Recently, the topic of external and internal threats to Ukraine has intensified with special force. Russia continues to increase its forces near the Ukrainian borders, Western partners talk about the upcoming full-scale Russian invasion and Vladimir Putin reminds Ukraine of the need to comply with the Minsk agreements with a quote from an obscene rhyme about rape.
Representative of CADO of Ukraine in the TCG Serhiy Harmash told in an interview with OstroV about the prospects for the Minsk talks, whether a full-scale Russian invasion should be expected and why Vladimir Putin is not interested in direct negotiations with Volodymyr Zelensky.
About the TCG work
- How the last meeting within the Trilateral Contact Group passed on February 8-9?
- Considering that the meeting took place on the eve of the Normandy talks in Berlin, it went quite calmly. However, Russian representatives from CADLO constantly said that, allegedly, at the previous meeting of advisers, Ukraine promised to give written reactions to their documents. They asked this question roughly a dozen times. But we answered that Ukraine has undertaken to consider all proposals for resolving the conflict that are at the disposal of the TCG. This is in line with the Minsk agreements. But it is written nowhere that we are obliged to respond in writing.
- Why are they so insistent on this?
- If we begin to respond in writing to their documents, this will mean that we recognize them as a subject of negotiations and a party to the conflict. Accordingly, we will recognize that we do not have a conflict with Russia, but a "civil war". This means that it is necessary to remove sanctions from Russia and negotiate directly with the "DNR"/"LNR" on their terms.
- Some media wrote that Andriy Yermak, indeed, promised direct contacts between Ukraine and CADLO in Paris…
- I do not believe in this. I think that the Russian Federation could see such a promise in Yermak's words, but Moscow often sees what it wants and not what it really is. We undertook to respond to the proposals in the TCG, that is, to discuss them, but the word "in writing" did not sound for sure. Otherwise this would have been recorded by the Germans and the French, however, except for Russia, no one has put forward claims about the violation of our obligations to us. Therefore, I think the Russians heard what they wanted to hear, and not what was said. Or they simply manipulate in order to increase internal political tension in Ukraine.
- Has the TCG made any progress in resolving humanitarian issues (opening of checkpoints, exchange of prisoners)?
- Unfortunately no. That side links the solution of all these issues to the satisfaction of the main political goal of Russia in the TCG – the subjectivization of CADLO as a party to the conflict. They tied the exchange of prisoners to, as they say, a "complete political settlement" (changes to the Constitution of Ukraine, obtaining a special status for CADLO and elections in the occupied territory), which is not realistic in the foreseeable future. The Minsk agreements do not link humanitarian issues to political ones, but they just use people as hostages, demanding that their political ultimatums be carried out. All this suggests that they have no political will and no desire. Well, political will is the responsibility of Moscow, which does not recognize itself as a party to the conflict and, accordingly, does not want to talk on this topic at all. Let me remind you that Moscow claims in the TCG that it is an "intermediary". This means that the issue of exchange a priori cannot be resolved at the TCG. The decision can only be made at a higher level. But even at the same N-4 meeting in Berlin, Moscow refused to discuss any issues other than political ones.
A similar situation developed with the checkpoints opening. We are constantly put forward new requirements, sometimes very ridiculous. For example, now they are demanding direct contacts between medical officers from CADLO and Ukraine to solve the problem of coronavirus restrictions. But if there are no restrictions on our part, we have opened the checkpoints and do not require any certificates, then how can a Ukrainian medical officer help them remove their own restrictions?
- That is, they are trying to force Ukraine to make direct contacts in this matter as well?
- All their demands in all negotiating positions come down to the fact that we communicate directly with CADLO, so that we recognize them as a party to the conflict and a party to the negotiations.
- In your opinion, are our Western partners, in particular Germany and France, helping the Kremlin to achieve this goal? What did yesterday's N-4 meeting in Berlin show?
