While the world community is trying to persuade Russia to implement the Minsk agreements, the Donbass invaders ignore the "ceasefire regime", and as a result, Ukrainian citizens are dying on both sides of the front line. Five days of the so-called ceasefire killed three Ukrainian soldiers. At the same time, the Ukrainian authorities insist on the introduction of the UN peacekeeping mission. The diplomat, expert on foreign policy and security of the Maidan of Foreign Affairs foundation Oleksandr Khara, told OstroV why peacekeepers could not put an end to the war in the Donbass and what mistakes of the Ukrainian authorities would benefit Russia.
- Recently, the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker stated that only peacekeepers could contribute to the implementation of the Minsk agreements. You have repeatedly stated that the introduction of peacekeepers is a continuation of the conflict in a different way. How so?
- Russia believes that an unconstitutional "coup" was carried out in Kyiv, which actually was the "cause" of the conflict between Donetsk, Luhansk and Kyiv. At the same time, Moscow positions itself not as a party to the conflict, but as a "good" intermediary, trying to reconcile the "parties". The Minsk agreements serve this narrative, and besides they do not mention the Crimean issue...
At the same time, the annexation of the Crimea and the war in the Donbass are inseparably linked, as they are part of the unprovoked, unjust and criminal Russian aggression against the "brotherly" Ukraine.
The Minsk agreements give a distorted impression that there is a civil war in the Donbass, and if Kyiv makes any concessions - autonomy, support for the ties between the East and the Russian Federation - the conflict will be solved, and the population of Luhansk and Donetsk will be ready to "return" to Ukraine. In fact, this is impossible, since the leadership of the so-called "republics" is non-objective both in legal and political terms, and they are merely representatives of the interests of the occupier country. This is called a proxy – someone who serves the interests of another state. Therefore, negotiations with them do not make sense, because they do not make any independent decisions.
The main goal of the Russian Federation is not to protect the Russian-speaking population, but to establish control over the whole of Ukraine. In fact, they are trying to impose limited sovereignty. This means that Ukraine will not be able to independently resolve the issue of joining NATO and the EU. Secondly, we are inclined to make such changes to the Constitution so that the Moscow puppets could have the right to veto foreign and internal state policy.
This is unacceptable, because Ukraine will find itself in a constant internal conflict. For example, before the occupation, the issue of Crimea has always served as a lever of pressure from the Russian Federation on Ukraine's policy. Moscow repeatedly stressed that this is "primordial" Russian land, financed the local "fifth column", which in turn served as a threat to Kyiv. Russia has always claimed Crimea, despite international law and bilateral agreements. In 2014, Russia just annexed it, taking advantage of the situation in Ukraine. Putin decided not to follow the scenario of Transnistria, which is a de facto occupied territory, but without the desire to convert it into a de jure affiliation.
- The same as with the Donbass?
- Yes, after all, we only recently recognized part of the Donbass as an occupied territory. If Russia used the same method with respect to the Crimea, the reaction of the West would be softer. After all, for the West, the main thing is not the death of 10 thousand people in the Donbass, but the fact that the European borders were changed by force for the first time in the postwar history. And rules cannot be violated, because then the entire system of continental security will collapse.
The Minsk agreements do not reflect the real causes of the war and cannot lead to its cessation. For us, peacekeepers are an attempt to end the war, and for Russia it is an instrument for its continuation by other methods. The Russian Federation is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and without its consent it is impossible to determine the mandate of peacekeepers, the composition of forces and assets. It will also affect the functioning of the mission, which can be used to block unprofitable for Moscow decisions. Russia already blocks the work of the UN special commission to investigate the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army against civilians. In addition, Ukraine's capabilities in the UN are very limited, our term as a non-permanent member in the UN Security Council has already ended.
