- Ukraine and Russia reached a peace deal, the Minsk Agreement, on Thursday to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine with a conditional ceasefire.
- The deal is very favorable to Russia: it gives the pro-Russia rebels temporary control in eastern Ukraine, forces Ukraine to reform its government in a way that will make it easier for Putin to meddle in the future, and leaves Russia with the ability to throw Ukraine back into chaos any time it likes.
- If the deal doesn't work, it could risk two very scary things: turn eastern Ukraine into a "frozen conflict" under permanent Russian influence, and send Putin the message that he can force his way on other non-NATO neighbors any time he likes.
The basics of the deal
Russia and Ukraine reached a peace agreement — also agreed to by Germany and France — on Thursday that is designed to end the year-long war in eastern Ukraine. The Minsk Agreement, or Minsk II, is the second attempt at peace, after the failure of September's first Minsk Agreement.
This deal does have a chance of actually holding, and thus finally bringing peace for eastern Ukrainians, who have been devastated by the fighting. But it comes with some pretty significant tradeoffs — and could set a scary precedent for Russian aggression in Europe.
The basics of the deal are this: it will begin with a ceasefire on Sunday. Both sides will withdraw artillery and other heavy weaponry from a buffer zone along the front lines. The rebel-held areas will remain under rebel control until the end of 2015, when all sides will sign a comprehensive political agreement to end the conflict completely, and Ukraine will re-take control of the rebel-held stretch of its territory. One major condition of this deal, though, is that Ukraine has to reform its constitution in a way that grants eastern Ukrainian regions more autonomy.
Here is a straightforward rundown on the good aspects of the deal, the bad aspects that could undermine peace, and the ugly — things that could have implications well beyond the eastern Ukraine conflict.
The good: at least it could bring peace
- If the ceasefire actually holds, it could bring relief to the eastern Ukrainian civilians who are the conflict's principal victims. Urban fighting and irresponsible use of artillery by both sides has killed many civilians; ending that is paramount.
- Several thousands of Ukrainian troops are encircled in the railway hub of Debaltsevo. This could allow those troops to withdraw peacefully.
- That the deal is so favorable to Russia is a feature as well as a bug; it makes Russia and pro-Russia rebels more likely to actually follow through. This may be the face-saving excuse to withdraw that Putin was looking for.
- The deal could halt the Obama administration's threats that it is considering sending arms to Ukraine, which would likely have made the conflict worse.
- The deal grants amnesty to rebels, which could make it easier for them to lay down their arms (assuming they intend to do so).
The bad: how it could make things even worse
- The rebels holding eastern Ukraine are supposed to return control to the Ukrainian government at the end of the year. But it would be easy for them to refuse, turning eastern Ukraine into a quasi-separate state frozen in conflict, something Russia has pushed before in Georgia and Moldova. This would be operationally easy for Putin to pull off, as well as politically. The deal demands Ukraine deliver some very difficult reforms; if they fail, Putin will have legal justification to keep the conflict going.
- The deal requires Ukraine to pass constitutional reforms that will grant eastern Ukrainian regions more political autonomy. That will make it easier for Putin to work with those regions directly, giving him more influence there and more ability to undermine the Ukrainian central government in Kiev.
- The amnesty and reform requirements are going to be unpopular in Kiev, which will make the already-unstable government even more so. That will make it harder for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to pass the reforms required by the deal, and for him to address deeper problems such as corruption.
- If Russia does not actually intend to uphold its end of the deal, Putin can use the ten month negotiation period between now and the end of the year to strengthen his position even more, shipping in weapons and using the eastern Ukraine foothold to meddle further.
- One reading of the agreement suggests that the amnesty will extend even to the perpetrators who shot down Malaysian Airlines flight 17, killing 298 innocent travelers.
The ugly: all the wrong lessons for Russia and Ukraine
- The clear lesson for Putin is that he can win when he uses military force, because Western countries, though stronger, will not. The New York Times' Andrew Higgins writes, "The reality that Mr. Putin retains the upper hand precisely because he is prepared to use military force to get what he wants in diplomacy."
- This risks encouraging Putin to be only more aggressive toward non-NATO European countries. Worse, if Putin draws the lesson that he can meddle in smaller NATO members such as Estonia or Latvia, it creates the remote but terrifying risk of escalating into an unintended conflict with NATO.
- This holds even more true for Russia's aggression in Ukraine specifically. When Putin annexed Crimea, he won more than he lost. Now, perhaps, he will also come out ahead in his invasion of eastern Ukraine. If you're Vladimir Putin, it's hard to imagine how you would reach any other conclusion than "more invasions of Ukraine will continue to work out in my favor."