Are the new Minsk talks guiding Ukraine to capitulation?

mendel and kuchma

President's press secretary Iuliia Mendel (L) and chief Ukrainian negotiator in Minsk Group Leonid Kuchma (R) at a press briefing on 6 June 2019. Photo: president.gov.ua 

Russian Aggression, War in the Donbas

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reinstated former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma to the Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine-Russia-OSCE, TCG) on the Peace Settlement in Eastern Ukraine. And Kuchma’s statements after the most recent TCG meeting in Minsk have already raised questions whether Zelenskyy is going to make concessions to Russia to settle the conflict in the Donbas.

Meanwhile, Kuchma’s son-in-law, oligarch Viktor Pinchuk had already presented his “peace plan” for the Donbas back in late 2016, and the plan was to fulfill key Russian demands.

Former Ukrainian President (1994-2005) Leonid Kuchma was a chief Ukrainian envoy in the Trilateral Contact Group in 2014-2018. It was he who had signed both Minsk agreements as a representative of Ukraine. Suddenly, he resigned in November 2018. His press secretary, Darka Olifer, explained that that summer Kuchma turned 80 and namely that age he considered “critical” when he announced his resignation from the TCG envoy position. Then-President Petro Poroshenko promoted former SBU head, Ukrainian envoy in TCG’s security subgroup Yevhen Marchuk to Kuchma’s position, though Marchuk resigned shortly after Zelenskyy’s victory at the presidential elections.

At a briefing on 3 June, incumbent President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced the return of Kuchma as head of the Ukrainian delegation in TCG at its very next meeting in Minsk on 5 June. Leonid Kuchma himself announced then that Ukraine is going to initiate yet another cease-fire in the Donbas for the harvest time – the Minsk group negotiates on such seasonal truces several times a year – for the Christmas holidays, Easter, harvest time, school year’s start and so on.

After the TCG meeting, Kuchma said, “For the first time all meetings of the working [sub]groups happened in such a constructive tideway.”

However, two of his statements about the meeting prompted outrage among Ukrainians.

Lifting Ukrainian blockade

Leonid Kuchma stated that on 5 June the Ukrainian delegation had a roadmap by President Zelenskyy in Minsk, “The president really wants to have peace in the region. I got corresponding instructions and came here… I voiced all the wishes I had heard from the President,” told the Ukrainian envoy in TCG.

OSCE envoy in TCG Martin Sajdik told that Kuchma proposed to discuss the issue of lifting the Ukrainian economic blockade of ORDLO (“certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts”) at the next meeting on 19 June. Lifting of the blockade could become a “major breakthrough,” as per Sajdik. He Sajdik also noted that putting a blockade on the uncontrolled territories in the spring of 2017 was the factor that contributed to “dividing the sides involved.”

However, on the next day in Kyiv, Sajdik stated that the question was raised by representatives of ORDO and ORLO, supported by the Russian side and Kuchma merely suggested to discuss it at the next meeting.

And Leonid Kuchma said that Ukraine didn’t impose any economic blockade, “There is a temporary ban on transferring cargoes across the contact line,” he explained at a briefing in Kyiv on 6 June.

Meanwhile, previous Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko blasted the alleged proposition of the old-new chief negotiator Kuchma. He reminded that the decision of the National Security and Defense Council (RNBO) to suspend economic ties with uncontrolled territories was a reaction to the seizure of Ukrainian state-owned and private enterprises, imposing the ruble zone and Russian taxation system.

“So what has changed since then? Absolutely nothing from the side of the occupiers. Does it appear that the Ukrainian side is kneeling, about what Zelenskyy told before?” Poroshenko wrote in his Facebook post, recalling the 2014 video in which Zelenskyy said he was ready to kneel down before Putin to stop the war.

Poroshenko urged Zelenskyy to make a public statement clarifying his reason to give such instructions to the Ukrainian delegation in TCG.

Prosecutor General Yurii Lutsenko said that the trade with the enterprises located in the occupied territories is possible only when they are registered in Ukraine and pay taxes to the Ukrainian budget as it was prior to 2017.

