On November 11, 2018, along with people from twenty-two countries, I was in Lugansk People’s Republic as an election observer for the national election. The elections in Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics were necessary because of the assassination of DNR Head of the Administration Alexandr Zakharchenko and the resignation of former Head of the Administration Igor Plotnitsky.
In the run up to the election and following it I was privileged to be able to interview diplomats from the Russian Federation and Lugansk People’s Republic. I took statements from the Deputy Foreign Minister in LNR, an OSCE election observer who was on his way to monitor the US mid-terms, and the mayor of Stakhanov which is a city in LNR.
Shattering the republics seem to be the motivation behind Zakharchenko’s assassination.
The elections themselves had the power to make or break the new republics. If the turnout was low, it would have meant that people voted no confidence in the young states and would have signaled they were failing.
Instead, the voter turnout is among the highest recorded anywhere in recent memory. Lugansk People’s Republic had a 77% voter turnout and DNR came in with 80%.
Instead of the outcome being determined by the results, this election is getting parsed by commas and period placement. While no one is actually arguing whether the election was legal or not, Ukraine is arguing its legitimacy.
Ukraine and LDNR only have one mechanism to negotiate through. This embodies the Minsk agreements. Minsk II makes the only reference to elections agreed to by all parties. Ukraine has the right to regulate local elections in LDNR. This gives the Ukrainian government control over how city and town elections are run. Ukraine decides what determines a legitimate election and what does not according to Ukrainian law.
Notice the parsing between legitimate (authentic) and according to Ukrainian law. This represents the arguments made about the election.
The principle involved is the same as a government assuming a power because it isn’t forbidden in the Constitution. This is done all the time and is considered normal.
Since the Minsk Agreements don’t specify for Ukraine to regulate the national elections, LDNR rightfully assumes the authority to do so. This is against the backdrop of DNR Head Zakharchenko’s assassins admitting they were working for Ukraine.
What does that mean? Well, for international bodies that means different things depending on what their mandate is. I was able to put these questions to an OSCE Election Observer on his way to monitor the US midterm elections. This is what he could say:
“The OSCE can only observe an election if it is invited to do so by an OSCE participating State, so any statements from the OSCE would not comment on any procedural aspects of the elections. The OSCE only observes elections when they are invited by the internationally recognized government, which in this case would be the authorities in Kyiv, and since the Ukrainian government denounces the Donbas elections as illegitimate, it is not inviting the OSCE to observe. Therefore the OSCE will not be monitoring and will not comment on the procedural aspects.”
As you can see, it isn’t legality that is questioned. It’s legitimacy that Kiev questions. It’s procedure, which is administrative detail. And lastly, it is the lack of an internationally recognized government invitation.
This is important because the same principals apply when I interviewed Russia’s First Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Dimitry Polanskiy and LNR’s Foreign Minister Vladislav Danego.
Ambassador Polanskiy, I would like to have a statement from you about Russia’s official attitude toward what kind of status change this (the election) brings to LDNR?
Second, do you see this as a step to (LDNR) normalizing relations with Russia? IE recognition?
Ambassador Polanskiy- “Hello once again. I will try to explain our position to you. The leaders of some districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions were elected on November 11 of this year. The current leaders – Denis Pushilin (Donetsk) and Leonid Pasechnik – were elected to the top positions. The voter turnout was unprecedentedly high – almost 80 percent.
The elections were organized under the universal and equal right to vote as guaranteed by item 7.3 of the 1990 Copenhagen Document of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and by the basic standards of democracy.
The Kiev authorities do not want to hear this, but we will tell them about the unanimous opinion of the many observers from over 20 countries, including OSCE member states. On the whole, voting took place in a calm atmosphere and without violations. The absence of excesses was reaffirmed by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM). Its personnel did not act as observers at these elections but continued monitoring the situation in the unrecognized republics under their mandate.
Now I would like to say a few words about motives. After the assassination of Alexander Zakharchenko, the potential “vacuum of power” created a real risk of total destabilization in southeastern Ukraine. This could have negatively affected the sustenance of life in Donbass and the process of settlement in general against the backdrop of the Kiev-imposed trade and economic blockade and Kiev’s continuous threats to use force.
