At a summit in Minsk on 11 February 2015, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany agreed to a package of measures to alleviate the ongoing war in the Donbass region of Ukraine. The talks that led to the deal, overseen by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), were organised in response to the collapse of the Minsk Protocol ceasefire in January–February 2015. The new package of measures is intended to revive the Protocol, which had been agreed to on 5 September 2014.
Summit and drafting
Successive attempts to resolve the ongoing war in the Donbass region of Ukraine had seen no result by the start of February 2015. While the Minsk Protocol of 5 September 2014 did significantly reduce fighting in the conflict zone for many months, minor skirmishes continued. At the start of January 2015, the separatist forces of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Lugansk People's Republic (LPR) began a new offensive on Ukrainian-controlled areas, resulting in the complete collapse of the Minsk Protocol ceasefire. After heavy fighting, DPR forces captured the symbolically important Donetsk International Airport on 21 January, the last part of the city of Donetsk that had been under Ukrainian control. Following this victory, separatist forces pressed their offensive on the important railway and road junction of Debaltseve in late January. This renewed heavy fighting caused significant concern in the international community. French president François Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel put forth a new peace plan on 7 February. The Franco-German plan, drawn up after talks with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and Russian president Vladimir Putin, was seen as a revival of the Minsk Protocol. President Hollande said that the plan was the "last chance" for resolution of the conflict. The plan was put forth in response to American proposals to send armaments to the Ukrainian government, something that Chancellor Merkel said would only result in a worsening of the crisis.
A summit to discuss the implementation of the Franco-German diplomatic plan was scheduled for 11 February at Independence Palace in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. It was attended by Russian president Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president François Hollande, DPR leader Alexander Zakharchenko, and LPR leader Igor Plotnitsky. Negotiations went on overnight for sixteen hours, and were said to have been "very difficult" by the German foreign minister. Following the talks, it was announced on 12 February that the parties to the conflict had agreed to a new package of peacemaking measures. Some of the measures agreed to were an OSCE-observed unconditional ceasefire from 15 February, withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line, release of prisoners of war, and constitutional reform in Ukraine.
The new package, commonly referred to as "Minsk II", was criticised for being "highly complicated" and "extremely fragile", and for being very similar to the failed Minsk Protocol. The New York Times reported that the plan "included some tripwires", such as not demarcating control over the city of Debaltseve, which was the site of the most fierce fighting at the time of the plan's drafting. Following the Minsk talks, Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande, and President Poroshenko attended a European Union (EU) summit in Brussels. At the summit, the Minsk participants briefed EU leaders about the talks. During the briefing, they said that President Putin had tried to delay the implementation of a ceasefire by ten days, so as to force Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve to surrender their positions. For his part, President Putin said that the Debaltseve defenders were encircled, and that the separatists expected them "to lay down their arms and cease resistance". Kommersant reporter Andrey Kolesnikov wrote that implementation of the ceasefire in Debaltseve hinged upon whether or not Ukrainian forces were truly encircled, "Above all, does it exist or not? Vladimir Putin insisted that it [the encirclement] exists and that if a cease-fire agreement is reached, it will be odd if it isn't violated: Those in the kettle will certainly try to get out of there; those who have boiled that kettle will try to collect the foam".
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on 13 February that the Russian Armed Forces had actively deployed around Debaltseve to assist the separatists in forcing out Ukrainian troops prior to the start of the ceasefire, the 15 February. Russia denied this, and Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia could not assist in the implementation of Minsk II because it was "not a participant" in the conflict.
Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh said that he reserved the right to continue fighting, and that Minsk II was unconstitutional. He said that his Ukrainian Volunteer Corps would continue fighting "until complete liberation of Ukrainian lands from Russian occupants", and promised "death to Russian terrorist-occupiers". DPR leader Alexander Zakharchenko said that the ceasefire did not apply to Debaltseve, and that fighting would continue there.
- Immediate and full ceasefire in particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine and its strict fulfilment as of 00:00 midnight EET on 15 February 2015.
- Pull-out of all heavy weapons by both sides to equal distance with the aim of creation of a security zone on minimum 50 kilometres (31 mi) apart for artillery of 100mm calibre or more, and a security zone of 70 kilometres (43 mi) for multiple rocket launchers (MRLS) and 140 kilometres (87 mi) for MLRS Tornado-S, Uragan, Smerch, and Tochka U tactical missile systems:
- for Ukrainian troops, from actual line of contact;
- for armed formations of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine, from the contact line in accordance with the Minsk Memorandum as of 19 September 2014The pullout of the above-mentioned heavy weapons must start no later than the second day after the start of the ceasefire and finish within 14 days.This process will be assisted by OSCE with the support of the Trilateral Contact Group.
