2019. gada 5. decembrī
Just a week ago, on November 27, Oleg Sentsov, before receiving the Sakharov Prize, addressed the European Parliament by saying: „Every time when any of you consider being friendly with Putin above our heads, please, remember those 13 000 men and women who have fallen for Ukraine”.
Sentsov had three important messages to Europeans. He called on us not to trust Putin by warning: „Putin will definitely cheat you. He has no wish for peace in Donbass and in Ukraine.” His second message was: “Steinmeier formula is dead end for Ukraine”. And the third: “Normandy meeting won’t bring peace.”
It is difficult to know how many deputies there are in the European Parliament who understand the situation similarly to Sentsov and the majority of Ukrainians. One must be naive or pretend not to realize that a frozen conflict is in Putin’s best interest, and, that a partial or full implementation of the Steinmeier formula could bring it to him. I will remind the basics of the Steinmeier formula. It foresees a reciprocal withdrawal of troops, Ukraine regaining control of its border, and elections in the Luhansk and Donetsk Separatist areas under the Ukrainian law.
The international community with tempered hope welcomes the agreement reached by Ukraine and Russia to implement the Steinmeier formula for resolving the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. However, the question whether anything has changed since 2016 when this formula was proposed, remains justified. Almost nothing has changed, except the election of a new Ukrainian president and the exchange of prisoners of war with the formula of 35 Ukrainian political prisoners against Russian mercenaries, including Vladimir Tscemak who is a key witness in the case of downing MH17. The Minsk treaty is not implemented, Russia has not withdrawn its mercenaries and Ukraine has not regained control of its border. Moreover, Russia continues to insist that separatists must be allowed to take part in Russia — Ukraine negotiations.
The goal of Ukrainian leaders is to show to their allies and supporters that they have political will to clear the way to end the war. However, they are not naive and have experienced enough of Russian deception to consider this agreement mostly as a tactical move permitting to revive the Normandy format. Notwithstanding the protests in Ukraine and the loss of 12% of Zelensky popularity rate, President and his team are determined to implement their part of formula by disengagement of forces and weapons in areas near the town of Zolote, and the villages of Petrivske and Stanytsia Luhanska, as well as the construction of the bridge across the river near Stanytsia Luhanska.
In the meantime, separatists continue shootings. There are people injured almost every day and killed every other day. Between the evenings of November 22 and 24 OSCE Special Monitoring Mission recorded 130 explosions in Donbas. The Russia-controlled ‘DPR’ and ‘LNR’ have not let the International Committee of the Red Cross to access Ukrainian detainees; the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission has not been provided with unhindered access to the territory of Donbas not controlled by Ukraine, including the Russian-Ukrainian border. No conditions for the Zolote checkpoint have been created. The issue of freeing the detainees remains particularly pressing.
Kyiv declared their red lines: that the elections may be held only after troops are withdrawn and government reassumes control of these areas, including the state border, because without these conditions it will be impossible to guarantee free elections in accordance with international standards. In practice, this approach will make it impossible to implement the so-called Steinmeier formula. Moreover, Putin knows it. And Ukraine’s friends also must understand it. Kremlin needs a frozen conflict, which will prevent Ukraine’s rapprochement with the EU and NATO. Since the integration of divided Cyprus in the EU there is a general agreement not to integrate in the Union any country with territorial problems and conflicts. In the Western Balkans the EU follows this political line.
In fact, Russia is the only real beneficiary of this Steinmeier agreement. Holding elections in the separatist districts of Donetsk and Luhansk would give the separatists legitimacy and this legitimacy is what Russia needs to return to the international community. Let us not forget that Moscow’s primary objective in Ukraine is to bring the former Soviet Republic back into its orbit. The sanctions imposed by the EU and the US have costed the Russian economy an estimated one percent of annual GDP, its expulsion from G-8, and 7,5 billion USD annually for annexing Crimea and continuing military conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
However, Kremlin appears to believe that the benefits still exceed the costs. Freezing of the conflict would allow Moscow to continue to pressure, distract, and destabilize the Ukrainian government so that it cannot successfully tackle its reform priorities. Because of war Ukraine’s budget has already diminished by 6,5% of GDP. Simmering conflict in Donbas advances the Kremlin’s goal of disruption.
