In February 2015, the Minsk II Accords were signed by leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, Germany, and Ukrainian separatists. The goal of this document was to end armed fighting and resolve the conflict between the Ukrainian government and the secessionist oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk. Minsk II constituted a series of thirteen steps, including a cease-fire, amnesty, local elections, and finally restoration of Ukrainian federal control but accompanied by constitutional reform. This agreement was a follow up to a previously attempted peace treaty in 2014 that had fallen apart, but Minsk II itself failed to hold. This paper examines why the first two steps in the treaty have not been upheld and uses the theories of realism and the spoiler problem as lenses through which to view the conflict. This case study concludes that the lack of consideration given to Russia and America’s interests and their ability to act as spoilers are the main reasons why the accords failed.
Ukraine has been either a part of Czarist Russia or else part of the Soviet Union for much of its modern history. The capital, Kiev, was the site of one of the precursors to the modern Russian state. Ukraine was occasionally independent, but it was almost always divided between a western half that was pro-West and dominated by Western powers and an eastern half that was pro-Russian and dominated by Russia. As far back as 1700, western Ukraine was either a part of the Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth or under the Austrian Empire, whereas eastern Ukraine was divided between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. The western half of Ukraine didn’t come back under Russian rule until the partition of Poland in 1793. When Ukrainians managed to briefly gain autonomy after the collapse of the Czarist dynasty in 1918, it split into two separate republics. In 1919, Russian forces invaded and the new Soviet Union officially incorporated all of Ukraine as member republic in 1922. Western Ukraine and eastern Ukraine also have accompanying linguistic and ethnic differences, with more Russians and Russian speakers living parts that had been dominated by Russia the longest. Thus for most of its existence Ukraine has been divided between west and east, a stark reality that is and is reflected even in voting patterns during most Ukrainian elections.
When the Soviet Union fell and Ukraine gained independence in 1991, the country faced a host of problems: how to forge a national identity, whether they should look to the European Union and America or to Russia as examples to emulate, and how to forge a modern, democratic, and uncorrupt political and economic system. Ukraine would struggle with democracy and in a 2004 movement known as the Orange Revolution, protestors would oust Viktor Yanukovych after he was elected in a rigged election. The Orange Revolution was seen as a threat to both Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Ukraine and the dictatorship that Vladimir Putin was establishing in Russia. Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned and nearly killed, presumably by Russian agents, but he still lived and was elected. Yushchenko’s attempts at reform failed and he was ironically later replaced by the formerly ousted Yanukovych in the 2010 elections. However, Yanukovych once again proved corrupt and pliable to Russia as he went back on plans for a trade deal with the European Union in favor of a surprise deal from Russia. This looked like a further betrayal of the aims of the Orange Revolution, resulting in the Maidan protests of fall 2013. After some attempts at repression, Yanukovych and most of the cabinet fled to Russia, leaving parliament to vote him out of power and to start pro-democratic and pro-Western reforms.
Following this, events happened very quickly as pro-Russian protests began in parts of eastern Ukraine, with some demanding the region of Crimea leave and rejoin Russia. On February 28th Putin ordered special forces into Crimea and they intimidated the Ukrainian troops stationed there into abandoning the area. Crimea was then systematically sealed off from the outside world as possible dissidents were arrested or disappeared.  Western actors, including the European Union and the US, opposed Russia’s invasion and sought peace talks. Although the US placed sanctions on Russia,  Crimea voted to rejoin Russia in rigged referendum and Russian forces began to arm and fight alongside new rebels in the eastern Ukraine regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The Minsk II Process Derails
The conflict between government forces and Ukrainian rebels and thousands of Russian troops has resulted in roughly 10,000 dead since the war started in April 2014 and at least 3 million displaced. Ukraine’s government has been bolstered with Western supplies and funding and the rebels have benefited from Russia.  The first attempt at a mediated ceasefire, Minsk I, had failed and so several actors came together again in February of 2015 to try again. The result was the Minsk II accords which were signed by Russia, France, Germany, Ukraine, and the Ukrainian separatists. Unfortunately, that plan has not been followed, including the first few steps outlined in the accords.
