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How to Make Peace in Ukraine Five Years After Minsk II

photo: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Hubertus Hoffmann

Five years ago, in February 2015, the first steps towards a vision for peace in Ukraine were taken with the Minsk II agreement. Five years is a long time not only in human life, but also in European history: World War I only lasted four years, and World War II was only two years longer. Five years after Minsk, the crisis in and around Ukraine is yet to be resolved, and the country remains a bleeding wound of Europe with a profound negative impact on the overall relationship between the Russian Federation and the West. The tragic deaths of more than 12,000 people and more than 23,000 injured remind us of the human suffering in this conflict on all sides.

Many hoped that the Normandy summit in December 2019 would become a historic breakthrough, but the outcome of the meeting was quite modest. At best, the four leaders made a cautious step towards freezing the conflict rather than solving it. Protracted and painful discussions in Paris once again demonstrated that there is significant mutual resistance on both sides regarding a genuine settlement. Too many politicians in both Kiev and Moscow still believe that time is on their side, or, at least, that the risks associated with maintaining the current status quo in Donbass are lower than risks resulting from a status quo change.

In order to reach a breakthrough, we need to demonstrate enhanced creativity and out of the box thinking a la Albert Einstein, who observed, “Imagination is more important than knowledge…we can’t solve problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” One of the ways to ignite creativity is to look beyond the current crisis seeking mindset and adopt the positive crisis resolution experience accumulated in Europe.

Why South Tyrol?

European history knows many examples of how complex territorial, ethnic, confessional and other conflicts can last for many years and even decades without any clear prospects for a “final” solution. Take, for instance, the Armenian-Azeri dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh or the Serbia-Kosovo unfinished divorce. On the other hand, there are also success stories that we should not forget. One of the latter is the Alto Adige (South Tyrol) settlement of the dispute between Italy and Austria. This case, in our view, has certain similarities with the situation in East Ukraine.

South Tyrol was a bone of contention between the newborn Italian Republic and the Republic of Austria for decades. The conflict has never reached the scale of what we are witnessing today in East Ukraine, but it also generated violence, ethnic hatred and victimization. Moreover, it poisoned Austrian relations for a long time. After World War II, from the beginning of negotiations in 1947 until 1971, a series of agreements recognized equal rights for all citizens, despite their language, as well as a balanced decentralization of administrative, legislative, executive and economic competences to be exercised autonomously over the regional territory.

Historical and cultural bonds within the Austrian-Germanic world, Italy’s Trentino- Alto-Adige (South Tyrol) sought a highly autonomous status within the Italian Republic constitution. The process of deriving this status shows the value of reaching an agreement based on a high level of regional autonomy in political, economic, and cultural issues. This status received an appropriate codification within the Italian constitution. This approach eased the institutional balance between the centre and periphery, defusing, in the medium to long term, potentially disruptive political unrest.

South Tyrol successfully consolidated its autonomy over the last decades, fostering ties between the central state authority and the peripheral regional authority. Now, the German-speakers there live peacefully within Italy as citizens of the European Union.

This integration-through-decentralization process into the Italian national identity shows how a widely shared process and agreement recognizing a high level of institutional autonomy would lead, in the medium-to-long term perspective, to constructive and balanced power-sharing, stability and economic development. This achievement is particularly spectacular, given the long history of Austrian-Italian conflicts and even wars.

What Would It Mean for Donbass?

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had every reason to refer to the “South Tyrol model” at his meeting with President Vladimir Putin on March 5, 2015. The Russian leader welcomed it as a “valuable suggestion to resolve the situation”. After three hours of discussion in Moscow regarding the EU-Russia crisis involving Ukraine, Putin and Renzi gave a joint press-conference to review their discussion and proposals.

The Italian Prime Minister said, “I think it’s worth highlighting the crucial step forward made,” regarding the signature of the Minsk Agreement. “We will work to implement the statements of this Agreement. Europe and Italy can become a reference point.” Italy in particular, according to the Prime Minister, might “provide all possible support for a solution concerning the urgent request of a new status and a wider autonomy to be granted to the Eastern Ukrainian Regions held by the separatists. We had a wonderful experience in Trentino-Alto Adige (South Tyrol). This is an excellent example of how you can successfully solve the problems of decentralization.”

“We agree that both the parties have to respect the Minsk II Agreement, paving the way to a peaceful solution,” stressed Russian President Putin. He added the need for a broader political dialogue involving the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk as well. “We expect Italy, in its national capabilities and as a major European Union member, will play a key role in this process,” he argued. Putin told the media, “The Prime Minister made several valuable suggestions about what could be done to resolve the situation in the future. The situation there remains difficult, and we have to stop the fighting, killing and destroying cities.” The conflicting parties should strictly comply with the agreements reached in Minsk. “I count on more active help of the EU.”

