Ukraine’s new Donbas negotiators wreak havoc with pro-Russian statements

Right: Leonid Kravchuk, head of Ukrainian delegation in Minsk group (screenshot: prm.ua), left: Vitold Fokin, his deputy in the group (photo: gordon.ua).  

War in the Donbas

After the resignation of former president Leonid Kuchma as the head of the Ukrainian delegation the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) for negotiating peace with Russia, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy replaced him with Leonid Kravchuk, the first Ukrainian president.

The composition of the Ukrainian delegation remained the same except for the now replaced head and his newly appointed deputy. The official positions of Ukraine at the Minsk negotiations remain the same as well. However, some actions and statements of the TCG newcomers sparked outrage among Ukrainians and fears that capitulation to Russia could be underway.

Can the changes to the Minsk group impact the Ukrainian policies?

Kravchuk comes, Kuchma goes

mendel and kuchma

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

On 28 July, second Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, 82, left the post of the head of the Ukrainian delegation in the TCG. Kuchma represented Ukraine in the TCG from its establishment in 2014 until 2018, and then resigned. After the inauguration of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy more than a year ago, Kuchma returned as Ukraine’s chief negotiator.

First Ukrainian President (1991-1994) Leonid Kravchuk. Photo: Facenews.ua

Zelenskyy named a new leader of the negotiators two days later, appointing first President Leonid Kravchuk, 86, who has “the experience necessary to participate in the negotiation process of this level,” according to the presidential press service.

Who is Mr. Kravchuk?

Unlike Kuchma, Leonid Kravchuk didn’t retire from politics after his presidency.

Member of the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU) since 1958 and one of its agitprop department leaders, in 1990 Kravchuk became the nominal head of Soviet Ukraine, or the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR.

After the failed Soviet coup attempt in Moscow in late August 1991, Leonid Kravchuk left the communist party and persuaded the communist majority in the Ukrainian parliament to back the opposition’s demands of Ukrainian Independence. After the adoption of the Independence Declaration Act and establishment of the post of the president, Kravchuk received presidential powers and at the end of the year, on 5 December 1991, Ukrainians elected him president and voted to succeed the Soviet Union.

After then-Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma defeated Leonid Kravchuk at the snap elections in 1994, Kravchuk joined the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine United (SDPUO) linked to odious Viktor Medvedchuk and was elected to the Parliament several times, remaining a people’s deputy up until 2006.

Later on, the SDPOU failed to get into the parliament and Kravchuk left it in 2009, mostly narrowing down his political activities to giving comments to the press on various topics.

Kravchuk’s first month in TCG and his deputy’s statements

Announcing Kravchuk’s appointment to the TCG, the presidential website cited his words on why he accepts this role. Bringing peace to the Donbas was one of the catchphrases of Zelenskyy’s 2019 presidential campaign and Leonid Kravchuk has declared his determination to work in line with this presidential policy,

“I’ve been thinking about it. But when I realized what was happening there, in Donbas, when our young boys and girls are dying defending the land, shedding blood day and night, defending the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine, I decided: if I can do something to speed up peace in the Donbas, I will do it until the last breath. That’s why I agreed [to the post offer],” Leonid Kravchuk said.

Леонід Кравчук та Вітольд Фокін - Кравчук розповів, чим Фокін буде займатися в Мінській групі

Leonid Kravchuk (L) and Vitold Fokin (R). Source: novynarnia

Kravchuk brought 87-year-old Vitold Fokin, the first PM of independent Ukraine, to the TCG. He became Kravchuk’s first deputy in the Minsk Group on 18 August.

“I will be responsible for interaction with representatives of Donbas (i.e. representatives of the occupation administrations, – Ed.), whom Ukraine has involved in the work of the Minsk Trilateral Contact Group,” Fokin said to Interfax-Ukraine commenting on his new role.

And in their first weeks in office, both of these newcomers to the peace negotiation process have managed to make various controversial statements on the Donbas, war.

At the 19 August meeting of the Minsk group, the Russian side blocked the negotiation process and issued an ultimatum demanding to remove the ban on the local elections in ORDLO (Ukraine’s code name for occupied Donbas) from the Verkhovna Rada’s resolution on the 2020 elections. This is a predictable demand that follows Russia’s years-long strategy of attempting to legalize its figureheads in the occupied territories through demanding to hold elections in the region before Ukraine regains control of it – and also one that Ukraine has for these same years withstood.

But this time, instead of denying Russia’s right to meddle in the activities of the Ukrainian parliament, Leonid Kravchuk submitted the proposed amendments to the Verkhovna Rada, and the next day Zelenskyy lauded him, saying that the Kravchuk-led Ukrainian delegation “has completely revived the Minsk meetings. I believe that they breathed life into Minsk.”

Parliament received Kravchuk’s submission, however, Rada chairman Dmytro Razumkov (Servant of the People faction) assured that the legislators were not going to change the resolution on local elections since no corresponding bills were registered. Another reason, according to the pro-Presidential MP, was that Ukraine had already entered the 90-day pre-election period after the formal announcement of the elections, therefore the Rada cannot re-announce them.

In one of his interviews, Kravchuk parroted a prominent Russian propaganda narrative by suggesting that the majority of the local residents living on the occupied territories don’t want to live under Ukrainian jurisdiction and want a special status for their territory.

