Russian troops are camped on the border of Ukraine and tensions are mounting. Photo: Twitter / Fars News Agency

News on February 18 said that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov late in the week of February 21, “provided there is no further Russian invasion of Ukraine,” according to the US State Department. 

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has spoken by phone with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and others to discuss Russia’s military build-up.

The escalating military situation around Ukraine and incidents in eastern Ukraine, including a vehicle explosion about 100 meters from the headquarters of the Donetsk Republic, are increasing tension. 

According to a Russian report, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic Militia, Denis Sinenkov, was targeted by the blast that destroyed his car, but he was not hurt. 

Western sources said the blast was a provocation by the breakaway Republics who also are evacuating citizens from Donetsk and Luhansk because these people, particularly women, children and the elderly, are in the potential line of fire.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reiterated, for the umpteenth time, that the only basis for a settlement in eastern Ukraine is for Kiev to negotiate with the breakaway territories based on the Minsk II Protocols (2015).

The Minsk II Protocols were agreed by Kiev, representatives of the breakaway republics, Germany, France and Moscow plus a representative of the OSCE, which was given monitoring responsibilities under the deal to help secure a ceasefire among the parties.  

The Minsk II Protocols’ most important provision, beyond the ceasefire – which has been repeatedly violated by both sides since 2015 incurring a significant loss of life and property damage – is that Luhansk and Donetsk would be allowed to become autonomous regions of the Ukrainian Republic, but would function more generally under Ukrainian law and would participate in Ukrainian politics, meaning representation in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament.

The Protocol foresees that Ukraine would pass enabling legislation after the parties work out the particulars for autonomy.

Source: WikiCommons

No US support

Ukraine has generally resisted any action on the autonomy issue, either saying the Minsk deal was no longer relevant to current conditions or demanding that autonomy could only be considered when the republics stood down their militias and the Russians pulled back their military forces. 

Washington has also not supported the Minsk II agreement, arguing it was obsolete and irrelevant, a view also echoed by the British, who think a Minsk-based deal would lead to the “Finlandization” of Ukraine.

Behind the scenes, it is quite clear, by omission and commission, that Washington has let the Ukrainians believe that Minsk II is off the table – although the US was never a party to Minsk II.

France and Germany have taken a significantly different approach, working largely whether through the Normandy Group (France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine) or bilaterally with Russia and Ukraine.  Both France and Germany have been trying to get the Minsk process back on track, in one way or another.

Kiev’s recalcitrance, largely supported by the US, has made the situation worse than it should be. 

Moreover, as the Russians believe through their own assessment that Washington was trying to foment a stronger Ukrainian military, push Ukraine into NATO and increase US forces in Eastern Europe as some sort of counterweight to Moscow, the dialogue between Russia and the US has centered on a set of Russian demands involving Ukraine’s possible NATO membership (Russia calls that a “red line”) and US and other NATO forces in eastern Europe put there after 1997. 

As a consequence one can view the current diplomatic channel as diverging on critical issues, so far in fact as to be almost irretrievable. Kiev is also missing a chance not only to avoid war but also to avoid the loss of its rogue pro-Russian territories.

Biden’s position on Ukraine has to do as much with domestic politics as it does with Ukraine’s territorial integrity. On the domestic front, the Biden administration is trying to deflect the image of a weak and irresolute president who failed in Afghanistan and stranded hundreds (if not more) of pro-American Afghans, whose lives were at risk but who were systematically ignored for evacuation.

Being tough on Russia, therefore, is supposed to earn bragging points for Biden and his operatives, such as Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Many say domestic politics play a big role in President Joe Biden’s stance on Ukraine. Photo: AFP / Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Questions of status

The downside of the get tough with Russia approach, at least so far, is that the Russians are not in the least backing down and a war on Ukrainian territory is fast becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Unlike Russian President Putin’s egregious policy in Georgia and Crimea that resulted in the annexation of Crimea and the special status for South Ossetia and Abkhazia that emerged as Russian-recognized independent republics, the Russian demand – which corresponds to Minsk II – for Luhansk and Donetsk is an undefined form of autonomy.

It is a significantly lesser status than afforded to Crimea, which was annexed, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which became “independent” republics.

There is much room in the Minsk II formula for solutions that could go further to diffusing the situation if any progress could be made on defining what autonomy might look like under a negotiated deal. 

Among the questions are what are the borders and how will they be managed, whether the two breakaway districts – oblasts in Russian/Ukrainian, which are administrative districts – will be able to retain their militias, or whether the militias will be disbanded or reintegrated into Ukraine’s armed forces?

The Ukrainians acted to integrate the ultra-nationalist and pro-fascist Azov brigade into the Ukrainian army, demonstrating they are not averse to such things when it suits them.

There are also questions about the guarantee of human rights, and as concerns Russia, the preservation of the Russian character of these enclaves, which are dominantly Russian-speaking. 

How will law courts function and how will they protect the rights of the autonomous areas, once defined? These and many related issues are unresolved and unaddressed.

Russian President Putin. Image credit: Creative Commons

Had the Minsk II Protocols failed to lead to a successful result, it would be clear there isn’t a solution that can be agreed upon by the parties. But that has never been tested and Washington in particular, along with Ukraine’s leaders, are mainly responsible for the impasse.

It seems unlikely that a meeting between Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov will make progress if this meeting is focused on issues outside of Minsk II, as described above. This will leave Moscow to decide what it wants to do next, and Moscow will no longer be obliged to support the Minsk II Protocols as a solution set for the immediate crisis. 

Outside of military action, Moscow may decide either to recognize the Luhansk and Donetsk breakaway republics, which the Russian parliament has recommended, or worse still to annex them, triggering a war in Ukraine.

Follow Stephen Bryen on Twitter: @stevebryen