Now we are talking about the fact that peacekeepers should be deployed in the entire occupied territory, including the Ukrainian-Russian border. If there is no supply of equipment and manpower from the Russian Federation, then the resources for the continuation of the conflict will be exhausted, and accordingly, the war will end. But, Russia does not need this, since it is beneficial for it to smolder the conflict to achieve its strategic goals. Last year alone there were about 2 thousand cases of restricting the access of the OSCE SMM to the area of the line of demarcation.
The second important point is: why do we need peacekeepers who will protect the OSCE? This makes no sense. The OSCE SMM cannot now fully perform its function, as the officers are not allowed to work and are constantly threatened. And the UN peacekeepers will not solve this problem, because they can only use weapons in case of a threat to their security. Therefore, one of the key conditions for the introduction of peacekeepers is a complete ceasefire. In fact, Russia is trying to relieve itself of responsibility, to drag us into a dialogue with its puppets, which is unacceptable from both political and legal points of view. It is impossible to recognize occupational entities as subjects. They do not express the interests of the population in the occupied territories, they were not democratically elected, their decisions are insignificant from the legal point of view. By enshrining Minsk or the requirements of the “republics” in our legislation, we will not only agree to the narrative of a "civil" war, but we will deform the legal field, open the possibility of limiting our sovereignty, and create prerequisites for a real civil confrontation.
The war can end without the peacekeepers within 24 hours, if Putin gives instructions to the chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation on the withdrawal of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and other illegal armed formations from the Donbass.
- Is it realistic?
- He cannot give such an order because Putin's personality cult is propagandized there. At he is positioned as someone who "always wins", that means he cannot lose this war. After the election, such an attempt is theoretically probable. But he will insist that Ukraine capitulate and fall into the zone of influence of the Russian Federation. For example, Stalin offered the Chancellor of Germany Konrad Adenauer an alliance with the GDR, which was under USSR control, with the condition not to join Western military and economic structures. But the Chancellor decided that it was impossible to recognize the GDR, since their power was not elected in a legitimate democratic way (same as the "LDNR" puppets). And if we now refuse to join NATO and European integration, then after a while the country will be in a socialist camp, that is, in the sphere of Moscow's control. In order to return East Germany, it was necessary to become a strong country economically and militarily. And he was right. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the GDR could not exist on its own, because it was an artificial formation, and then western Germany absorbed this territory, although the consequences are still visible.
We have a similar situation. If we get back those Donbass territories in the same state as they are now, even without the conditions put forward by Russia, while still being weak (politically and economically), there will be preconditions for civil confrontation. In addition, the issue of elections will become topical. The inevitable conversion of Rinat Akhmetov's considerable economic and organizational potential with his fellow political partners will mean the preservation of the pre-war problems of Donbass, reinforced by the consequences of the war. This is another catastrophe waiting to happen.
- What about the local elections?
- It is impossible to hold elections immediately after the liberation. A minimum of 3-5 years must pass after the end of the armed confrontation and the withdrawal of troops. Only then it would be expedient to hold the first elections of local self-government, but not earlier. The choice of the population must be conscious to prevent a new confrontation and the resumption of hostilities. After all, it is necessary to carry out a set of measures for the rehabilitation of civil consciousness after four years of propaganda, terror and the shooting. This can be facilitated by the return of Ukrainian journalism, civil activists and human rights organizations.
- What can be an alternative to the Minsk agreements at the moment?
- Minsk is a twisted reality imposed on us and the West by Russia. Therefore, the Ukrainian government must take those steps that correspond to reality. First, put the Ukrainian legislation in order. The ambiguous "law on reintegration" of the Donbass has a positive side, in particular, recognition of the status of the occupied territories and the aggressor country. If we are at war with a country that annexed the Crimea peninsula and actually occupied part of the Donbass, then it is necessary to break off diplomatic relations with Russia. The next step is an attempt to recognize the status of an aggressor country in the UN. This is not possible in the Security Council, but it still should be attempted several times in order to show the world that Russia is blocking this process.