The elections made it possible to avoid this scenario. Now the people’s elected officials have a mandate to address the practical goals of supporting a normal life in these regions and carrying out the social functions that have been stubbornly neglected by the Ukrainian authorities. It is essential to approach the results of the election in Donbass with understanding, respect, and consideration for the totality of all factors.
We assume that it was held outside the context of the Minsk Package of Measures, item 12 of which is exclusively devoted to local elections. We hope the newly elected leaders of Donetsk and Lugansk will continue the dialogue with Kiev in the framework of the Contact Group on settling the crisis in southeastern Ukraine in accordance with the Minsk agreements.
2.And we are open for normalization with Ukraine, all the contrary initiatives come from Kiev, not from us. Ukraine has become an “Anti-Russia” from the point of view of its foreign policy
Instead of looking for alleged Russian aggression and blaming everything on my country Ukraine should better try to find the way to win back the trust of its citizens – those who live in the East and in the South. There is no other way to peace for Kiev but through dialogue with Donbass!
To answer your question about recognition. We do not intend to recognize these two republics, and the elections change nothing in this regard. They create no new status. Previous ones were held 4 yrs ago. According to Minsk agreements someday they will return to Ukraine.
But Kiev needs to implement Minsk agreements for this, create conditions for residents of Donbass to feel at home, speak Russian language and teach their children in it as well as respect their historic figures who fought for the liberation of Ukraine from Nazi Germany. So far it is not being done.”
Russia’s First Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Polanskiy makes it clear that Russia’s position while supportive, remains within its agreements and international norms regarding LDNR. Ukraine, on the other hand, has been ramping up the rhetoric and bringing in the machinery of war to the front lines as it continues to shell peaceful civilian homes and apartments. Kiev is now threatening a Blitzkrieg war in a region Ukrainian nationalists assisted Germany with its Blitzkrieg war in WWII.
LNR FM Vladislav Danego on what the results mean going forward
The morning after the election I was lucky enough to catch LNR’s Foreign Minister Vladislav Danego in the hotel lobby and he graciously agreed to an interview.
George Eliason– I’m with LNR’s (Lugansk People’s Republic) Foreign Minister Danego. It’s the day after the election and they have a mandate, 77% of voters able to vote; voted.
Foreign Minister Danego, how do you see negotiations, peace negotiations going with Ukraine from this point forward?
LNR Foreign Minister Vladislav Danego– “The result that was shown yesterday, that level of political awareness and desire (aspiration) that people showed with 77% participation (in the election) said that the world needs to respect (honor) the people’s choice and that would also include Ukraine.
Donbass clearly said, “We are for the republic.” In LNR and DNR it’s absolutely unprecedented (electoral) participation. That level of voter participation is rarely seen anywhere.
In this situation, we will force Ukraine to accept the opinion (choice) of Donbass. And in the talks, first of all, and most of all, it will complicate the talks because Ukraine categorically refuses to hear the people of Donbass. But I hope the international community will make Ukraine open their eyes, and open their ears, and hear what Donbass is saying.
Only under those conditions will there be the possibility of at least some progress in dialogue with Ukraine. If Ukraine will continue pretending they cannot see or hear Donbass, then accordingly, we will make our decision on whether it’s feasible to try and negotiate with such a country. Or will we need to wait until the government in Ukraine becomes the kind that is willing to talk and negotiate?
And that’s why we had elections because we now have two republics where there are governments acting for the interests of the people who live in Donbass and have to periodically check for the approval of the people.
Right now, first and foremost, people showed their patriotism and responsibility toward their country. The results will be announced shortly. Preliminary results show that interim Head of the Republic Pasichnik is ahead and also results for members of the People’s Council.
People showed a high level of trust in the current leadership of the republic. They showed their desire to move forward. They showed they want to build peaceful lives and count on the help of the Russian Federation. They showed this clearly at the end of the day of the election.”
Every one of Foreign Minister Danego statements is in line with international law and the agreements Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) has with Kiev.