“After the terrorists have “nationalized” the Ukrainian state and private assets in the ORDLO territory, the idea to lift the economic blockade means to legalize of paying taxes to the terrorist entities and to shift the social and utility expenses of pseudo republics to the Ukrainian budget. Such a trade will be criminal under the Criminal Code’s Article 258-5 on the funding of terrorism,” noted Lutsenko in a Facebook post.

Back in February 2019 amid the presidential campaign, leader of pro-Russian “Opposition Bloc,” MP Oleksandr Vilkul submitted a bill to lift the blockade, he argued that the blockade is “killing” the country and millions of the innocent suffer from it. As well as another pro-Russian politician, Putin’s crony Viktor Medvedchuk mentioned his plan for the Donbas which included restoring the economic relations with “self-proclaimed republics” and granting them the autonomy status. However, both politicians didn’t comment on Kuchma’s recent Minsk statements.

Head of the Ukrainian delegation in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Poroshenko Bloc’s MP Volodymyr Ariev said, “Unilateral concessions to terrorists are without exaggeration ceding national security of the country. The aggressor doesn’t make any concessions and only adduces the terms of capitulation via [Russian foreign minister] Lavrov’s mouth. Thus, ceasing resistance and trading under these terms is direct treason of Ukraine.”

Deputy speaker of the Verkhovna Rada Oksana Syroid noted,

“Russia’s logic is clear: lifting the blockade – amnesty for militants – elections in the occupied territories – special status [for the Donbas in Ukraine] – Rusian control over Ukraine. Capitulation in five moves. And why does Volodymyr Zelenskyy need it? Got bored of being the president of Ukraine and wants to become a Russian governor-general in the lands of Malorosia?”

Ban on returning fire

Another idea ascribed to Kuchma was to prohibit shooting in reply to the fire attacks. His words after the meeting in Minsk were:

.”..There [in the ceasefire agreement] it should be written down even up to not returning fire, obligatory, in order for all the civilian premises – schools, kindergartens, living quarters – to not sustain such fire attacks,” Kuchma said.

“When we don’t respond to the enemy’s fire, we have more fatalities. The prohibition to return fire is not a path to peace, it is a path to capitulation,” said speaker of the Parliament Andrii Parubiy at a Rada’s session on 6 June.

Head of the Ukrainian Institute of the National Memory Volodymyr Viatrovych also critisized the idea to ban return fire,

“The Ukrainian army was in Crimea in 2014, but none of those ready to return fire. We lost Crimea,” Viatrovych said, but later the volunteers who were ready to shoot prevented the same failure in the country’s south and east, “Not to return fire means to fall the situation five years back, it means to break the morale of the army.”

Prosecutor General Yurii Lutsenko said that following the statements voiced after the 5 June Minsk meeting, three criminal cases were opened into the facts of high treason, preparations to fund terrorist, and preparing to impede the activities of the Ukrainian army.

At a briefing on 6 June, Zelenskyy’s press secretary Iuliia Mendel explained,

“The [Kuchma’s] phrase widely spread in the media was taken out of context. In the context, it was said that this is a mutual commitment. The Minsk agreements stipulate a ceasefire,” she said.

Later speaking via a video link at a talk show on the 1+1 channel, Ms. Mendel gave a further explanation of the Kuchma’s words, clarifying that the ban shouldn’t be absolute, and, however, stating that Ukrainian servicemen attack civilian infrastructure,

“What particularly it was about? About the fact that Ukrainian military buys into provocations when the fire is conducted from a residential house, a kindergarten, a school, a hospital, from any place where civilians dwell, and after that fire attacks on such a building start. Thus, our people die, our Ukrainians, and, in fact, it was about not giving in to provocations,” Mendel said.

On 10 June, up to 2,000 protesters rallied near the presidential administration demanding to stop capitulation,

“We demand that people who are forming the roadmap for Minsk be replaced and veterans be involved in the process. To have there the people who are familiar with the situation, otherwise, we will treat it as a quiet surrender,” one of the rally participants commented to Ukrainian News.

The protesters carried Ukrainian flags and chanted “Shame,” “Down with Kuchma,” “Vova [Zelenskyy], we have a war, leave shawarma alone,” “[interior minister] Avakov, goodbye!” One of the activists stuck a poster on the wall of the Presidential Administration, reading “Administration of the Malorossian Governor.”

Has Pinchuk come into play?

