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Armoured vehicles move at the Gozhsky training ground during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills in Belarus. Russia has massed troops near the Ukraine border and has sent troops to exercises in neighbouring Belarus but insistently denies that it intends to launch an offensive against Ukraine.The Associated Press

As Russia continues its military build-up around Ukraine, some observers have pointed to an eight-year-old document known as the Minsk Protocol as a peaceful way of resolving the crisis. But many Ukrainians say the deal is a Russian trap and warn that President Volodymyr Zelensky would face internal unrest if he tried to implement it.

Russia, which has amassed more than 130,000 soldiers on three sides of Ukraine, has repeatedly called on Kyiv to implement the Kremlin’s interpretation of the vaguely worded 2014 agreement. The Minsk Protocol was intended to bring an end to the war in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region, part of which was seized by a Moscow-backed militia earlier that year.

The fighting, however, has rumbled on, claiming 14,000 lives as each side accused the other of failing to fulfill the terms of the agreement and its 2015 successor, Minsk-2. Both deals are named after the Belarusian capital, where they were negotiated.

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French President Emmanuel Macron travelled to Moscow and Kyiv this week for separate meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr. Zelensky. Afterward, Mr. Macron declared that the Minsk agreements were the “only path on which peace can be built.”

Standing alongside Mr. Macron at their joint news conference inside the Kremlin Tuesday, Mr. Putin agreed that there was “simply no other alternative.”

“The incumbent President [Mr. Zelensky] recently stated that he does not like a single point of these Minsk agreements,” Mr. Putin said, before directly addressing Mr. Zelensky in terms that many interpreted as crude: “Like it or not, it’s your duty, my beauty,” referring to Ukraine’s obligations under the agreements. “They must be fulfilled. It won’t work otherwise.”

The terms are odious to many Ukrainians because they give Mr. Putin exactly what he wants most: a lever with which to meddle in Ukraine’s internal politics. The key clause, from Moscow’s point of view, would see Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions (which collectively make up Donbas) given special autonomous status – and, theoretically, a veto over any move to join the European Union or NATO.

Mr. Putin has repeatedly warned that Russia could resort to unspecified “military-technical” measures unless the Kremlin receives some kind of binding guarantee that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO. The United States and NATO have both refused to give Moscow any say over which countries join the 30-country alliance.

Military analysts say Russia, which began joint military exercises with its ally Belarus Thursday, is now positioned to launch an invasion of Ukraine on short notice. “We’re in a window when an invasion could begin at any time – and to be clear, that includes during the Olympics,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday during a visit to Australia. The Beijing Winter Games end Feb. 20.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was Ukraine’s prime minister at the time the first Minsk Protocol was negotiated, told The Globe that Western leaders should focus on deterring new Russian aggression rather than compelling Ukraine to implement Minsk. He said the agreement was imposed on Ukraine when the country’s army was weak. Then-president Petro Poroshenko feared Russia and its proxy forces were primed to seize more Ukrainian territory beyond Donbas and Crimea, which Russia also seized and annexed in 2014.

“In 2014, Poroshenko didn’t have another option. He signed this deal at the barrel of a Russian gun,” Mr. Yatsenyuk said, describing the agreement as “not legally binding” and “no more than a political memo.”

French, German, Ukrainian and Russian negotiators met for more than nine hours in Berlin Thursday in an effort to revive the Minsk process. The talks ended with only an agreement to meet again in March, and Kremlin negotiator Dmitry Kozak accused Ukraine Friday of “sabotaging” the talks with “absurd” proposals. “They are trying to slip away in order not to fulfill their obligations,” Mr. Kozak said.

Mr. Yatsenyuk said the terms of Minsk are no longer relevant, as the situation has fundamentally changed over the past eight years: The Kremlin has issued more than 600,000 Russian passports to Donbas residents. “It’s important for German and French people to realize that Putin already accomplished a de facto annexation of Donetsk and Lugansk, so we are living in a completely different world – and the Minsk process has nothing to do with de-escalation,” Mr. Yatsenyuk said Friday on the sidelines of the Kyiv Security Forum, where speaker after speaker called on Mr. Zelensky’s government to abandon the Minsk process.

“We would never have the Minsk deal if Russia didn’t invade Ukraine. This is the root cause. The root cause is not any kind of conflict inside Ukraine. The root cause is the Russian aggression and Russian invasion … of Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk.”

The grinding conflict in Donbas was one of the reasons Mr. Poroshenko and his allies were dealt a crushing electoral defeat in 2019. Mr. Zelensky was swept into office partially on a promise to do whatever it took to make peace with Russia. But now he too appears to have reached the conclusion that a peace based on Minsk is not a peace Ukraine can live with.

Ukraine’s official position is that it can’t proceed with its side of Minsk – including a clause that calls for all separatist fighters to be granted amnesty – until Russia fulfills the part of the deal that calls for all foreign troops to leave Donbas. Russia, however, contends that it has no troops in Donbas – that the fighting there is a civil war.

Kostyantyn Batozskyy, a political analyst who fled from Donetsk to Kyiv after the “separatist” takeover in 2014, said that if Mr. Zelensky tried to implement Russia’s interpretation of Minsk, even as a way of avoiding a larger war, “he would be thrown out of his office by the street in the next hour.”

Mr. Batozskyy, who worked as an adviser to the last pro-Ukrainian governor of Donetsk, accused France and Germany of being more interested in preserving their trade relationships with Russia than in upholding Ukrainian sovereignty. He said that giving Donetsk and Lugansk a veto over Ukraine’s attempts to seek membership in the EU and NATO would be a “bad peace” that would turn Ukrainians against each other.

“The bad peace cannot happen on the terms Russia is talking about, because it would bring Ukraine to collapse. We would have a real civil war here and it would be launched immediately.”

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