This is a translation of an article that was previously published in Russian.

The peace agreement was signed on February 12, but the peace has been shaky already. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called U.S. President Barack Obama on February 15 to agree “on further coordination of efforts in case of escalation of the conflict”—just in case. They are certainly looking to the future. On the very same day, while speaking at a meeting of the General Staff , Poroshenko declared that Ukraine certainly supports peace but will not turn the other cheek and then asked God for forgiveness. For their part, the Donetsk People’s Republic leaders said that they are honoring the ceasefire agreement everywhere except the contested town of Debaltsevo because it is within their territory, and they are free to shoot wherever they like on their own land.

Vladimir Parasyuk, the very same Maidan sotnik (company commander) that gave an ultimatum to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and is now a Rada (parliament) member and a company commander in a Dneprbattalion, has sounded unhappy. “We don’t need a truce. We need a victory,” he said. Others agree: Semen Semenchenko, the commander of the same battalion, also a parliament member, and a popular hero, believes that the agreement is unrealistic.

Alexander Baunov
Baunov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Another parliament member, Euromaidan organizer, and intellectual, Mustafa Nayyem, wrote, “I would not have any illusions as to the future—this is a temporary truce, and it is important to clearly understand how to respond to the adversary next time around.”

Coolheaded public analysts talk about the lesser of two evils, while pessimists worry that the current agreement is worse than the last one because Russian President Vladimir Putin got more this time. They are kind of happy that the shooting might stop, but still not that happy overall.

Imaginary Maps

Ukrainians should understand, though, that Poroshenko signed on to these terms not because Putin wanted them, but because they are what French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted.

Thus, Poroshenko rolled over for Europe, not for Putin. And this was, in fact, Maidan’s central idea—not just to take a step toward Europe but to come under external European administration to rid the country of the problems that it was unable to deal with itself. They even recruited ministers from the ranks of European Union members; of course, some prominent names are lacking, but even those  signal that European reformers are in charge. So, with the current agreement, Ukraine actually acquires external European administration, and this time it involves top European leaders and not some retired Lithuanian minister.

True, this external European administration also involves Russia to some extent. Even worse, it involves embittered and trespassing Russia. But why on earth did the Ukrainians think that an external European, or even U.S., administration would not involve Russia? Then secretary of state Henry Kissinger descended on Moscow from time to time while shuttling between world capitals to end the Yom Kippur War. Of course, it could be said that Russia was stronger then than it is now, but the Sinai Peninsula is not Kiev—the Mother of All Russian Cities—either.

It is impossible to have European administration while being cut off from Russia, because Europe itself is not cut off from Russia. You can distance yourself or come closer, change this for that or the other thing, but a world map with an ocean of dreams in Russia’s stead only looks realistic from the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr or the Lithuanian city of Panevėžys, and even there only among predominantly artistic intellectuals. There is no such map in Paris or Berlin. But some do prefer dream maps over real ones; pin a bunch of guideposts to them and march on Berlin, although Berlin lies on a totally different route.

Both Ukrainians and Russians are victims of misleading guideposts. It is not enough to stick a guidepost that says “Europe” in the ground and start enthusiastically marching in the desired direction—in the direction of Europe, that is. Putting the words “holy Russia is a unique civilization” on a guidepost doesn’t mean moving in that direction. You would most likely end up in a graveyard on that account.

President Putin made up a map, albeit one based on the real reefs that he ran up against in the course of his storms; he believed in the map and led Russia to the worst calamities it had faced in the last fifteen, if not twenty-five years. And that was after he had gained a reputation as the ruler who gave Russians the best lives they have ever had. For a number of reasons, Ukrainians also believed in the map that they had drawn up themselves and started acting as if the world worked according to it—for instance, they acted on the beliefs that Russia and the West are perennial enemies and the more you feud with Russia, the more Western assistance you can get.

The Putin that has been negotiating peace for sixteen hours does not at all look like Putin the serial killer from this imaginary world map. He is not totally innocent and did some damage, of course, but it is not like he was out to get everyone, everything, and at any cost. Some may say that they were just twisting his arm for those sixteen hours and finally managed to get him into a straitjacket. But then one may say that Poroshenko was forced, too: when it comes to his and his people’s wishes, he’d rather get everything back, including Crimea, and get it over with. And if you ask Russian “patriots,” they would say that Russia broke the West in sixteen hours. So, that is what poses the biggest threat to the world at the present time—the inertia of following a self-made map. This map features the West and Russia as two irreconcilably hostile civilizations and Ukraine as the front line of their struggle. And if the West hasn’t gotten it yet, it’s only because the struggle hasn’t lasted long enough. Adding a bit more struggle will definitely get the West to understand and help the front line.