If referred to within the context of the situation in Eastern Ukraine, many ingredients constituting the Austrian-Italian deal could help to settle the Donbass conflict, all the differences between the two cases notwithstanding.

The same rights extended to the local German population in Alto Adige (60 per cent in 1971) should be given to the predominantly Russian speaking (and Russia-oriented) locals in the Donbass. Rights similar to those preserved by Rome as the central government in Italy should be assigned to Kiev. Both languages should be granted official status, and no discrimination of any minority and cultures should be practised in Donbass.

Of course, this arrangement implies that the territory will be Ukrainian, including border-control. The Donbass should be de-militarized. That also applies to the Russian-Ukrainian border like it was the case with the Austrian-Italian border. The status of autonomy calls for guarantees embedded in the Ukrainian constitution, rather than merely a law, which could be changed at any time.

The South Tyrol experience also suggests that it would be impossible to solve and formulate all principal or small regulations for autonomy under Ukrainian law, as it adds up to several thousand details. Therefore, a smart framework agreement is needed and would lay the groundwork for ensuring the rights of ethnic Russians in the Donbass on the same level as those of ethnic Germans in South Tyrol. Such an agreement would also guarantee rights to Kiev similar to those of Rome. Leveraging this framework agreement as the model for Eastern Ukraine seems to be the only reliable way to handle the autonomy smoothly and avert further crisis.

The Austrian-Italian experience also suggests that there will be many bumps on the road to reconciliation and reintegration. To deal with these bumps, it would be helpful to establish a standing Donbass committee with ambassadors from each country within the OSCE in Vienna, with a special best practice team involving Austria and Italy. This committee could appoint an Ombudsman to handle complaints and resolve disputes. The Ukrainian government, together with the Donbass OSCE committee, should prepare an annual progress report and present it to the Verkhovna Rada.

What Is Missing?

Matteo Renzi came up with his proposal in March 2015. Unfortunately, not much has been done to apply the lesson of South Tyrol to Donbass. Therefore, the critical question is why implementing a strategy similar to South Tyrol in Donbass is not yet considered.

The answer, in our opinion, is in the international environment and the nature of the Austria-Italy relations. By the time of the South Tyrol deal, both Austria and Italy considered themselves organic parts of a greater European family of nations. This is despite the fact that Austria, even now, is not a NATO member and only joined the EU in 1995, 24 years after the agreement on South Tyrol had been reached.

Neither country had a fundamental identity problem that could feed radical nationalism and block a settlement. Their respective national identities emerged long before the deal was achieved. Neither side was fearful of aggression, deliberate provocation or gross interference into domestic affairs from the other side.

Both Vienna and Rome saw many advantages in building their economic, political and humanitarian ties with each other. Both Austria and Italy experienced rapid economic growth followed by an expanding middle class, vibrant civil society, maturing political institutions and successful fight against populism, political radicalism and nationalism. No external player in or outside of Europe demonstrated any interest in instigating the conflict through supporting one of the sides. In other words, the overall environment for reaching a compromise was overwhelmingly positive.

Unfortunately, most of these preconditions are currently absent in the case of Donbass. Therefore, we cannot push for the application of the South Tyrol model until such prerequisites are created. This will be difficult, but not impossible.

Going Beyond Minsk

Using the best practice from South Africa, one then is lead to think of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Donbas, reporting live on TV in Ukraine and Russia with an annual report. More than twenty countries have done this successfully in the past.

However, the problem of reconciliation is not limited to Donbass only. Both Russia and Ukraine today lack the know-how for true reconciliation, which had been mustered by Austria and Italy after World War II. Let us all learn from the American philosopher Eric Hoffer who said, “A war is only won after you have turned your enemy into a friend.” We can draw upon the lessons of other European states that have mastered the art of reconciliation, including decentralization, after two bitter world wars.

The governments, political parties, opinion leaders and media should learn how to make peace with (former) enemies and utilize European best practices – such as in South Tyrol or Northern Ireland. For the Russian population in Ukraine and all other minorities, including Hungarians and Tatars, fresh Ukrainian Codes of Tolerance should be implemented. The Kiev government should appoint a Minister for Tolerance and Reconciliation with sufficient staff and funding. The United Arab Emirates established the first minister for tolerance in February 2016. The tolerance minister in Kiev would promote respect toward all ethnic and religious minorities in Ukraine and report annually to the parliament and the OSCE in the form of a Ukrainian Codes of Tolerance and Reconciliation Report. Within the context of reconciliation, an amnesty committee would be established, as in South Africa, for people from all conflict parties.

