The COVID-19 coronavirus emergency gives Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a non-political excuse for stepping back from the plan that his envoy, Andrii Yermak, accepted from Russian presidential envoy Dmitry Kozak on March 11 in the Minsk Contact Group. The plan would institute a Consultative Council, parallel to the Minsk Contact Group, on the conflict in eastern Ukraine. This innovation would, in fact, change the existing negotiating format even further in Moscow’s favor (see below).
The agreement on this plan was to be finalized and signed officially during the Minsk Contact Group meeting on March 24–26. However, the COVID-19 epidemic apparently necessitated switching the session to the video-conference mode. And while the video conversation was in progress, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories, Oleksiy Reznikov, came out to announce that “any signing would be physically impossible by videoconference.” Furthermore, he remembered that Germany and France (participants alongside Russia and Ukraine in the “Normandy” forum) have yet to give their opinion(s) on the planned Consultative Council (Ukrinform, March 25).
The Kremlin does not take Kyiv’s coronavirus-related alibi seriously. Instead, it blames the “disruption of the negotiations” on Kyiv’s “fear to confront the party of war” in Ukraine (TASS, March 26).
The Kozak-Yermak preliminary March 11 agreement was to be kept secret, so as to blindside the Ukrainian public until the official signing, scheduled for March 25. While Moscow and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) did keep it secret, the full text leaked to the Kyiv weekly Dzerkalo Tyzhnia (March 12) and spread throughout the Ukrainian media, triggering the kind of political backlash that has repeatedly checked this presidential administration’s propensity for unilateral concessions to Moscow. This time, and for the first time, a dissenting group of parliamentary deputies from the pro-presidential Servant of the People party echoed the critics from the political opposition and civil society (Ukrinform, Ukrainska Pravda, Censor.net, March 13–19).
Once the cover of secrecy was blown, Yermak campaigned to defend the Kozak-Yermak plan through multiple media appearances in Kyiv. He fell silent, however, after several days of effort. President Zelenskyy, for his part, failed to comment one way or another on this issue. Zelenskyy also kept silent about the Russophile opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk’s visit to the Kremlin to promote yet another negotiating track for “peace” (see EDM, March 19).
Under the Kozak-Yermak plan, the Consultative Council would function nominally within the Minsk Contact Group. It would not directly impinge on the operation of the Contact Group itself; but, by the same token, it could bypass it or sideline it. The Consultative Council’s structure would be more weighted in Moscow’s favor than the existing Contact Group already is.
“Contact Group” looks like a misnomer in this case. Moscow christened this forum six years ago to evoke the international contact groups that had earlier handled the conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Croatia’s Eastern Slavonian province. Those contact groups included the Western powers and Russia. By contrast, the Minsk Contact Group on the conflict in eastern Ukraine is not genuinely international. It consists of Russia, the OSCE (operating under Russia’s veto power), Ukraine, and Moscow’s own proxies from Donetsk and Luhansk, without a real Western presence. Officially labeled as Trilateral (Russia-OSCE-Ukraine), the Contact Group operates “with the participation of certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions” (an official euphemism for the Russian-controlled territory). It is thus a trilateral group of five actors.
According to Ukrainian officials involved with the Minsk Contact Group, it was Kozak who came up to Yermak with the plan to create the Consultative Council as a new negotiating setup (RFE/RL, March 13). Those familiar with Kozak’s style will recognize his drafting hand in this Consultative Council’s founding document. Kozak and Yermak then jointly handed down the document to the Contact Group, which duly adopted it preliminarily on March 11 in the form of a “decision” by the Contact Group. Such procedures turn Russia into a convener of negotiations and their agenda-setter.
The Ukrainian government and even, apparently, the president have lost the initiative to Yermak, and Yermak has lost the initiative to Kozak. Zelenskyy seems torn between, on one hand, his fixation on popularity ratings (steadily declining) and his quest for “peace” without serious consideration of the terms, and on the other hand, nervousness about protests from patriotic groups and incipient defections from the presidential party in the parliament. According to the legislature’s foreign affairs committee chairperson, Oleksandr Merezhko (from the Servant of the People party), the party would not be able to help Zelenskyy assemble a constitutional majority in parliament (such as the implementation of the Minsk “agreements” would presuppose). The pro-presidential party’s internal unity is cracking on a number of issues, including that of the presidential administration’s negotiations with Russia (RBK Ukrayina, March 16).
The COVID-19 emergency is Zelenskyy’s fortuitous chance to postpone the Kozak-Yermak plan’s official signing. It is also his chance to overrule Yermak and back out of this plan altogether (see accompanying article).
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