Imagine elections with a single party, one media outlet and no credible international monitors. Imagine that half of the electorate has fled and been rendered ineligible to vote. It's an undemocratic, unfair and illegitimate scenario, but that's what elections in the Donbas will look like if Ukraine is pushed to deliver on political reforms before Moscow lives up to its obligations.
The Minsk agreements, negotiated over two rounds in September 2014 and February 2015, were supposed to signal the way out of the "Ukrainian crisis," in which Russia-backed separatists sought to overrun eastern Ukraine and bring it under Russian sovereignty. The problem is that what's happening isn't a crisis of Ukraine's making but the result of military, economic and political aggression against it from Moscow. True and lasting stability can't be achieved through simply freezing the conflict.
Under the circumstances of the time, however, a cease-fire was the only possible deal that could be achieved. That remains the case to this day. And so both parties to the conflict, as well as the world community, committed to implementing this 13-point plan. But there must be a logical sequence to the steps taken. Not only the letter of the agreement, but also common sense, must be the guide.
The Minsk agreements contain requirements for both the Ukrainian side and the separatists and Russia. These encompass matters of security such as the truce, the withdrawal of heavy armor, and open access to members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). There is also a political dimension, which calls for decentralization and the holding of local elections.
But how can we push for political reforms and decentralization when Russian military equipment is still in the streets of Donetsk and Luhansk, and when international monitors have no access to these territories? How can we ensure that commitments will be kept when the aggressor isn't even acknowledged as a party to the conflict? In a word, how can we guarantee the conditions to implement the Minsk agreements?
The first step must be to ensure security through a true cease-fire. Today, the fighting continues at an estimated rate of about 60 shellings a day. There are currently more tanks in the region than OSCE monitors, and these tanks get to move about freely, something that is denied to the members of the OSCE. It is unrealistic to demand elections when the only ones enjoying freedom of movement and access aren't Ukrainian political parties, Ukrainian media or the Ukrainian people, but Russia-supplied tanks. Restoring these freedoms, together with the presence of members from OSCE and its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, should be a clear precondition for elections in the Donbas.
Military equipment must be withdrawn from the region, and control of Ukraine's border with Russia must be returned to Kyiv. The continued supply of equipment and support to the separatists from Russia must be stopped. Moscow's formula of "borders mean nothing, people do" may initially sound very European, but in reality it undermines international law. The occupation of Crimea is a proof of that.
Only after security conditions are in place can we focus on constitutional reforms and decentralization. Russia's President Vladimir Putin insists on "first decentralization, then de-escalation." In reality that would only fuel the extreme sentiments in the country, forces that already want to take up arms to take back the occupied territories. The Ukrainian government has been balancing these forces effectively so far, to prevent further conflict and fragmentation. The world should support them in their efforts.
The Minsk agreements has been our least-worst option for peace in Ukraine. To make the best of it, we must make sure that its conditions are implemented in the right order, and with common sense.
Mr. Linkevičius is the foreign-affairs minister for Lithuania. The article above was originally published in Opinion Section of The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 27.