The treaty called for first an “immediate and comprehensive ceasefire in certain areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine and its strict implementation starting from 00.00 AM (Kiev time) on the 15th of February, 2015 [sic].” These two regions were singled out since they were the ones attempting to secede and where all of the fighting was occurring. Relatedly, the second step called for a “withdrawal of heavy weapons by both sides on equal distances in order to create a security zone at least 50 km wide from each other.” Step two, further stipulated that Ukraine would withdraw “from the de facto [sic] line of contact” and that “the armed formations from certain areas of Donetsk and Lugansk” would withdraw “from the line of contact according to the Minsk memorandum of September 19, 2014.” However, both agreements were often vague in the wording, leading to arguments over implementation, where units and equipment were located and when, as well as where they were obligated to move to.
Immediately after Minsk II was signed on February 12, 2015, the International Monetary Fund agreed to a $40 billion bailout for Ukraine to stabilize its economy in exchange for promises of economic and anti-corruption reforms. At the same time, all of the heads of state of the major actors involved, including Russia and the US, called for restraint. However, rebel forces intensified their fighting to seize more territory in the three days before the armistice was supposed to come into effect on February 15. Calls for restraint were also undercut by heads of state who also expressed skepticism towards the peace deal. Furthermore, the negotiators reported that Putin allegedly wanted to postpone the ceasefire by ten days, implying that within that time Ukrainian forces surrounded in the key railway hub of Debaltseve would be forced to surrender. In addition, Ukraine’s President Poroshenko poured some cold water on the deal suggesting that “nobody has a strong belief that the peace conditions which were signed in Minsk will be implemented strictly.”
Yet, in a national address Poroshenko did order his forces to stand down in time for the deadline, whereas the separatist leader of Donetsk, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, ordered all of his forces to stand down except those at Debaltseve, providing the excuse that it wasn’t referred to in the accords. On one hand, on February 15th the ceasefire did come in to effect across most of eastern Ukraine as planned. But on the other hand, the fighting continued around Debaltseve causing observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission to leave Debaltseve, though not either separatist region overall, for their safety. Russian Prime Minister Medvedev called on all sides to observe the ceasefire, but a few days later President Putin would say Kiev was being unreasonable for not ordering Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve to surrender. Not long after, on February 18, Kiev’s forces withdrew from Debaltseve and the fighting spread further as rebel units sought to consolidate their new gains.
As of this writing, neither side has upheld the ceasefire or withdrawn all of their heavy weapons.  Both sides have accused the other of violations and have received military and economic aid from their respective patron states, the US and Russia. OSCE observers publish near daily summaries of violations and their 2016 report recorded 320,130 armistice violations and 3,099 violations regarding the withdrawal of heavy weapons. The OSCE mission was established under Minsk I and was re-affirmed in step three of Minsk II to ensure compliance. Thus although the OSCE observers been at times denied entry into certain areas within Donetsk or Luhansk, or have been forced to flee from specific combat zones, their presence appears to be the only step of Minsk II that has been violated the least. Why is it that Minsk II has failed, especially so early on with both of the first steps repeatedly violated?
Realism and Minsk II
One explanation that has been advanced to explain the collapse of the protocols has been the international relations theory of realism. Realism is an international relations theory that focuses on states as actors, their security fears due to uncertainty, and their desire to dominate each other. Living in an anarchical world, they can never be sure of each other’s intentions, and are always worried about their security since there is no world government to act as the police that could be called for help. Many have applied this theory to the Ukraine conflict to argue that all great powers tend to naturally dominate their surrounding areas out of desire for physical security. Therefore, because Ukraine has traditionally been a part of Russia’s sphere of influence, Russia would naturally want to keep Ukraine as a friendly buffer state. After all, in modern history, Russia has been invaded three times from the West- by France under Napoleon and twice by the Germans. These devastating wars left tens of million dead and etched a deep fear for national security into the Russian populace and leadership. The expansion of NATO into former Soviet and Russian territory also adds to this paranoia.
This means that Kiev can hope at best to be neutral and that any attempt to turn to the West by integrating itself into major institutions such as the European Union or North Atlantic Treaty Organization are red lines that Moscow can never allow because to do so would bring the military might and influence of opposing powers closer to its borders. This is a line of thinking advanced by many different policymakers and commentators, including President Richard Nixon’s former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, Carter’s former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, historian Niall Ferguson, and the Brooking Institution’s Fiona Hill who currently serves on the National Security Council as Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director of European and Russian Affairs. This is also substantiated by Moscow’s numerous actions, from getting Yanukovych to abandon the EU trade deal, to invading Crimea, and continuously providing well-supplied personnel to fight along with and command the separatists.
