From the very beginning, the position of the new Ukrainian government in Donbass was not indicated by any specifics. Behind Zelensky's vague wording about "peace" and "ending the war", no one spoke of how, when, and what, in fact, to mean by these sweet-sounding words - victory or "compromises" imposed by a stronger opponent…
Already at the end of August, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko, speaking to the parliament, stated that the new team had only "six months" to make decisions on "holding elections, amnesty, lifting trade restrictions and regaining control over our borders". Moreover, "now it is not so important how we will do it: either by attracting peacekeeping missions, or by fulfilling the Minsk agreements...", - the minister noted.
It became clear from these words that there is no clear plan, but there are some agreements (with the West or Russia) that allow us to hope for a quick solution to the issue, and the intention to solve it by any means, including unpopular ones. Hence the term of six months. It is after six months, according to the estimates of sociologists, when Zelensky will lose the opportunity to use an unlimited credibility with the voters. That is, "to fulfil the Minsk agreements", - what Prystaiko called one of two ways to solve the problem, - will not be so simple.
Further, the intrigue was revealed by Zelensky's statements after the exchange of prisoners: "Quite soon, I hope we will have a meeting in the Normandy format, where we will discuss steps not just about the future, but about the near future. We must take all steps to stop this terrible war".
Then the president rejected the idea of introducing peacekeepers to the Donbass at the opening of the Yalta European Strategy (YES) forum, and thus indicated that "all steps" that he spoke of fit into the Procrustean bed of the "Minsk agreements".
Vadym Prystaiko confirmed this conclusion this very day and at this very forum. He stated the intention of the Ukrainian authorities to "simultaneously hold elections throughout the territory, including the occupied". The minister argued that "we agreed to the Minsk agreements 5 years ago, including to the elections holding". He also revealed the mechanism for the implementation of political part of the "Minsk agreements" – this is the so-called Steinmeier formula, which supposedly was agreed upon by Petro Poroshenko. We, as people who carry out even what our previous presidents promised, must fulfill the "Steinmeier formula", which our head of state has agreed on. We are discussing in what form", - the minister said.
In general, the mood of the Ukrainian authorities regarding Donbass, especially after the exchange of prisoners, was optimistic. As could be understood from the subsequent statements of the Zelensky's Office staff, the impetus for such an optimism was telephone conversation between the Ukrainian president and Vladimir Putin, which took place on August 7. Four Ukrainian servicemen were killed in the Donbass the day before as a result of armed provocation by pro-Russian mercenaries. Zelensky called Putin to stop the shelling. As it now turns out, an agreement on exchange was reached at the same time, and apparently, not only on that… To be true, they did not stop shooting, - our people continue to die and maim in the Donbass every day, but the prisoners were exchanged and this success gave Ze-team confidence that Putin really wants peace with Ukraine…
It has to be said that the same optimism is experienced by informed representatives of the Donbass large business. Some of them, citing sources in Moscow, claimed in private conversations with author of this article that Putin was tired of the Donbass and said "give it back!". "Let them hold the elections. It does not matter that the separatists and OPFL will take the majority of votes. The main thing is that we will get the border", - one of them assured, inviting him to tea at his office in Donetsk a year later.
Meanwhile, western "partners" of Ukraine in the Normandy format, Berlin and Paris, tired of the "Ukrainian problem" and "changed their positions", wanting to restore economic and political ties with Russia.
"I will remind you that without our partners, including Mrs Merkel, and sanctions, we would not have been able to stop the advance of the Russian troops. Despite a certain change in positions, I do not expect this", - Minister Prystaiko said, answering the question about the possible pressure of the leaders of France and Germany on Ukraine during the upcoming Normandy Four summit.
Second president of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma was not so optimistic on that point: "I have no high hope. It will be very difficult for Zelensky – he will be alone against three people"…
In turn, Moscow began to dictate its conditions for resolving the "intra-Ukrainian conflict" in all its statements after the exchange of prisoners of war and in general, in all the latest reflections on Ukraine. These are "the lack of alternative of the Minsk "Set of Measures" as the basis for the settlement" and "written fixation of the "Steinmeier formula".
That is, on the one hand, we see the optimism of Kyiv, based on some kind of agreement, and even the desire to go ahead with the implementation of the Minsk agreements, which are quite unpopular in Ukraine. But on the other hand, Moscow, Berlin and Paris put constant pressure on Zelensky to force him to fulfill these "agreements". What for if we already declare our consent to do this?
