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Ukraine and Russia are still at war. The Henry Jackson Society’s latest report, ‘The Ceasefire Illusion: An Assessment of the Minsk II Agreement Between Ukraine and Russia’, assesses the implications and effectiveness of the Minsk II Agreement. More than 9,000 people have been killed since the start of the conflict in April 2014, according to the United Nations (U.N.). Of these, 212 have been killed since the signing of the Minsk II agreement, on 15 February 2015, which was supposed to have ended the fighting. The European Union (EU), which will meet in Brussels on 17 and 18 December to discuss renewing its sanctions against Russia, cannot afford to ignore this.
President Vladimir Putin has the ability to stop and start the war whenever it suits him. In the first six months following the signing of Minsk II, international monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) recorded fresh breaches daily, most often committed by Russia-backed forces. Then, in late August, the war stopped – just as Russian forces, tanks, and warplanes began arriving in the Latakia airbase in Syria. For two months, the OSCE reported that the ceasefire appeared to be holding. In early November the war started again; there have been dozens of incidents daily in which weapons that Russia was supposed to have withdrawn from the frontline have been fired at Ukrainian positions.
The reasons why Russia has violated the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine – in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where it deploys an estimated 9,000 regular troops and controls more than 30,000 irregular troops – are unclear. Putin may be seeking to derail Kyiv’s drive toward the EU, including the freetrade agreement which is due to come into effect on 1 January 2016. Putin may be seeking to use the global attention on Syria to increase the military pressure on Kyiv, in the hope that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko capitulates to Moscow’s demands over a political settlement in eastern Ukraine. Whatever Putin’s motivations, it is clear is that the Kremlin has not given up on undermining the pro-Western government in Kyiv, using whatever means at its disposal.
Russia’s offer to ally with the West in the Middle East is part of this game. For the Kremlin, the price of cooperation in Syria is concessions on Ukraine – beginning with the lifting of EU sanctions, which were imposed in April 2014 and which will lapse on 31 January 2016 if not renewed. EU officials have said the sanctions will remain in effect until the agreement is fully implemented, but that was before the November 2015 terrorist attacks, by the so-called Islamic State, in Paris led the West to reach out to Putin.
This report analyses the Minsk II agreement since its agreement in February 2015 until the beginning of December 2015. It argues that Russia has failed to meet a number of the commitments it made under Minsk II, in particular those relating to: the monitoring of the ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons by the OSCE; ensuring the distribution of humanitarian aid to those in need; and, the withdrawal of all foreign armed groups, weapons and mercenaries from Ukraine. The paper concludes with a series of policy recommendations for what the EU can do to combat Russia’s on-off war in Ukraine.