- Effective monitoring and verification of ceasefire regime and pullout of heavy weapons by OSCE will be provided from the first day of pullout, using all necessary technical means such as satellites, drones, radio-location systems etc.
- On the first day after the pullout a dialogue is to start on modalities of conducting local elections in accordance with the Ukrainian legislation and the Law of Ukraine "On temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts," and also about the future of these districts based on the above-mentioned law.Without delays, but no later than 30 days from the date of signing of this document, a resolution has to be approved by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, indicating the territory which falls under the special regime in accordance with the law "On temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts," based in the line set up by the Minsk Memorandum as of 19 September 2014.
- Provide pardon and amnesty by way of enacting a law that forbids persecution and punishment of persons in relation to events that took place in particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine.
- Provide release and exchange of all hostages and illegally held persons, based on the principle of "all for all". This process has to end – at the latest – on the fifth day after the pullout (of weapons).
- Provide safe access, delivery, storage and distribution of humanitarian aid to the needy, based on an international mechanism.
- Define the modalities of a full restoration of social and economic connections, including social transfers, such as payments of pensions and other payments (income and revenue, timely payment of communal bills, restoration of tax payments within the framework of Ukrainian legal field).With this aim, Ukraine will restore management over the segment of its banking system in the districts affected by the conflict, and possibly, an international mechanism will be established to ease such transactions.
- Restore control of the state border to the Ukrainian government in the whole conflict zone, which has to start on the first day after the local election and end after the full political regulation (local elections in particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts based on the law of Ukraine and Constitutional reform) by the end of 2015, on the condition of fulfillment of Point 11 – in consultations and in agreement with representatives of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts within the framework of the Trilateral Contact Group.
- Pullout of all foreign armed formations, military equipment, and also mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine under OSCE supervision. Disarmament of all illegal groups.
- Constitutional reform in Ukraine, with a new constitution to come into effect by the end of 2015, the key element of which is decentralisation (taking into account peculiarities of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, agreed with representatives of these districts), and also approval of permanent legislation on the special status of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in accordance with the measures spelt out in the attached footnote,[note 1] by the end of 2015.
- Based on the Law of Ukraine "On temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts", questions related to local elections will be discussed and agreed upon with representatives of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in the framework of the Trilateral Contact Group. Elections will be held in accordance with relevant OSCE standards and monitored by OSCE/ODIHR.
- Intensify the work of the Trilateral Contact Group including through the establishment of working groups on the implementation of relevant aspects of the Minsk agreements. They will reflect the composition of the Trilateral Contact Group.
- The following measures are to be included in the Ukrainian law "On temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts":
- Freedom from punishment, harassment, and discrimination of persons connected with the events that took place in particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts
- Right of language self-determination
- Participation of local self-government in the appointment of the heads of prosecutors' offices and courts in the particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts
- The possibility for central executive bodies to conclude agreements with relevant local authorities on economic, social, and cultural development of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts
- The state will provide support for the socio-economic development of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts
- Assistance from central executive bodies for cross-border cooperation by particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts with regions of the Russian Federation
- The freedom to create people's militia units by decision of local councils to maintain public order in particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts
- The powers of local council deputies and officials, elected in early elections, appointed by the Verkhovna Rada according to this law, cannot be prematurely terminated
The document was signed by:
- Swiss diplomat and OSCE representative Heidi Tagliavini
- Former president of Ukraine and Ukrainian representative Leonid Kuchma
- Russian Ambassador to Ukraine and Russian representative Mikhail Zurabov
- Separatist's leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky
Though fighting generally subsided after the ceasefire came into effect at 0:00 EET on 15 February, skirmishes and shelling continued in several parts of the conflict zone. Shelling and fighting at Debaltseve continued, as DPR leader Alexander Zakharchenko said that the ceasefire did not apply to that area. In the south of Donetsk Oblast, fighting between DPR forces and members of the Azov Battalion continued in villages near Mariupol. By 16 February, Minsk II seemed on the verge of collapse. Separatists continued a heavy assault on Debaltseve. Both sides said that they would not withdraw heavy weaponry as specified by the agreement whilst fighting in Debaltseve was ongoing. Reuters described the ceasefire as "stillborn" in Debaltseve. Ukrainian forces were forced to retreat from Debaltseve on 18 February, leaving separatist forces in control of the city.
In the week after the fall of Debaltseve to pro-Russian forces, fighting in the conflict zone abated. DPR and LPR forces began to withdraw artillery from the front lines as specified by Minsk II on 24 February, and Ukraine did so on 26 February. Ukraine reported that it had suffered no casualties during 24–26 February, something that had not occurred since early January 2015.