FM Danego isn’t saying Kiev has to deal with LNR in a different way. He made it clear the people have decided who is representing them at the negotiating table and who is leading them into the future today. The one other thing is Kiev has to start respecting the agreements they are party to.
LNR DFM Anna Soroka on reasons why this election is important
We went to the commemoration at the We will not forgive! We will not forget! Memorial with LNR Deputy Foreign Minister Anna Soroka. This is the text of what she had to say.
This place is where the soul of Lugansk People’s Republic lays. In this place, some of the citizens of Lugansk were killed during the military actions of the summer of 2014. I am the Deputy Foreign Minister of Lugansk People’s Republic. My name is Anna. I, personally was a participant and took part in the events that happened in 2014.
Right now, we’re at the memorial for the burial of the victims. It’s called “Never forget, Never forgive!” Here lies up to 800 citizens of the republic. One hundred nineteen we know the names of. The rest are unknown to us.
I will explain how / why this happened. Aberonnaya Street divides the city (Lugansk) into two parts and it has importance in two wars, the first and the second world wars. As it happened this street historically divides our city into two parts.
The memorial for victims of nineteen forty-two, nineteen forty-three (behind her in the video) is for up to twenty-five thousand war victims of Voroshelovgrad (Lugansk) tortured by the Nazi army and this place where we stand now, the memorial “We don’t forget, we don’t forgive!” is for the victims of Ukrainian aggression of 2014 (to her left in the video).
This is the one place that doesn’t need (more)proof of the guilt of the Ukrainian army of the Kiev regime that unlawfully came to power in February 2014. It, by itself, is the witness that in peaceful normal conditions this kind of mass grave has no place. It cannot happen.
In the summer of 2014, when Lugansk was without lights and water, from the airport and all sides of the surrounding territory (Lugansk) was occupied by Ukraine, mortars were flying from the territory occupied by Ukraine. Civilians were dying everywhere, all over the city, even in the center of Lugansk.
The city was not able to keep up with all the bodies that were coming in because there was no electricity and not enough generators. All four cemeteries of Lugansk were under fire by the Ukrainian army. The decision was made to bury people here. If you can imagine the situation, this was the frontline (points in the middle distance). The airport which was four kilometers from here was under the control of the Ukrainian army. They attacked from there.
It was very difficult to bury people here as well (because it was also under fire). People dug trenches and as we said before (most of those who died) is unknown. We are now working on Identifying the rest of the people buried here.
I don’t want to paint this horrific picture if you could imagine for a minute, no lights, no water, explosions every minute, shells exploding overhead, bodies without heads, legs, or arms. It was very scary, horrific. We didn’t know who they were. That’s why there are so many unknown.
And we want very much for the world to know about the fact this place exists. This precise place is a direct witness to the crimes of Ukraine against our people. And today, when we stand before the choice that we have to make at our election, we would like to know that the world will hear us and understand us.
And understand we are not just trying to show our willfulness (contrariness). We fight for our lives, for peace. We fight for them (points to the mass grave) because we are responsible before them. I propose a moment of silence for all those who have died.
An interview with Sergey Schevlakov, the Mayor of Stakhanov about why the election is important to Donbass.
“The Ukrainian government started this. None of us, not I, not you wanted to start this war. We didn’t go to Lviv or somewhere else in Western Ukraine to tell them how to run things. We were all friendly, all friends. Our families were friends. It’s them that came to kill us.
It is them that is tearing the country (Ukraine) apart. So, it’s understood the government of Ukraine has different goals. For example, a long time ago in 12th century Great Rus, when it was torn apart into little kingdoms and history is repeating itself.
It happened in the 16th century. It’s repeating again today. Everyone wants to be a little king separating into little kingdoms. Instead of uniting, they tried to be great themselves.”
George Eliason– Will the Moscow Patriarchate be able to mend the breach in Ukrainian Orthodoxy?
Mayor Sergey Schevlakov -” Let me put it this way, we had one great powerful country. The world had competition. To have someone lose you have to impoverish(bankrupt) them spiritually and economically.
