Top 10 politicians capable to move Donbas conflict closer to its resolution
French online outlet Facta.Media, publishes its version of dozens of politicians who, due to their influence, can bring the conflict in the Donbas closer to an end. 112.international publishes a translation of the article from French into English
Facta.Media, the French online outlet publishes its version of dozens of politicians who, due to their influence, can bring the conflict in the Donbas closer to an end. 112.international publishes a translation of the article from French into English.
Armed conflict in Ukraine has been going on for 5.5 years – almost as much as the Second World War. Illegal groups of militants seized large industrial centers of Donetsk and Luhansk and created self-proclaimed republics in this industrial region of Ukraine. The leadership of the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic” and “Donetsk People’s Republic” claim that Donbas does not agree with the results of the revolution that took place in Ukraine in February 2014, the Russian-speaking region is afraid of the nationalists who came to power after Euromaidan and the oppression of the Russian language. In support of these demands of Donetsk and Luhansk, Russia came forward, calling the events of 2014 in Kyiv a coup.
The West does not see any signs of a coup d’etat in the events of 2014 and supports the reforms in Ukraine, aimed at bringing this country of Eastern Europe to the European Union. However, the conflict in the Donbas thwarts Ukraine’s progress: Kyiv is forced to spend huge sums of money on army, people die almost daily in the east of the country, official Kyiv and Moscow are in deep confrontation, which affects Ukraine’s economic interests. Europe, having sided with Ukraine in this conflict, has imposed sanctions on Russia. They affect not only Russia’s economy but also that of the European Union. Therefore, all these years leaders of France and Germany have been trying to reconcile Kyiv, Moscow, Donetsk and Luhansk in order to stop the violent murderous conflict. The Normandy Format of the leaders of the four countries was created. However, so far all these attempts have not yielded tangible results.
The year of 2019 must have turned to be a turning point in terms of the prospects for resolving the conflict in the Donbas. In Ukraine, after two elections, the power had been completely changed – the country elected young Volodymyr Zelensky as the President, who defined achieving peace in the country as the main task of his cadence. At the end of 2018, leadership in Donetsk and Luhansk was also changed: instead of the radical-minded leaders of unrecognized republics, the more moderate Leonid Pasechnik and Denis Pushilin came to power. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has long been the main peacekeeper, said she would soon step down. French President Emmanuel Macron has changed his rhetoric to a more conciliatory attitude towards Russia and is ready to make concessions for the sake of peace in Ukraine. In addition, the head of foreign diplomacy the European Union was changed, and OSCE has appointed a new special representative in Ukraine.
We spoke with many international observers and political experts about the fate of Ukraine and Donbas. Most of our interlocutors believe that there are much more chances to bring the war in Ukraine to an end than before. Nowadays is much more likely to end the war in Ukraine due to new political realities, and partly to new people who will deal with this problem. Therefore, we decided to outline those politicians who do have influence in order to help end the conflict in Ukraine.
1. President of Russia Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin rules his country with a steady hand and defends the interests of Russia abroad. Moscow interfered in the conflict in Donbas initially, providing diplomatic and material support to the militants. In fact, Russia became the representative of the non-recognized republic at the world stage. It is the factor of Russia, which does not give Kyiv a chance to solve the conflict by forcible means. Putin along with the leaders of Germany and France countersigned Minsk Agreements, which had to end the war. Previous President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko recognized at the end of his cadence: the keys to the peace in Donbas kept not in Kyiv but in Moscow. Perhaps, it is true.
Currently, Vladimir Putin is in a strong position as during any talks, he does not need to invent anything but remind Kyiv about Minsk Agreements and order of steps, which are outlined in them. The ball is at Ukraine’s court now as the authorities in Kyiv should amend the legislation for the further promotion of the peace process. They should spell out the security guarantees and special status of the self-government for the rebelling region. As far as Kyiv is not ready to do it, the process came to a standstill and Putin made it clear in the results of the meeting in Paris on December 9.
Recently, Putin took a firm position on the defense of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine. Thus, it seems that Putin is ready to intervene in the internal affairs of Ukraine by the most radical way if the authority and national-radical will continue to oppress Russian language and Russian-speaking population, particularly, closure of the Russian-language schools, discrimination of the Russian-language mass media and Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which traditionally stands for closer ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Obviously, Putin will settle for amendment of Minsk Agreements that is why Zelensky will be obliged to fulfill the points signed by Petro Poroshenko in 2015. Recognizing this, Frank-Walter Steinmeier offered his formula of a sequence of steps, which should lead to peace in Donbas. And now, it seems, Moscow, Paris and Berlin see no other alternative than Steinmeier formula.