- It showed that they verbally support Moscow, and thus draw it into the negotiation process. But in reality, they are not exerting the pressure on Kyiv that Moscow would like. Kozak spoke frankly about this at a briefing after the meeting yesterday.
- How do you assess the results of this meeting?
- Positively. Moscow did not get anything it hoped for. We still refuse direct dialogue with collaborators. And neither Russia, nor Berlin and Paris could persuade us to this. And even the fact that there is no final document is also a positive result – it means that there is no "unified" interpretation of the Minsk agreements, which the Kremlin really wanted. Because such an interpretation, adopted under the threat of a large-scale invasion and war in the center of Europe, could only be in favor of Russia.
In addition, according to Kozak, Moscow, Berlin and Paris, I will quote: "had a common understanding of how issues in the political sphere should be promoted". However, I continue the quote: "Ukraine's position is adamant". Congratulations! We have ceased to be an object and have become the subject of world politics!
- What is next? What is the point in negotiations that lead to nothing?
- Then I would paraphrase your question: "what is the point in negotiations in which there is no other side of the dialogue"? I will answer: negotiations in the conditions of hybrid war are the same instrument of pressure on the enemy, like the army, sanctions, etc. Especially if the sanctions are tied to these negotiations. In addition, we cannot abandon "Minsk" when all our partners, including the strategic one – the USA, are talking about the need to fulfill "Minsk". Otherwise we will simply be left face to face with Russia. Therefore we can talk a lot about how bad "Minsk" is, but it is more productive to talk about how to make it good for us. "Minsk" is a matter of interpretation. It can be read in different ways. If we win the war of narratives with Russia, if we manage to explain to our partners and impose our interpretation of "Minsk" on Moscow with their help, it can become the beginning of a constructive dialogue. If we fail, it will remain an instrument of war with Russia.
Well, there is another important factor: negotiations, especially with the participation of leading Western countries, tie Russia's hands in terms of the use of military force. So negotiations are time. We are gaining time. Count how many planes with weapons arrived in Ukraine during the time between the announcement of the first Normandy meeting and the second such meeting. And the more such planes, the stronger our army, the less Putin will have the desire to start hostilities…
- The West, the Russian Federation and Ukraine speak about the Minsk agreements. Then what is the problem with implementing them?
- The problem is that everyone reads the Minsk agreements differently. First of all, everyone has their own interpretation of who is the subject of the agreements. Russia does not recognize any obligations on "Minsk" at all, and we believe that it is a party to the conflict and is responsible for the failure to fulfill its obligations. This is the first and main problem.
In addition, Russia interprets the powers of CADLO very freely. If it is written in the Minsk agreements that they consult and agree on only three topics (amnesty, features of local self-government and elections), then Russia believes that we should resolve all issues directly with CADLO, that is, it wants us not to consult with them, but asked permission for our actions, guided by their opinion.
There are other divergences in interpretation as well. For example, Russia believes that we should record the special status of CADLO in the Constitution of Ukraine, but this is not in the Minsk agreements. It states that we should carry out a constitutional reform based on decentralization, taking into account the specifics of CADLO. The process of decentralization is now actively underway in Ukraine, so we already take into account the peculiarities of these individual regions to some extent.
- What should Ukraine do now?
- Ukraine should continue to insist on its interpretation of the Minsk agreements with the support of the USA. We need to voice this more often and strengthen our principled position, including at the Minsk talks. In addition, we should raise the issue of bringing the Minsk process in line with the Minsk agreements. When this happens, we will have the other side of the conflict – Russia, and then we will be able to agree on something.
- How is Russia's policy towards the "republics" changing in general?
- Firstly, I think that Russia is seriously disappointed with local figures, because they steal too much. That is why the Russian Federation removes unnecessary intermediaries in the form of VTS and puts the entire economy on itself. Many people regard that Putin's Decree on the recognition of goods from CADLO was made with the aim that the "DNR" and "LNR" began to release their goods on the Russian market, but this is not so. This is done so to make stealing Russian money impossible.
