KYIV, Ukraine — After hours of deliberation, the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine reached a deal early Thursday in Minsk on an agreement they hope will finally bring peace to eastern Ukraine.
At first glance, it’s a much-needed commitment on paper to end a 10-month-long war that’s claimed more than 5,300 lives and ravaged a large block of territory.
But many critics are already slamming the deal as decisively pro-Russian, one that provides both Moscow and the separatists with ample room for exploitation.
There are a few potential loopholes in the 13-point document — known colloquially as “Minsk II,” since it’s the second such ceasefire agreement — that may still make life difficult for the government in Kyiv.
Here's a closer look:
Fighting is still allowed until Sunday
Officially, the ceasefire will take effect at midnight on Feb. 15. That leaves at least two full days of potential fighting ahead.
That means rebels can continue their ongoing offensive and snatch the key road and railway hub of Debaltseve, which has become the focal point of the conflict in recent weeks as rebels have sought to push out their borders.
Russian President Vladimir Putin himself even hinted that Ukrainian forces, practically encircled by rebel fighters in the town of around 25,000, should lay down their arms.
It also doesn’t help that military officials here claimed on Thursday — though without confirmation — that 50 Russian tanks rolled across the border into Ukraine as leaders were discussing the ceasefire in Minsk.
A ceasefire, a prisoner exchange, a withdrawal of heavy weapons, and "a great deal of tension." September redux. Will it work this time?— Roland Oliphant (@RolandOliphant) February 12, 2015
Ukraine regains control of its border — with one major catch
A key element that’s made this conflict so deadly is the vast, porous border between Russia and Ukraine, through which countless pieces of military machinery and — according to Ukrainian and Western officials, at least — Russian soldiers have freely flowed.
Thursday’s agreement hands full control over Ukraine’s border with Russia back to the Kyiv authorities. But that’s only after it holds local elections in the war-torn Donetsk and Luhansk regions and passes sweeping constitutional reforms that transfer significant powers to those two regions by the end of the year.
That’s easier said than done, especially since reaching a political agreement that satisfies both sides will be exceedingly difficult. In the past, separatists have demanded everything from greater autonomy to full independence, while Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has made it clear that “decentralization” is the furthest he’s willing to go.
Decentralization would grant significant privileges to the regions, such as language rights and their own law enforcement organs. Yet it stops short of “federalization” — an option the Kremlin pushed early on in the conflict, but one which Kyiv officials say would lead to the further break-up of the country.
It’s also unclear just how the final administrative borders will be drawn in those regions, even after they’re granted special status. Some analysts believe the Kremlin can manipulate this as it sees fit.
“This is a time bomb under today's deal that Russia could detonate at any moment if it is unhappy with Ukraine's compliance with the rest of the terms,” Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky noted on Thursday.
It allows for prisoner swaps — but maybe not for the highest-profile one
A positive aspect of the deal is a provision that allows for an “all-for-all” prisoner exchange to be completed no later than five days after the pullback of heavy weaponry from the front lines.
This is likely good news for the families of combatants on both sides, whose relatives have been captured and held for days, weeks or months on end.
But that may not be the case for Nadiya Savchenko. She’s a Ukrainian military pilot whom rebels detained last summer and spirited away to Russia to face charges over her alleged involvement in the conflict deaths of two Russian journalists.
Savchenko is currently on trial in Moscow, where she’s spent more than 60 days on a hunger strike in protest. She’s become something of a folk hero and a symbol of Moscow’s alleged meddling in the conflict.
Poroshenko expressed hopes in Minsk that Savchenko would be freed under the accord, but his Russian partners don’t seem to agree.
“The method for automatically freeing a person accused of participating in murder, in this case of a Russian journalist, does not exist,” Alexei Pushkov, the head of Russia’s parliamentary committee on international affairs, told journalists Thursday.
Even one of her lawyers, Mark Feygin, says her release is not exactly a done deal.
“The situation has been clarified,” he wrote. “Savchenko’s case formally continues. It will conclude in a formal procedural manner. At least Savchenko’s innocence is obvious.”
But good news: Ukraine has received a massive financial bailout
News of the ceasefire agreement was joined by a fresh pledge by Western creditors of a whopping $40 billion loan to the Kyiv government, more than $17.5 billion of which will come from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
This couldn’t have come at a better time. Ukraine’s economy is sputtering toward default, hampered in large part by spending some $8 million per day on the war.
But it’s uncertain whether this was a tradeoff that will pay dividends in the long run.
Ukraine gets cash. Russia gets land.— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) February 12, 2015