According to Putin, the unrecognized republic signed the Minsk Agreements only after the conviction from the side of Russia. They were agreed with Donbas and ‘any other laws not agreed by LPR and DPR, will not work; they will lead the situation only to a dead-end’. Putin said repeatedly that if the Ukrainian National Guard and National Police enter the disengagement zone then ‘nothing good happens because it will be a tit-for-tat response from the side of militia’. It seems that everyone understands that peace is possible only in terms of Minsk Agreements.
That is why Vladimir Putin is the main person who determines peace in Donbas.
2. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky
If the key to the peace in the Donbas is kept in Moscow, then, first of all, it is the Ukrainian leader who determines whether Ukraine will be able to take that key and use it for the sake of peace. Volodymyr Zelensky is a famous person in Ukraine. TV presenter and actor who mocked politicians, became the president at the age of 41, suddenly for everyone, receiving the record support at the elections – over 73% of votes.
During the election campaign, Zelensky put the end of the Donbas Conflict as the main task. However, his achievements in this filed are very modest. From the one side, Zelensky agreed with Moscow on the exchange of detainees and it allowed such people as Oleg Sentsov to get out of Russian jail. Moreover, Russia returned vessels to Ukraine, which were seized during the incident near Kerch Strait at the end of 2018.
Besides, Kyiv, Donetsk and Luhansk held a great exchange of prisoners at the end of December. Over 200 people were released from both sides. It would seem, the door to reconciliation is open but, at the political level, no serious progress is observed.
The issue is that Zelensky does not agree on the text of Minsk Agreements. “I tell them honestly: I do not agree with the way the issue was solved in Minsk. According to Minsk Agreements, firstly, the elections take place, then the control over the border,” the Ukrainian leader said. Kyiv insists that the local elections in occupied areas should take place only according to Ukrainian legislation after the de-occupation. But it is the reconsideration of the agreements. As it was stated earlier, neither Russia nor Donetsk with Luhansk would agree on it. It is the dead-end in such a format.
It is said in Ukraine that Zelensky was forced to reckon with the nationalists who came to the streets with the demands not to make concessions with Russia. Moreover, the street protests were supported by the previous president and his political party. At the Normandy Format meeting in Paris, Zelensky in his rhetoric put in mind of predecessor Petro Poroshenko and contradictions of Kyiv and Moscow were not solved. However, Paris and Berlin expect that Kyiv will become more pliable with new authority and it will force Kremlin’s owner to make concessions.
Time is not playing into the hands of Zelensky. With each passing day, his rating falls amid difficult economic situations and obvious misses of new authority in the financial and social spheres. The new president could not fulfill his promises toward the utility tariffs, language issue, corruption. Currently, his rating decreased from 73% to less than 50%. If Zelensky was able to take any steps toward Donbas with high rating, currently, the resistance to his policy would only grow and it reduces the chances of reconciliation of Kyiv and occupied Donbas.
3. President of France Emmanuel Macron
Emmanuel Macron got the role of peacemaker in Donbas issue, additionally to his internal issues. However, the well-being of France depends on the settlement of the conflict in distant Ukraine as the sanctions against Russia harm the economy of the EU. Amid the imminent withdrawal of Angela Merkel from her post, Macron is left as the main European negotiator in the conflict of Kyiv and Moscow. And the French President has taken initiative, changing the policy toward Russia.
Ukraine now is not the main issue of Europe. It is the message from Macron’s rhetoric. Nuclear ambitions of Iran, the Middle East, conflicts between Brussels and Washington – united Europe has hard times. Brussels loses influence. That is why the Head of the Elysee Palace is interested in the construction of ‘new architecture of trust’ with Russia; however, firstly, he needs to convince his European partners in it, particularly, Romanians, Poles and Balts who refuse to believe in any prospects but at the same time, they are interested in it.
“Distance of Russia from Europe is the deep strategic mistake because we would nudge Russia to isolation, which increases tension or to alliances with other great states, such as China, – French president said at the meeting with the ambassadors of his country in August. – European continent would never be stable and safe if we do not regulate and clear our relations with Russia”.
