No one (there is a suspicion that even Zelensky himself) cannot say today for sure what the so-called "Plan B" of President Zelensky for the Donbass includes. There is no official information, insiders and rumors change almost every month.
"Initially, it was a "wall" project with the Donbass, then a peacekeeping mission, then Ukraine's withdrawal from the Minsk agreements or their revision, there was another option with the transition to direct negotiations with the Russian Federation and so on. Many already had doubts about the existence of such a plan. We, people's deputies from Servant of the People, do not know the essence of "Plan B", but everyone stubbornly says that it exists. Nobody wants to present it to us, and this is already a little annoying", - one of the people's deputies of Servant of the People admits to OstroV off the record.
President Volodymyr Zelensky really announced the existence of a certain "Plan B" for the Donbass last year in case negotiations in the Minsk format fail. Recently, the talks about it increased in connection with the changes that Kyiv makes to the work of the Trilateral Contact Group. But the contexts of mentioning it among different speakers are so different that there is no more clarity.
Political analyst of the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation Maria Zolkina believes that in the near future, the president's team will focus on promoting the idea of reforming the Minsk Trilateral Contact Group.
"Zelensky's team will be busy in the coming months, promoting the idea of reforming the Minsk TCG and the Minsk process, in particular, concerning the attraction of IDPs. Most likely, he will not succeed, because Russia will not agree to this. But these attempts will continue until the local elections campaign starts in Ukraine. I think that this problem will mature by the autumn, and some decision will need to be made then", - she told OstroV in a comment.
OstroV tried to figure out what "Plan B" might consist of, whether it exists at all and under what conditions its implementation is possible.
What we heard about "Plan B"
The first mention of "Plan B" for the Donbass was during the press marathon of Volodymyr Zelensky in October 2019.
"Turning to people, to all Ukrainians - if a person in the Donbass thinks that he/she is not Ukrainian, I cannot get into his/her brain, this is his/her vision and desire. Anyone living there, who feels him/herself Ukrainian - we do not leave them, we will return them along with the territory - this is Plan A. Plan B - to everyone who feels him/herself Ukrainian: if we have a long way to go - in order to return the territory, - then we must provide people with the opportunity to live here (in the territory under control of Ukraine - ed)", - he said.
To the clarifying question, under what conditions can the "wall" appear between the occupied territories of Donbass and the controlled part of Ukraine, the president did not categorically deny this possibility.
"If we are not be able to find a dialogue at all… that really did not exist. If we fail with the Normandy format (and I feel it just as a person), if I feel that there is no dialogue - that won't do. I will openly say it within the Normandy format", - Zelensky made clear.
Around the same time, Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko stated that a peacekeeping mission in the Donbass is "Plan B".
"We always have "Plan B". For example, one of these ideas is to invite the world community to help us with a peacekeeping mission. So far, there has been only discussion of these issues, but no one has even come close to a solution. Even a mission that was expected to come to Ukraine and evaluate its possibility was not sent from the United Nations. These steps are also possible. But after all, we still have the right to defend ourselves to the end, like every nation on the planet", - Foreign Minister of Ukraine stated in October 2019.
In turn, Andriy Yermak bluntly announced the possibility of implementing "Plan B" in the Donbass, which provides for the construction of a wall (in a very real sense) with the temporarily occupied territories, a month later.
"If we do not see the readiness of the Russian Federation to head for peace and implement the Minsk agreements - well, then we will literally, and not figuratively, build a wall and live with it further on. We will engage the experience of Israel", - Yermak said.
Volodymyr Zelensky stated on the same occasion that all social payments to residents of the occupied territories will be suspended in the case of construction of the "wall".
"We approved five plans for the reintegration of Donbass at the NSDC meeting. The wall is not "Plan B", for me personally - this is the last letter plan. For the time being, I really would not want us to apply this plan… This is not an option as for me, but we must move. We will not fire and lose Ukrainians for five years. If the wall appears - this is another state that we will never recognize. There will be no social payments then. If the wall appears, then we need to make all conditions for the Ukrainians of the occupied parts, who feel themselves Ukrainians, to come to us. There will be another area behind the wall with nothing but the militants", - the president said.
These statements were made immediately after the Normandy format meeting, and then the topic of building a "wall" with the occupied territories died down a little.
But five months later, head of the Presidential Office and chief negotiator for the Donbass from Ukraine Andriy Yermak recalled the existence of "Plan B" once again, however, he noted this time that this was not the "wall".