It turns out that the problem is in the difference of the texts' interpretations: both Minsk and the notorious "Steinmeier formula". Moscow wants to hold the elections at gunpoint, then it will give the border back. Kyiv agrees on the elections only after the withdrawal of Russian military and mercenaries from there, when the territory will be controlled by Ukraine. Moscow wants to enshrine permanent "special status" for the Donbass in the Constitution, and Kyiv declares through the mouth of the same Prystaiko that "There will be no special status for the Donbass in the Constitution". The fact that such a status is provided for by the Minsk agreements is commented in the Ukrainian MFA by the different interpretation of this paragraph in Moscow and Kyiv.
"Thesis, which is constantly being promoted in Russia, is that Ukraine should amend the Constitution by making a special status. We draw the attention of Russians and are ready to read this norm again – by the way, it is written in Russian, that Ukraine has undertaken the commitment to create a status for these regions on the basis of decentralization. This is the decentralization process that is already being implemented in Ukraine", - Prystaiko stated at a press conference during the Yalta European Strategy (YES).
These discrepancies show the different goals that the parties to the conflict are heading for: Ukraine wants to control its territory in the Donbass, and the Russian Federation wants the territory to control Ukraine.
Can a dialogue between the parties be productive with such discrepancies and contrasts of goals? The question is rhetorical.
However, it is possible that the parties only declare these goals in order to squeeze the maximum possible concessions out of the enemy, but are they really ready for serious compromises in order to end the war and establish relations between themselves?
Let us consider the possibility of such a political game.
Let us suppose that Putin really made the decision to "give up" the Donbass in the near future, as optimistic Donetsk oligarchs convince. What are the objective signs?
The closest thing that comes to mind is the recent exchange of prisoners. It was regarded as a "sign that gives hope" (A. Merkel) in Western capitals, or even as "perhaps, the first giant step towards peace" (D. Trump). After that, the Russian MFA praised the "new administration of Zelensky" which "demonstrated common sense and willingness to compromise". But what was the compromise on the part of Russia? Was this "giant step towards peace" one-sided?
The fact that the real purpose of this exchange for Moscow was by no means the "humanitarian motive" that Putin spoke about becomes clear from one phrase of the SBU head Ivan Bakanov. Commenting on the delivery of witness for the downed MH-17 Boeing Tsemakh to Moscow in the framework of the exchange, he said: "The absence of Tsemakh on the exchange list automatically provided for the termination of negotiations with Russia".
That is, Putin's main goal is not to return the captured Russians, but to obtain a witness on his hands, who can testify against Moscow in the international tribunal.
Well, plus some bonuses:
- saving face when implementing the decision of the Hague Tribunal for the release of captured Ukrainian sailors;
- getting rid of Ukrainian political prisoners, who were the reason for the global anti-Putin propaganda campaign;
- demonstration of peacefulness with respect to Ukraine and actualization of the "lack of alternatives of the Minsk agreements", the first step towards the implementation of which this exchange is presented.
As we can see, Russia only gained from this exchange. It did not demand a single compromise from Moscow. So, it can be called a sign of Putin's intention to leave the Donbass by a long stretch of the imagination.
Some call the fact that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, who is considered to be the "dove of peace" in relation to Ukraine, was involved in the negotiations on the exchange of prisoners another sign of "warming". Kozak has been in charge of the Donbass project for a long time, but he is involved not in the political, but in the economic part. That is, he is responsible for the socio-economic situation in the occupied region. He is considered the opposition to Vladislav Surkov, who oversees the Donbass on political and geopolitical issues. Surkov, unlike Kozak, is a "bad cop" and advocates for Moscow's uncompromising version of "shoving" Donbass into Ukraine. This is an option of the actual federalization of the country, that is, autonomy with a blocking stake in all the key domestic and geopolitical issues.
Now let us compare: Kozak is negotiating an exchange of prisoners, from which Russia only benefits and which is practically not connected with the Donbass. But (!) negotiations on the preparation of meeting of leaders of the Normandy format, which could unleash the Donbass knot, are conducted by… Surkov!
The distribution of Russian passports to CADLO residents and, in general, the recently strengthened economic and cultural integration of the occupied region with Russia can be another sign of the possible intention of Russia to leave the Donbass. This can be regarded as the intention of Moscow to put Kyiv before the fait accompli of its "Russianization" after the return of Donbass to Ukraine. That is, intending to leave the Donbass militarily, the Russian Federation is preparing to stay in it forever at the humanitarian and economic levels. According to the doctrine of Gerasimov (chief of the General Staff of Russia), the military component in a hybrid war is only one fourth. The rest are just humanitarian and economic.
