Three days before his latest and biggest invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on February 21 that the Russian Federation would recognize the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) as sovereign states. The decision followed the Russian Duma’s request to recognize the independence of the Russian-occupied regions of eastern Ukraine.
At a stroke, and without consultation, Putin killed off the Minsk Agreements and the Normandy process, through which it had affected to seek a peaceful solution to its eight years of war with Ukraine. His decision is revealing and not just because it suggests that he viewed years of Franco-German peace efforts as a sham, but also because it signals the Russian President’s disdainful views about any talks in the future.
Putin’s pretexts were far from new. During his address, the Russian president accused Western governments of “hostile activities” threatening the lives of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking peoples. It was his country’s duty to protect the rights of all Russians, he said, making it “necessary” to recognize the independence and sovereignty of the DNR and LNR.
Shortly after that, Russian forces launched their second invasion, a campaign which after just one month has caused a catastrophe. More than 3 million Ukrainians have fled the country, and thousands have perished as a result of Russia’s unprovoked war. These figures are in addition to the 1.6 million internally displaced persons and the deaths of 14,000 that resulted from Russia’s first invasion in 2014. Russia is estimated to have lost 7,000 dead, including a significant number of senior officers, and perhaps three times as many wounded.
It seems, as many commentators have noted, a singularly pointless war. Putin is destroying that which he claims to save; Russians and Ukrainians, who he called “one people”, are filling the mortuaries of the region; Russia’s and Ukraine’s economies will soon be in ruins.
Could Minsk and Normandy have worked? Following the Russian entry into eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Minsk Protocols were drafted to try and provide a peaceful resolution to the Donbas conflict. Representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Russian Federation, and Ukraine met to discuss the situation. They signed potential agreements in Minsk, but the provisions were never implemented. The ceasefire was constantly broken, and the Russians refused to withdraw their troops and military equipment from the occupied regions in eastern Ukraine.
The West struggled to hold Russia accountable for its actions. The United States, Canada, Australia, and the European Union, then including the UK, initially imposed economic sanctions on Russia following its illegal annexation of Crimea, but the penalties imposed on Russia did little to alter this country’s behavior. Instead, Russia continued to fight in Eastern Ukraine, while the West largely lost interest in continuing low-level hostilities.
Realizing the Minsk Accords were failing to bring peace, the Germans and the French offered a new solution in 2014.
Enter the Normandy Summit. Under this structure, German and French officials met Ukrainian and Russian representatives to discuss the ongoing conflict. But negotiations eventually stalled. While Ukraine called for the West to intervene, Germany and France continued to push for dialogue. The Germans and French sought various diplomatic solutions, but this had no effect on the continuing fighting, or the prospects for peace.
For an extended period, representatives from the four countries did not meet at all, citing disagreements over the negotiation process. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron also made an appeal, asking other EU leaders to seek formal talks with Putin, but this idea was rejected. In an attempt to ease the tensions in the Donbas, the Germans proposed that elections be held in the Russian-occupied territories, but the Ukrainians dismissed this idea unless Russian forces withdrew first.
These long-drawn-out negotiations would eventually signal to Putin that Minsk and Normandy were no longer useful to his cause. As he began to amass 190,000 troops near the Russo-Ukrainian border, the West continued to seek dialogue with Putin.
In January, representatives from the United States, NATO, and the OSCE met Russian officials to discuss Russia’s presence near the Ukrainian border. These negotiations, once again, came to nothing. Then, in mid-February, both German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to Moscow to try and reason with the Russian president. Their efforts not only had no success, but also raised suspicions in Ukraine and elsewhere that the Franco-German initiative might be promising too much. It hardly mattered; Putin was unwilling to wait.
Is there anything to salvage from this eight-year-long diplomatic effort? Not much. Western leaders should note the failures of Minsk and Normandy and conclude that Vladimir Putin and his ministers are not people who can be trusted to keep their word, or to seriously seek peace deals. That should encourage a more maximalist approach to future talks — everything promised must be written down and implemented.
For now, the West should do everything it can to confront and punish the aggressor. The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the European Union have sanctioned numerous Russian banks, penalized Russian oligarchs, and frozen Russian dirty money assets. Many Western companies have also discontinued their services in Russia.
But they can do more. For example, the West should cancel the visas of Putin’s inner circle, as well as those of Russian politicians. They can also seize, rather than freeze, Russian assets. This could make the Russian leadership think twice about its behavior. These penalties should remain in place to force Russia out of Ukraine. The West should also require the Russians to pay reparations to Ukraine for the enormous damage done to its infrastructure.
Finally, a major economic and symbolic gesture would be to fast-track Ukraine into the European Union. Doing so would provide numerous economic benefits to this Eastern European state, since it would help stimulate the economy. It would also demonstrate that a country in Eastern Europe is able to leave Russia’s sphere of orbit by adopting Western democratic norms and values.
Putin has killed the old peace process. The talks were always a cover for Russian aggression — any peace deal that fails even to deliver a ceasefire is hardly worth the name.
As Putin’s war continues, the West’s aims are clear enough:
- Stop him on the battlefield, and
- Agree a verifiable and enforceable deal to make Ukraine safe and make Russia think again about war as an instrument of policy.