"But we also have hammered out "Plan B", which the president spoke about: what we do, if it will be so, what we do, if it will be like that. But we will talk more about it when we understand that "Plan A" does not work", - he said in early May 2020.
During a press conference of Volodymyr Zelensky on May 20, timed to coincide with the first anniversary of his inauguration, the head of state provided sufficient details on the topic, under what conditions the implementation of "Plan B" is possible. However, he did not reveal the essence of this plan.
"Despite the fact that the society evaluates the direct negotiations between President Zelensky and President Putin differently, I am sure we should do this. Without throwing Minsk away, in parallel, as a separate track. There are some things you can understand only when you are face to face, and there are some answers that you can hear when you are face to face in order to draw hundred percent conclusions and go according to another plan - "Plan B", - he said at a press conference in Kyiv.
Zelensky also stated that he was giving himself a few more months to achieve success in the sphere of the Minsk agreements. The President also noted that there is a "Plan B" and "Plan C", but he would not like to apply them.
"The process slowed down a little because of coronavirus, so I give myself a few more months to lean on, so that we can find a diplomatic way out of this situation, according to the Minsk agreements. I would not want to apply "Plan B" and "Plan C", because they both exist. It may happen that the first plan does not work", - the president added.
One of the negotiators on the Donbass, deputy head of the Ukrainian delegation in the Trilateral Contact Group, MP from Servant of the People Oleksander Merezhko honestly admitted in a recent interview that he did not know the content of "Plan B".
"I will tell you honestly: as of today, I do not know what kind of "Plan B" is. In general, it seems to me that we should implement "Plan A" at first. Nevertheless, I agree that it is always necessary to have a backup option", - he noted.
The people's deputy also did not rule out the existence of secret negotiations regarding the Donbass with the participation of other countries. "I do not exclude that there is still an invisible part of the political negotiations among individual players with the participation, for example, of the United States. But we see only the tip of the iceberg", - he said.
"Wall" - "not wall"
Official statements about "Plan B" from the government officials are chaotic: from the "wall" and the cessation of social benefits - to peacekeepers and assurances that this is not the "wall".
According to OstroV, "Plan B" for the Donbass exists, but it is constantly being transformed. If initially, Volodymyr Zelensky was aiming to quickly agree with Vladimir Putin on peace, now he is already beginning to understand the futility of this plan.
"Zelensky wanted a quick victory too much, and all hopes were for a personal meeting with Putin. Therefore, the plan with the wall, or rather with bullying with the wall, was relevant. When they saw that this strategy was not working, they started talking about revising Minsk and so on. As a result, we have several "Plans B", and there is no guarantee that there will not be more in a few months", - one of Zelensky's associates told our agency.
According to OstroV, the conditional "Plan B" has undergone the following evolution:
1) the "wall" with the occupied Donbass;
2) withdrawal of Ukraine from the Minsk agreements;
3) revision of the Minsk agreements;
4) public accusation of the Russian Federation of disruption of the Minsk agreements, a pause in the negotiations and "freezing" of the conflict.
"Saying the "wall" is one thing, but it turned out to be not so easy to implement it in practice. Especially given the public rhetoric of Volodymyr Zelensky that the Ukrainians live in the Donbass, and we will not leave them. He created himself the image of president of the peace, and it would be unnaturally to issue a decree on building a conditional border and depriving those Ukrainians of their pensions. Nevertheless, it is worth recognizing that the format of the "wall" that Yermak and Zelensky spoke about last year was to raise the rates in negotiations with the Russian Federation. But this tactic did not work. "Plan B" exists, but its content depends on when it will be implemented and under what conditions", - a source in the President's Office told our agency.
The "wall" option has not left the agenda, the interlocutor at the Presidential Office assures us. The implementation of this scenario is possible, for example, with a sharp escalation at the front or other force majeure cases.
"In fact, there is a dress rehearsal of "Plan B" right now, in connection with the introduction of quarantine and the closure of all checkpoints. There are forces that are comfortable with this state of things. It is no secret that Interior Minister Arsen Avakov stands for the closure of checkpoints in the Donbass as long as possible. The NSDC Secretary and the military leadership of the country have a similar position. Volodymyr Zelensky, on the contrary, wants to open the checkpoints as soon as possible. To stop paying pensions and benefits to residents of CADLO will result in a full-fledged "Plan B" with the wall. This story is being analyzed, conclusions are being drawn", - the source says.
Political analyst Maria Zolkina does not believe in the implementation of this scenario and calls it a diplomatic deception.