The realist argument here is that the agreement failed because it did not explicitly address the security concerns of Russia by having Ukraine declare itself neutral and that it would not seek EU or NATO membership. Although Minsk II did include points to grant the breakaway regions greater autonomy, amnesty, and the promise of elections, for realists such concerns are important but misses the point. For scholars of realism, any accord that ignores the threat and fears of hard power and geopolitics, or worse pretends they don’t exist, is doomed to failure. The unfortunate fact is that the fear over the security dilemma drives national policy for, as Thucydides wrote in the Melian Dialogue, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
That being said, as any good student of conflict resolution or peace studies knows, it is also important to consider all the actors on the ground. The field of conflict resolution prides itself on looking at cases from a multilevel and interdisciplinary perspective. Towards that end, the conflict resolution theory of watching out for spoilers will be used as an additional explanation for Minsk II’s failure alongside realist theory.
Spoilers and Minsk II
Spoiler theory was first outlined by former UN Assistant Secretary General Stephen John Stedman. Drawing from his experience dealing with civil wars, Stedman argued that “The greatest source of risk comes from spoilers- leaders and parties who believe that peace emerging from negotiations threatens their power, worldview, and interests, and use violence to undermine attempts to achieve it.” He elaborated that peace treaties are difficult to secure because of mutual distrust and the fear that a treaty would put one at a disadvantage, especially if other actors did not adhere to it. Although this is similar to the security dilemma outlined in realism, spoiler theory differs in that it focuses on each actor’s potential to spoil the peace process rather than on questions of regional hegemony. Stedman would warn interveners that if they do not take into account the existence of spoilers and how to manage them are more likely to fail in their efforts to bring about peace. Although Stedman’s theory of spoilers is more involved (identifying types of spoilers and their characteristics), for the purposes of this paper we will simply seek to identify the actors that could be spoilers to Minsk II and see if they were incorporated into that peace process. Whether they were included or not is what Stedman refers to as each spoiler’s position.
In order to bring all of this together, the actors of the Ukraine conflict are organized below according to Stedman’s spoiler theory:
Spoilers in the Ukraine Conflict and their Position in the Minsk II Process
People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk
The four biggest actors involved in the fighting are the Ukraine government, the self-proclaimed breakaway republics, Russia, and the United States. Although there are other actors involved in the peace process, say France and Germany, or that have an interest in the outcome of the conflict, such as the EU, NATO, or the OSCE, none of these actors are spoilers. They were not included since they are not actual combatants or major patrons of either side and because they lack the military clout, political interest, and will to derail Minsk II. In the case of NATO, it does possess the military power, but it is subject to the will of its member states, especially what the US would want it to do. Therefore, the US still matters more as a spoiler than NATO does. The two separatist groups are labelled as spoilers because, although they rely on Russia for aid and about 14,000 troops, rebel forces have grown in size to at least 30,000 and now have relatively modern weapons compared to Ukraine’s military.
From the chart we can see that one of the biggest problems with the accords were that one of the main actors, America, was not included in the accords. This means that American interests were most likely not accounted for and that, as a non-signatory, the incentive of the US to act in ways that support Minsk II are decreased and the fear on the part of other actors as to US intentions increases. The view from Moscow is that America, the country with the bigger economy and military that won the Cold War, is out to ensure permanent victory by dismantling any ability for Russia to ever again be a great power. Many Russians also believe that prying away every former Soviet republic and pushing for Russian political and economic collapse are a part of that plan, and therefore Washington would not want Minsk II to succeed.
The problem of including every spoiler becomes more apparent when looking at the actual treaty. It looks likely there might not have even been full buy-in from the other actors in that their representatives at Minsk did not have full political stature. Most notably, the document was signed by the representative for the OSCE, a former president of Ukraine, the Russian Ambassador to Ukraine, and the leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk. While the OSCE has a well stablished reputation in Europe and was accepted by all parties as a neutral observer, neither the actual President of Ukraine nor of Russia signed Minsk II. The only leaders who did sign were the two separatist leaders. If politically that was the best that could be achieved, then a signature is theoretically better than none.