So, the European countries coalition tore apart the Soviet Union and now they are doing it to everything else including Ukraine. The goal is to push away a part of Russiya (greater Russia) that had Ukraine and Belarus together. It used to be one body or one country, they are consciously separating Ukraine and Russiya, pushing them away from each other so they could never unite again.
For a thousand years, Ukraine and Russia were one country and one people. For them not to unite and show that they are different, is why they are consciously forcing the Ukrainian language and won’t have Russian. Although we have one language, they are forcing the concept that we are different people and a different country.
And now to separate us spiritually, they are setting up the Ukrainian Prava Slava (Orthodox Church) so they want to be separate from the Russian Orthodox Church.
To divide the church into parts is to separate part of the people that live in Ukraine. On their own, the western countries and institutes created the separation to divide us so that we could never join again so that we could never become strong again.
So that we will always be poor and miserable. So that we crawl on our hands and knees before those that give welfare handouts or that we have to go to their countries to work on their plantations.
To make us the 21st-century slaves.
In other words, instead of building equality between countries, between different nations and peoples there should be respect and equality to build peaceful and good relationships between countries. But today, unfortunately, a different road is chosen. War, destruction, poverty, sorrow, tears, and so on;
We don’t want this.
We want peace and normal relationships politically, economically, and spiritually. That is why we are against the separation and division in the Church as well.
So, to summarize; we are former Soviet countries, meaning we are one people really. But in Soviet times the Germanies after WWII were separated in two countries. Russia did not fan the flames of division between the two Germanies. Was there a war between the two Germanies? No.
The Soviet Union left everything in Germany (didn’t rob the country) and took the Soviet army out. They allowed the two Germanies to come together without any conflict. But why then is the same Germany that was allowed to unite, the first to interfere in our union?
Instead, they’re causing us to divide instead of uniting so that we are left hungry and without work. That’s why I have this question. How is this a democratic Europe? Just saying, for example.”
Since the election, Ukraine has declared a state of war. They have moved S-300 surface to air missiles into the Donbass conflict zone. Olexandr Turchinov wants to use Blitzkrieg operations which he says will subdue LDNR in one week.
Russia is taking the threat very seriously this time. This is the result of the election on Ukraine’s side. Especially since there is a mandate for the newly elected leaders to continue moving in the direction they are going, Ukraine wants to destroy the new republics, not reintegrate them.
The world community needs to take these threats seriously. The people of the region have suffered enough. If the conflict in Donbass widens at all, ie starts to involve Russian military, it will likely engulf the entire region as well.
In the meantime we get a clear window into the democracy Ukraine is proposing, not just for Donbass, but for the rest of Ukraine that is already under Poroshenko’s wing. It is penury, perpetual escalation, and war for the sake of a comma and the placement of a period.
*All video by Olga Eliason*
Ukraine crisis through the prism of Armenian political discourse
Armenia’s perplexing decision to side with Russia on the Crimean and broader Ukrainian crisis – related issues has subjected the country to public and political backlash in Ukraine and beyond. Notably, pro-Russian narratives have been a salient feature of Armenian political discourse during the Ukrainian crisis. This reached a point, where the Armenian leadership hailed the annexation of Crimea as a model exercise of the right to self-determination. Yet, the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” engendered a glimmer of hope that along with other changes, the new Armenian government may revise its unequivocal support for Russia’s controversial foreign policy choices and actions. This provokes an inquiry into dominant narratives about the Ukrainian crisis in Armenian political discourse.
Essentially, the escalation of Ukrainian crisis has reinforced Armenian political leadership’s fears about the possible resumption of “Cold War” with ensuing consequences for small and war-torn Armenia. Former president Sargsyan even invoked the Ukrainian crisis as a justification for Armenia’s decision to join the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). By confirming its allegiance to Russia, Armenia would avoid angering the Kremlin and prompting into taking punitive measures against its possible “disobedience.” A closer look at Armenian discourse, shows a tendency to treat Ukraine’s “outright defiance” for Russia’s strategic interests as the core rationale behind the devastating crisis. No wonder, the Armenian leadership would condemn the EU’s “recklessness” and ‘interference’ in the sphere of Russia’s privileged interests, which inevitably fuelled instability in the EU-Russia volatile neighbourhood. Sargsyan even attributed the setbacks of the EU-backed Eastern Partnership to its anti-Russian nature. It follows that by joining the EAEU, Armenia did not support the EU’s destabilizing policy and thus refrained from adding fuel to the fire.
