Rostislav Ishchenko: The Two Visions of the Minsk Agreements

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard


Russia is in a state of global conflict with the United States and, for now, the collective West. In the conditions of the impossibility of (or undesirability for) a direct military clash, the conflict develops in a format of a war of attrition, which is conducted in the economic, information, diplomatic, financial, and other spheres, supplemented with direct military clashes in the form of civil wars and armed coups focused on the local forces of the sides of the conflict in minor territories.

Moscow and Washington, being the main centers of force of the conflict, conduct an active fight for the attraction of allies. In fact, the world was divided into two opposing blocs, which isn’t legally acknowledged. Any defeat on one of the many battlefields (theatres of military operations) is felt painfully and causes essential damage, but isn’t critical as it can be compensated by a victory in another place. A final victory for one of the blocs is possible only in the event of the capitulation of the leader of the opposing bloc (Russia or the US, respectively).

In the format of the conducted war of attrition, such capitulation can’t be the result of a military defeat (military resources of the sides considerably exceed any possible losses of their contingents participating in clashes in distant theatres of military operations). The economic stability of the resisting systems is also rather high, so that expenses from confrontations don’t become critical. It is the economies of allies that suffer considerably more damage, which for this reason are more inclined to fluctuations, to attempts at transitioning from camp to camp, and the search of opportunities for the conclusion of if not a separate peace treaty, then at least a truce. Just like the collapse of the USSR, the capitulation of either Moscow or Washington is possible only in the event of a psychological snapping of elite.

Thus, if the winner isn’t able to quickly bring order to a world that was extremely disorganised during clashes, and to enter it into the framework of a reasonable, clear, acceptable for all (or, at least, suiting the majority) system, the costs for the maintenance of the domination of a new hegemon can very quickly become for them an excessive burden that the winner will bury itself. In this regard both Russia and the US try to create the basis of a new post-war system without departing from the current confrontation.

The critical demand for the operating and newly-created political structures is a decrease in the expenses of the leader of the bloc. Russia forcedly came to this concept after the collapse of the USSR, when the resources that seemed to be unlimited suddenly became sharply limited. In the US the concept of economy of resources began to dominate in the latter years of Bush Jr’s reign. Obama and Trump’s electoral campaigns were based on it. Thus, the latter tries to realize the concept of the economy of resources more aggressively and frantically than his predecessor, trying to shift the main burden to the economies of his partners. The demand to sharply increase contributions for the maintenance of NATO and a triple reduction of military aid to foreign partners of the US were only the first calls. Now Washington tries to force the EU to buy expensive American liquefied gas, instead of from the Gazprom pipeline, which is many times cheaper. The motivation — support of the shale industry, which is on the verge of ruin, and the preservation of thousands of jobs for Americans.

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This concerns an attempt at economic and political stabilization of the overstrained American system, and, ultimately increasing the psychological stability of the elite. The American elite’s loss of confidence in the correctness of the chosen costly foreign policy strategy – involving simultaneous domination not only in key strategically important zones of the planet, but literally in every point [of the planet – ed], leading to a split of the American ruling class and a bitter internal political struggle between support groups of Trump and Clinton, which nearly turned into an open civil conflict – which as a result, sharply (although temporarily) reduced the foreign policy opportunities of the US, slowed down the efficiency and reduced the effectiveness of their reaction.

The main problem was in the fact that the ruling elite of the US started feeling resource hunger. The inefficient use of resources in the foreign policy sphere led to the available internal resources ceasing to be enough for all elite groups. This aggravated the internal competition, which quickly came to the edge of a confrontation. The only opportunity to solve this problem is to find additional resources that should stabilize the situation of the elite and allow the US to return to carrying out an active, aggressive, and coordinated foreign policy.

That’s why we can be sure that attempts to palm off the financial and economic burden of clashes onto allies will be continued. The question about financing of NATO and about the transition of the EU to purchasing American gas are only the first signs.

The policy of resource-saving also touched the Ukrainian direction. Poroshenko’s regime was for Washington a rather convenient and obedient, but too expensive mechanism. His low efficiency and ultrahigh corruption led to too high costs of maintenance of the internal stability in Ukraine.

Trump’s team doesn’t wish to incur these costs. This explains the defiantly humiliating reception of Poroshenko, who arrived for traditional support. Trump refused to recognize him as his vassal. At the same time nobody else from the Ukrainian politicians was chosen for the role of the favourite in Washington. Earlier it didn’t happen like this. If the US refused to give support to Kuchma, Yushchenko or Yanukovych, the next applicant for presidency was already known, or the group from which he will be elected was known.

Today it doesn’t exist. The US gives Europe the option to finance the Ukrainian project itself (transferring the costs to allies), or to leave the Ukrainian elites alone with their problems. In such a case, the conflictual internal situation should quickly lead to a format of hot confrontation and an open struggle for power, and a part of the fighting groups will try to involve Russia in the intra-Ukrainian conflict on their side.

For Washington such a situation is not the best, but quite acceptable exit from the deadlock of the Ukrainian crisis.

