Anna Myroniuk: Peace in Donbas can’t mean capitulating to Russia
Editor’s Note: This opinion piece was written based on the experience of Kyiv Post staff writer Anna Myroniuk, a native of Donetsk, on a trip to Paris at the invitation of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which sponsored a visit by Ukrainian journalists in early February. In Paris, the reporters had a chance to speak with top-level decision-makers and hear their views on how to end Russia’s war in the Donbas.
For almost six years, I have watched as presidents, diplomats and their advisers decide the fate of my home, the Donbas.
Like many others, I have followed decisions surrounding the war-torn land on the ground and have covered the meetings of the Normandy Four leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France and the consequences of their negotiations on the Donbas as a reporter.
When the Minsk Protocol peace plan was signed in September 2014, I saw it fail as a news correspondent for a television channel working on the Donbas front line.
In mid-January 2015, my colleagues and I were on our way back to our hotel after reporting a story about how Ukrainian soldiers were responding to the peace plan. As we were passing a town named Schastia, which means happiness, artillery shells started falling and exploding everywhere around us. Blastwave hit the car we were in. Miraculously, our driver managed to get us out uninjured. Not everyone was so lucky. One local citizen died and three were injured at that very moment.
The Minsk peace plan was not working. As the situation at the front line escalated, in mid-February 2015 Ukraine agreed to sign Minsk 2, an amended peace plan that satisfied Russia’s demands more than the previous version. Back then, it appeared to help cool down the conflict. But, in hindsight, it has turned out to be the main stumbling block to the entire peace process.
Some people appear not to see that. Among them, as I learned recently, are top officials of France, Ukraine’s key partner.
“We understand Ukraine’s frustration with Minsk 2, but there is no alternative,” one French official told me during my trip to Paris at the beginning of February. He asked for anonymity so he could speak freely. I disagree with him. To me, there is never only one path forward, and if something is not working then it is time to come up with a better idea.
Talking with the French officials left me feeling that they are trying to force Ukraine into peace, not Russia. I do not think France is doing this out of a negative attitude toward Ukraine. Rather, Paris understands that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is easier to force to compromise than his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. At the same time, France by no means wants to be Russia’s enemy. So, as a mediator, it is interested in one thing — ending the conflict while keeping Russia as an ally.
But Paris may be forgetting that Ukraine attacked no one. It was Russia that seized Crimea and portions Donbas. It is fair that Ukraine wants its land back.
Minsk 2: Suicide for Ukraine
In Paris, I was told that Ukraine has to follow Minsk 2 and comply with its prescribed order of events. The plan mandates that Ukraine must hold local elections in Donbas before regaining control of its border with Russia. Only after this will “foreign mercenaries,” a reference to Russian soldiers, withdraw from Ukrainian territory.
But here’s the problem: there is no way the Russian army will go home after local elections. Along with Russian-led separatists, they will run for local office and win. After legitimizing themselves as members of the local authorities, some will go further and run for parliament to influence Ukrainian politics from the inside.
“It is suicide for Ukraine to fulfill [Minsk 2],” said Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean, head of the Russia-NIS Center at the French Institute of International Relations.
“Concerning the political resolution of the conflict, we have the Minsk Protocol signed. The day after, when I saw it, I said that this peace plan could not be implemented because it is a threat to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine,” she added. “It is clear why Ukraine signed it. There was no other option in the given conditions back then.”
Ukraine insists on shifting the order of events outlined in Minsk 2. Full withdrawal of troops must be the first step, which would enable Ukraine to regain control over its border. Only then should there be elections in the currently occupied parts of Donbas as prescribed by Ukrainian law. France seems to be against this.
The reasons for Ukraine’s perspective are more than political nit-picking. It will simply be impossible to hold democratic and fair elections on Ukrainian territory controlled by Russian-led combatants. Simply recall the Russian-organized “referendum” in occupied Crimea, deemed illegal by the United Nations. France does not seem to understand this.
“If the order of events is swapped as suggested, maybe the Minsk peace process will fall apart,” a French diplomatic source, who asked to remain anonymous, told me. He was referring to a suggestion that Zelensky brought to the table at peace talks in Paris on Dec. 9, 2019.
Little trust in OSCE
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, is supposed to monitor the elections according to the Minsk 2. “These are our guarantees: The OSCE would have to recognize the results of the elections as fair,” a French diplomatic source said.
That’s a fair point. However, in Ukraine, there is little trust in the OSCE, and it is seen as biased for a number of reasons — including the fact that it employs Russian observers for peacekeeping in Donbas.
In April 2016, OSCE employees were photographed celebrating the wedding of a Russian-backed militant’s daughter in the Donbas. The OSCE claimed these employees no longer work for the mission as they had quit in 2015. Later, however, Ukrainian journalists discovered that the same staffers were still working for the mission in 2018.
