The Normandy Quartet and the Minsk Agreement – a Melody in Discord

Aleko Stoyanov analyses the repercussions of the Minsk agreement for the European hemisphere, by shedding light on the Ukraine crisis and the interaction between Eastern and Western states

In music, a quartet is usually described as a musical composition for four instruments or voices[i]. In order to produce a harmonious melody all four instruments/performers have to be tuned in and play in accord. If even one of them does not adhere to this simple rule the melody becomes distorted and unpleasant to the ear.

A similar effect produced the high level meeting of the so-called Normandy quartet. The first violins of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia gathered for a second time in the Belorussian capital in an attempt to compose a musical work that all four would play later on. However, while the German, French and Ukrainian violinists more or less united around a certain partiture, the Russian performer tried to convince them that they should play his own musical score. After 16 hours of negotiations the quartet came up with a piece of music that neither promises to be in accord or to be pleasant to the ear.

When listening to the notes of the Minsk document one might like to put plugs in one’s ears and wonder whether the best violinists of those countries are poor composers, talentless musicians or, as often happens, the musical work is a result of a lowest common denominator policy. We can’t give an unequivocal answer, but we can ask ourselves: what does the Minsk agreement mean for Ukraine, Russia and Europe and how it will affect the crisis?

A Defeat

For Ukraine, the Minsk agreement can be interpreted as a defeat. To begin with, the document does not contain a single word regarding Crimea, its status or its (possible) reintegration into Ukraine. It appears that all parties have tacitly agreed that the peninsula is already a part of the Russian Federation and there are no signs of change in the near future.

Secondly, the Ukrainian Parliament has to adopt a resolution which practically increases the autonomy of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (regions). The newly envisaged constitution of Ukraine will be focusing on the key issue of decentralisation, which again will benefit the aforementioned regions.

Thirdly, the resolution produced at Minsk stipulates that Kiev should regain full control on its Eastern borders by the end of 2015. Such a provision would afford the insurgents sufficient time to strengthen their positions and to deem the fate of the occupied territories under the control of Kiev uncertain, at best. The reintegration process has to be further coordinated and negotiated with the separatists and the prospects of negotiations seem far from flawless.

Lukashenko, Putin, Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko after the Minsk II talks.

Lukashenko, Putin, Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko after the Minsk II talks.

A Victory

If there is someone who should be more than satisfied with the outcome of the Minsk conference, this is undoubtedly the Russian president Vladimir Putin. He managed to push through his demands and took up no real obligations instead.

The text of the agreement leaves little if any room for doubt whose interests it serves. In Minsk Russia demonstrated strength – Ukraine is forced to introduce new constitution, and give more rights and freedoms to its regions.[ii] Nonetheless, the so-called agreement is not a legally binding document. Its main purpose is to guarantee a ceasefire, and the text allows broad room for interpretation. Its terms could be violated by both sides with one remark – Ukraine is not in a position to do so, putting the government in Kiev in an awkward position. A failure to comply with the agreement might provoke further aggression in the East. Adhering to it will grant more rights to the pro-Russian separatists, which could undermine the territorial integrity of the country.

In addition to the concessions that Kiev has to make, there is one more important clause, namely the promise to pull out all of its foreign armed formations, military equipment and mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine[iii]. This paragraph effectively prevents Ukraine from receiving the military aid that the US Congress and the American president Barack Obama would have otherwise sent[iv]. Hence, Ukraine does not find reinforcement through American armament which may have facilitated its counteracting of the insurgents. As long as Moscow continues to deny the presence of regular Russian troops, or to supply the militias in Eastern Ukraine, this requirement can never be truly fulfilled. The Kremlin does not merely avoid to take direct responsibility for the conflict in this context, but also strengthens its position.


The Minsk agreement made obvious the impotence of Europe to put an end of the conflict. The words of the German chancellor Angela Merkel who categorised the meeting as “a ray of hope, but not more,”[v] say enough. Despite the economic sanctions which nonetheless took an effect – the Russian economy indicates significant losses – accelerating inflation, devaluation of the rubble with almost 50%[vi] and serious problems with recapitalization of the Russian commercial banks, the war goes on.

Although the sanctions are the only weapon that (at least) Europe can use, they are a double edged sword. The burden is not equally distributed among the EU member states. This leads to tension that Moscow could use in order to distort the common EU position. In addition, the sanctions combined with the falling oil prices have harmed the Russian economy in a way that the country might experience another financial crisis similar to that of 1998. Back then Russia ran out of hard currency and went into default sending shockwaves through the global financial system.

What next?

The EU does not have the military capabilities to counteract a Russian aggression. The US will not seek direct military confrontation with Moscow either. Such a military campaign would not only be costly and difficult to justify to the broad American public. It would also involve the West in potential military conflict with another super power, a conflict which neither side wants to enter.

On the other hand, the EU and the US need to give a clear signal to Putin that they will not tolerate a possible Ukrainian scenario in the Baltic region, and Brussels and Washington will do everything necessary to protect their allies. If they fail to do so or even worse adopt the notion that there is no need to “…go to war because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”[vii] they will not only choose dishonor but they will have war at the end if we are to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous quotation.

In short, the West needs to envisage a credible and feasible strategy to curb further Russian aggression and de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine. Although the sanctions affected the European Union, they caused a lot more trouble for the Russian economy. Should the West lift them, they would relinquish the only weapon in their arsenal which may harm Putin. Meanwhile, they need to make a credible commitment to the security of their European partners, a commitment which Moscow should seriously take into account.

[i] Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Quartet, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/quartet

[ii] The organs of local self-government will be able to participate in the appointment of heads of public prosecution offices and courts in certain areas and even to create people’s police units.

[iii] The Guardian, Minsk Agreement on Ukraine Crisis: Text in Full, 12 February 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/11408266/Minsk-agreement-on-Ukraine-crisis-text-in-full.html

[iv] Parfitt, T., US ‘Considers Arming Ukrainian Army’ as Fighting Continues in the East, The Telegraph, 2 February 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/11383527/US-considers-arming-Ukrainian-army-as-fighting-continues-in-the-east.html

[v] Ostroukh A. and Sonne P., Talks on Ukraine Said to Reach Agreement, The Wall Street Journal, 12 February 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/ukraine-fighting-continues-ahead-of-key-meeting-1423643630

[vi] Soros, G., A New Policy to Rescue Ukraine, The New York Review of books, 5 February 2015, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/feb/05/new-policy-rescue-ukraine/

[vii] Neville Chamberlain on 27 Sepember 1938, shortly before he flew to Germany to sign the Munich Agreement, that allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland.

 Aleko Stoyanov studied European Studies and Political Science at the University of National and World Economy-Sofia, Bonn University, Germany and the Central European University in Budapest. He worked as programme coordinator for Transparency International in Bulgaria.


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