Advertisement

“The majority? No. I don’t feel it, I know it. But they would like to be part of Ukraine as an autonomy,” said Kravchuk.

It is this demand of a “special status” for occupied Donbas that is at the cornerstone of Russia’s attempts to wrestle control over Ukraine’s political course through the Minsk peace process – and one that Ukraine has so far resisted over nearly six years.

Such a “special status” would not only grant Donbas leverage over key Ukrainian decisions, but precipitate similar demands by other regions of Ukraine – and allow Russia more opportunities to meddle in Ukrainian affairs.

Meanwhile, Vitold Fokin in his comments to the website Strana outlined his view of the measures needed for achieving peace by repeating Russia’s demands from Ukraine:

Today, for ending the war and saving the lives of soldiers and commanders, my position is to declare a general amnesty, hold elections, resolve the issue of the special status of certain regions (occupied territories, – Ed.), or, what’s better, of the entire Donbas,” said Fokin.

All these points – an unconditional amnesty for members of the armed groups, which would pardon even those militants who committed grave war crimes, elections in the occupied regions before Ukraine gains control of its territory, giving autonomy to them within Ukraine – are unvarying elements of Russia’s position at the Minsk negotiations since 2014, and ones Ukraine had hitherto steadfastedly resisted. And the idea to concede the free parts of the Donbas was previously floated by the occupation administrations of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Underscoring that these proposals contradict Ukraine’s position, Roman Waschuk, former Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine, noted on Twitter that:

“Negotiating with yourself – or against your own side’s interest-based positions – is not international best practice.”

Although Fokin was against amending the Ukrainian Constitution to enshrine the special status for the occupied regions, he said that both the Ukrainian and Russian sides should make concessions and saw a general amnesty as a bargaining chip to avoid changes to Ukraine’s Fundamental Law:

“If we agree to their demand for a general amnesty, I think they will meet us halfway and refuse the demand to amend the Constitution for special status.”

Moreover, Fokin stated that Kravchuk and he would welcome the idea of their trip to the occupied cities for direct talks with the occupation authorities in the scandalous interview, shaking another one of Ukraine’s bedrock positions at the negotiations: that the “leaders” of occupied Donbas are but figureheads of a Russian puppet state and are not to be reckoned with.

Public outrage and soothing official comments

The controversial statements of Kravchuk and especially Fokin were slammed by Ukrainian netizens; many politicians and officials denounced them as well.

Ukrainian journalist Yuriy Butusov, who has long covered the situation in Donbas, saw Fokin’s words as a “capitulation to Putin and recognition of the occupation of the Donbas and Crimea.”

The fear of capitulation has been strong in Ukrainian society since Zelenskyy’s main promise was to quickly end the war in Donbas, which at present could only materialize if Ukraine makes key concessions to Russia.

Opposition factions of the Verkhovna Rada, European Solidarity and Voice, called on Zelenskyy to remove Fokin from the Minsk group.

Leonid Kravchuk distanced himself from the words of his deputy, telling Espreso TV that Fokin didn’t agree his statements with the Ukrainian delegation to the TCG, but at the same time said he lacks the authority to fire him.

Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov contributed to the flood of criticism, calling the Fokin’s statement “provocative and not aligning with national interests.”

Head of the President’s Office Andriy Yermak said in an official comment that certain comments made in an interview with Vitold Fokin do not reflect Ukraine’s official position. And he assured that the amnesty could still not apply to those who committed serious crimes and noted that the Minsk agreements do not provide for a special status for the whole of Donbas.

Meanwhile, addressing the criticism, Fokin said that he was satisfied with the reaction” to his words, calling his critics “warmongers”:

“If the warmongers are going crazy, then my words hit the right target. We need to bring peace to Ukraine, which is what we are going to do. I mean myself and Leonid Kravchuk.”

Despite the controversies raised by the new members of the Minsk group, it is not likely that the presence of Leonid Kravchuk and Vitold Fokin can change the Minsk process in any significant way since the TCG is rather a venue for discussing minor issues such as another local truce or creating disengagement zones while the main platform for the negotiations in the Normandy Four format that involves the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France.

At the negotiations, Kravchuk, let alone Fokin, can’t sign anything that would contradict the official position of Ukraine, thus his activities should remain aligned with the positions of President Zelenskyy, his office, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And the officials didn’t announce any changes in the Ukrainian policies on the Donbas so far. Moreover, previously the TCG saw high-profile pro-Russian negotiators in the Ukrainian delegation such as Putin’s ally Viktor Medvedchuk and pro-Russian politician Nestor Shufrych.

The Trilateral Contact Group on the Peaceful Settlement of the Situation in the East of Ukraine (TCG, Ukraine-OSCE-Russia) or the Minsk group has been negotiating peace for Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts with Russia since 2014, with little progress evident.

The armed conflict in Ukraine’s easternmost historical region of the Donbas made up by Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts started in 2014 soon after Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula. Since its beginning, the war claimed more than 13,000 lives and displaced almost 2 million people. Russia keeps denying its involvement in the conflict. The occupied territories of two Ukrainian regions are officially known as ORDLO or Certain Areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.

Read more:

Tags: , , ,