In July 2018, another scandal involving the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission, SMM, in Donbas erupted. The German TV channel ADR broadcast an investigation that revealed an OSCE employee was spying for Russia in Donbas and conveying information to Russian intelligence. The OSCE expressed concern and promised to look into the matter.
Even supposing that OSCE adheres to best standards, there is little hope that Russian-led militants will allow them to observe polling stations. The OSCE routinely reports that monitoring missions are barred from certain areas in the occupied regions.
Another important point is that the “Steinmeier Formula,” which Ukraine agreed to in October 2019, says that OSCE has to recognize elections in the Donbas “in general,” which allows room for interpretation.
After all, the self-proclaimed authorities of Donbas have routinely claimed that they will not allow Ukraine to hold elections in the territories they control.
How will you preserve my right to vote?
“France understands the Ukrainian position regarding security first and elections second. However, our task is not just supporting the Ukrainian position,” the unnamed French official told me. “We have an understanding, but we have to find a compromise between the positions of Russia and Ukraine to bring peace and territorial integrity to Ukraine.”
France and Russia stand for “elections first” in the occupied territory of Donbas. But if there are elections in the Donbas, I want to vote.
Since the war started, 1.5 million Donbas residents have fled the conflict zone and settled in other regions of Ukraine – and this is only the number of people who chose to register as an internally displaced person. There are many more (like me) who declined to register, and that excludes countless others who moved abroad. Is there any plan to provide these people with the opportunity to vote?
Many of these people had to change their registration and place of residence. It has been six years, and life goes on. Some former Donbas residents bought apartments in other Ukrainian cities, which means they are no longer registered in Donetsk and would not be allowed to vote. Without the war, they would likely have never left their homes.
The opposition to “elections first” is also about security. If Ukraine holds the elections before it has control over its border, how can safe access to polling stations be ensured?
Some former Donetsk residents, myself included, would be enthusiastic enough to come all the way to Donetsk to vote, but it is extremely dangerous to do so.
In the fall of 2019, I received texts from the occupied Donbas accusing me of genocide and threatening me with 10 years in prison. Back in 2016, some young people in Luhansk filmed a video of themselves tearing apart photos of Ukrainian journalists — including mine. Returning to the occupied territory is a risk to my safety so long as Russia remains there.
This is the logic behind the Ukrainian authorities’ position when they say “security first, then elections.” I hope they will stand for it and not give up.
Macron & Putin
In Paris, officials said that they are disappointed with the Ukrainian press for writing that France maintains a pro-Russian position. They tried to persuade me and other journalists that this is untrue.
“It is more complicated than that. It is way more complex and there are some nuances,” said a diplomatic source.
My interlocutors argued that France has always supported the sanctions against Russia imposed after its aggression in Ukraine. They also emphasized that there is a quorum in the European Union to maintain these sanctions until Russia fully implements its obligations under the Minsk agreements.
However, it is quite clear that Macron is moving closer to Putin. His recent actions have not helped change how he is perceived by Ukrainian media.
The French president has visited Moscow and welcomed Russia’s leader to France while never visiting Ukraine.
At the same time, Macron accepted Putin’s invitation to Moscow to take part in an extremely controversial event, the 75th celebration of Victory Day on May 9. Russia is known for using the celebration to push a propagandistic narrative about World War II.
Recently Macron made several statements that define his position regarding Russia. He said that Russia is not an enemy of the NATO, but that terrorism is. He also said that he thinks it is “a major error” for Europe to distance itself from Russia.
It appears Macron thinks he needs Putin as an ally.
“France made a choice to renew the dialogue with Moscow, to negotiate. It is clear that the dialogue is complicated. However, we use it to remind Moscow about obligations that it has to fulfill,” the French diplomatic source said.
Macron & Zelensky
Macron likes Zelensky more than he liked his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. They have more in common. Moreover, there is one thing Paris sees as the top priority: humanitarian action in Donbas. And they believe that Zelensky cares about it more than Poroshenko did.
Poroshenko’s policy to stop paying pensions in the occupied territories of Donbas was not welcomed in Paris, according to Kastoueva-Jean from IFRI.
Paris thinks that Zelensky is different, that he has the political will to end the war, will bring a new impulse to the peace talks and will be easier to negotiate with than Poroshenko.
However, while the leader of the country has changed, the Minsk 2 text has not. Ukraine opposed it then and still does now.
I have the impression that no one has even tried to shift Putin’s approach to ending the war. Paris believes it is Zelensky who will compromise. But, if he does, Ukrainians will take the streets again, as thousands did to protest of possible capitulation during the most recent round of negotiations in Paris.