Minsk deal threatened as Ukraine, rebels spar over interpretation

Kiev and pro-Russia rebels sharply disagree on how to interpret what the cease-fire deal prescribed as 'next steps.'

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Ukrainian workers for the state gas company repair damaged gas lines near the village of Novoorlivka after a mid-February battle that left control of Russian-backed separatists in the village to the north of Nikishine, Ukraine, on March 5, 2015. The village just south of Debaltseve was destroyed during fierce fighting in a war between rebel forces and the Ukrainian armed forces that has so far left 6,000 dead.

Ukraine's shaky truce has hit a roadblock, and some are warning it could collapse unless its sponsors in Moscow, Berlin, and Paris urgently iron out the disputes over its political prescriptions.   

"There needs to be clarification of how the next steps are supposed to work, and that can only be imposed by the Russian and European leaders who compelled Kiev and the rebels to do the deal in the first place," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant.   

"Worries are growing that there will be a full resumption of hostilities once Spring arrives. This deadlock is a powder keg that could explode at any time," he says.   

Ironically, the cease-fire and heavy-weapons pullback mandated by the February Minsk-2 accord appear to be working well, with observers reporting relative peace along east Ukraine's recently embattled front lines. But the first step toward a long-term resolution is foundering over the irreconcilable endgames pursued by Kiev and the rebels.   

Elections vs. autonomy

The Minsk agreement stipulated that Kiev must open a dialogue on implementing elections, under Ukrainian law, in "self-governing" rebel-held territories that would be defined by a special parliamentary resolution. The new setup was duly signed into law by President Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday.

But it contains what pro-rebel analysts say is an unexpected "catch-22." Kiev argues the rebels cannot govern themselves until after elections held under full Ukrainian control. Moscow and the rebels, on the other hand, say Kiev was supposed to first recognize the rebel region's autonomy, then hammer out a long-term settlement, including fresh elections held under Ukrainian norms.

"We agreed to a special status for the Donbass within a renewed Ukraine, although our people wanted total independence. We agreed to this to avoid the spilling of fraternal blood," a statement by the leaders of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk "people's republics" said Wednesday. 

But Kiev sees the rebel leaders as Russian puppets who can never be negotiated with. Any discussion of autonomy, it argues, must be put off until Ukrainian law holds sway over the entire area.   

"There is not a word in the Minsk agreement over what needs to happen first, elections or 'special status,' " says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. "Ukraine isn't going to go along with any legalization of those so-called people's republics. We need them to be dismantled."   

Further steps

It looks like any onward implementation of the Minsk deal is stymied, say experts. Further steps were to include lifting Kiev's economic blockade on the rebel republics, constitutional reform that would ensure autonomy for eastern regions, and full restoration of Ukrainian control over the border with Russia.   

"What we see is that Kiev is prepared to fulfill the military part of the deal, but not the economic and political steps," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute for the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "Essentially, as long as the cease-fire holds, this conflict is frozen," he says.   

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk appeared to confirm that view by announcing that Kiev will allocate nearly $40 million immediately to construct permanent fortifications along the new de facto border between Ukraine and the rebel regions.   

But the rebels have repeatedly said that if there is to be no reconciliation within a redesigned Ukraine, they intend to take more of the Donbass territory they regard as rightfully part of the projected new state of "Novorossiya." Should they return to the battlefield, the next target could be the industrial city of Mariupol, an important seaport.   

"It certainly looks like deadlock right now," says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Kiev Center of Political Studies. "The peace process can get back on track, but only if the big powers step in and break this logjam. Let's hope they understand the urgency, and do it soon."

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