Another major fear is that the escalating Russia-USA confrontation over the Ukrainian crisis would adversely affect the Nagorno Karabakh conflict settlement. Both USA and Russia are the permanent Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group on the settlement of the Karabakh conflict. While their relations get steadily deteriorated, there is not much to ensure their all-out involvement in moving the needle on long-standing Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Rather, by putting all their weight behind the Ukrainian issue, both Washington and Moscow would not do much to challenge the status quo in Karabakh. Overall, there are concerns that all the negativity accumulated throughout the Ukrainian crisis between Russia and the USA would inevitably get projected onto their relations over Karabakh, thus making matters more complex.
Furthermore, a huge source of fears and concerns about the Ukrainian crisis, is the crippling effect of Western sanctions against Russia on the Armenian economy. As a result of heavy economic dependence on Russia, the latter’s economic downturns significantly compound Armenia’s economic crisis. Notably, as a single country, Russia is the main external trade partner of Armenia, being the destination for around 20 per cent of Armenian exports and source of 70 per cent of remittances. Russia also maintains lead in the realm of foreign investments in Armenia. There are more than 1,400 enterprises with Russian capital, which is over one fourth of all economic entities with involvement of foreign capital .Moreover, Russia is home to more than 2.5 million Armenian migrants, whose remittances account for around 10 percent of Armenia’s GDP. Meanwhile, the depreciation of Russian ruble means that the remittances sent from Russia have decreased in value . Moreover, the ruble’s devaluation, has led to the price increases in Armenian exported products to Russia thus affecting trade volumes.
According to various estimates, the sanctions against the Russian banking sector, which has profound involvement in the Armenian economy, have adversely affected the Armenian economy and even contributed to electricity price hikes in 2015.
Besides, the sanctions against Russia have resonated with Armenia, due to its heavy dependence on Russian military equipment. The Washington’s intention of pressuring the foreign governments into relinquishing Russian defense acquisitions would put conflict-stricken Armenia between a rock and a hard place: while the country seeks to keep good ties to the USA, it is too crippled to cope without the Russian weaponry.
Beyond that, the Armenian political discourse has long revolved around the narrative of “Crimea precedent” – given that the “self determination” of Crimea would positively affect the resolution of Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Strikingly, former president Sargsyan went so far as to frame the referendum in Crimea as an exercise of peoples’ right to self-determination via free expression of will. Clearly, Sargsyan’s treatment of the Crimean “referendum” as a “model of self-determination” was bound to upset Armenian-Ukrainian ties. The situation came to a head in March 2014, when Armenia voted against the UN General Assembly resolution on the “territorial integrity of Ukraine” declaring Crimea’s recent secession vote invalid. Thus, Armenia endorsed the legitimacy of an illegal and thoroughly rigged referendum.
Ukraine was quick to recall its ambassador to Armenia for consultation, and summoned the Armenian ambassador to Ukraine over Yerevan’s shocking position on the annexation of Crimea.
Given former opposition leader Pashinyan’s critical stances on Russian coercive policies, it would be easy to resort to speculations about possible foreign policy changes, including Armenia’s on stance on the Ukrainian crisis. Yet from the outset of his prime minstership Pashinyan confirmed Armenia’s unequivocal and unwavering support for Russian policies. Notably, at his very first meeting with Pashinyan, Putin stressed the necessity of keeping up the cooperation in the international arena, focusing particularly on UN, where the two nations “have always supported each other.” No wonder, post-revolution Armenia voted against another UN resolution on the de-occupation of Crimea in December, 2018. The resolution expressed grave concerns over the Russian military buildup in Crimea and called on Russia to end its “temporary occupation” of the Ukrainian region.
Overall, consistent with his predecessor, Pashinyan keeps supporting even the most controversial Russian foreign policy actions, ranging from the Ukrainian crisis to that in Syria, etc.
