The recent signing of the Steinmeier Formula, which outlines the implementation of the Minsk Agreements of 2015, left neither signatories nor observers indifferent. In Ukraine, the move has provoked a wave of discontent. In pro-European circles, it spawned some cautious optimism. The Russian authorities, who had promoted this formula and achieved, so it would seem, success, have also not rushed to celebrate victory. On the contrary; Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs declared that Russia had made a concession. Furthermore, many oppositional-minded Russian experts and columnists have appeared openly demoralised and hurried to declare the agreement an act of Ukrainian capitulation. However, this story gives no good grounds to be optimistic about a quick resolution to the conflict, nor reasons to sound the alarm.
It is worth remembering that the Minsk Agreements were signed in the winter of 2015, in the context of the defeat of the Ukrainian army outside Debaltseve. The “Debaltseve cauldron” was an attempt by Moscow to demoralise Kyiv and force it to submit to its political conditions, at a time when neither side had been able to win an outright military victory during the preceding months of conflict. For Kyiv, the agreements were mostly a chance to catch its breath. Meanwhile, Germany and France regarded the agreements principally as a means to stop a full-scale military conflict in eastern Europe in the here and now. The hope of eventually getting Russia to leave the Donbas was a secondary goal.
After the agreements were signed, the gruelling war in the Donbas has continued to the present day. The main bone of contention turned out to be the order of implementing the political component of the agreements. What comes first? Constitutional reform in Ukraine and holding elections in the occupied territories, as Russia demanded? Or the restoration of control over the Russo-Ukrainian border, as Ukraine insisted? When Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then Germany’s foreign minister, outlined his views in 2015, nobody showed much interest. And now, several years on, we have returned to his warnings.
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