Ukrainian media noticed that Kuchma’s son-in-law, oligarch Viktor Pinchuk visited the presidential administration on 31 May. Journalists suggested that Pinchuk discussed the re-appointment of his father-in-law as head of the Ukrainian delegation in TCG with President Zelenskyy.

Later the President’s press secretary and the President himself confirmed the information.

“We saw that the news emerged about an apparent visit of Viktor Pinchuk to the President’s administration. We would like to comment on this. He did come on 31 May together with Leonid Kuchma to discuss the position which was peoposed today [3 June] – to head the Trilateral Contact Group. The discussion took place and we saw the result of the visit today,” Yullia Mendel said.

Meanwhile, Kuchma’s presence at the meeting wasn’t mentioned in a message published on President’s twitter account:

“Within the frameworks of the announced meetings with entrepreneurs, we discussed with Viktor Pinchcuk the transparency of the rules, responsibility of the businessmen before the country, equality of everyone before the law,” the tweet reads.

As Kuchma headed the Ukrainian TCG delegation, he said that he had accepted Zelenskyy’s proposition to return to the Minsk process under the condition that he won’t be an “extra” at the negotiations. Kuchma also mentioned that he had concrete propositions which can get the things moving at the Donbas settlement negotiations. This means that his resignment last year wasn’t the matter of his age as Kuchma’s press secretary hinted, he wanted to be an independent player at the talks.

So what the ideas Kuchma can propose to resolve the conflict?

Oligarch Pinchuk’s article Ukraine Must Make Painful Compromises for Peace With Russia published in the Wall Street Journal at the end of 2016 may be the answer.

Read also: Viktor Pinchuk wants Ukraine to capitulate to Russia

In the article, Kuchma’s son-in-law argues that instead of “issuing ever-shriller appeals,” Ukraine must also adapt to the new reality. “Moscow must implement its obligations under the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine,” Pinchuk says, “But this can be part of a larger picture in which we make painful compromises for peace.”

And Pinchuk proposed to consider several compromises for Ukraine:

  • “Eliminating European Union membership from our stated goals for the near future;”
  • “Crimea must not get in the way of a deal that ends the war in the east;”
  • There will be no conditions for fair elections in the Donbas until Ukraine has full control over the territory, “but we may have to overlook this truth and accept local elections,” Pinchuk says;
  • “Let’s accept that Ukraine will not join NATO in the near- or midterm,” Pinchuk argues and adds, “We should pursue an alternative security arrangement and accept neutrality as our near-term vision for the future.”

All four ideas put Ukrainian independence on the table:

  • rejecting Ukraine’s EU aspirations would mean, first of all, staying in the Russian orbit of influence,
  • taking Crimea off the table would be a silent recognition of the Russian sovereignty over the peninsula,
  • folding the course towards NATO would mean rendering Ukraine defenseless to the Russian aggression, and
  • recognizing the local elections in the occupied Donbas would mean recognizing the occupation authorities legal.

All four items represent what the Kremlin wants starting from 2014. Why the oligarch had offered such pro-Rusian compromises which would mean de-facto capitulation of Ukraine?

The Ukrainian online newspaper Obozrevatel states that the interest of Pinchuk in reconciling with Russia is exceptionally financial since, in spite of the annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbas, Pinchuk continues shipping products of his Interpipe company to Russia, which is an aggressor country under Ukrainian laws. Interpipe is among the world’s top-10 manufacturers of weldless pipes, and it is the third large producer of all-rolled railroad wheels. Russia needs Interpipe’s production and the company, despite the fact that Russia put Interpipe’s managing company – EastOne Group – and Pinchuk himself on the sanctions lists, Interpipe itself remains unsanctioned.

Kuchma’s first ambiguous statements as a Ukrainian leader in the Minsk group may be the first signs that he has started working on the implementation of his son-in-law’s 2016 “peace plan,” which was harshly criticized in Ukraine.

The next Minsk group meeting on 19 June can shed more light on Kuchma’s intentions. However, “Zelenskyy’s roadmap” for the Donbas mentioned by Kuchma wasn’t published by now, thus it is hard to tell how the President is going to act to resolve the Donbas issue and how much his roadmap could borrow from Pinchuk’s plan.


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