There has been an ingrained belief among the Armenian leadership that Armenia only benefits from Russia’s restoring greatness and its greater involvement in its “Near abroad.” All these goes into Armenia’s inferiority complex of a weak and small state, bound by neighboring Turkish-Azerbaijani hostilities. It is in this context that Russia is broadly perceived as a pivotal security ally in Armenian political thinking and in public consciousness. Overall, there is a broad consensus among the representatives of Armenian political elite that the acute threats posed to Armenia by Azerbaijan and Turkey prompt to put heavy reliance on Russia. Thus, despite some resentment that Russian policy may generate, Armenia has to abstain from ‘provoking’ Russia’. Otherwise, the latter would ‘hit where it hurts’, by arming Azerbaijan, increasing gas prices or even mistreating the Armenian community in Russia. That said, Armenia’s solidarity with Russia on Ukrainian crisis comes as an unsurprising consequence of the enormously asymmetric nature of Russian-Armenian relations.
Lithuania’s voice in NATO is getting stronger, Karoblis is happier
Lithuania’s voice in NATO is getting stronger but pushy. It uses new arguments to attract NATO attention to fulfill its individual goals. And it should be admitted that Lithuania successfully exploited its military weakness to obtain military strength.
About 500 troops are deploying to new training facilities in the country and will stay through the winter in preparation for a massive divisional exercise in Europe that will see 20,000 U.S. troops in Europe known as Defender 2020.
The troops deploying to Lithuania this October are the 1st Armored Battalion of the 9th Regiment, 1st Division, along with 30 Abrams tanks, 25 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and 70 wheeled vehicles to the Gen. S.Žukauskas Training Area in Pabradė.
Defender, which will strain the beleaguered U.S. logistics system, will move thousands of U.S. troops from forts in the United States to sealift ships that will take them to Europe, testing investments in European security.
Lithuanian authorities do not hide their satisfaction with U.S. troops arriving. “The geopolitical situation in the region hasn’t changed,” Giedrimas Jeglinskas, Lithuania’s vice minister of national defence, said in an interview with Defense News. “For us this is a great thing. We see that the U.S. is in the region, and U.S. presence is the biggest deterrent that we could ever hope for. We’ve said for a long time that we want U.S. soldiers on our soil — and we can argue about whether its permanent rotational forces or a permanent rotation — but the fact is that they are there.”
But even such steps are not enough to Lithuania. Thus, Lithuania’s Minister of National Defence Raimundas Karoblis calls for NATO to deploy air defences in the country. In order to achieve another aim – to have reliable air defence – Karoblis insists that that NATO should deploy air defence measures to Lithuania in order to protect the international battalion stationed in the country.
It is interesting that Lithuania has moved from requests to strong political recommendations.
“It was already agreed during the  Warsaw Summit, and it is not implemented. This issue was also raised by several commanders of the battle group,” Karoblis told journalists during a joint press conference with visiting German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on October, 10.
Huge NATO is almost cornered by small Lithuania
Germany leads the international NATO battalion deployed in Lithuania since 2017, with around 600 German troops stationed in Lithuania as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP).
Karoblis said air defence measures are primarily necessary to protect the foreign troops serving in the battalion, since Lithuania does not have necessary systems for that.
“It’s about the security of the soldiers who are deployed here,” the minister said.
So, NATO has no chance but provide necessary defence for their soldiers.
On the one hand, Lithuania shows its commitment in defending foreign troops properly. On the other hand, it defends its own troops and territory at the expense of others.
In this particular case Lithuania creatively developed the way how to attract the Alliance possibilities to strengthen Lithuania’s own military capabilities. It is paradoxically, but in this case Lithuanian Military Independence is equal to Lithuanian Military Dependence on others.
Surprise signing of “Steinmeier formula”: Causes and consequences
The news about the so-called “Steinmeier formula” having been signed by all members of the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) came as a big surprise. All the more so, since the September 4 agreement by the political advisers to the presidents of the Normandy Four countries to endorse the proposal made a big buzz in the world media, and set off a storm of angry outrage in the Ukrainian press with a number of political and public figures, as well as representatives of nationalists all but calling President Vladimir Zelensky a traitor. Former President Leonid Kuchma, who represents Ukraine at the Contact Group, refused to sign the formula during a group meeting on September 18. In a bid to rectify the situation, they started talking about the existence of some alleged “Zelensky formula, whose contents was never made public.