But why Macron makes such a turn? He provided the answer, stating that the epoch of the hegemony of the West comes to the end. “Circumstances change. China moved forward to the first row; Russia achieves great success in its strategy…We know that civilizations disappeared. Europe will disappear. And the world would be organized around two large poles – the U.S. and Chine and we would have the choice between two dominant forces,” the French leader said, egging Europe on the comprehension of such scenario as the fatal one.
Now, Moscow and Brussels have one serious issue, which hinders the rapprochement, – Ukraine. The issue of Crimea and Donbas, sanctions – Macron cannot refuse from all of it in one moment. The world will not understand. But if Kyiv and Moscow go toward reconciliation and settle the difference, Europe will be able to wash its hands off and affair with relief and ‘shuffling the cards’, ‘establish a sincere and demanding dialogue with Russia’.
That is why Emmanuel Macron will more actively egg the president of Ukraine on fulfilling of Minsk Agreements. Europe is tired of the conflict in Donbas and Macron wants to end it as soon as possible, become the president-peacemaker.
4. German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel also wanted to be a leader-peacekeeper, but her time is running out and there are no results. During all these years, the Chancellor actively supported sanctions against Russia, appealing to international law and demanding Vladimir Putin to stop putting pressure on Ukraine. Merkel has developed good relationships with former President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko. However, internal pressure on the Chancellor due to the sanctions, her health problems and economic problems in Europe are forcing the German leader to leave her post. And at the end of her term, Angela Merkel conceded ground making concessions to big business and the opposition. The chancellor’s criticisms of Vladimir Putin have become less and less obvious.
On the other hand, Merkel herself has become hostage to her ambivalent policy. The EU has imposed sanctions on Russia, but Germany has supported the construction of the Kremlin’s geopolitical project: the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline. Today, Berlin may be surprised by Macron’s outstretched hand towards Moscow, but Germany itself, led by Merkel, has always acted cautiously, keeping in mind that sooner or later they will have to tolerate Russia. It was the West who advised Kyiv not to send an armed resistance to fight against the Russian Federation’s troops, which annexed Crimea. Such a policy has led to the current situation.
The head of the German government has no illusions: Merkel sees that eastern Ukraine is on the verge of separating from Ukraine. However, the Chancellor has her hands tied: Putin does not intend to withdraw from his position, Macron is ready to turn his blind eye to this, and the internal opposition demands reconciliation with Russia of Merkel. To finish on a good note, Merkel needs to get a result in Ukraine. But in order to really move forward under current conditions, a compromise is necessary. For her, the Minsk agreements are a good option. Merkel is forced to promise Putin to put pressure on Kyiv in order for Ukraine to keep its promises, which were made under the Minsk agreements. As compensation, Kyiv receives a guarantee that the transit of gas through Ukraine will continue.
Yes, Europe is now ready to demand fulfillment of Minsk agreements of Zelensky, as it was requested by Putin. No one in Europe can say where it will lead, but there seems to be no other way. Angela Merkel has not been able to reconcile the conflicting countries under international law, but in the end, she is trying to do it in accordance with the logic of the moment.
5. U.S. President Donald Trump
The American leader has stepped away from European problems, focusing on the economy and U.S. elections. From time to time, Washington asserts its support for Ukraine and recalls the need to end the conflict, but it is clear that the White House is not particularly interested in the Donbas war. In order to somehow prove his involvement in Ukraine and defend his geopolitical interests in that country, Trump turned the cases over to the Department of State. At the same time, Washington’s henchman in Ukraine, Kurt Volker, became famous because of his verbal spades towards Russia, and not because of his attempts to settle the conflict, for which, therefore, he was removed from office.
Trump does not want to come into conflict with Russia, because the main interests of U.S. president are China, North Korea, Iran and the European Union. There have been proposals to include Washington in Normandy format, but Trump has not shown any interest in this idea. The American leader is looking for a financial interest for his country in geopolitics and Ukraine has nothing to give Washington in this area. But Kyiv has become a possible ally for Trump’s 2020 election victory. If the president avoids impeachment and completes the investigation into possible corruption by the Bidens family in Ukraine, it could make him president for a new term. This is Trump’s real interest in Ukraine.