Overall, this sign could be considered as "retreat" if it were not cross functional, both in time and in terms of political background. That is, Moscow is interested in filling the region with Russian passports and socio-economic ties of Donbass to the Russian Federation in any case, regardless of the timing and options for resolving the "intra-Ukrainian conflict"…
The draft Resolution of the Verkhovna Rada "on urgent measures to end hostilities and restore peace, implement the Minsk agreements", registered on August 29 by the Opposition Platform For Life fraction, can be considered another sign of Moscow's preparation for leaving Donbass. The document proposes to prepare draft bills within a month on "…the Autonomous Status of Donbass", on "preventing prosecution and punishment of persons participating in the events…", "On elections in certain rareas…", etc.
This fact just shows the price at which the Kremlin agrees to withdraw its military from the Donbass and give the border back. Officially - to Ukraine, but in fact - to the "people's militia units" of the "autonomous" Donbass…
Is such a price acceptable for Ukraine? Let us simulate the consequences of such a "peace" for Russia and Ukraine to answer this question. At the same time, one should not forget that even a complete and long-term ceasefire in the Donbass does not at all mean the end of Moscow's hybrid war against Ukraine.
So, in case of the implementation of the Minsk agreements on the terms of Moscow, the Kremlin gets its enclave in the east of Ukraine, which will always be its leverage over Kyiv; partial lifting of economic sanctions; warming relations with the West; resources for its economy; improvement of the socio-economic situation in the Russian Federation, assigns the status of "civil war" to the conflict in the Donbass and "washes its hands".
What does Kyiv get in this case? The main carrot with which we are being lured into the trap of "eternal friendship" is control over the border. But, as Leonid Kuchma wisely remarked, "if this is not our territory, then we will not get there. Therefore, it should be gradual. That is, our territory will be – our borders will be as well".
Moreover, given the continued, in this case, total influence of Moscow on the Donbass, its army (whatever it is called), its courts, police, prosecutors and, most importantly, amnestied militants, - Kyiv receives a constant threat of a real civil war. It will not be able to accuse Russia of this anymore, even if it will, as now, be the main engine of the conflict. What Poroshenko pathetically called the "Anti-Putin coalition" will crumble without the possibility of restoration, since Putin has "nothing to do" with this war.
Plus a dangerous example of obtaining special powers for the regional elites of Ukraine.
Plus the hatred of residents of other regions towards the Donbass, which will not only unfairly receive political and economic preferences, but (after all) will continue to be a source of problems for the state.
Kyiv will also receive the political and economic strengthening of its adversary, which continues the hybrid war against it using non-military components.
Plus domestic political tension. And, even, discontent in the troops, which already has a place to exist, but can manifest itself even more effectively… There are almost 13 thousand motives both for the military and volunteers – and their number is growing every day…
Summing up, we can say:
It is quite possible that Zelensky and Putin really have some kind of framework agreements on the Donbass. The fact that they are framework and are not filled with specifics is confirmed by the fact of the different interpretation of the Minsk agreements and Steinmeier formula, what we spoke about above. But the question is not in the availability of agreements (there are reasons to assume that Poroshenko and Putin had them), but in the price that Putin wants to get from Ukraine for refusing the war on the Donbass front. So far, this price is too high for Kyiv. Therefore, the young Ukrainian president has virtually no space for the implementation of these agreements.
If Moscow really wants to "get out" of the Donbass, it needs to limit its appetites. But Putin does not know how to bargain, he is used only to buy or take, moreover, he gets into such a fury during these processes that he forgets about any agreements…
So, there are few chances of a quick solution to the problem of war and peace. In the configuration of "compromises" that are emerging now, there are no compromises on the part of Russia. Moscow wants to get everything! And Kyiv cannot afford itself to give everything. It is most likely in such a situation that the current "warming" between the Russian Federation and Ukraine may result in exchanges and conservation of the conflict (this is "peace" as well), but not in the return of real control over the occupied territory.
One more important point! The issue of establishing peace in the Donbass does not even rest on the mechanism for the implementation of the Minsk agreements, but on the confidence of the parties. It is not just about the presidents, it is about the armies and citizens - everyone who will be involved in the implementation of any political agreements. Any agreements can stumble over their distrust. Therefore, probably, Zelensky's team abandoned the idea of peacekeepers and international provisional administration in the Donbass too early.
Serhiy Harmash, OstroV