What's In Blue

Posted Wed 16 Feb 2022

Ukraine Briefing*

Tomorrow (17 February), the Security Council will hold a briefing on the situation in Ukraine. Russia is organising the meeting to mark the seventh anniversary of the “Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements”, also known as the Minsk II agreement, adopted on 12 February 2015, and to discuss its implementation. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin* will chair the meeting. The expected briefers are Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo, Special Representative of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Chairperson-in-Office in Ukraine and in the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) Mikko Kinnunen, OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) Chief Monitor Halit Çevik, and a civil society representative. Germany and Ukraine are expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.

Since 2019, Russia has organised a meeting annually on the occasion of the anniversary of the Minsk II agreement. As in the past three years, tomorrow’s meeting will precede the debate in the General Assembly on the agenda item “The situation in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine”, which is scheduled for 23 February. Tomorrow’s briefing takes place against the backdrop of heightened tensions resulting from Russia’s build-up of military forces near Ukraine’s borders. The Council met to discuss that situation on 31 January at the request of the US. (For more information, see our 31 January What’s in Blue story.) These tensions have further deepened divisions among Council members on Ukraine and are likely to colour the discussions at the briefing.

The Minsk II agreement outlined steps for ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine through a political settlement. The agreement has failed to achieve tangible progress to date, as fighting continues between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists in the two breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The conflict, which erupted shortly after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, has claimed the lives of more than 14,000 people, including approximately 3,000 civilians, and injured more than 7,000 civilians, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Russia and Ukraine hold divergent interpretations of the Minsk II agreement, particularly regarding the sequencing of steps for its implementation. Moscow insists that Kyiv must first implement the political provisions and enact constitutional amendments recognising the “special status” of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kyiv maintains that security measures take precedence, and that a ceasefire must be established with Ukraine regaining control of its territory.

Analysts argue that the current build-up of Russian forces along Ukraine’s borders goes beyond the immediate conflict in eastern Ukraine, with many pointing to the broader concessions Moscow is seeking from the US and NATO regarding security arrangements in Europe. However, some have also noted that Russia’s decision to amass forces on Ukraine’s borders might also partly be fuelled by the lack of progress in resolving the crisis in Ukraine.

Yesterday (15 February), the Russian Duma (parliament) voted in favour of sending to Russian President Vladimir Putin an appeal to recognise the independence of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. In a statement issued today (16 February), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the move as amounting to the “wholesale rejection of [Russia’s] commitments under the Minsk agreements” and whose enactment would “further undermine” Ukraine’s sovereignty and constitute a gross violation of international law. It seems that Ukraine has submitted a written request for the Council to consider this issue during tomorrow’s briefing.

At tomorrow’s meeting, DiCarlo is expected to provide an overview of the security situation in the Donbas region and developments related to the implementation of the Minsk II agreement. She is likely to welcome recent diplomatic efforts to find a political settlement through the Normandy format—a group consisting of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine that was created in 2014 to resolve the conflict in Ukraine. The Normandy format recently convened for meetings on 26 January in Paris and on 10 February in Berlin. While the meetings failed to establish agreement between the delegations, they are viewed by many as a step towards defusing tensions in eastern Ukraine.

DiCarlo and several Council members are likely to emphasise the challenging humanitarian situation in the Donbas region. According to a 10 February OCHA report, there are currently 2.9 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in eastern Ukraine. The report highlights that the conflict, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, has acted as a driver of humanitarian needs in the Donbas region, and that access to basic services has been limited since the March 2020 closure of the “contact line”, which separates the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces into areas under, and outside, government control.

Given the OSCE’s formal role in observing and facilitating the implementation of the Minsk II agreement and its presence on the ground in Ukraine, Çevik and Kinnunen are likely to provide more specific information on the situation in the eastern part of the country. During 2021, the OSCE SMM recorded a decrease in the number of ceasefire violations and casualties compared to previous years. Nonetheless, the OSCE reported 91 civilian casualties and has noted that the ceasefire agreement negotiated by the TCG in 2021 continues to be violated on a daily basis.

Çevik is likely to emphasise that establishing a permanent ceasefire is crucial for achieving progress. He may also discuss the challenges posed by restrictions to the mission’s freedom of movement and the recent withdrawal of SMM monitoring staff by certain OSCE member states. According to media reports, 21 monitoring staff left the Donbas region because of recent heightened tensions between Russia and Ukraine, with more than 30 others expected to leave. On 13 February, the OSCE SSM issued a press statement clarifying that the majority of its staff members are seconded by OSCE participating states and that, despite the “relocation of secondees”, the mission will continue to implement its mandate.

At tomorrow’s briefing, Council members are expected to highlight the importance of the Minsk II agreement as the sole framework for a negotiated settlement to the conflict and may express concern over its lack of implementation. Members are likely to stress the importance of continued dialogue to resolve outstanding issues, including through the Normandy format.

Deep divisions, particularly between Russia, on the one hand, and the US and European members of the Council, on the other, mark Council dynamics on Ukraine. The US and European members have accused Russia of interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs by supporting the separatists in eastern Ukraine and have claimed that the annexation of Crimea is a violation of international law. At tomorrow’s meeting, these members are likely to reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity and condemn the Russian Duma’s proposal to recognise the independence of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

Russia, for its part, is likely to blame Ukraine for the lack of implementation of the Minsk II agreement and criticise its reluctance to engage in direct negotiation with the separatist leaders—a stance taken by Kyiv to refrain from conferring legitimacy to the separatist authorities. At tomorrow’s meeting, Russia is likely to fault the US for provoking unwarranted hysteria over a prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia has asserted that it does not intend to invade Ukraine. It may refer to Putin’s announcement on 15 February that Moscow will partially withdraw some of its troops from Ukraine’s borders once the military drills are concluded and that it remains open to diplomacy.

While US President Joe Biden welcomed the announcement, he warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine “remains very much a possibility”. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg suggested that Putin’s announcement about Moscow’s openness to diplomacy was a cause for “cautious optimism”, but subsequently said that there had not been “any sign of de-escalation on the ground”. Despite some signs of apparent de-escalation, the US and European Council members are expected to emphasise the gravity of the threat to international security posed by Russia’s actions and make urgent calls for continued de-escalation and diplomacy.

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*A previous version of the story noted that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov will chair the meeting. The story was amended to reflect that the meeting was chaired by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin.

**Post-script: Following the meeting, European Council members Albania, France, Ireland and Norway, together with former Council members Estonia and Germany and the EU Delegation held a joint press stakeout during which they reiterated their full support for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. The delegations also called for the full implementation of the Minsk II agreement; expressed concern over the Russian Duma’s appeal to recognise the independence of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics; and called on Russia to take concrete steps towards de-escalating the situation and to engage in diplomacy.

Latvia issued a statement on behalf of the Baltic states condemning the “violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity by Russia’s aggressive actions” as well as the recent shelling of Stanytsia Luhanska by pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region. The statement asserted that sovereign states have the freedom to make their own security arrangements and suggested that Russia’s actions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Transnistrian region, and in Crimea have contributed to the “significant deterioration” of Europe’s security environment.

At separate press stakeouts, Ukrainian Permanent Representative Sergiy Kyslytsya accused Russia of being “evasive” at the meeting and US Permanent Representative Linda Thomas-Greenfield criticised Russia for its incendiary rhetoric and disinformation. She urged Russia not to “pursue the path of confrontation”. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin reiterated Russia’s commitment to de-escalation and finding a peaceful solution to the crisis based on the Minsk II agreement. He also urged “partners in Western capitals” to cease the hysteria about Russia’s intentions in the region.

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