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Firstly, the US will lose the territory earlier controlled by them, but will liberate resources for more important directions.

Secondly, there is the binding of the Russian resource. Moreover, irrespective of whether Russia will be involved in the civil conflict in Ukraine directly, whether it will prefer to work it according to the Donbass scenario or the post-Poroshenko regime will manage to launch a Ukrainian-Russian war.

Thirdly, in connection with their involvement in the Ukrainian settlement and a difference of aims, means, and approaches, an aggravation of the conflict situation between Russia and Europe is possible. This, in turn, should increase the need of the EU for American military protection and make Europe more susceptible to the financial and economic (NATO expenses, gas purchases) demands of the US.

Is there a solution to this problem for Russia?

This definitely doesn’t lie in the military sphere. A military conflict with Ukraine, irrespective of its outcome and duration, is a too-expensive action and too vulnerable from the point of view of an international legal settlement. It is unlikely that opponents will miss the opportunity to put Russia in a position that is financially non-beneficial and vulnerable to criticism for years.

A limited offensive of Russian troops on Ukrainian territory will be almost an inevitable reaction to a direct attack on Russia or an attempt of a massive attack on Donbass. But even in this case it is the termination of a military-political operation according to the Georgian scenario of 2008 — a loss by Ukraine of a part of its territories, an independent change of regime in Kiev for a more adequate one, and a transition to the building of pragmatic relations remains preferable.

If it is possible to avoid the worst and to preserve at least such peace as there is now, for a start Moscow needs to hold on until 2019 when “Nord Stream — 2” and “Turkish Stream” will become operational, and Ukrainian gas transit will stop playing any role in Russian-European relations. At the same time the already low value of Ukraine itself will reduce to zero. In this case it will remain a military-political irritant for Russia and the EU, but will stop being a stumbling block. I.e., the scheme of settlement, mutually acceptable for Moscow and Brussels, can be developed rather quickly.

Paradoxically, the option with the transition of the EU to American gas, although it leads to multi-billion losses of “Gazprom” and the Russian budget, being from this point of view undesirable, in the political plan bears for Ukraine exactly the same consequences. If the EU starts buying so much gas in the US that the “streams” won’t be necessary, then the Ukrainian transit will also be exhausted — after all it is planned to put in “streams” precisely the gas that now goes along the Ukrainian pipelines. And when there is no gas transit, then Ukraine has no inherent political value for the EU and Russia too. In this way it will be like one more Bulgaria, only a larger version.

Thus it is necessary to understand that the preservation of peace with Ukraine doesn’t necessarily mean the preservation of Poroshenko in power in Kiev. If he isn’t able to keep himself in power, then Moscow, even less than Washington, is interested in its preservation at any cost.

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The only serious problem (besides the risk of war, which we already mentioned) connected with Poroshenko’s leaving is that his successors most likely will try to cancel the Minsk Agreements. It is the extremely undesirable option. The Minsk Agreements are so favorable for Russia that they must be active even if Donbass will definitively change its international legal status and the new reality will be recognized by the world community.

The Minsk Agreements guarantee the neutralization and federalization of Ukraine, and also reserve for Russia the right for political intervention for the purpose of the protection of minorities (including Russian). They build Ukrainian-Russian relations even not on the example of Stalin’s USSR-Finland, or on model of the Russia of Catherine II the Great-Stanisław II August Poniatowski (before division).

Of course not all agree with such an interpretation of the Minsk Agreements. But we don’t agree with how the Minsk Agreements are interpreted by Ukraine and the EU. To advance its vision of the model, the aims, and the period of validity of the Minsk Agreements it would be expedient for Russia to expand the Minsk format at the expense of the involvement in it of other interested States. Nobody can forbid Moscow to discuss the formula of Minsk with anyone, as Kiev does with, for example, Washington, the Baltic countries, and Warsaw, which aren’t involved in any way in Minsk. While discussing the Minsk format with China, India, other members of SCO, and other integration projects with the Russian participation, Moscow can present them in an interpretation convenient for Russia. Once again, as is done by Ukraine, discussing Minsk with its partners.

In that case we will have at least two (and maybe more) internationally recorded visions of Minsk, and it already, at least, is a topic for extensive discussion. Moreover, in an ideal scenario, in such a discussion the point of view of the West will oppose not the point of view of Russia, but the position of the majority of mankind.

This, of course, is not a guaranteed result of efforts at the pushing forward of its point of view of Minsk, but without such an initiative we are doomed to snarl all our life and justify ourselves in response to reproaches for the non-execution of the Minsk that Ukraine and the EU invented themselves, and the process itself will never manage to be moved out of the limits of an exclusively Donbass settlement. Meanwhile in the process of development of the processes of financial, economic, military, legal, and political adaptation of Donbass to the Russian norms and rules, the Minsk Agreements as a base for a settlement of the concrete conflict in Donbass lose relevance (at least owing to the practical impossibility to implement the bulletpoint concerning the return of the DPR/LPR into the structure of Ukraine). Currently Minsk can become the basis for a general settlement of the Ukrainian crisis, while for Donbass it would already be advisable to develop another international legal platform.

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