv in 2014.

The accords became known as Minsk 1 and Minsk 2 because they were negotiated in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. In them, the former president, Mr Petro Poroshenko, accepted what are generally viewed as unfavourable political terms in exchange for ceasefires; the second deal was signed while several thousand Ukrainian soldiers were surrounded, and Mr Poroshenko's immediate goal was to save them.

The ceasefires never held. More civilians and soldiers on both sides have died in the seven years after they were announced than the year of war that preceded them.

The second agreement, Minsk 2, lays out a formula to reintegrate Russian-backed separatist regions into Ukraine on terms that would give Russia some influence over Ukrainian national politics.

Ukraine's leader thinks the accords could yet prevent the next war

French President Emmanuel Macron (left) shaking hands with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky after their meeting in Kyiv on Feb 8, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has been insisting for weeks, without a lot of people listening to him, that there might be an alternative diplomatic path out of the crisis that Russia has created by massing troops on his borders.

Since December, his government has been quietly exploring whether a step away from the brink might be found not in sweeping talks about European security but rather in the fine points of the ceasefire deal. It is not a preferred outcome for his government, but a possible solution to avoid war.

This diplomatic channel was largely overlooked in January while Russia and the United States and Nato negotiated over Moscow's demands for a fundamental overhaul of the security architecture in Eastern Europe, without much success. Western governments almost immediately said that Russia's requests - including a promise that Ukraine could never join Nato - could never be met in full, and those talks have stalled.

Russia and Ukraine interpret the accords very differently

In Russia's view, a full implementation of the accords would effectively rule out Nato membership for Ukraine, fulfilling one of the Kremlin's key demands in the wider crisis.

This Russian interpretation says the accords oblige Ukraine to submit laws and constitutional amendments to Parliament that would grant Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine representation in the federal government, allowing them to veto foreign-policy decisions.

After talks with Mr Macron in Moscow on Monday (Feb 7), Mr Putin suggested the Russian view on Minsk was a take-it-or-leave it proposition, and he declined to rule out military action against Ukraine.

"You may like it, you may not like it - deal with it, my gorgeous," Mr Putin said of Mr Zelensky, repeating a crude Russian rhyme.

In the Ukrainian interpretation, however, the legislation required in the Minsk accords would take effect only after free elections in the breakaway areas. The powers granted to these regions, Ukraine argues, could also be limited - and would certainly not include a veto over Nato membership.

But a hint at a possible compromise came in January when the Ukrainian government signalled it was ready to reconsider a law that it had shelved on special status for the regions - suggesting a willingness to engage with Russia on the issue. Mr Macron praised this step at his news conference with Mr Putin in Moscow on Monday.

The French president speaks of a 'Finland' solution. But even the Finns have doubts

While travelling to Moscow, Mr Macron told reporters that a "Finlandisation" of Ukraine was one solution, referring to Finland's strict adherence to neutrality to maintain its independence during the Cold War.

President Sauli Niinisto of Finland is one of the European leaders conducting quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy with Mr Putin. He suggested after a phone call with the Russian leader last week that a settlement based on the Minsk accords was possible, but noted Russia's demand for veto powers - essentially a demand for Ukrainian neutrality - would be a sticking point.

Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said last month that if Ukraine implemented the Minsk accords in Russia's interpretation, "of course, then, we will be satisfied with this result". But he said he "hardly believed" this was possible.

Ukraine's foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba has flatly ruled out a de facto Russian veto on Ukrainian foreign policy decisions. "This is not going to happen," Mr Kuleba said. "Never." He reiterated that stance on Tuesday.

Some Ukrainians think accepting the accords at all is a concession

The mother of a Ukrainian serviceman who died during the Russian-Ukrainian War standing next to the Memory Wall of Fallen Servicemen in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Jan 21, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Merely fulfilling the Minsk accords under any interpretation is a concession to Russian military aggression, in the view of many Ukrainians, because Kyiv was forced to sign them during earlier Russian military incursions stirring up the war in the east.

In a private phone call with Mr Zelensky in 2020, Mr Macron admitted as much, according to a diary entry of one of the Ukrainian officials listening in on the two leaders' call that was described to The New York Times.

Mr Macron said in an interview in France on Sunday that any deal would not infringe on Ukraine's sovereignty.

Ukraine is still looking for other ways out

Mr Zelensky has floated the possibility of Ukraine guaranteeing its security in ways other than ascending to Nato membership, which in any case has always been a distant prospect.

Britain and Poland offered a three-way security alliance with Ukraine during a visit by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Kyiv last week. On Thursday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey visited Kyiv and oversaw the signing of an agreement on local production of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 armed drones and on closer naval cooperation in the Black Sea.

Mr Kuleba, Ukraine's foreign minister, has been cautiously hopeful for a resolution. "There is still room for diplomacy," he said last week. "I hope we will succeed diplomatically. If not, and Russia decides to attack, we will fight."

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