"I do not believe in the realization of this idea. When it was first thrown into the information space last year, it was a diplomatic deception to scare the Russian Federation at least a little that the new team is ready to dissociate itself and forget about these territories. I did not believe it back then. Everything that was done in 2019 was done in the name of a dialogue with the Russian Federation", - she says.
In addition, the analyst believes, the Ukrainian authorities do not fully understand which wall they are talking about.
"I think that they have no idea what kind of wall it is. According to the actions and statements of the authorities, we understand that they are not ready to build the wall and break off contacts. And this is the right decision, from my point of view. Regardless of negotiations with the Russian Federation, there are things that the Ukrainian state can independently influence on. First of all, this is maintaining minimal contacts with people who live in the occupied territories", - she told OstroV.
According to Maria Zolkina, numerous polls, including in the front-line territories, show that the population is not ready to pay too high political price for the formal return of territories. People want peace, but not at any cost.
"This is a new trend for the front-line territories, because the readiness for peace at any cost was many times higher there than in other regions of Ukraine. Now people accept the existing order of things, and they do not want the state to pay any price for the return of territories. Because the consequences of rapid reintegration are incomprehensible to us, and people worry even about the unreliable stability that has been established in the frontline territories. They are ready to continue to coexist with the "LDNR", especially in the Luhansk oblast, provided that life on the demarcation line takes shape administratively and socio-economically. Most of the people living in the controlled territory of the Donbass have some kind of connection with the occupied territory. And they maintain this connection. The "wall" in such a stern wording will complicate the process of reintegration", - the analyst of the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation believes.
The "wall" alternatives
As for the option of withdrawing from the Minsk agreements, it is difficult for Ukraine to make such a decision on its own. In this case, we need a green light from our Western partners that they will retain sanctions against Russia. But they unanimously say about the lack of alternatives of Minsk.
"If Russia shows its dishonesty, we will have full - and not only political, but also moral right - to refuse the Minsk agreements and look for some other option", - deputy head of the Ukrainian delegation to the TCG Oleksandr Merezhko considers such option.
Analyst Maria Zolkina does not believe that Ukraine will withdraw from the Minsk talks.
"The president will have no political will to fully withdraw from the Minsk agreements. However, he had such opportunities initially. Experts advised him this last year. But since Zelensky took up the implementation of what he criticized, he became part of this process, he has already got involved in the implementation of these agreements", - she believes.
According to the expert, the most likely option today is the revision of the Minsk agreements.
"There will be an attempt to revise the Minsk agreements. This was already discussed, the waters were tested at the Normandy format meeting in December. The Germans are theoretically ready to support this idea depending on how it is proposed to amend the Minsk agreements. Today, the Ukrainian party proposes to reconsider the border and amend the Constitution of Ukraine", - Maria Zolkina says.
The revision of the Minsk Agreements in the Office of the President seems to be the most optimal and winning option. But the last word here will be for the Russian Federation, and it is unlikely to do so (as it repeatedly stated).
"But Russia is unlikely to do this, so the most likely option is that nothing will change in the coming years. If Zelensky is no longer able to negotiate with the Russian Federation in Minsk, he will end his cadence without reintegrating the occupied territories. Zelensky wants quick decisions, but the results of the first year show that there are no quick decisions, unless Ukraine sacrifices its interests", - the political analyst of the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation believes.
Official statements of the Russian party confirm this opinion. According to representative of the Russian Federation in the TCG Boris Gryzlov, "any attempts by Kyiv to change the Minsk agreements, including in terms of the sequence of measures, can lead to irreparable consequences". According to him, Russia will continue to pursue a course on the priority of resolving political issues and consistent implementation of measures provided for by the Minsk agreements.
Thus, the most likely "Plan B" today is public accusation of the Russian Federation of disrupting the Minsk agreements and freezing the negotiations. Now Volodymyr Zelensky accuses Russia of the war in the Donbass quite carefully. But if this scenario is realized, confrontation will reach a new level.
"On the one hand, there is an idea to officially accuse the Russian Federation of ruining Minsk and publicly announce a pause in the negotiations until that party takes the first step. On the other hand, the Presidential Office understands that Russia can escalate the situation at the front in response", - one of the president's associates told OstroV.
"Therefore, there is no single "Plan B" today. So far, this is just a horror story with incomprehensible content that will change depending on what is happening. Today this is a wall, tomorrow there will be a moat, the day after tomorrow - a bar and so on. Everything will become clear in the fall, when the local elections will be held and the time will come to determine the fate of Donbass", - he stressed.
Vladyslav Bulatchik, OstroV