A similar threat comes from the separatists and other militant idealists and not-quite-idealists. They also believe in the perennial and indelible hatred between Russia and the West and that “certain districts of Donetsk and Lugansk regions” are the front line for the war of the worlds—a war to the last breath. Russia hasn’t fully thrown its hat into the ring yet only because there hasn’t been enough of a struggle. So they need to press on for a bit more, and then Russia will be in all the way; they need to destroy the enemy that refuses to surrender and win—otherwise, it will all be for naught.

After all, the problem with the agreement is not that it has many weak links that can snap. The problem is that it all rests upon the imaginary struggle between Russia and the West. All parties—the Ukrainians, the separatists, Putin, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė, McCain—believe that if they only help in the struggle a bit, everything will fall into place.

Just as in the case of the Yugoslav wars, an agreement made by fatigued leaders in foreign capitals didn’t go down well on the ground because the locals live according to their own guideposts.

The Weak Links

Now to the agreement itself. Just by looking at the language of the agreement, at its rough wording, one can see what agony accompanied its writing. It is certainly one of those documents that are based more on the parties’ good faith than the actual text. Nevertheless, there are more than enough holes in it.

For instance, paragraph ten calls for the “disarmament of all illegal groups.” And which ones are illegal? For an ordinary peaceful life, yesterday’s miners and store security guards that are now running around with grenade launchers are the most illegal groups you can find. That’s exactly what they think about them in Kiev. But for the separatist republics—they are legitimate army and police forces. Meanwhile, in the next few days, the Russian foreign ministry will name Ukraine’s voluntary battalions—these Aidars and Dneprs—illegal formations. But to the Ukrainians, they are a legitimate revolutionary guard, no worse than Trotsky’s guard in revolutionary Petrograd.

Something like this already happened after the April 2014 Geneva agreement. The agreement had a paragraph about vacating illegally occupied administrative buildings: the Ukrainians meant the occupied regional administrative buildings in Lugansk and Donetsk, while in Moscow, they thought of the premises in Kiev and Rovno that had been taken over by the Maidan military units.

Or let’s take paragraph eleven that states that the constitutional reform should be completed by the end of 2015 and should include “decentralization as a key element” as well as “a reference to the specificities of certain areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, agreed with the representatives of these areas.” In other words, not only should the constitutional reform for the entirety of Ukraine be completed in less than a year, and the final product should look completely different from what most of the Ukrainian public expects, but it should also be approved by those considered to be terrorists and bandits. How is that possible?

The constitution is not within former  Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma’s or even Poroshenko’s purview; it is up to the Rada’s constitutional majority to change, and Poroshenko doesn’t have one. Most Ukrainians view the Minsk agreement as either an act of surrender or a temporary truce. If everything is quiet and the horrors of war recede into the distance, it will be even harder to convince the boisterous Rada members of the need for reform with the key demand of decentralization and the terrorists’ suggestions to boot.

Paragraph five of the agreement talks about amnesty for everyone—not only for those who have committed less-serious crimes, as is usually the case—and again the amnesty is to be passed into law, which returns us to the Rada. But the Rada is unlikely to pass anything signed by Kuchma and separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky: after all, who the heck are they?

And if there is no reform, there will be no cartoons or television series, and no control of the border either. The reform should come first and the border last, which may never happen.

And take paragraph four: “Launch a dialogue, on day 1 of the withdrawal, on modalities of local elections in accordance with Ukrainian legislation and the Law of Ukraine ‘On interim local self-government order in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.’” Launch a dialogue on modalities of local elections? Who will be talking? And more importantly, what about? And what are these modalities?

To linguists, modalities are subjunctive and conditional moods or, say, casus irrealis—an impossible event. Of course, modalities mean something else to diplomats. To them, it’s closer to the Latin word “modus”—method. Still, it makes one uneasy. What if they don’t pull back a cannon or two from the line, will the dialogue be over without having even started? And there are serious concerns that they won’t pull them back. Diplomats talk when the cannons are silent. But those that will have to talk about the elections in the aforementioned regions are not exactly diplomats, so the word “modality” might elude them.