Secondly, Russia is integrating the regions into its economic and political field in order to pump out labor resources from there. If the salary of a nurse is $785 in the Russian Federation and $200 in Donetsk, it is obvious that the nurse will go to Russia. Because of this, there is no one to work in the Donbas today.
Russia does not care about this region. It wants to return it to us sooner or later, and the worse its condition, the better for Russia. Why were the checkpoints closed? So that there is no choice where to escape from a bad life. Previously, young people could leave for Ukraine, but now it is as difficult as possible. Conditions to pump out all the resources from CADLO, ruin the region and someday return it to Ukraine are being created. And if it does not return, then there will be a minimum of the population and a maximum of the Russian military presence, in fact, a Russian military base.
- Are there any prerequisites that Russia will recognize the "republics" in the near future?
- I do not see such prospects. Russia recognizes them only when it is disappointed in "Minsk". Or when there is a real threat of losing control over the occupied territory. That is when it can recognize the "DNR"/"LNR", so that to "legally" send its troops there at their request. But this will mean the conservation of the conflict for many years and the lack of prospects that Russia will end the conflict on its own terms. "Minsk" gives them such hope, but the conservation of the conflict with recognition does not.
- Can the question of the future fate of "Minsk" be submitted to the all-Ukrainian referendum?
- If the West puts strong pressure on Zelensky to make unacceptable concessions in "Minsk" that will not be accepted by the Ukrainian society (for example, about a direct dialogue with the "DNR"-"LNR", which Russia demands), then it will be beneficial for our government to conduct such referendum. The people will say "no" and our government will be able to talk with the West, based on the will of the people.
If the society agrees to such concessions, then the president disclaims responsibility for them. Although, the latter, of course, will characterize it very negatively, because a statesman, unlike a one-day politician, should form the opinion of the people, and not indulge people who are constantly being influenced on by our (and not our) far from objective oligarchic TV channels.
Another reason for such a referendum may be the need to exonerate Zelensky of responsibility for failing to fulfill his reckless campaign promise to end the war in the Donbas. Now it is already obvious to him, as, probably, to everyone in general, that he cannot resolve this issue unilaterally. But if he is going to run for a second term, this promise will be a good reason for competitors to accuse him of lying, insolvency and so on. To prevent this, he can submit to a referendum the question, conditionally: "do you agree to peace at any cost, including surrender". People naturally answer "no". Thus, he relieves himself of responsibility for the failure to fulfill the promise of peace…
- Do you believe in direct negotiations on the Donbas between Zelensky and Putin?
- The very fact of negotiations with Russia on the topic of Donbas will mean that Russia has recognized itself as a party to the conflict. And if it recognizes itself as a party to the conflict and begins a dialogue about its end, then this is already evidence that it wants to end it. And if we understand that it wants to finish it, then our negotiating position becomes stronger – there is a subject for compromises. As of today, the negotiations are comatose precisely because Russia does not recognize itself as a party to the conflict, does not want it to end and, accordingly, is not ready for any compromises, it talks to us solely in terms of demands and ultimatums.
So, if Zelensky manages to get Putin into such negotiations, then this will be already halfway to the end of the war in the Donbas. Another thing – I do not believe that Putin will now go for it. He still needs to be forced to go to direct negotiations on the Donbas. And negotiations between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine without the topic of the Donbas and Crimea are simply impossible – what else should they talk about – increasing commodity turnover?
- Many people believe that the very fact of negotiations is dangerous, since Putin will unequivocally impose his will on Zelensky.
- This is some kind of national inferiority complex, or a latent form of exaltation of Putin.
