Donbas peace talks group meets online, averts highly criticized agreement meant to include Russia-run “people’s republics”
The Minsk Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) met on 26 March to discuss the Donbas situation, but no ratification of controversial agreements, drafted two weeks earlier, took place. The meeting had to be conducted online, and thus the necessary physical signatures were impossible to obtain. Arising from the most recent meetings held in Minsk on 11 March, the newest provisions negotiated by the TCG have raised much controversy.
Most troublesome has been the call for a Consultation Council. The council would include representatives of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics (“DNR” and “LNR”) — proxy states created and de facto controlled by Russia. The bid for a council was a predictable outcome of the shady agreements in Minsk.The creation of a Consultation Council was delayed. Such a possibility caused an outcry of civil society and the eruption of protests at the Office of the President, and Parliament, even during the quarantine of the COVID-19 pandemic. This small victory may well be lost — the decision-making powers likely will not stop finding ways to create the council.
The Office of the President was to announce the outcome of the Minsk meetings a day after their conclusion, on 12 March. However, the key details of the agreements had been uncovered by the Ukrainian media outlet dt.ua which published photos of the signed documents.
Effectively, the agreements have been cast in line with Russian scenarios for Ukraine, and, correspondingly, pro-Russian forces within Ukraine. The proposed Consultation Council is to be part of the political subgroup of the TCG – a group believed to have come out of consultations with members of Germany, France, and the OSCE, during the December 2019 Normandy Summit.
The Minsk agreements confirm that a Consultation Council could indeed be created. If so, the Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics,” occupied by Russia, will be able to offer Russian residency status. At the same time, Russia could gain the standing of a “guarantor-observer,” equal to the same role played by Germany, France, and the OSCE.
In effect, the Consultation Council would oblige Ukraine to have direct negotiations with Russia’s puppet entities, “DNR” and “LNR” – reinforcing the Kremlin’s narrative of the war in Donbas being a Ukrainian “internal matter,” i.e., a conflict with genuine separatist political actors rather than Russian protagonists.
On 19 March, a decree to block the creation of the Consultation Council was registered in Parliament.
Now that these notorious documents have been released, Ukrainian officials have made every effort to discount any need for worry. They rationalize that creating the Consultation Council will have no bearing on the recognition of the Russia-run “republics.”
“I want to emphasize with full responsibility that no steps today were made for the creation of the legal frame for the representatives of the so-called ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR.’ There is no negotiation — this is not the case,” Andriy Yermak, head of Zelenskyy’s President’s Office said.
In spite of his words, Yermak has raised skepticism.
The true repercussions of such a council might be disguised through misleading messaging.
“Who said that Ukrainians from Donbas who live in the controlled territory of Ukraine are not allowed to participate in the Minsk process? They are. They should sit at this table and participate, discussing the future for their lands. They have property rights, victims’ rights, the rights for justice and for information. That’s the idea behind this advisory board. That’s all. No sedition, no ‘betrayal.’ It is a demonopolization of the presence of those invited from the ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR.’ There [at the negotiations] should be Ukrainians who lived in these territories up to 2014. They have the right to have their voice heard,” Minister of Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories Oleksiy Reznikov, said.
He provided assurances as to why the Consultation Council could not be confirmed at the TCG’s meeting.
“The TCG is taking place as a video conference, therefore any decision on ratifying the agreement cannot be signed physically. Moreover, the decision to create [a council] can only be made after consultations with Germany, France, and the OSCE. Today, they are ongoing.”
Reznikov’s words had little effect. On 25 March, after the quarantine was called, demonstrators shifted their protest to the internet and social media. There, they continued their denunciations of the Minsk “sovereignty” plan.
Following the TCG online meeting on the 26th, the President’s Office issued a statement, saying that the key questions raised by Ukrainian representatives were related to security issues in Donbas, and to the mutual release of detained persons. Discussion on the next phase of the disengagement of forces also took place.
No new progress had been anticipated from the TCG meeting. The Ukrainian outlet rbk.ua had already reported on the inability of the two sides to agree – even before the discussions got underway. They also pointed out that the opening of checkpoints was irrelevant, as long as the contact line is closed due to the COVID-19 quarantine.
Meanwhile, the fighting in Donbas continues. On 26 March – the same day as the statement from the President’s Office – pro-Russian forces violated the ceasefire five times.