And here is another exercise in clarity. From paragraph 8: “Definition of modalities of full resumption of socioeconomic ties, including social transfers such as pension payments and other payments.” Couldn’t they just say “start paying pensions and teachers’ salaries” in “certain districts”? No, they talk about defining modalities. And the Kiev modality is: why feed those separatists; it’s their fault; they made a mess out of the place, let them pay. Who needs those Soviet Union–era pensioners with Lenin in their heads? They are the source of all Ukrainian misfortune. Doctors? They will use the money to treat the militants. Teachers? They will tell kids about the great victory and the brotherhood of nations instead of teaching them the correct history of Ukraine, the victim of centuries-long Russian aggression. Moscow, for its part, has another modality: you can’t have the region as part of your country and pay its people nothing. Donetsk also has a modality: send the money already!

Modalities work well when suit-clad ambassadors discuss reducing strategic nuclear arsenals with their colleagues, but not when tough guys from regional capitals come to talk business with real guys from the Rada.

Even without modalities, not everything is clear. In paragraph six, the parties agreed to “ensure release and exchange of all hostages and unlawfully detained persons, based on the principle ‘all for all’ . . . on the day 5 after the withdrawal.” So that’s nineteen days, counting from last Thursday. How about Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko—is her detention in Russia illegal or legal, since it is sanctioned by a court? What of independent Ukrainian journalist Ruslan Kotsaba—is he an illegal detainee or is he being held legally on the treason charges pressed by Ukraine’s security service?

Here is what the most accurate and renowned chronicler of the Russian president’s words and gestures wrote after spending sixteen hours outside of the negotiating room where the Normandy Four met: “The Kommersant reports that out of the sixteen hours that the leaders of the four countries spent negotiating, almost half of the time was spent discussing the Debaltsevo encirclement. And first and foremost, whether it exists or not. Vladimir Putin insisted that it does exist, and if the truce agreement is signed, it would be strange if it weren’t violated: those inside the pocket will try to break out of it. Petro Poroshenko insisted that there is no encirclement. However, his data contradicted that of the French intelligence; thus, Francois Hollande intimated that everything is known about Debaltsevo, and there is encirclement there.” The argument lingers, and so does the fighting.

A chain is as strong as its weakest link, as the adage goes. What if every link is weak?

How to End the War?

Some in Ukraine are tempted to fight more until the country gets U.S. weapons, which would be tantamount to victory. After all, if the war continues, they have nothing to lose but people and money. One may be tempted to think that Russia would suffer all of the reputational consequences in this case. If the war drags on, it would again expose Putin and Russia as aggressive monsters, enemies of peace, and enemies of the world. Perhaps the media would seize upon this explanation and run with it. But the Western leaders—not the politicians at large, like a certain senator, but the heads of state—are privy to a rather high level of expertise and knowledge of the facts on the ground (see the encirclement story above). They would see who really broke the peace through the screen of media chatter, just as they knew who did it back in the August 2008. That’s why there were no sanctions on Russia then, despite its use of the air force and official recognition of the separatist republics.

The Ukrainians should understand that if the war continues, they will prove more than their thesis that Russia is a centuries-old evil that cannot be negotiated with and should be finished off instead. They will also prove Putin’s favorite point that Ukraine is a failed state that can’t follow through on its commitments.

On top of that, they will prove the Russian diplomats’ point that the separatists are an independent force that can’t simply be ordered by the Kremlin. And the Yugoslavia experience taught the West that those separatists obeyed former president Slobodan Milošević when his position converged with theirs, but they became unruly when their positions diverged.

I am talking more about the Ukrainians than the separatists not because they are terribly belligerent and love to kill, but because the demarcation, ceasefire, and troop pullback line runs through their territory. Incidentally, the question of Crimea was not even on the table, which is understandable: the parties were discussing peace in Donbas, and throwing Crimea into the fire would have meant no agreement on Donbas could have been reached.

Nevertheless, Ukrainians still see the developments as their loss. There is clamor for more fighting to reveal Russia’s savage face, which would get the United States involved in supplying Ukraine with weapons and pressuring the Russians more in other ways until they are kicked out.

Putin is not the worst enemy of peace at this time. Rather, it is the fighters’ national pride and the local militaristic fervor. The peace is more likely to be broken on the ground rather than on top. But if fighting resumes on the ground, those on top will not stand idly by but will rally to support their own.

The right strategy for the West would be linking aid to Ukraine to peace rather than war. Because as long as Russians hear the words “we’ll help if there is war,” it will indeed break out under the current conditions. Therefore, the offer that can’t be refused should be “we’ll help if there is peace.” As for Russia, instead of increasing sanctions and thus locking the country inside the snow fortress it has built on its own, the West should lift them, in part so that Russians will feel the difference and not want to go back.

  • Alexander Baunov