However, if each leader were willing to sign the accord, including the US President, then that would have sent a stronger message of a common desire for peace (while also sending a signal to domestic actors that they need to support the peace process). After all, it would be foolish on Washington’s part to not actively seek to influence any peace process, especially after getting so involved in the conflict. As the most powerful country in the world, and one that is actively aiding the Ukrainian government and could theoretically provide enough aid for Ukraine to win, America is a spoiler that must be involved in any peace process. Yet unfortunately, despite extensive research, there appear to have been no official explanations by the US government as to why it did not get involved and there is little comment from Russia or Ukraine as to why their leaders didn’t sign either. One theory is that Putin may have not felt a need to sign and Poroshenko likely did not sign for fear that doing so would legitimize the rebel groups and out of fear of political repercussions given the high unpopularity of the agreement with many Ukrainians. Furthermore, there has been little analysis of this by reporters or academics and so would merit future research.
The next difficulty lies in understanding the impact of the biggest spoilers, the United States and Russia, and what they wanted from Minsk II. This paper argues that each spoiler had certain core interests were both incompatible and not accounted for by the accords. The core interests of Ukraine and the rebels are important, but are not considered in this paper. This is partly due to length constraints, but also because both Ukraine and the separatist regions do not seem completely intent on one particular outcome that would align either part of Ukraine with the West or with Russia (at least so far). For example, a survey conducted in February of 2015 by the University of Maryland and the Kiev Institute of Sociology found that 30% of eastern Ukrainians still want Ukraine to remain a united country, with 30% wanting greater autonomy, and the remaining 30% wanting independence. (However, in areas controlled by the separatists, only about 50% want to remain a part of one state, whereas about 40% are in favor of secession.) That same poll found that 47% of Ukrainians want stronger relations with the EU, 34% want stronger relations with both the EU and Russia, but only 13% want closer ties only with Russia. Finally, 51% overall want to join NATO but 68% of eastern Ukrainians reject such a move out-of-hand. This means that, at least as of early 2015, Ukraine is fairly divided but not fully set on joining either the West or Russia and perhaps could accept a future neutral status. To be fair, consistent, reliable, and recent survey data in Ukraine is difficult to find and it is very possible that opinions, especially in the most war-torn areas, could have hardened as of this writing.
The US and Russia, by contrast, could possibly agree to a world in which Ukraine is neutral, but instead both prefer that Ukraine (and the separatist regions) align with them against the other. Furthermore, as the patron states that provide funding, equipment, and personnel to each side, they are responsible for fueling the conflict beyond what it would have been otherwise. It is for these reasons that Russia and America are considered greater spoilers than Ukraine or the rebels are.
Red Lines and Minsk II
As mentioned when realism was examined as an explanation for Russia’s behavior, Moscow’s primary concern is maintaining its security. That means not allowing the potential for foreign forces or influence to get too close to the Russian border. Therefore at a minimum, Ukraine must be forever a neutral power, neither a part of NATO nor the EU. Most Russians firmly believes this is a necessity despite the astonishing loss of about 30% of Russia’s GDP since the beginning of Western sanctions. In addition, many in Russia believe that the fall of Yanukovych was a plot by the US and EU with the ultimate goal of surrounding Russia with enough hostile states so that they could foment a revolution to overthrow Putin. Still others, such as Russian volunteers fighting in Ukraine, think that they are on the front lines of a holy war against neo-Nazis in Ukraine and that if they fail, Russia will be finished as a geopolitical power.
Polling data from one of the new remaining independent institutions in Russia, the Levada Center, substantiates the idea that a Western-aligned Ukraine is unacceptable to Russia. One poll conducted in March of 2017 found that 80% of Russians believe the Maidan protest was actually a violent coup and 48% think the West was behind it in order to expand their influence and control. Another poll conducted around the same time found that support for Putin has remained constant throughout the war with the most recent figure at 82% in March of 2017. In addition, a third poll, this one conducted near the end of 2016, showed that 58% of Russian were not worried about Russia’s isolation due to its positions on Ukraine and that 70% believed Russia should continue its policy on Ukraine in spite of Western sanctions.
All of this is concerning as the accords did not address Russia’s concern over how Ukraine would align itself nationally. In fact, NATO had actually been under pressure from the US for Ukraine to join NATO and, despite European opposition, NATO in 2008 issued a proclamation to that intent. Although it is speculated that Trump could change US policy, so far Washington has insisted that Ukraine should eventually become a member state and much of the foreign policy and think tank establishment appears to believe that Ukraine should align with the West through trade and the EU, if not through NATO as well. This is problematic since the neutrality of Ukraine is a key sticking point for Russia and if Moscow could be assured that Kiev would not seek inclusion in the EU or NATO (and that the EU and NATO wouldn’t offer it), then Putin would have one of his basic security needs met.