The parliament of Ukraine approved a law on "special status" for Donbass on 17 March, as specified by Minsk II. The law was immediately criticised by Ukrainian politicians, separatist leaders, and the Russian government. Radical Party leader Oleh Lyashko said that the law was "a vote for de-facto recognition of the Russian occupation in Donbass". Vice-parliamentary speaker Andriy Parubiy said that law was "not for Putin or the occupiers", but to show Europe that Ukraine was willing to adhere to Minsk II. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that the law was a "sharp departure from the Minsk agreements". Representatives of the LPR and DPR said that the law was a "one-sided" modification of Minsk II, and that the agreement had been rendered void by this modification. DPR leader Alexander Zakharchenko said that any change to Minsk II that had not been mutually agreed upon was "legally void", and that "nothing that had been agreed upon in Minsk has been carried out". He added that the DPR "must occupy all of the cities in which the referendum took place, and then politically cooperate [with Ukraine] as equal partners". Despite this, representatives of the DPR and LPR continued to forward peace proposals to the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine. Ukrainian defence minister Stepan Poltorak said on 8 June 2015 that over 100 soldiers and at least 50 civilians had been killed since Minsk II came into effect. According to him, pro-Russian forces had violated the truce more than 4,000 times. Contrary to the agreement, DPR representative Denis Pushilin and LPR representative Vladislav Deinego said on 10 June 2015 that their republics "would like to join the Russian Federation". In addition, they said that they consider Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March 2014, to be part of Russia.
American Defense Department official Michael Carpenter said on 2 March 2016 that at least 430 Ukrainian soldiers had died since the signing of Minsk II, that Russia maintained "command-and-control links" over the DPR and LPR, and that Russia was "pouring heavy weapons" into the Donbass. Deputy head of the OSCE mission in Ukraine Alexander Hug said on 25 March 2016 that the OSCE had observed "armed people with Russian insignia" fighting in Donbass from the beginning of the conflict, that they had talked to prisoners who said they were Russian soldiers, and that they had seen "tire tracks, not the vehicles themselves, but the tracks of vehicles crossing the [Russo-Ukrainian] border". Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on 27 March 2016 that Russia was "not a party to the Minsk agreements", and that the agreements were "devoted to two conflicting sides".
Elections in the DPR and LPR
While the 2015 Ukrainian local elections had been scheduled for 25 October, DPR leader Alexander Zakharchenko issued a decree on 2 July that ordered local DPR elections to be held on 18 October. He said that this action was "in accordance with the Minsk agreements". According to Zakharchenko, this move meant that the DPR had "independently started to implement the Minsk agreements". Zakharchenko said that the elections would "take place 'on the basis of Ukraine's law on temporary self-rule status of individual districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions', in so far as they are not at variance with the constitution and laws of the DPR".
On the same day, President Petro Poroshenko responded that if DPR elections went forward in this unilateral manner, it would be "extremely irresponsible and will have devastating consequences for the process of deescalation of tension in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions". In addition, the OSCE said that it would only will send observers to elections in the conflict zone if Ukraine invited it to do so. As specified in Minsk II, local elections in DPR and LPR-held territories must be observed by the OSCE to be deemed legitimate. LPR leader Igor Plotnitsky followed the DPR by scheduling elections in the territory that he controlled for 1 November 2015.
Amidst a great reduction in violence, following an agreement to restart the implementation of Minsk II that was agreed to on 1 September, the Normandy four held a meeting on 2 October. At the meeting, it was agreed that elections in the conflict zone would be held in accordance with Minsk II. In order to do this, French President François Hollande said that the elections would need to be postponed until 2016, as three months were required to prepare for them. Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to use his influence to prevent the DPR and LPR from holding early elections. Accordingly, the DPR and LPR announced on 6 October that their planned elections had been postponed until 21 February 2016. Local elections in the rest of Ukraine went ahead on 25 October 2015. Following the postponement, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that if OSCE observers verified that the planned elections to be held in the separatist areas were in accordance with Ukrainian law and Minsk II, the "law on special status" for these areas would come into immediate effect.
On 18 April 2016 the planned (organised by the DPR and LPR) local elections were postponed from 20 April to 24 July 2016. On 22 July 2016 these DPR and LPR elections were again postponed to 6 November 2016. On 2 October 2016 the DPR and LPR held "primaries" in which voters nominated candidates for the 6 November 2016 elections. Ukraine denounced these "primaries" as illegal. On 4 November 2016 both DPR and LPR postponed their local elections "until further notice"; head of the DPR Zakharchenko added that "In 2017, we will hold elections under the Minsk agreements, or we will hold them independently."
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