The fragile road map to peace in Ukraine, sealed two months ago between Moscow and Kiev, appears to be on the verge of collapse, with some experts warning that an all-out resumption of war appears possible.
The deal, inked by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk, Belarus, introduced a cease-fire – still shakily in force – plus a partially completed exchange of prisoners between Kiev forces and east Ukrainian rebels. As the agreement frays, however, reports of fresh fighting are proliferating, with Mr. Poroshenko urgently boosting defenses in key eastern Ukrainian cities, and NATO accusing Russia of threatening Ukraine by concentrating military forces on its border.
Few analysts seem ready to pronounce the Minsk accords completely dead. But they warn that its core mechanism for mapping out a long-term path to peace has irrevocably broken down in recent days, even if the prospects for full-fledged war remain unlikely for now.
According to the deal hammered out in early September by representatives of Kiev, Moscow, and the rebels, the breakaway territories of Donetsk and Luhansk were to be granted temporary self-government while an "inclusive national dialogue" sought ways to reunite Ukraine.
Last month, Mr. Poroshenko signed a law granting the rebel regions "special status" for three years. It would have allowed for local elections in December, within the framework of Ukrainian law.
But last Sunday, rebels held their own polls, effectively shredding the law.
An angry Poroshenko responded Wednesday by asking the newly elected Ukrainian parliament to revoke the "special status" law. The rebels' defiant response, recorded by a Russian news agency, was to declare indifference to whatever Kiev does "because that law wouldn't suit us anyway." The eastern rebels have increasingly insisted that they will accept nothing less than full independence.
The only optimistic note amid the growing storm is that the fighting that killed more than 4,000 people between April and September hasn't resumed, and that all parties appear unlikely to return to the battlefield anytime soon.
"Minsk is still alive, if only because there is no palatable alternative to it," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal.
Ukraine, whose Army lost 65 percent of its heavy equipment in disastrous August battles, is in no way ready to mount a renewed offensive against Donetsk and Luhansk. Though the rebel entities have declared themselves dissatisfied with the borders established by the Minsk accord and are reportedly building up their military strength, they lack the numbers to go on the attack without the direct Russian assistance that stood behind their battlefield victories two months ago.
But the Kremlin does not want more war, according to Russian experts. Mr. Lukyanov says the present state of "quasi-frozen conflict" in east Ukraine, with rebel republics supported but not officially recognized by Moscow, suits Mr. Putin just fine.
Unlike Crimea, which Moscow efficiently annexed last March, taking over the war-ravaged industrial rustbelt of eastern Ukraine holds little appeal for Russia. The Kremlin's goal, Lukyanov says, was always to use the pro-Russian rebellion as a lever to force Kiev to accept Moscow's terms for change in Ukraine, including permanent neutrality, official status for the Russian language, and a new constitutional arrangement that gives sweeping autonomy to the regions.
"There is no Kremlin master plan for Ukraine," Lukyanov says. Now the Russian strategy will be to wait for Kiev to be overcome by domestic economic and political difficulties amid the difficult winter months to come, and to continue weighing options on how best to use Russia's vast financial, military, and trade advantages to influence the situation, he adds.
Leaders trapped by the conflict?
While polls show few Russians favor direct intervention in Ukraine, they also show solid majorities backing the rebels and Putin's handling of the crisis. Even if he wanted to, Putin might find it politically impossible to turn his back on the rebel entities in eastern Ukraine if fresh fighting erupts.
"I have no idea what Putin's future plans are, but as a Russian I am sure that Novorossiya [the rebel republics] is part of the Russian world," says Kirill Frolov, an expert with the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "The people of Novorossiya want to join Russia, and we have no right to ignore their will."
Poroshenko might find his own negotiating options limited by similar hardline sentiment in Kiev. For instance, experts say, it would be politically impossible for him to recognize the leaders produced by last weekend's rebel elections, even though that might break the deadlock by giving Kiev a negotiating partner.
"Poroshenko chose the wrong road" by backing the Minsk peace process, says Oleksiy Kolomiyets, president of the independent Center of European and Transatlantic Studies in Kiev. "He may continue to try and save his political face by pretending the Minsk agreements still exist, but they are dead. Diplomacy doesn't work, and it can't work. Those [rebel entities] will eventually have to be destroyed."