Many commentators have pointed out that Russia does not seem to want peace and that they have repeatedly been the worst offenders of violating the ceasefire agreement of Minsk II. But it is also true that Western policies must seek to change that if they are to achieve any success with Minsk II or any successor treaties. Ultimately, as long as both the US and Russia supply each side and neither stops or pressures its client actors to fully uphold any peace agreements, future attempts at peace will meet the same fate as Minsk I and II. As mentioned before, Putin could withdraw enough support from rebels to give confidence to Ukraine and put the ball in Kiev’s court to mirror de-escalation measures. Although rebels pose a threat as a spoiler, they are still dependent on Russia and if that support were completely withdrawn then it could bring them in line since they could not win a war on their own.
If Putin does not get what he wants then he could always just invade Ukraine outright and all of the actors involved know this. Therefore, the right sticks and carrots are needed to change Putin’s calculus and to assure Ukraine that they must be neutral if they are to salvage a degree of sovereignty and independence. So far the US has not accepted this and has continued NATO cooperation with Ukraine, including forming a joint diplomatic front and accelerating the modernization of Kiev’s military hardware. Minsk II failed because the accords did not include high profile support and signatures from every major spoiler and because it did not take into account realism and Russia’s underlying interests. As long as the US and Russia continue supporting their sides, and each side continues to fight, the war will only continue and the protocols broken further. Washington must either accept that Ukraine will have be neutral, or it will have to change Moscow’s mind, or it will have to use force to get its way. Otherwise, the conflict will be stuck in a perpetual, and bloody, stalemate. These are the only options.
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 Fiona Hill, “Mr. Putin and the Art of the Offensive Defense: Ukraine and Its Meanings (Part Three),” Brookings, 2014, http://www.brookings.edu/research/articles/2014/03/16-putin-art-of-offen....
 Pifer, “Minsk II at Two Years.”
 Thucydides, “Chapter XVIL- Sixteeth Year of the War- The Melian Conference- Fate of Melos,” in History of the Peloponnesian War (Athens), accessed April 13, 2017, https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/melian.htm .
 Stephen John Stedman, “Spolier Problems in Peace Processes,” International Security 22, no. 2 (1997): 5, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2539366?origin=JSTOR-pdf.
 Ibid., 6–7.
 Ibid., 8–9.
 Oren Dorell, “Analysis: Ukraine Forces Outmanned, Outgunned by Rebels,” USA Today, 2015, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/02/23/ukraine-military-ha....
 Julia Embody, “Here’s How to Save the Minsk II Agreement,” The National Interest, July 10, 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/heres-how-save-the-minsk-ii-agreemen....
 Lucian Kim, “Putin Wins Again,” Slate, February 12, 2015, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2015/02/ukrai....
 Viola G. Gienger, “Ukrainians Broadly Reject Russian Actions and Influence, Poll Shows,” United States Institute for Peace, March 10, 2015, http://www.usip.org/publications/2015/03/10/ukrainians-broadly-reject-ru... .
 Sergei Markov, “Why There Will Be War in Ukraine,” The Moscow Times, March 6, 2014, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/why-there-will-be-war-in-u....
 Levada Center, “Protest in Kiev,” Levada Center, 2017, http://www.levada.ru/en/2017/04/03/protest-in-kiev/.
 Embody, “Here’s How to Save the Minsk II Agreement.”
 NATO, “Bucharest Summit Declaration: Issued by the Heads of State and Government Participating in the Meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Bucharest on 3 April 2008” (Bucharest, Romania, 2008), http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_8443.htm.
 Embody, “Here’s How to Save the Minsk II Agreement.”
 Nolan Peterson, “Get Ready, Europe: Is the War Between Russia and Ukraine Back On?,” The National Interest, February 2, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/get-ready-europe-the-war-betwe....
 Pifer, “Minsk II at Two Years.”
 Interfax Ukraine, “Poroshenko Approves Annual National Program Under Auspices of NATO-Ukraine Commission for 2017,” Interfax Ukraine, 2017, http://en.interfax.com.ua/news/general/414700.html .