I will not speak in depth about Ukraine’s internal problems. I only will underline that during previous 5 years there have been implemented more reforms than in the previous 20 years. The EU Member States are united in their decision to impose sanctions to Russia because of annexation of Crimea and war in the East Ukraine. Every 6 months the European Council is prolonging the sanctions. The financial assistance that provided by EU to Ukraine amounts to 15 billion EUR. There are many bilateral assistance projects showing the understanding of the strategic importance of Ukraine for EU Member States and the entire European Union.
However, even though most of the EU Member States are aware of Russia’s political goals, recent voices calling for bringing Russia out of international isolation are more audible. The US president Trump has announced that he will invite Putin to attend next G-7 summit in Washington. The French President Macron had a surprise meeting with Putin directly before the G-7 summit in Brégançon. He promotes the idea that “Russia and Europe [should be brought] back together”. Italy’s energy dependence on the Russian energy resources is so massive that historically the right or left-wing government, openly or covertly, has always maintained a special relationship with Russia. Austria is among Member States only reluctantly supporting the sanctions and continues to enhance the bilateral relations with Kremlin. Hungarian Prime Minister Orban has repeatedly visited Putin in Moscow. Moreover, he is blocking the meeting of the Ukraine-NATO Council thus expressing his dissatisfaction with the reform of the Ukraine’s education system which requires Ukrainian-language instruction in all minority schools.
The most striking evidence of Putin’s strategical success with the Europeans is Nord Stream 2. Both Germany and France deny the political nature of the pipeline, presenting it as purely economic project. Although it is no secret that Nord Stream 2 is being built to bring Russian gas directly to Europe, bypassing Ukraine and resulting in a significant loss of revenue for Ukraine’s state budget. Even more worrying is that the EU will become more and more dependent on Russian energy supplies and thus on the Kremlin. The Turkstream opening in January will further on isolate Ukraine from the gas transit in South direction.
It has been 3 months since the exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia took place on 7th September, which opened the way for the Normandy meeting. Evidently, the next exchange of detainees is stuck, although Ukraine continues to intensively negotiate it with Russia. President Zelensky has committed to securing the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners. On 29 November, we — a group of MEPs, had written a letter to German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron asking them to use all their political and diplomatic influence to ensure that prisoners were exchanged before Paris meeting. It was stressed therein: “We call upon you to urge an unconditional, full and earliest possible Exchange of remaining prisoners. We are convinced that such an exchange of prisoners would create solid and favorable conditions for further peace talks…”.
The meeting in Paris will start in 4 days. The exchange of prisoners has not yet taken place, showing that the Kremlin mostly intends to use the Normandy Quartet meeting as an opportunity to strengthen Putin’s international reputation for reasons of his fading popularity in Russia.
There has been a draft framework document on settling the Donbas conflict negotiated which the four leaders have agreed to sign. It envisions a set of steps toward its further implementation by the parties to launch a political process in the region through holding local elections under international control after the certain districts in Donbas are granted special status. At the same time, document does not contain any specific steps toward immediately securing Kyiv’s control over the border section in Donbas. There is a strong déjà vu – 4 years ago 4 leaders signed Minsk 1 and, later on, Minsk 2 agreements. I am afraid that the framework document of the Paris meeting will have the same implementation value.
Speaking with journalists on 20 November, President Zelensky set his priorities for the Paris meeting. He said that, first of all, he will figure out “the specific dates for the return of all Ukrainian prisoners.” President underlined that it was not only about the exchange of persons confirmed by Russian lists, but also to exchange those on Ukraine’s lists. Secondly, he expects to set a specific date for a real ceasefire, which would have “clear terms and responsibilities.” President also claims that among the demands and expectations there is a return to Ukraine its full control of the Ukrainian-Russian border. The President insisted on holding elections in Donbass temporarily occupied territory under the Ukrainian law.
The warning of Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Vadym Prystayko reweals to us how difficult it is to negotiate with the Kremlin and how much international pressure Ukraine must withstand in preparation to Paris meeting: „If we see that the Agreements do not work and we are drawn into a never-ending process, we may decide to quit the Minsk process sooner or later.”
Therefore, we, Ukrainian friends, must watch the international developments on Ukraine even more attentively, so that nothing allows to relegate the Donbas problem and the annexation of Crimea to a secondary consideration, or even force these problems to disappear from the international agenda altogether.