Rebuilding trust will not get us too far until we build the economic foundations of the settlement. The goal should be to turn Donbass from a headache into an opportunity for all. We propose establishing a special reconciliation fund for the region, financed equally by the EU, the US, and the Russian Federation, and utilized to rebuild destroyed infrastructure. By rebuilding, we do not mean restoring the region as it was back in 2013 – this is hardly possible and rather undesirable. We suggest turning the devastated war area into a modern and vibrant ecosystem attractive to both international investors and millions of refugees and displaced persons.

Carefully designed and skillfully localized reforms can stimulate new jobs, especially for small businesses. It is essential to address burning issues of documented property ownership, competitive access to capital, legal enforcement of contracts, governmental and regulatory transparency, and rules that promote and safeguard foreign direct investment. The environment presents yet another challenge, but also another opportunity for multilateral cooperation in Donbass with the European Union taking upon a leadership role.

At the same time, the European Union should move in the direction of a free trade agreement with Russia and other members of the Eurasian Economic Union. A new Ostpolitik by Ursula von der Leyen could help to bring Europe closer together via trade and visa-free travelling.

Towards a New European Security Architecture

A new, fresh and intense dialogue between NATO and Russia, including the discussion of a non-aggression pact and new arms control agreements, is now needed. It was counterproductive to freeze the NATO-Russia Council in April 2014 as punishment. This forum, meant for crisis management, is now active again. It took too long to understand that we need more, not fewer, meetings during crises. Despite many state-banquets and vague speeches in the past years, real discussions were missing for far too long. The western “no-talk no-meetings approach” neglected the lessons learned in the months before World War I.

The dialogue about a common security structure in Europe should start with fresh bi-monthly meetings of the NATO-Russia Council in Moscow and Brussels, as well as in other NATO capitals. Russia and NATO should openly discuss all strategic military issues to find solutions to alleviate tensions and promote cooperation, with several working-groups established for major political, technological, or geographic regional concerns, including mutual threats.

A high-ranking NATO-Russia Summit should be held in Moscow to discuss security issues openly. At this summit, NATO and the Russian Federation should declare not to utilize their military capabilities against each other. They will not use their forces, equipment, active or non-active soldiers or allow those activities against each other.

Both Moscow and Kiev should find their rightful places in the new European security architecture. Confidence building measures between Russia and Ukraine should become a part of a broader CBM system between the East and the West of the continent.

In this new environment, we can broaden the limits of what is possible. All sides have to look for a creative compromise, based on respect for international law, recognizing the national interests and minority rights of all stakeholders, while drawing upon best practices in Europe.

The ultra-nationalists on both sides will be disappointed. Still, only a broad political compromise would be in the national interests of Ukraine, the Russian Federation, the EU, the United States of America and the international community.

We all need humanity, creativity and efficiency for a new Europe 3.0.

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Eastern Europe

When Will the War in Ukraine End?

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Predicting the beginning and the end of a war is always a difficult task.

Many people would think of the usage of models and data, which would most likely refer to data on combat power, staff computing operations etc. A more advanced approach for some would include the super-complex model such as war games. Overall, the use of these methods depends on the target audience. The approach and delivery are different for the media or academia, in which the use of data would be necessary for the audience to understand and verify the forecasted results.

If the target audience is neither the media nor the academia, the use of different approaches would be necessary. The results would be tested on the battlefield rather than relying on statistics in the decision-making circles. A practical example given here is making predictions through information analysis.

The focus of such analysis, is naturally, information. The first important piece of information about when the war in Ukraine will end is to refer to the news from Moscow that it plans to end the war in September 2022. The second piece of important news is that Russia has about 1,200 to 1,300 missiles in its inventory.

Combining these two pieces of information allows us to do a simple analysis. If we calculate the average number of missiles that Russia uses on the Ukrainian battlefield every day, we find that at least 300 missiles are launched in a month by the Russian army. Now we are in the month of May, and after 5 months, Russia’s missile inventory will be exhausted. This means that, by October 2022, the Russian military will have almost no effective weapons to attack Ukraine. By then, of course, or maybe at a sooner date, Russia will have to attempt to end the war.

A question that naturally follows this is, can’t the Russian army use other methods to continue the war?