Until the “formula” was actually signed at the October 1 meeting by the Contact Group, there had been neither announcements of, nor preparations for this. What happened between September 18 and October 1, which eventually prompted President Zelensky’s decision to sign the “formula”?
The UN General Assembly, during which Vladimir President Zelensky finally met with President Donald Trump, advised him to establish closer ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and settle differences together. Shortly afterwards, the White House published, without securing any prior agreement from Kiev, the transcript of a telephone linkup between Trump and Zelensky. This was followed by the resignation of the US Special Envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker.
These two important developments are a clear sign of Washington’s utilitarian attitude towards Kiev. However, even if they did influence Kiev’s further actions, they only served as a catalyst. Finding himself on the brink of a diplomatic scandal with France and Germany, Zelensky needed to make good his campaign promises and move fast to maintain his lead over his political opponents (presidential elections – parliamentary elections – government formation – exchange of prisoners – signing of the “Steinmeier formula”- a meeting of the “Normandy Four”).
The signing of the “Steinmeier formula” at the Contact Group opened the way for a summit of the heads of state of the “Normandy Four” is open, and this is the most significant and, maybe, the only result of the October 1 signing.
The signing of the “Steinmeier formula” is seen by Ukrainian media as an act of treason. Why? Because they are afraid. Of what?
“Do you know what the sense of this document (Minsk agreements – D.B.) was? That it will not be implemented. The sides had different interpretations of the text of the agreements, which gave Ukraine time to contain Russia, which faced additional Western sanctions. (…) Decentralization will be interpreted as federalization, local elections will be held, which the OSCE, being financially dependent on Russia, will formally recognize. At the same time, the constitution will be changed and the law on special status implemented, this time in full. Only after this (according to the Minsk agreements), will Ukraine restore control over its border. After all, it is clear that Moscow will only implement the first part of the agreement. (…) The authorities there will be formed by the Kremlin. Next up is a nationwide election in Ukraine. And the key to parliament is in the hands of the Russian authorities,” the Ukrainian website lb.ua news writes.
In this logic, even the OSCE plays on Russia’s side. The main thing for Kiev, however, is that the documents will never be implemented.
Moreover, according to Russian experts, Kiev has ample opportunities to sabotage the Minsk agreements even after they have been signed.
Andrei Kortunov gives his own picture of how the situation may develop further:
1. The Ukrainian law on the special status of Donbass will soon expire. A new law will be adopted, and what it will look like we do not know.
2. Kiev’s formal consent to the “Steinmeier formula” is not entirely obvious. It says that it endorsed only the general principle of the formula. Moreover, given the strong efforts being made to undermine the Ukrainian position, just how the preparations for the summit will go depends on the political will of the Ukrainian leadership.
3. Disagreements remain, in particular, concerning the special status of Donbass.
That being said, the process has still moved forward. I do hope that all participants in this process will show maximum flexibility, so that it keeps moving on, which would probably provide some tangible results in the next three to four months.”
In a sober assessment of what happened, the OSCE Special Representative Martin Sajdik, noted that the signatures are not under one common document, but under separate letters. This means that theoretically, each side could stick to its own interpretation of the formula. As for the local elections in Donbass, Sajdik continues, there are many questions that need to be answered before the elections:
“There is still much work to be done on this issue within the contact group and in the ‘Normandy format,’” he told reporters. “A lot of work remains in the political subgroup of the contact group. It is in it that it will be necessary to talk about the holding of elections.”
He added that many questions remain open, including the security of the upcoming procedure; and that the “Normandy format” summit could be the first step in this direction.
As for the “Steinmeier formula,” it is only a mechanism which, as part of diplomatic cooperation in the “Normandy Four” format, symbolizes the participants’ readiness to resolve the conflict in southeastern Ukraine and determine the future status of the republics of Donbass. It does not guarantee the implementation of the Minsk accords though.
