The most dramatic night in my life. Poroshenko’s memories about the talks in Minsk

Ukrainska Pravda

12 February – the anniversary of the signature of the so-called second Minsk arrangements, which Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin reached after the lengthy talks under mediation of president Francois Hollande of France and chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. 

Five years ago the leaders of four states put their signatures under the document that was composed of 13 points and should guarantee the implementation of the Minsk agreement of September and lay preconditions for renewal of peace in Donbas.

In 2018 former French president Francois Hollande, who were taking part in the negotiations between Russian and Ukraine, published his memoirs entitled “The Lessons of Power”.

One of its chapters is called “The night in Minsk” and is dedicated to the difficult talks between Poroshenko and Putin.

“Ukrainska Pravda” approached the fifth president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko with a suggestion to write his memoirs about that night in Minsk that ended up with the signature of the arrangements and about what the heated debates are still far from being wrapped up.

An exhaustive nineteen-hours marathon with Putin, “a negotiator” being frigid, brutal, and deeply hostile to Ukraine – is nothing as compared to a tempest that an eastern-Ukrainian city had to overcome just before it… 64 wounded, 17 killed as result of Russian missile shelling.

No navigator would compose an itinerary to Minsk being via Kramatorsk. Still, I could not bypass Donbas. And so, in Minsk, the tragic story of people of Kramatorsk was like an open wound, as an exposed nerve for me.

In Putin’s soul, if reading his behavior, the Kramatorsk tragedy did not touch any of strings. It will be afterward when Francois Hollande will write about “how many times Poroshenko and Putin were raising their voices against each other”. True, that was one of the most dramatic nights in my life. But the one was decisive to curb the aggressor. 

To those, who haven’t understood until now, what was at stake, I recommend in the coming days to visit the Hall of Remembrance on the territory of the Ministry of Defense and to listen to the bells ringing for each of those killed in February 2015. And to revive in memory the fierce fighting back into that difficult winter. 

For us, a key task of the Minsk-2 was about halting the advance of the Russian regular military forces, preventing the encirclement of our soldiers, saving lives of thousands of people, military and civil ones.

We did not accept any ultimatum and thanks to the support of our german and french partners we managed to reach a decision about ceasefire without preconditions. Putin, let me remind it, he was insisting on that under the conditions of total, according to his information, encirclement of almost eight thousand of Ukrainian soldiers it should be him dictating the conditions: to raise a white flag, to leave military equipment and to surrender. 

We stated firmly that there was no encirclement, and our soldiers would not fold the weapons. But to get every participant convinced about that, for a certain while the Ukrainian delegation moved to separate premises. From there, by means of closed line, we were communicating with the General Staff.

Finally we received a clear confirmation that our soldiers kept defending the line as set in Minsk on September 19, 2014, and that they would not allow the encirclement. 

In such a way the heroism of our military enforced the positions of diplomats  at the negotiations – for over five years the same happened not once. 

Putin played for time so that the Ukrainian soldiers found themselves encircled and destroyed, or in the best case scenario – disarmed and captured. This is something that Francois Hollande confirms in his memoirs as well.

The French leader quickly understood that Putin wanted to gain time and to postpone the ceasefire for as long as possible so that to allow for his proxies to encircle the Ukrainian army and to gain additions grounds. 

But the joint and firm position of Ukraine, Germany and France led to Moscow having accepted the ceasefire as from 15 February.

Back then “the four” worked in a clear format of “three vs one”, in where Putin could not find any broken link, and nobody was a weak link either.

Finally, a common declaration of “the Normandy four” was adopted with a solid position it held regarding the confirmation of “the full respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine…” And the signature of Putin under the document meant nothing else than a judicial confirmation of an obviously standing fact: Russia is a side of the conflict.

Revealing a detail. It took Putin some ten minutes to curb his puppets, who suddenly started pretending that they were not agreeing with a draft that had been agreed among the four leaders by that time already.

Both Hollande and Merkel were able to make themselves sure of how short was a chain, on which were sitting the formal leaders of these pseudo-republics, to whom they were serving and whose instructions they were implementing. 

The main thing that the Minsk arrangements gave to Ukraine was a precious time. A time to systemic rebuilding of its armed forces. A time to focus on overcoming social crisis caused by war and blockade of Ukrainian goods access to the Russian market.

A time to strengthen international coalition to support Ukraine. A time to establish and secure the sanctions regime against Russia.

The Moscow’s attitude to the Minsk Arrangements has been almost the only criteria for prolongation of sanctions. Taking into account that Kremlin failed to show any progress in their implementation, during these years we managed to extend the duration of sanctions about ten times with clear reference to the Minsk Arrangements. 

The Minsk Arrangements greatly contribute to the process of release of Ukrainian hostages.

After Minsk-2015 together with allies we focused on elaboration of a roadmap of its implementation. It seemed that the healthy logic of understanding of the spirit and the word of the document meant a clear sequence of implementation: security steps should go first, political ones should follow. However, the healthy logic has nothing in common with Kremlin, which has gone mad with its imperial ambitions. In Latin, Cyrillic and even Glagolitic they used to read from left to right, in Hebrew – from right to left. In Moscow they used to read bottom-up and upside-down.  

The roadmap would have filled in the dots and, in fact, we have almost agreed it with Germany and France. However, Putin took a break until the presidential elections in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, a new team in the Ukrainian power refused to squeeze Putin… and on the contrary it has come under pressure and accepted the Putin’s edition of the so called Steinmeier formula.

I do not share this obsession of president Zelenskiy to look into the eyes of Putin.

To believe that somewhere deep in his eyes there is a wish for peace is to lie to Ukrainians and to help detoxicating Putin in the international community, including  in our key partners.

While observing that the Ukrainian leadership is gradually calming down its political and diplomatic opposition to aggressor and leading to the policy of appeasement, the partners fail to understand why they should fight for Ukrainian interests more than Ukraine itself. In this context the recent reshuffles in the President’s Office do make me neither sad nor happy. 

On the one hand, out of the frying pan into the fire, on the other hand – it is a bad sign as it means the strengthening of the party of capitulation.

It has almost been a year since the fiercest critics of the Minsk Arrangements came to  power. But in reality “the doves of peace” arrived with empty beaks without any own peace plan. Even more, in Paris Volodymyr Zelenskiy added his signature to the set of the documents, which is called the Minsk Arrangements (and he could join me in my trips to the State Bureau of Investigations, which is digging something up on the Minsk Arrangements).  

They haven’t proposed anything as an alternative to the Minsk Arrangements. Do you know why? Because there is no alternative to the Minsk Arrangements even today when it seems that Ukraine has much wider space for maneuver. And five years ago you couldn’t even dream about any maneuver.

I have never said that the Minsk Arrangements are ideal. I wouldn’t wish anyone to appear in such circumstances as we had in February 2015. Without sufficient resources to overcome Russia in military terms, we succeeded in achieving diplomatic victory and we managed to save Ukraine. Thanks to the bravery of our soldiers near Debaltsevo and other segments of the battlefront.

Today the Minsk Arrangements give a chance to formulate the strong conditions to Russia and not to beg but to demand peace. Provided that there is the political will.

The roadmap with a clear sequence of the actions, return to deeply elaborated idea of the UN peacekeepers, no rush with preparation of the elections in the occupied territories (forget about this autumn), no appeasement but pressure on Putin – all of this is possible and necessary on the basis of the Minsk Arrangements, which were concluded between September 2014 and February 2015.

Petro Poroshenko, fifth President of Ukraine for the Ukrainian Pravda