20 years under Putin: a timeline

Following the three-month escalation along the Ukrainian border, the Kremlin must resort to unpopular decisions—such as recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics—in order to save face both before its own citizens and the collective West. Despite the colossal pressure, Kyiv is refusing to abide by the Minsk Accords on Moscow’s terms, and that means that the Kremlin’s blackmail may result in real military action. However, further escalation is unlikely in the upcoming few months: most likely, the Kremlin will continue destabilizing the situation inside Ukraine.


Russian State Duma's plenary meeting on February 15, 2022. Photo: duma.gov.ru.


Editor’s note: On February 21, as this article was prepared for publication, in his televised address to the Russian public, Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.


On February 15, Russia’s State Duma approved a draft appeal to President Vladimir Putin, submitted by the Communist Party deputies, requesting recognition of the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR). The Russian president reportedly took the Duma’s appeal “into account” and noted that implementation of the Minsk Accords (“Minsk-2,” signed on February 12, 2015) would be the main task when it comes to resolving the Ukrainian crisis. 

Despite the fact that the Minsk Accords were signed seven years ago by representatives of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia (the so-called “Normandy Format”), the main parties—Kyiv and Moscow—remain fundamentally divided when it comes to the document’s implementation. Additionally, Russia accuses Ukraine of failing to abide by the agreements. For example, on January 26, in the aftermath of eight-hour negotiations between political councils of the four countries’ leaders in Paris, the head of the Russian delegation, Dmitri Kozak, said that “Ukraine keeps inventing various excuses to avoid fulfilling its responsibilities even on this issue [the ceasefire mechanism], which is not connected to anything. Shooting just needs to stop.” In his turn, head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Andrei Yermak underscored that participants in the Paris negotiations supported the ceasefire regime, which should operate unconditionally, noting that “the very fact of the reestablishment of the Normandy Format is a positive signal… I believe this to be the reanimation of the Normandy Format.” 

A previous meeting of that kind was last held in December 2019 by the leaders of the “Normandy Four”—Volodymyr Zelensky, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and Vladimir Putin. At the time, the parties managed to make some progress on a number of issues, including an exchange of war prisoners between Russia and Ukraine (“all for all”), introduction of an indefinite ceasefire, establishment of three new regions for withdrawal of military forces in the east of Ukraine, development of mine clearance plans, and the extension of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) mission mandate in Donbass.

However, no significant breakthrough was achieved on the key issues. First and foremost, this refers to the all-encompassing ceasefire in Donbass starting on July 27, 2020, which was agreed on by representatives of the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine (Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE). The so-called “regime of silence” provisioned bans on the use of fire, in particular sniper fire, the use of offensive and intelligence/diversionary activities, as well as the use of any kind of aviation apparatuses along the separation line. However, the bans were ineffective, and the loss of human life among both civilians and troops continued to grow. According to various data sources, over the last two years, 130 Ukrainian soldiers lost their lives in Donbass, and more than 600 were injured.

No withdrawal of forces took place under the so-called Steinmeier Formula—one of the key items of the Minsk Accords, which envisioned a special status for the self-proclaimed DNR and LNR following elections in these territories. A partial withdrawal occurred in October 2019 (only along several sections of the separation line), but this was accompanied by violations of the “regime of silence” and a litany of mutual accusations. Within weeks, as had happened many times before, the process collapsed. Moreover, the shooting never stopped even in the sections where withdrawal had been achieved. 

The legitimacy of the Minsk Accords is viewed skeptically by both the Ukrainian administration and its public, given that some of the provisions directly contradict the Ukrainian Constitution—in particular, the passage of a law by the Verkhovna Rada on the special status of the “separate territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions” (ORDLO), as well as pardons and amnesty for a number of people, including pro-Russian separatists, in regard to the events that took place in those territories. 

From the very beginning, the key items of the Minsk Accords have only existed on paper; however, as a result of their signing in 2015, Kyiv managed to stop a full-scale military action in Donbass and preserve Ukrainian armed forces from destruction in Debaltseve, where Russian armed forces participated on the separatists’ side.

Over the past two years, the situation has been further complicated by one more factor: more than 600,000 residents of ORDLO received Russian passports through a simplified procedure, which gives the Kremlin rationale to dispatch Russian armed forces to this region under the guise of defending Russian citizens. 

It is likely that after all of its saber-rattling at the Ukrainian border over the past three months, Moscow has decided to leave itself some wiggle room and resort to essentially blackmailing the West and Kyiv with the threat of recognizing the self-proclaimed DNR and LNR. Representatives from the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs believe such a step would mean Russia’s conscious exit from the Minsk Accords. On the other hand, a potential reintegration of the self-proclaimed republics into Ukraine on Moscow’s terms would be a suicidal step for the authorities in Kiev, since this would instantly cause mass protests within Ukrainian society, primarily among veterans and volunteers.

It is possible that the Kremlin has decided to reject “Minsk-2” and recognize the DNR and LNR in order to save face before Russian citizens. However, Moscow’s refusal to abide by the agreements may also mean that it is prepared for further escalation—up to a full-scale invasion as a last resort.

In any scenario, the Kremlin clearly hasn’t given up—and will likely never give up—its appetite for Ukraine and will continue rattling the situation inside the country, pressuring President Volodymyr Zelensky into accepting the Minsk Accords on Russian terms, which, consequently, may lead to further destabilization. As of today, this scenario would be the most beneficial for Putin, as it would allow him to present himself as a peacekeeper. At the same time, Russia’s official recognition of the DNR and LNR will only make the situation worse and may essentially become the cause of a large war.



* Mykola Vorobiov is a Ukrainian journalist and visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University (SAIS).  

Text translation: Elizaveta Agarkova.