Moreover, a statement issued by representatives of the unrecognized republics demands a step-by-step roadmap of what needs to be done now. They believe that the signing of the “Steinmeier formula” should be viewed as recognition of the right of the people of Donbass to determine their own fate. This is the bottom line of the joint statement made by the leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR), Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik.
“Yesterday, thanks to Russia, Germany and France, Ukraine finally signed the Steinmeier formula, which guarantees Donbass a special status. Thus, it recognizes the special right of the people of Donbass to independently determine their fate. It is up to us to decide what language to speak, what kind of an economy we need, how our judicial system will be formed, how our people’s militia will protect our citizens, and how we will integrate with Russia. This is our business and our goal, and we will continue negotiations in Minsk in order to ultimately achieve self-rule and self-determination,” the statement says.”
The signing of the “formula” provoked fierce resistance on the part of the advocates of the so-called “Poroshenko’s course,” as the “party of war” considers the signing as a sign of surrender. Meanwhile, the European Union and its leading members welcomed Zelensky’s move. Paradoxically, Ukrainian parties, which support European integration, such as European Solidarity, Golos and Batkivshchyna, took an anti-European position. The nationalists brought about 2,000 people to the streets of Kiev and in many other cities (200-300 people in each city), who chanted “No surrender!” and called for the impeachment of President Zelensky.
In an October 2 appeal to Ukrainians protesting against the signing of the “Steinmeier formula,” President Zelensky said: “Today there is only one platform where these issues can be discussed at the highest level. This is a meeting in the Normandy format … This formula says only one thing – namely, exactly when the so-called law on the special status of the Donbass should work. It will after local elections have been held there according to the Constitution of Ukraine, the laws of Ukraine, and after the publication of the OSCE report that the elections were held in line with internationally recognized democratic standards.”
Political advisers to the leaders of the “Normandy Four” can confirm the signing of the “Steinmeier formula.” At their meeting, the heads of state of the “Normandy Four” can agree the “formula” as the initial mechanism for the implementation of the Minsk accords.
However, it is Kiev, who holds the key to the implementation of the “formula,” or rather, the Minsk agreements as a whole. Political decisions taken on the international level need to be followed up by the Ukrainian parliament, which should pass laws on the special status of the unrecognized republics, and an election law, after which local elections should be held. President Zelensky has a majority in the Verkhovna Rada and can amend the constitution in such a way that it outlines the special status of the unrecognized republics of Donbass.
Depending on the intentions of the Ukrainian leadership, the situation may develop according to several scenarios:
1) Zelensky uses his majority in parliament to push through laws, necessary for the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
2) Zelensky fails to muster parliamentary support, since his majority is not solid enough.
3) Zelensky receives parliamentary support, the laws are passed, but the Minsk agreements are interpreted in such a way that only Kiev can arrange. For example, “special status” is interpreted as part of a decentralization policy. The implementation of the Minsk accords is put on hold again.
In the first scenario, the adopted laws will need to be implemented, which could prove extremely difficult.
In the second scenario, President Zelensky could say: “The elected representatives of the Ukrainian people failed to support the implementation of the Minsk agreements. I did all I could, but ‘everything is possible.’ Therefore, it is necessary to amend the Minsk agreements and look for a new formula of their implementation. And this is the third scenario.
Kiev’s intention to implement exactly the third scenario became very much evident during Vladimir Zelensky’s press conference, which he convened to clarify his position regarding the signing of the “Steinmeier formula.” Following are the main points of Zelensky’s address:
The “Steinmeier formula” is agreed upon, but not signed.
“Red lines” regarding Donbass Ukraine will not be crossed.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces will not surrender.
Nobody can influence the president’s decisions.
There will be no local elections in the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in the presence of any armed forces on their territories.
Elections are possible only after the border between the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics and the Russian Federation goes under Ukraine’s control.
The exact date of the meeting in the “Normandy format” will be agreed shortly.
The signing of the “Steinmeier formula” has created more questions, which could be answered during the summit of the heads of state of the “Normandy Four.”
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