Sarah Martin is a recent graduate of George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, where she wrote her thesis on Chechen foreign fighters in Syria. She was previously a fellow at NatSecGirlSquad, supporting the organization’s debut conference on November 15, 2018. She can be found on Twitter @amerikitkatoreo. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing the Failure of Minsk II in Ukraine and the “Success” of the 2008 Ceasefire in Georgia
Date Originally Written: December 16, 2018.
Date Originally Published: January 21, 2019.
Summary: In 2019 the Donbass War in Ukraine will enter its fifth year. Over 10,000 people have been killed, 3,000 of them civilians, and one million displaced. Two ceasefire agreements between Moscow and Kyiv have failed, and no new agreements are forthcoming. When compared to the agreement of the 2008 August War between Russia and Georgia, ending the stalemate in Ukraine and determining a victor might be the key to brokering a lasting ceasefire.
Text: It is easy to find comparisons between the ongoing Donbass War in Ukraine and the 2008 August War between Russia and Georgia. However, despite their similarities, one ended swiftly, in less than a month, while the other continues without even the slightest hint of deescalation in the near future. This paper seeks to assess the endpoints of these conflicts in order to begin a conversation exploring why the conflict in Georgia ended, and why the conflict in Ukraine continues.
The ceasefire agreement between Russia and Georgia did not necessarily bring about the end of hostilities, especially at first. Indeed, even into 2018, Russia has been in violation of this agreement in a number of ways, including inching the South Ossetian border fence deeper into Georgia. However, major operations between Moscow and Tbilisi have ceased, while they have not in Ukraine.
The current conflict in Ukraine involves two main players: the central government of Kyiv, and factions under the self-ascribed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). The DPR and LPR are heavily supported by Moscow by way of private mercenary forces such as the Wagner Group and regular soldiers and weapons . Kyiv is supported by the United State (U.S.), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). This support is mostly political with some weapons sales and training, though the U.S. has recently begun to sell lethal weapons.
Kyiv seeks to maintain internal state integrity and political independence from Russia. The DPR and LPR are keen not to be independent states, but to be united with the Russian Federation, as they see themselves as an ethnolinguistic minority with closer ties to Russia than their Ukrainian-speaking counterparts. Other stakeholders have their own objectives. Western partners wish to maintain international order and to guarantee Ukraine’s national right to self-determination. Russia has always struggled with the concept of an independent Ukraine and is wary of any attempts of “democratic reform,” which it sees as a Western plot pursuing regime change within the Kremlin.
There have been two major attempts to bring this conflict to an end: the September 2014 Minsk Protocol and February 2015 Minsk II. In 2015, DPR representatives openly considered the possibility of reintegration with Kyiv. Current Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, ran on a platform of ending the conflict and achieving peace. There was, at one time, at least some political will to see the violence stop. But the Minsk Protocol fell apart practically overnight, and despite early hopes, Minsk II did not stand much longer.
The August War in 2008 between Georgia and Russia was equally complex. The war broke out that summer as the endpoint of a series of escalating tensions between Tbilisi, South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region, Abkhazia, and Moscow. Although the European Council’s fact-finding mission pointed to Georgia as the actor responsible for the start of the war by firing heavy artillery into Tskhinvali, the region’s main town, the report noted Georgia’s actions came in response to pressure and provocation from Moscow.
The primary actors in the August War were the Georgian government in Tbilisi and rebellious factions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are two ethnic minority regions of Georgia and have sought independence from Tbilisi since the 1990s. Other stakeholders were Russia, the U.S., and the broader Western alliance. Russia acted unilaterally in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, overtly using their fleets and their soldiers, claiming to be defending peacekeepers and South Ossetians who were, as they claimed, Russian citizens.
In the months leading up to the outbreak of violence, Georgia sought EU and NATO membership, and Russia found such steps away from their influence unacceptable. The U.S. and its Western allies supported Georgia’s desires to varying degrees; most agreed that the integration ought to happen, though when exactly it should, was left to some innocuous “future” date.
Moscow responded to the situation in Georgia with overwhelming force and had the city of Tbilisi in their sights within days. Having positioned themselves on the border during their quadrennial Kavkaz (Caucasus) military exercises and having a much more sophisticated army and modern weapons, Moscow was ready for combat. Georgia scrambled, underestimating Moscow’s interest in South Ossetia and overestimating Western willingness to intervene.
There are many similarities between the 2008 August War in Georgia and the ongoing Donbass War in Ukraine. However, what is strikingly different, and perhaps the most important element, is the swiftness and assuredness by which the conflict came to an end. There was a clear winner. When Nicolas Sarkozy, then acting president of the European Commission, and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to the terms which officially brought the August War to an end, Medvedev said, “the aggressor was punished, suffering huge losses.”
While both Ukraine and Russia have much to gain by keeping the conflict ongoing, Ukraine—on its own—does not have the capability to bring the war to an end. Ending the Donbass War is squarely in Moscow’s court, so long as Kyiv bears the brunt of its own defense. Moscow is, after all, in charge of the separatists driving the conflict. The failure of both Minsk agreements is an example of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. To both Kyiv and Moscow, the end of this conflict is positioned as a lose / lose situation. Compromise is not an option, but on a long enough timeline, something has to give.
An end of the violence will not be the end of the conflict in the Donbass, as noted in the case of Russo-Georgian relations. However, a cessation of shelling and the laying of mines means that people can return home and the dead can be properly mourned. A ceasefire is not the final step, but the first one. The road to peace in the Donbass is a long and winding journey, but it cannot and will not begin without that first step.
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