It is difficult, but still possible to formalize such status with resolution of the UN General Assembly, following the example of resolution with the Crimea annexation in 2014. It is necessary to recognize the aggressor country globally, so that those who are at war in the Donbass are not called separatists, insurgents or terrorists. They are proxy formations, that is, puppets of the Russian occupation regime. Certainly, they commit terrorist acts, but these are small episodes in the armed aggression of the Russian Federation. The point is to show the whole world that Russia has unleashed this conflict and to document it legally and politically.
Secondly, the identification of Russia as an aggressor will make it possible to begin negotiations on ending the aggression and returning the territories, no matter how long it takes (especially on the issue of Crimea). There will be no more artificial demands for "protection" of the Russians and Russian-speaking people because it will be difficult for an aggressor to impose on Ukraine various recipes in the form of federalization, non-aligned status and other ideas unacceptable to Ukraine.
Thirdly, the Kremlin goes on the offensive where it sees weakness both from a military and political point of view. Therefore, internal transformations, modernization of the security and defense sector, economic reforms in the interests of the whole society, and not just oligarchs, will promote national unity, what will reduce the space for Russian subversive activity.
Fourthly, the internal reforms' successes will contribute to our approach to the EU and NATO, as well as to the establishment of allied relations with the USA.
Like post-war Germany, we must change inside and integrate into Western structures outwardly, strengthening in such a manner, we will not only reduce the vulnerability now, but also create favorable prerequisites for the return of all territories.
- In any case, first of all, the withdrawal of the occupation forces from the Donbass is necessary. How much can this be affected by strengthening of sanctions against Russia?
- Sanctions actually wreak considerable havoc on Russia, no matter how much the Kremlin flaunts. Thus, according to the Central Bank of the Russian Federation, the net outflow of capital for four years of sanctions amounted to $258 billion. Last year, this figure was $31 billion. At the same time, direct foreign investment fell seven times and amounted to $10 billion a year. Only on the day of publication of the so-called Kremlin list by the Americans, Putin's oligarchs lost $1.1 billion.
Nevertheless, the safety net in the form of petrodollars allows Russia to maintain the conflict in the Donbass for some time.
In addition, European "friends of Putin" are constantly trying to raise the issue of encouraging Moscow, so that it begins to implement the Minsk agreements. Others are trying to manipulate, saying what for to support a corrupt Ukraine and lose from anti-Russian sanctions, as if sanctions were imposed not for Russia's aggression but on Kyiv's promise to fight against corruption. Therefore, we cannot talk about toughening sanctions now.
- How likely is the conflict escalation after the Russian election in March?
- Russia runs a hybrid war using about 15-20% of the total instrumentarium of military force to a lesser extent. It can swing the situation in Ukraine using other methods – propaganda, active measures, loosening of the political situation, diversions, terrorist attacks on the peaceful part of Ukraine, political pressure, energy blackmail, cyberattacks. If this is not enough and it is necessary to maintain a simmering conflict, the Russians have a large toolkit. And Russia will use different methods depending on the situation.
If we talk about military operations, the Russian Federation uses the local population in Donbass only as meat. However, it gives no quarter to its own citizens as well. For example, Russia is trying to hide the number of dead Russians in every possible way. Because there is the greatness of the state in Putin's thinking, no matter how many people will die. It is an indicator of system that deceives not only the whole world, but also its own citizens.
- What European countries benefit from the conflict in the Donbass?
- The only country that received dividends from the war in the Donbass and the occupation is Lukashenko's Belarus. Before that, it was isolated on the part of the West and pressured on the part of the Russian Federation. Ukraine in the person of our president decided to play with Belarus in such a way as to exclude a possible attack from the Belarusian party. It is believed on the Bankova that it is possible to deal with Belarus, since it has no point in attacking Ukraine on its own and will not allow Putin to do it. They flatter themselves with this illusion. The holding of negotiations in Minsk is a great diplomatic victory for Lukashenko. The cessation of direct flight connection with Russia is economically useful for Belarus. The increase in goods turnover can be noted as well – the goods from Western countries are transferred through Belarus to Russia and from Russia to Ukraine.