But Kyiv has one more card up its sleeve: Trump’s thirst for money has led Washington and Moscow to a gas conflict in Europe. The United States of America has imposed sanctions on Nord Stream-2 and blocked its construction. Kyiv used Washington’s actions in its gas negotiations with Russia. Unfortunately for Ukraine, Trump and Putin do not have such political disagreements, and therefore the issue of territories remains secondary to American politics.
However, theoretically, Ukraine could become a bargaining chip in the negotiations between Trump and Putin on other geopolitical issues. There are many of those: Syria, Iran, North Korea. If the President wanted, he could get involved in the Donbas peace process. At least, Washington has a huge influence on Kyiv. But Trump does not yet have this desire. And the conflict between Washington and Brussels does not encourage the United States to solve European problems.
But now American politics largely depend on the next election. Who knows what will happen if Trump is re-elected for a second term. The Republicans have always been much more skeptical of Russia and its ambitions in Europe. Perhaps after the election, the U.S. will change its attitude towards European problems. At least, Trump has not frozen military aid to Ukraine. On the contrary, Kyiv and Washington have signed a new contract for the purchase of Javelin systems.
6. Leader of Ukraine’s main opposition party Viktor Medvedchuk
Viktor Medvedchuk has spent the last six years reconciling Kyiv and Moscow. His influence allowed him to speak directly with the leaders of the two countries. Medvedchuk knows Putin well and therefore, as he says himself, uses his connections to help his country. During Petro Poroshenko’s presidency, Viktor Medvedchuk successfully engaged in the exchange of prisoners: almost 500 people were freed thanks to his negotiations. The politician established relationships with the leaders of unrecognized republics, becoming a person who is listened to not only in Kyiv and Moscow, but also in Donetsk and Luhansk. Medvedchuk is the only Ukrainian politician to meet with the leaders of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR).
However, after Poroshenko refused to complete the “all for all” exchange, Medvedchuk left the negotiating group and entered politics, while continuing to work privately on the release of the prisoners. Thanks to his ties and influence, he managed to free four soldiers in 2019. However, President Volodymyr Zelensky declined Medvedchuk’s services – perhaps out of newly elected president’s jealousy towards Medvedchuk on the issue of a peaceful resolution. This jealousy took radical forms after Zelensky publicly threatened Medvedchuk and the television stations, which support a peaceful resolution. Authorities have opened a series of criminal proceedings regarding the meetings with leaders of the Russian Federation, and law enforcement offices, controlled by Zelensky, even carried out searches in Medvedchuk’s offices, which caused a clearly negative reaction among the international community.
The Opposition Platform – For Life party, in which the politician takes the leading position, joined the opposition in the newly formed parliament, criticizing Zelensky for betraying voters on the issue of peace in Donbas.
Medvedchuk drew up a peace plan based on the Minsk agreements, which found an echo in the European Parliament and the Senate in France. Most importantly, it was approved in Moscow, Donetsk and Luhansk, because according to the Medvedchuk’s peace plan, unrecognized republics can return to Ukraine if they have autonomy.
However, officially, Kyiv says that it ignores this initiative of Medvedchuk, like many others. The oppositionist is convinced that new Kyiv authorities are influenced by nationalists and simply do not have the political will to negotiate with Russia and the unrecognized republics, and therefore that is no plan that will suit them.
In addition, Medvedchuk launched a new format for a peaceful resolution and created an interparliamentary group for dialogue with Russia, France and Germany, which led to another level of negotiations towards a peace process due to involving the deputies of the four countries in it.
7. Leaders of so-called DNR and LNR Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik
The new leaders of the unrecognized republics have been at the helm of these entities for only a year. Unlike their predecessors, Pushilin and Pasechnik are more inclined towards negotiations and political compromises. Firstly, they declare their readiness for direct peace talks with the Ukrainian authorities, up to the full implementation of Minsk agreements (and this means the return of the occupied territories to Ukraine). Secondly, bellicose rhetoric in the DNR and LNR gradually fades away. If they are not able to reach an agreement with Ukraine, the leadership of the unrecognized entities is ready to drift towards Russia, but rebels do have a big desire to fight. Plus, Russia is not ready to accept the DNR and LNR as its part, and therefore unrecognized entities have no other choice but to negotiate.
