FIVE YEARS AFTER MINSK | Vitaliy Portnykov

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

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We all remember the atmosphere in which the Minsk Agreement was signed five years ago. There was an ongoing war, Ukrainian soldiers were being killed in Debaltsevo, and in the Belarusian capital, the presidents of Ukraine and France and the German federal chancellor persuaded the Russian president to cease hostilities. Presidents who have already left office - Frenchman Francois Hollande and Ukrainian Petro Poroshenko call the night in Minsk one of the most difficult challenges in their political careers. But no less difficult was the night for every Ukrainian who hoped to end the war.

Even then, we tried to understand how it all happened what we were going through, how Ukrainian soldiers ended up in an Ilovaysk or Debaltsevo nightmare. But it is worth remembering that history is easiest to judge when it has already been lived.

In 2014, the Ukrainian leadership - both political and military - was convinced it was dealing with a special Kremlin operation. Indeed, no regular troops were sent to Donbas, but saboteurs-"volunteers", Russia stubbornly did not recognize its participation in the war even when the operation to liberate the Donbas was underway and Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, and Mariupol returned under control of Kyiv. It seemed that Russia will not engage its regular troops, the Donbas will be liberated. Now we can call such view erroneous, but at that time Kyiv was convinced that after Crimea, Putin would not move in clear violation of international law and an open conflict with the West. Previously, that was how the war in Georgia began: its head at the time, Mikheil Saakashvili, simply did not believe that the Kremlin would dare to deploy troops in South Ossetia.

But Putin was not afraid of the conflict. As we found out, to him maintaining control over at least part of the Donbas was a far more important goal than avoiding confrontation with the West. And only the threat of increased Western sanctions and the realization that the situation could turn into a major war with numerous casualties forced the President of Russia to stop intense fighting.

Now the situation has morphed into a state of constant conflict, permanent shelling on the collision line, degradation of the occupied territories. The need to end the war remains the main requirement of Ukrainian society - which records virtually all sociological polls both in the era of Petro Poroshenko and in the era of Volodymyr Zelensky.

The only problem is that the Ukrainians want to end the war from their own president, not from the president of Russia, who started this war and is interested in continuing it.

For Putin, Donbas is an important lever for political and economic pressure on Ukraine. By itself, he does not need that region – as he does not need any other region that Russia occupied in the former Soviet Union. Just, Transdniestria is simply a pressure lever on Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia is a pressure lever on Georgia. A few decades ago, Moscow turned these countries into conflicted states, living in a constant attempt to resolve a territorial conflict and restore integrity, which cannot be achieved without Russia's desire. In the case of Ukraine, the same technique was invented and used in the last period of the Soviet Union, long before Putin. The Russian president simply used the old tactics of his KGB teachers.

However, in these five years, the Ukrainian society has not learned to live with the Donbas problem. It has not learned precisely because most of the country's inhabitants continue to hope for a quick end to the war, they do not understand such conflicts can last decades, go from a smoldering phase to a new great war, to return to a smoldering phase again. And so on, until the empire gets tired and stops the destabilization of neighboring countries. In this sense, the Ukrainian society reminds me of a disabled person who simply cannot accept the loss of his foot, does not want to learn to walk with a prosthesis - and therefore constantly leans sideways in the hope that the foot will soon reappear on its own, "it is only necessary to stop firing." And the one who took out the leg stands next with a sneaky smile and waits quietly when the disabled person finally loses power. And then it will be possible to realize the main political goal of Russian president Vladimir Putin - to recreate the "union state", to return to its composition Ukrainian and Belarussian lands.

At the same time, Ukrainian politicians, who know how important it is for people to end the war, do not want to speak to them honestly. Petro Poroshenko spoke about the early end of the conflict at the beginning of his term, who quickly enough became convinced that Vladimir Putin was not going to give up his aggressive policy. And Volodymyr Zelensky became a true mirror of Ukrainian illusions and hopes. And now, though the permanent contacts of the Ukrainian president with his Russian counterpart do not lead to any real results, however, these illusions are preserved and nourished. Keeping hope that in the conflict with Russia it is still possible to reach some compromise and stop the war.

Those are vain hopes. I do not know how much longer this conflict will last - a year, two, five, ten or twenty years. But I know only one thing - we can fight back Russia - and save Ukraine. And we can lose - and lose Ukraine, become part of Russia again. There is no other choice for Ukrainians.

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