The answer is no. Because the Russian Air Force has gradually lost its advantage in the Ukrainian sky, if the air force is used to penetrate the battlefield, the losses will be heavy. Hence, the offensive force that Russia can rely on now is only to project missiles from combat aircraft outside the line of sight. Another approach is to use the small but large number of World War II period artillery to bombard indiscriminately, yet the areas assaulted will be ranging from zoos to children’s playgrounds. Therefore, the Russian army seems to have fewer battlefield options than what most people imagine.

Based on some key information, together with an analysis on the information of Russia’s missile inventory, the conclusion is clear. All indications point toward the end of the war in Ukraine from around September to October 2022.

The accuracy of the forecast will be verified as the event unfolds, and this is positivist style of thinking.

For some people, models and data are the only way to forecast the future, rather than simpler methods like information analysis. In this situation, the outcome may be determined with the use of all available data after the war is over. However, we now have a clear and convincing conclusion used to judge the prospects of war.

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Eastern Europe

Revolution in the South Caucasus

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Overshadowed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the South Caucasus is witnessing huge developments which could potentially decrease tensions between Armenia on the one hand and Turkey and Azerbaijan on the other. The process might also critically affect Russia’s position in the region and may even give some momentum to the West’s ambivalent policy. 

Historical rivals, Armenia and Azerbaijan, are edging closer to a comprehensive agreement on solving fundamental issues which have hampered rapprochement for at least three decades.  

The process now revolves around major Azeris’ proposals for a peace deal, including the recognition of each other’s territorial integrity. This would require Armenian acceptance that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan, the cause of wars in 1992-94 and in 2020. If signed, this would amount to a revolutionary change from the traditional Armenian position.

The Armenian leadership’s overall response was positive, though it will seek additional stipulations. Among these will be acceptance by Azerbaijan of a wide range of cultural rights for Armenians, perhaps including officially recognized autonomy. Though the Azeris are unlikely to agree to this, lesser demands on cultural rights are indeed possible.

This Armenian position builds on earlier, somewhat ambivalent statements and bilateral meetings with Azerbaijani leaders carefully indicating that the country might be willing to change its traditional policy. This amounts to a profound, though deeply painful realization by the Armenian leadership, that the balance of power has irrevocably shifted, and not in Armenia’s favor.

The alternative to a deal is a policy of open, long-term revanchism. But there are significant gains to be had from a deal. Establishing positive ties with Azerbaijan could end Armenia’s economic isolation and would likely feed similar positive developments in Turkey ties. After 30 years of hostility, an improvement with its large western neighbor would lead to the eventual re-establishment of diplomatic to the allure of improved economic ties. The pay-off could be significant — Armenian goods would have a better and shorter route to European markets, and vice versa.

The changes could pave the way for the region-wide changes. In the longer-term Armenia’s northward dependence on Russia would gradually be diluted. The east-west economic ties would be at least as powerful as those on its current north-south trade axis.

This would not mean an end to Russian influence and importance, but it would create a more even redistribution of power, whereby the Kremlin would lose its preponderant position. Turkey could become as influential as Russia – a notable shift from the era of exclusivity.

The geopolitics of the South Caucasus are shifting. There is greater competition for influence, with powers contesting if not for primacy, then for a more even distribution of influence. Turkey and to a lesser degree, Iran see the region as a natural historical hinterland. And historical legacies continue to shape the policies of these former imperial powers.

Furthermore, trade and transport patterns are also likely to change. The routes through Georgia will no longer serve as the only solution. For Turkey, options to reach the Caspian Sea will multiply, and possibly open the way to securing critical energy sources for its economy from gas producers around the sea.

These developments are not in any way a dagger aimed at Russia, but they should feel uncomfortable. Its position in the region is increasingly reliant on the military element, through garrisons in all the three South Caucasus countries. Distracted they may be by the so-far unsuccessful war in Ukraine, but President Putin and his aides still possess some tools to derail peace prospects.

But Russia may nonetheless reap what it has sowed in the South Caucasus. If it is no longer the security guarantor for Armenia (it did precious little to help in the 2020 war) and it is no longer the best outlet for trade, then why have Russian troops in Armenia at all? And why would Azerbaijan continue to accept Russian peacekeepers on its territory?

This is an unenviable situation for the Kremlin. It is waging a major war to secure the illusion of a “near abroad” beholden to its wishes, and while its back is turned, other borderland countries are thinking about how to ease its grip over their futures. If anything was needed to show the futility of Russia’s approach to its immediate neighborhood, the South Caucasus would be the prime example.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

For Abkhazia and South Ossetia Security with Russia Equals Economic Troubles

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Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine expands Moscow’s “separatist empire.” But it also puts tremendous pressure on Georgia’s occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Prospects of economic development are bleak, while dependence on Moscow will only grow bringing Russian demands on sale of lands and infrastructure in Abkhazia. 

