The Donbas Deadlock: "Minsk II" at Five Years

by Tor Froeytvedt Dahl and Davit Gasparyan

On March 3, the Institute of European Studies was pleased to welcome Kristian Åtland, who presented his research on Ukraine and the ongoing deadlock in the Donbas area five years following the signing of the Minsk II agreement. Åtland is a Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (Forsvarets Forskningsinstitutt) and is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

As Åtland explained, in the wake of the Euromaidan movement and the 2014 Ukraine revolution, changes in Ukraine’s ruling coalition were met with protests in the Donetsk and Luhansk, two eastern regions (oblasts) that border Russia. These protests in Donbas escalated into an armed conflict between separatist and Ukrainian forces. Eventually, the separatist forces declared the creation of the People’s Republic of Donetsk and the People’s Republic of Luhansk. The continuing bloodshed has led to attempts to stop the war in the Donbas region through the Minsk Protocols. After the adoption of the second of these, “Minsk II,” the violence subsided temporarily, but little long-term progress has been made. Indeed, the central question of Åtland’s research is why the Minsk II agreement of February 2015 has not been implemented in good faith. 

Åtland first surveyed the academic literature on war, diplomacy, and interstate negotiations. He highlighted that while the negotiation phase may be difficult, the implementation phase is most complicated. Ambiguities in the protocol language, negotiations conducted in “bad faith,” with the intention of derailing implementation efforts, and irreconcilable differences between parties can all make it hard to find an outcome that is beneficial for all veto players in the negotiations. 

In Åtland’s view, the most important reason why the Minsk II agreement has failed relates to the discrepancies between the realities on the ground and the political-legal framework that was designed for the conflict’s resolution in 2014 and 2015. It is still unclear whether it is possible to achieve a feasible solution in the future through some form of Minsk III agreement. However, Åtland notes, the prospects for such a third agreement are dire as little has been done to address the underlying issues that contributed to the failure of earlier agreements. 

During the insightful Q&A involving the 20 attendees, participants asked about the ultimate goal of Russia given the rather ambiguous nature of its demands thus far, to which Åtland speculated that Russia wants to obtain leverage on Kiev by keeping the conflict simmering, hindering Kiev’s prospects of joining NATO and eventually the EU. Explaining the role of the Russian language in Ukraine, Åtland pointed out how, during the conflict, the question of Russian language has become more politicized than ever before. Finally, Åtland discussed how perhaps the status quo is a win for Russia as finding a solution may not be its priority given other post-Soviet conflicts.