Almost two years have passed since the European Union and a number of other countries introduced, on July 31, 2014, the third and most consequential round of economic and other sanctions against Russia. These measures were introduced in response to Moscow’s invasion into Ukraine in late February 2014, and the escalation of its hybrid war in the Donets Basin (or Donbas) in June-July 2014. It is today sometimes forgotten that, only after that, the EU conditioned a lifting of these sanctions on the fulfillment of the later-adopted peace plan outlined in the various documents signed in Minsk in September 2014 and February 2015 by Ukraine, the separatists, and Russia. Yet, as is well-known, the improvements in eastern Ukraine since then have been limited.
A particularly bloody high-intensity war until summer 2015 has since been followed by less intense weekly skirmishes which have, however, cost additional hundreds of human lives. Some Russian heavy weapons have been moved away from the contact line, but others have not and are shooting Ukrainian troops almost every week more or less intensively. Some prisoners of war were exchanged, but many more remain in custody. Perhaps worst of all, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently put under question the entire rationale for the Minsk agreements by announcing that "waiting for us to make decisions would be absurd. I’m lost for words." Putin was referring to Ukraine's non-implementation of the political parts of the Minsk agreements. He thereby repeated a peculiar line of “argument” that many other Russian representatives had been outlining to Ukraine and the West before.
In this approach, the Russian president and his underlings equalize the military and non-military parts of the agreements that Russia and its proxies signed with Ukraine. They thereby—obviously, by purpose—manipulate the temporal order, political significance, and procedural logic of the various points of the second Minsk agreement of February 2015. Their insistence on Ukrainian political and legislative changes before the agreement’s military parts are implemented reveal that Moscow intends to keep a veto on the future make-up of Ukraine’s polity and constitutional order. In other words, the Kremlin wants Ukraine to change its legislation on the Donbas, on Russian terms. Only after changes it regards as satisfactory will Moscow disengage its regular troops and mercenaries from the region. (And even that interpretation of the Kremlin’s behavior may still only be the most complimentary reading of the Kremlin's intentions, and under- rather than overestimate the current Russian leadership's aggressiveness.)
However, the logic and procedure of the conflict resolution scheme entailed in the Minsk agreements foresee, at first, a full ceasefire and Russian military withdrawal from the Donets Basin. Only once the military aspects of the agreements have been fully implemented, and Ukrainian control over the currently occupied territories is restored, will it make sense for Kiev to formulate, in a second step, the specifics of some transitory rules, special status, and local elections in the Donbas. Putin & Co’s approach, in contrast, implies that Kiev should grant Russia a veto on Ukrainian domestic legislation. In tolerating such pressure, the West would award Russia with an opportunity for additional violations of the basic principles upon which international order is built. In the Russian elite’s parallel world, only concessions such as these can compensate Russia for the considerable human and financial resources it has invested into its military actions in Crimea and the Donets Basin.
If Moscow, as Putin’s above statement seems to indicate, does indeed now officially take such a position, this should be a serious additional reason why Western sanctions against Russia have to be decoupled from the fulfillment of the Minsk arrangements. After all, the EU’s main sanctions had been discussed and introduced already in July 2014. They thus started not only long before the signing of the “Minsk II” agreement of February 2015, but also before the negotiations of the so-called Minsk Protocol and Memorandum in September 2014. In view of Russia’s policies since then, the EU’s sanctions should be again—as initially intended in summer 2014—solely linked to Russia's military disengagement, at least from the Donets Basin, and not to Ukrainian constitutional as well as other legislative changes.
There is yet another peculiar aspect to the illogical connection between the EU's sanctions against Russia, on the one side, and expected acts of Ukrainian compliance, including a disputed amendment to the Ukrainian constitution, on the other. Both agreements of September 2014 and February 2015 were "negotiated" between Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at a time of especially bloody military escalation. In summer 2014, Ukraine had just lost hundreds of its soldiers in a Russian carnage of Ukrainian troops in a “kettle” or encirclement near Ilovaisk. In February 2015, Russia was conducting a large military and equally bloody offensive on Debaltseve while negotiating. This peculiar Russian behavior was a preview of how the Kremlin would later approach international negotiations for a “solution” to the Syria conflict.
Unless Kiev's sovereignty in the Donets Basin is restored in full, all or at least most sanctions should remain in place.
All of this needs to finally trigger fundamental rethinking of the West’s approach to the Donbas issue. The role that the Ukrainian government and parliament is supposed to play in the extension of the West’s sanctions against Russia has always been a contradictory issue. Now, Putin has, with his above statement, himself suggested to the EU to ultimately cut the confusing link between Brussels’s sanctions against Moscow and Kiev's domestic behavior. The EU should respond accordingly and reformulate the conditions for an end of its sanctions regime. In particular, the West has to return to its sanctions’ initial motif and remove the mentions of the various Minsk documents in its official communication and in its public presentations of its sanctions policy towards Russia.
The documents signed in Minsk constitute agreements between Moscow (and its proxies in Ukraine’s Donets Basin) and Kiev. Whether, when, and how the various aspects of this particular treaty are fulfilled should not guide any longer EU policies towards Russia. The sanctions were imposed not in connection with Russian-Ukrainian negotiations, but after a repeated and especially grave violation of basic foundations of the international order by Russia. Discussion about their prolongation, extension, or modification should thus only refer to Russian correction or non-correction of its behavior, and not to Kiev’s actions and non-actions. Unless Kiev's sovereignty in the Donets Basin is restored in full, all or at least most sanctions should remain in place. Certain specific sanctions, to be sure, could be partially and temporarily lifted in case of substantial improvements in the Donbas, in order to motivate the Kremlin to eventually withdraw all of its forces and all of its support for the separatists. Yet with Minsk fully implemented or not, only after the Donbas returns under full and sustainable Ukrainian control can the entire set or the most important of the economic sanctions be lifted. Still, other sanctions will have to be kept on, as long as Ukraine's Autonomous Republic of Crimea and city of Sevastopol remain under Russia's illegal temporary control. In case of further escalation, additional restrictions—for instance, substantive import sanctions on crude oil—could be added to the current export, sectoral, corporate, and individual sanctions.
None of these issues, one should finally mention, is taking care of two other particularly grave violations of international law by Russia in the former USSR—namely, her illegal military occupation of significant parts of Moldova and Georgia. It is revealing that both of these countries are—like Ukraine—members of the EU's Eastern Partnership program and signatories of large Association Agreements with Brussels. Russia has, in the 1999 OSCE Istanbul Document and 2008 EU-brokered Russian-Georgian peace treaty, agreed to withdraw its troops from Moldova and Georgia respectively. Yet, Russian troops are still in Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. No Western sanctions are currently in force regarding these equally grave disregards of international law by the Kremlin. Even a full restoration of Ukrainian political sovereignty and territorial integrity will thus not mean that Russia's revanchist imperialism in her neighborhood, and subversion of international law, will have ended. Against such a background, the EU should—at least with regard to Ukraine's sovereignty—show elementary consistency in its dealings with the Kremlin.