Firstly, the mere fact of negotiations does not mean the adoption of any decisions on them. Secondly, whatever decisions are made, we do not have a dictatorship – the Verkhovna Rada will implement them. Well, the last safeguard – the most powerful one – the street factor. The authorities will not be able to do what the Ukrainians do not want, otherwise they will not be the authorities. This is what makes us different from Russia. And let us take into account the foreign policy factor. The West, for the most part, is not interested in turning Ukraine into Russia, NATO does not want to extend the line of contact with the Russian Federation to the length of our border with the European Union. Therefore, I see more benefits than risks from such negotiations. But once again, I do not believe that Putin will agree to them.
- Do you believe in a full-scale offensive of the Russian Federation?
- I do not believe in an open attack of Russian troops on Ukraine. I will explain why. Firstly, such a war may turn out to be far from "small" and far from "victorious". Ukraine is too big to be occupied, and over these eight years, our military already knows how to fight the Russians, and we already have something to fight with. In addition, Ukraine has received more weapons from the West in recent months than in all eight years of the war.
Putin will get a protracted conflict with real corpses and deterioration of the life of Russians, for no reason they understand. After all, if we are "single nation", as the Kremlin Fuhrer says, then why are we fighting? The whole ideology of the "Russian world" will crumble. This is not in Putin's interests. He needs not to conquer us, he needs Ukraine to "change its mind" and ask to lie under Russia.
Secondly, the West, including the UN, will have to respond to this with sanctions that the Kremlin does not need. I am not even talking about the prospects of Nord Stream 2 – a strategic project for Putin, which will be mothballed in the event of direct aggression.
In addition, when predicting Russia's actions, it is necessary to take into account Putin's psychological type. And this is a coward, a person who has never openly taken actions for which one can be held accountable. Even the 2008 armored raid on Tbilisi that so inspires some Russians today was made when Medvedev was de jure president. That is, Putin does not know how to act otherwise than "behind the backs of women and children", which he himself admitted when speaking about the occupation of the Crimea.
Therefore, I am 99% sure that there will be no large-scale offensive.
- Why then does Putin continue to accumulate troops near the Ukrainian borders?
- This is a bluff and an attempt to intimidate us, to show us and the whole world our vulnerability, instill confidence in the futility of resistance and impose his will that way, including through our frightened "Western partners".
- How exactly can Moscow do this?
- I think that Putin's plan consists of three components. The first one is provocation of economic crisis in Ukraine and the resulting worsening of the socio-economic situation of Ukrainians. By the way, the current, de facto, blockade of our ports under the pretext of exercises on the Azov and Black Sea is aimed at this. This, apparently, according to the Kremlin, should cause dissatisfaction with the current government and provoke protest moods. Putin is interested in the change of power in Kyiv and the arrival of more pro-Russian forces.
The second one is an offensive in the Donbas, but under the guise of "separatists" of the "DNR-LNR", in order to avoid responsibility for it. The capture, for example, of Mariupol, or some kind of "mousetrap", with the threat of further losses, should force Kyiv to comply with the Minsk agreements on Russia's terms. It is clear that this will cause even greater dissatisfaction with the Zelensky team. That is, according to Moscow's calculation, if this does not overthrow the current government, it will weaken it so much that in order to save itself, it will have to lie under Russia, just as Lukashenko did.
And the third component is the intimidation of the West, playing on the fear of Europe and NATO of a large-scale conflict that could lead to millions of refugees in European countries. To prevent this from happening, the West should put pressure on Kyiv to surrender to Moscow in the form of a direct dialogue with Donetsk and Luhansk and grant them some kind of political autonomy.
That is, the goal is to return Ukraine under its control. The means is coercion to implement "Minsk" on Moscow's terms. Everything else – pileup of forces, demands on NATO and negotiations with the Americans – are tools to achieve this goal. Because if we start a direct dialogue with the "DNR-LNR", as the Russians want, this will immediately solve for them the issue with NATO and control over Ukraine, as well as with the approval of Russia as a regional leader, – that is, de facto, with the revival of the Russian Empire.
Interviewed by Vladyslav Bulatchik, OstroV