Pushilin and Pasechnik depend on Russia, this is a fact. However, they should not be perceived as blind puppets of the Kremlin. Almost 6 years of “independence” is a factor that is distancing Donetsk and Luhansk from Kyiv more and more as time goes by. The leaders of the republics have their own ambitions, their own requirements here, and they need to be taken into account. At the moment, Kyiv is not ready to openly make concessions, and this is understandable. Now Kyiv does not consider the DNR and LNR as the party to the talks and is trying to negotiate first with Russia. At this stage, such a strategy has the right to exist, but how will the events turn out when Kyiv and Moscow reach an agreement?
In any case, the unwillingness of the leaders of the unrecognized republics to return to Kyiv’s control becomes obvious. They are doing everything to get Russia to recognize their independence or to join the neighboring state, but not to return to the “embrace” of Ukraine
8. President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko
The leader of Belarus is trying to play on the confrontation between the West, Russia, and Ukraine. If until 2014 Minsk was in international isolation, now Belarus has established a dialogue with Europe, plays the role of mediator between Ukraine and Russia, and most importantly – receives not only political but also economic dividends from this. Lukashenko provided the Minsk platform for negotiations between Kyiv, Moscow, Donetsk and Luhansk. And amid the fading economic activity between Ukraine and Russia, it received a redirection of logistic and economic flows between these countries through Belarus. European sanctions allowed Minsk to become a supplier of European goods to Russia.
Despite all the benefits, Lukashenko’s position is shaky. He has to maneuver between Kyiv and Moscow, and from time to time the President of Belarus annoys one side or the other with his statements. Since Belarus has found its place in such a political situation, it is possible that Lukashenko is interested in maintaining the current state of affairs. After all, it seems that he could do more, given his relations with Putin and Zelensky, who, in his policy, is trying to take after the Belarusian leader most of all.
Perhaps Europe should take into account Lukashenko factor more. The President of Belarus is the person who is heard both in Kyiv and Moscow.
9. The head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell
It is surprising that a diplomat like Josep Borrell became the EU’s High Representative. After all, Europe, which seems to have headed for gradual reconciliation with Russia, received an ardent critic of Moscow in the person of Borrell. When he was the head of the Spanish Foreign Ministry, Borrell called Russia the “old enemy” of the European Union. He repeated this in fall at the hearing in the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament. And now he will have to negotiate with the “old enemy.”
Against the background of a big demand in Europe to lift sanctions against Russia, Borrell demands to keep them. “Sanctions should be maintained until the behavior of Russia changes,” Borrell believes and he wants to change the principle of imposing sanctions – not unanimously, but by the majority of countries. Spanish diplomat in fall spoke a lot about the Russian threat, and the need to confront Russian expansionism and about the support for Ukraine. Many current and future European commissioners are trying not to mention Russia a lot. The former head of EU diplomacy Federica Mogherini was often reproached for this.
It will be interesting to see how Borrell fits into European politics towards Russia and how much his sharp rhetoric will contribute to ending the conflict in Ukraine. So far, the hawks have not been able to convince Putin to change his policy, and it is unclear what kind of dove of peace Borrell could turn out to be.
10. The Special Representative of the OSCE in Ukraine Heidi Grau
Swiss diplomat Heidi Grau in December was appointed the new Special Representative of the OSCE Chairman in Ukraine and Trilateral Contact Group on the settlement of the situation in Donbas. She replaced the Austrian diplomat Martin Sajdik, who will not be remembered for having done something constructive. The OSCE has been quite helpless in the Donbas all these years, and praise addressed to Sajdik at the end of his term is an exaggeration of his merits.
OSCE mission is entrusted with the promotion of reconciliation of the parties, but in the existing format, it is hardly possible. Therefore, at the Paris meeting, the leaders of the Normandy Four countries agreed that the mission would expand its mandate and be able to verify and monitor the observance of the ceasefire in Donbas around the clock. Ukraine also wants to have the answer on how SMM observers get to the Ukrainian-Russian border and whether they can stay there.
Heidi Grau in the new role is an ordinary diplomat whose hands are tied by OSCE protocols. However, in the case of a shift in the peace process, the role of the mission in Donbas will grow. In particular, it would largely depend on the OSCE whether the parties violate the ceasefire. According to OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Miroslav Lajčák, one of the priorities of his work is to support a political settlement of the situation in Donbas and humanitarian aid, so he will task the new OSCE Special Representative with them at Minsk talks.