What will come after the Minsk negotiations? New escalations, new sanctions and then ceasefire again? And so on until one of the countries goes bankrupt? For Vitaliy Portnikov, this country will not be Ukraine.
Ukrainian journalist and political analyst Vitaliy Portnikov discussed his views on the Minsk agreement and Ukraine’s situation in an interview with the Polish publication WPROST.
How was the signing of the Minsk accords received in Kyiv?
Without enthusiasm. The general impression is that the agreement worsens our situation. The general mood, which is already somber, is additionally affected by Moscow and the TV appearances by Moscow’s propagandists. They are screaming that Ukraine is surrendering to Russia and giving its territory to Russia. They are having much influence on the public imagination. The situation in the country remains very tense. People do not fully believe the official reports.
Do you believe in peace?
Of course. Even if the ceasefire is temporary and will serve exclusively to stabilize the frontline, I still think that what was achieved in Minsk was rather positive.
Because the most important task of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande was to understand Putin’s the real intentions. Is he ready for a major war that would extend beyond Ukraine? The answer was no, that he is not ready for it. Putin returned from Minsk empty-handed without achieving any of his goals.
What was he expecting?
First of all, he wants the federalization of Ukraine. He is not worried about the Donbas. It is just an excuse. Putin wants the destruction of our country. He wants the flag of a pseudo republic to fly over Kyiv and for the presidency to be held by someone he appoints personally. Such conditions can be created only through federalization, which Ukraine will never accept, or by total war, which Putin will not launch. He simply cannot afford it.
What is the difference between the recent Minsk document and the one developed in September?
Basically nothing. There are slight differences, such as the length of the buffer zone. Everything else is almost identical. In signing the first agreement, Russia was forced to accept the unity of all of Ukraine and to agree that not all of the territory of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, but only the small, damaged parts of it, will have special status. These small territories cannot achieve independence. They will depend entirely on the central government. This was Putin’s first defeat. This is why literally within a month he broke one of the key points of the agreement. Elections were to be held in the occupied territories. The local government was supposed to be elected according to Ukrainian legislation. But the separatists elected “presidents” of the pseudo republics instead . I think that in this fashion they wanted to create the framework for the “statehood” of Donetsk and Luhansk and expected that this would help them with further expansion.
But they were not able to do this because Kyiv distanced itself from these regions?
This was very important. It turned out that the separatist state without Kyiv cannot function, so that people have pensions and tap water. When it became clear that the “Novorossiya” project simply would not work, bombs began falling on Ukrainians again. Besides, the attempt to expand the occupied territory is not working out either. They’re not in a position even to take Mariupol — the only large city that potentially could provide some meaning to these “republics.” So we’re back to the starting point. Again we have negotiations in Minsk and the agreement that Putin did not even sign. We all know in advance that this document has been dead from the beginning. Putin is not interested in peace. Peace would be a defeat for him.
During this meeting the names of the self-proclaimed “republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk were never mentioned.
Of course not. The representatives of DNR and LNR could not be allowed to sit at the negotiating table with Merkel and Hollande. I think nobody talked to them at all. Putin simply told them to sign the agreement. But the fact that the name of the “republics” is not mentioned in the document means that Putin gave up on one of his most important demands — the statehood or even the autonomy of these regions.
Then why did Putin go to Minsk?
Because his back is to the wall. The Russian economy is in very bad shape. If he had not come at the invitation of Merkel and Hollande, he would soon be facing subsequent, tougher sanctions. With the negotiations he has gained time, hoping for the temporary calming of relations with Europe. The situation is in a stalemate. Putin does not need Donbas itself. At the moment it is simply a piece of scorched earth with a handful of psychologically exhausted people. Why would Putin need such territory? Russia does not have the resources to restore the Donbas.
But it can force Ukraine to do it. This also is mentioned in the agreement
It is not an easy path. The realization of most of the demands, such as renewal of social benefits on the occupied territories, requires the return to the Ukrainian legal space. Thus events need to follow a certain order: elections first, according to Ukrainian legislation, and then the reestablishment of relations between Donbas and Kyiv. And here again we’re hitting a wall. Because, if this scenario is realized, Donbas again finds itself in Ukraine’s economic and political sphere of influence and therefore loses any value for Russia.
And then what?
We are getting close to a humanitarian catastrophe in the Donbas. Or a critical moment will arrive and Putin will give the order to go to war again. The fighting will begin somewhere in the vicinity of Sloviansk or Kramatorsk. People will start dying again. New sanctions will be imposed on Russia. As a result, yet another peace agreement will be signed, which will be ignored the same way as the previous ones. Of course this mechanism can be repeated many times. But the end result of this war will be the collapse of Putin. It will bring Russia to bankruptcy. Unfortunately, this scenario will cost many lives, but I do not see any other options for resolving this conflict. Therefore, despite what the analysts say, I do not see the Minsk agreement as a defeat for Ukraine but rather as a trap for Putin. At present Putin does not have any trump cards.
Do you think the U.S. will begin supplying weapons to Ukraine if the Minsk agreements are violated?
Ukraine desperately need these weapons. The absence of modern weapons is the main reason why we cannot win this war. But right now it is difficult to judge if the U.S. is really ready to take this step. However, Obama’s declaration that the supplying of weapons is possible was a strong argument for the Minsk negotiations.
Do you think Putin is afraid? Europe probably is more afraid of Russia’s possible reaction.
In the event the West supplies weapons to Ukraine, Putin is threatening to expand the conflict to the entire region. He is frightening the Baltic States and Poland. But Russia’s military potential cannot equal that of NATO. War with NATO would be collective suicide for the Russians, the destruction of their country through their own volition. This is why I am convinced that neither Putin nor anyone in his entourage is considering such a possibility. The Kremlin is putting on a good face on a bad game. The only thing that can frighten the West is nuclear weapons. If they did not exist no one would be holding any negotiations with Putin.
You say that this war will last several years. Will Ukraine’s economy survive?
In my view, yes, with the help of the West. Life will be difficult for Ukrainians, especially those who work in the public sector. This year we have to implement economic reforms, which can be very serious. It is necessary and extremely dangerous, taking into account the attitude of the population and the constant attempts at sabotage by Russia. I think this is the West’s most important role — to help Ukraine avoid collapse. We can continue to pursue a policy of diplomatic games with Putin and to deter his aggression, but we cannot cope without financial support.