When a new Russian invasion against Ukraine began in late February, following the decision to recognise the independence of two separatist entities in Donbas, the prospects for Abkhazia and South Ossetia seemed propitious. The invasion plan was assumed to be a well-prepared campaign that would end in a devastating blow to Ukraine. Moreover, the expansion of Russia’s separatist empire was also considered in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali as a positive sign. Russia was building a new order and the chances that Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be getting larger recognition, for a moment, seemed more realistic.

Despite these high hopes, the opposite happened. Russian moves proved Moscow has no regard for separatist entities except for using them for military plans. The arguments, believed by many in the West, that Russian moves in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 were (at least partially) motivated by fears of Russian speakers being oppressed turned out to be false. Moreover, claims that NATO was an instigator of rivalry with Russia by drawing Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance likewise proved inaccurate.

The 2022 invasion showed that there was a different mentality that dominated the Russian elite when it was making a fatal decision. In Russia imperial vision has never faded. Side-lined for some time following the Soviet collapse it resurfaced with new force in 2010s. It is now clear that the second war with Ukraine is nothing but an attempt to build a territorial empire.

Russia has faced an unexpected resistance. And not only from the Ukrainian people, but from the liberal order. Weakened and denigrated by many as a historical relic no longer applicable to the realities of the 2020s, the order has once again showed its vitality and ability to re-emerge as a concept still dear to many. And this is where the hopes of Abkhazia and South Ossetia seem unrealistic. Russia’s sprawling separatist empire is ever more difficult to govern. Too many players and too many needs, both military and economic put pressure on Moscow financially.

From February 2022 there are simply too many separatist entities supported by Russia. This lessens the chances for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Few if any, especially amid the global condemnation against Russia, would support recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia, plus the two Donbas entities.

But arguably the biggest problem for Georgia’s occupied territories is the economic situation. Even before the invasion, the Covid-19 pandemic undermined the fragile balance Abkhazia and South Ossetia depended upon. Global recession coupled with particularly poorly handled pandemic in Russia hit the separatist territories. Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaders often had a hard time extracting money from their superiors in the Kremlin. Russian politicians too were increasingly unwilling to commit finances to the ever-growing predatory elites in the separatist territories.

With the second invasion of Ukraine, Russia has now come under an unprecedented range of Western sanctions. Its economy is set to plummet in the coming by the yearend if not in the next several months. Seeming stability of the ruble is very much illusory.

Dependent on Russia, the economic situations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia will deteriorate. Russian tourists might visit Abkhazia this summer in much bigger numbers, but whatever scant financial aid Sokhumi will be getting, it will be contingent upon meeting specific Russian demands. And those are some big demands by Abkhaz standards. Moscow wants land and critical infrastructure of the region be legally available for purchasing by Russians. Allowing it equals Abkhazia losing whatever minimal semblance of autonomy it still enjoys from Moscow.

Moscow has already indicated that it will be less willing to finance Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In early March in an interview with state-affiliated TASS news agency, Russian Deputy Economy Minister Dmitry Volvach argued that it is time that the two regions become more independent from Moscow’s aid.

The situation with the South Ossetia is different. It has a much smaller array of what it can offer to Russia. In fact, its geographic position is the only advantage the region has. Thence comes, in a striking difference with Abkhazia, Tskhinvali’s occasional attempts to seek to unification with Russia.

Thus, the long-term picture seems less promising. The two separatist regions hoping for economic development will be heavily impacted by unfolding crisis in Russia. Perhaps in Abkhazia this will once again engender talks on some kind of economic rapprochement with Tbilisi. The Abkhaz leader Aslan Bzhania has long argued that trade relations and some kind of political dialogue with Tbilisi will be helpful. The opposition is against it constantly threatening unrest and violence. 

The fate of the two separatist regions is closely linked to Russia. This is seen as a boon in terms of security, but also as a huge liability when it comes to the economic stability of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ramifications will be wide-ranging. Corruption and ever decrepit infrastructure will hamper the two territories’ development. In a way, for Tbilisi it is an opportunity. In the longer run some kind of talks could be entertained with Sokhumi. Contingent upon Georgia’s internal economic development, Tbilisi could become more attractive for ordinary Abkhazians and Ossetians. Some experience in that regard is already there. Before 2020 and especially following the pandemic, Georgian medical services have attracted numerous residents from the two territories. Similarly, education sector with a wide-ranging state-sponsored incentives also has attracted a large pool of future students.

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch

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