KIEV — The thick carpet of snow that covers central Kiev lends the city an artificial air of calm. In Independence Square, scene of the EuroMaidan revolution last year, the cafés and restaurants are full, and in the surrounding streets people hurry to and from work, wrapped up tightly against the cold. Designer shops sell Levi’s jeans and Calvin Klein shirts, while an Apple store is filled with customers. The war seems a million miles away.
But each day the stores re-price those jeans and shirts. The people walking to work worry about how they will afford life’s necessities and how to ask their boss for a pay raise—again. As the war in eastern Ukraine has intensified, the Ukrainian hryvnia has lost over 30 percent of its value in a week, and everyone is reacting in their own way. A waiter in my hotel asks me if I have any dollars.
The talks that ended Thursday in Minsk between German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko would, on the face of it, seem to have brought some relief to this beleaguered country. Most immediately, the parties were able to announce an immediate and full bilateral ceasefire in parts of the Donestk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine. The ceasefire will take effect a minute past midnight Ukraine time on Feb. 15.
The deal also called for both sides to withdraw heavy artillery to create a 30-mile buffer zone, for Ukrainian troops to withdraw their heavy weapons from the current front line while the separatists must pull back to the line of Sept. 19, 2014, established in an earlier protocol that also was signed in Minsk.
A prisoner and hostage exchange and amnesty for leading separatist figures was also agreed. Aid will now be allowed to flow into eastern Ukraine and the restoration of social security and other payments to Ukrainian citizens in the occupied areas has also been agreed. The Ukrainian government will (by the end of 2015) control its borders once more. Kiev, in return has also agreed to constitutional reforms by the end of 2015, which would encompass a key rebel demand: greater decentralization of powers to the eastern regions.
Cause for celebration, you might think. But the mood here remains depressed. “I don’t think it [the ceasefire] will last long, but hopefully it will be a break in the intense fighting, which is much needed by the Ukrainian side,” said Olga Tokariuk, a journalist with Ukrainian channel Hromadske TV. “There are many similarities with the previous Minsk agreement, and in fact Ukrainian diplomats have underlined that this not a new agreement but merely a complex of measures for the implementation of the previous one.”
Certainly the deal is remarkably similar to the September agreement that failed so comprehensively. Once more, it leaves plenty of room, most likely deliberately so, for (mis)interpretation and Ukrainians are dubious about the enforcement mechanisms in place. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) remains responsible for monitoring the deal’s enforcement on the ground and Ukrainians view it as weak.
“The Russians won’t agree to expanding the OSCE mandate, and that in my opinion should have been one of the issues for negotiation,” continued Tokariuk. “At the moment the OSCE can’t access all of Donbass and has even less capacity to monitor the border. Their mandate should have been expanded to give them access to more border checkpoints, for example. Now they only monitor two—of about 1 kilometer in length. It’s ridiculous.”
Another major problem is that only members of the contact group at the negotiations signed the agreement. Putin’s signature is nowhere to be found and neither is Poroshenko’s. Given that some of the terms include constitutional reform of Ukraine’s political system, it is highly questionable that those that did sign have the authority to guarantee such measures.
Putin did, however, claim that he had pressurized the separatists to sign the agreement. This tacit endorsement means that, theoretically, Ukrainian and Western diplomats can pressure him if the rebels fail to meet their obligations. But once more, it is all simply all too vague.
And then there is the question of what specifically Putin took the time to publicly endorse. Critically, he implied that the rebels would expect the Ukrainians to give up the town of Debaltseve (though he didn’t mention it by name), which the rebels now surround. “The Minsk agreement is likely to be only a sticking plaster,” said Oliver Carroll, a Kiev-based foreign correspondent using the British term for Band-aids, shortly before setting out for the east once more. “The main flaw is that ceasefire only kicks in in two days’ time. Up to that point, [we can] expect an attempt to resolve the Debaltseve encirclement, Schastya, and other areas around Donetsk. At the press conference, Putin himself said that the situation in Debaltseve is fluid, and that the rebels were undertaking a ‘defensive encirclement’ [sic] operation.”
“There can be no real ceasefire until strategic battles have been decided. So it’s a sticking plaster—maybe,” he continued. “Everywhere except Debaltsteve.”
With just over 36 hours until the ceasefire goes into effect, it certainly seems that both sides are taking full advantage of the remaining time to pound each other remorselessly. Thursday night, just hours after the talks concluded, heavy shelling lit up the night sky over the separatist stronghold of Luhansk.
Tokariuk concluded with a cynicism that underlines the widespread view here: “Putin went to Minsk for several reasons,” she said. “To stall before the spring, to possibly rethink tactics, and to prepare for two scenarios, which I believe will materialize—new sanctions and [Western] arms for Ukraine.”
A meme that has been doing the rounds on the Ukrainian Twittersphere sums up the mood. A photo from the Minsk talks shows a glum Merkel, walking in phalanx with an equally miserable looking Hollande and Poroshenko. A few paces behind them walk Putin and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. They are grinning from ear to ear.
It was left to my waiter to articulate most succinctly the feeling here on the ground this morning. “Minsk— phah!” he said glumly, as I drank my orange juice.