- The occupied Donbas has quite large share of Belarusian products.
"On the one hand, it is pragmatism, that is, a way to earn money. On the other – except for Russian and Belarusian, there is no possibility for the implementation of other producers.
I would not blame Lukashenko that he benefits from numerous victims in the Donbass. He took advantage of the situation, and Minsk became a negotiation platform. And from my point of view, this is a mistake of the Ukrainian party. It was necessary to look for a more neutral country, for example, Switzerland. The latter has no complaints either from Russia or from Ukraine. After all, the constant detentions of our citizens in Belarus, who are then under arrest in Russia (Pavlo Hrib), says that this country is no less dangerous for the Ukrainians than the Russian Federation. Our citizens hotheadedly believe that if I am not engaged in politics then I am safe. Provocations of Russian special services are directed against anyone who can be convenient for them, regardless of political views. If you are a citizen of Ukraine you are already at risk in Belarus.
- What other actions of the Ukrainian authorities are beneficial to Russia now?
- The main point is the continuation of trade with the Russian Federation and occupied territories as a consequence of the fact that diplomatic relations have not been broken off. It is difficult to imagine how any other state does not break diplomatic relations with a country that has occupied part of its territory. Thus, the Ukrainian government gives wrong signals to the West and allows Russian propagandists to mock at themselves.
- From your point of view, how long will the conflict in the Donbass be in such a simmering state?
- The conflict will last for the unknown period of time, as it is one of Russia's tools for imposing its political will. The war can end in two cases: if Russia does not have the resources to continue the war, what is unlikely, or if the price of aggression becomes extremely high. While the Kremlin has not achieved its goal, the war will continue in one form or another. Only if Russia has serious internal problems, then the resources for conducting military operations in the Donbass will be exhausted and it will be possible to integrate the eastern region and the Crimea on the terms acceptable to Ukraine.
- And how will the current situation affect future election in Ukraine?
- Negative for sure. Since Poroshenko did not fulfill his promise to end the war, although he objectively could not do this, people would remember it. Almost all politicians have now a negative rating. Speaking in game, the only one who has a chance to be elected is Svyatoslav Vakarchuk who has the smallest negative rating: only 5-7% of voters do not accept him.
A pre-election campaign will be difficult for Petro Poroshenko, it will be necessary to make efforts in order to mobilize the Ukrainian community. These can be things related to security. It is not ruled out that martial law can be introduced: not because there are occupied territories, but because there will be a need to fix the current government.
It is also possible that some event that will change the situation may occur. For example, when Boeing was shot down over the Donbass in 2014 – this turned out to be a turning point for the introduction of tough anti-Russian sanctions on the part of the West.
- Many countries support Ukraine in the conflict with Russia, but due to the reforms' slowdown, the level of credibility in our country is declining. How much does Ukraine risk losing the credit of trust of the West?
- Naturally, we are losing this credit of trust, and this is not for the first time. The reason is not only in the reforms, but also in the fight against corruption. And corruption is a symptom of illness, and Ukraine's disease is a deformed political system. Because the system that does not have "checks and balances" is a favorable environment for corruption. It is important for us to overcome political corruption, and its generator is the executive branch - first of all, the office of the president of Ukraine. It is this position that helps to support corruption, so to say, fighting fit. In order to change the situation, it is necessary to hang the "Damocles' sword" over the president's chair in the form of impeachment laws, temporary investigative commissions of the Verkhovna Rada and so on. It also requires amendments to the legislation allowing the anti-corruption authorities to investigate into the activities of the incumbent head of state. Until there are no such mechanisms with respect to the president – the present or the future one, we will not get rid of political corruption. It is logical that the West does not like it. After all, the EU and the USA want to see Ukraine capable of governing itself; having a healthy economy and most importantly, that Ukraine becomes a factor of stability, including, through the ability to protect itself from an external aggressor.
Interviewed by Iryna Holizdra, OstroV