With the reported fall of the Ukrainian town of Debaltseve, the Minsk II ceasefire looks like little more than a Russian maneuver, one that chips away at Western unity.
From the start, many observers saw Minsk II as only a stopgap measure. Even so, European leaders seemed to cling to hope that the ceasefire could provide a basis for a more comprehensive, permanent solution to the war in eastern Ukraine.
Perhaps it should not be so surprising that Minsk II was so brittle. In retrospect, it seems Moscow was never intent on bargaining in good faith. Ultimately, the ceasefire only handed Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine yet another tactical advantage.
The concept of a ceasefire as a tactical maneuver is hardly new for Russia. It has earlier precedents in Russia’s lengthy experience in the business of propping up separatists in its “near abroad.” In particular, the most recent Minsk II deal has similarities to another conflict in which Russia always denied direct involvement – the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia between local separatist forces and the Georgian army.
As has been the case in eastern Ukraine, the Abkhazia war saw minority separatist forces rescued by a massive influx of Russian “volunteers.” Reinforced by experienced Russian fighters and heavy arms, Abkhaz separatists managed to overpower what otherwise should have been a more capable Georgian military.
The sudden flow of volunteers into Abkhazia, it should be remembered, came on the heels of Georgian government military successes. Thousands of Georgian troops deployed in mid-1992 seemed to force the separatist leadership to the edge of capitulation. Then, in September 1992, Russia helped to hastily broker a ceasefire, which, had it been actually observed, would have led to the disbandment of separatist formations. But that ceasefire, like those in Ukraine, proved little more than a tactical feint, and fighting resumed that October.
By that point, separatist Abkhaz forces had been bolstered by “volunteers,” enabling them to go on the offensive and retake territories in northern Abkhazia. Later, another ceasefire was brokered in July 1993. Like in Ukraine, that second ceasefire was established from a position of Russian strength, and also called for gradual demilitarization, which included the withdrawal of heavy weapons and compliance monitoring by international observers. In Abkhazia, the United Nations was entrusted with monitoring responsibilities. In Ukraine, it is the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE). Neither mission proved able to restrain Russian forces.
The 1993 ceasefire also proved to be a phony peace. By late September 1993, separatist and Russian forces drove Georgian government troops from the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi, and hundreds of thousands of Georgian civilians were ethnically cleansed. Thousands of these internally displaced persons still live in squalor in provisional housing centers throughout Georgia.
The lesson from Abkhazia, as it is today in Ukraine, appears clear: while a diplomatic and political solution is a preferred option, any sort of durable peace requires both sides to be able to negotiate from positions of strength. With Ukraine currently suffering an extended string of military setbacks, conditions are unlikely to yield a favorable diplomatic or political outcome. Pro-Russia forces, circling the edges of the strategic Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, have little incentive to adhere to any ceasefire – and Moscow has even less reason to restrain them.
Should Mariupol fall, another ceasefire is not out of the question. But it would only be another tactical pause that benefits the rapidly advancing brigades of separatists and pro-Russian forces. Before any ceasefire can be effective, Ukraine needs to find a way to regain the initiative and halt the momentum of pro-Russian forces on the ground.
Michael Cecire is a Black Sea regional analyst and an Associate Scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.