Kyiv is adding Ukrainian citizens from the Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine’s east as members of Kyiv’s delegation to the Minsk Contact Group (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, June 15, 17). But this is only one aspect of the delegation’s thorough overhaul. At the same time, Kyiv has turned its Contact Group delegation from a semi-official one into a fully governmental and parliamentary delegation, under the Presidential Office’s and the government’s hands-on management, albeit bringing Ukrainian citizens from Donetsk-Luhansk along as delegation members.
According to Presidential Office chief Andriy Yermak, Kyiv’s delegation to the Minsk Contact Group until recently resembled a “charitable activity” (“volonterski”), in the sense that its key figures were no longer active-duty officials, were not mandated to make significant decisions, and (as Mr. Yermak implies) had basically volunteered their services (Levyy Bereg, June 17).
Indeed, the delegation’s key figures in 2015-2019 were private personalities retired from public service (e.g., former President Leonid Kuchma, Yevhen Marchuk, Roman Bezsmertnyy). Although the key members were high-level state appointees, the delegation on the whole had a semi-official character, reflecting the Minsk Contact Group’s own ambiguities. Any concessions extorted by Russia from a Ukrainian delegation with semi-official status would not become legally binding on Ukraine. This arrangement also avoided situations in which Kyiv government officials would have found themselves face to face with the envoys of the unrecognized “people’s republics.”
Being represented in the Contact Group by semi-official figures, formerly high-level but meanwhile retired, was the cautious approach for Kyiv to take at that time. It was a necessary part of Kyiv’s defensive diplomacy during Petro Poroshenko’s presidency, whose ultimate success has made it possible for Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration to introduce an ambitious, proactive approach.
Messrs. Zelenskyy and Yermak are in a hurry to “end the war” through a final political settlement by certain deadlines, which seem at any given moment to be measured in months or, at a maximum, one year hence, and keep frustratingly receding. Overhauling the Contact Group by raising its official status and decision-making capacity might promise to stop the peace horizon from receding.
Kyiv’s delegation to the Contact Group operates since May 6 on a fully official, senior-level status, composed of governmental and parliamentary representatives, with Mr. Yermak overseeing it from the Presidential Office.
President Zelenskyy has appointed Oleksiy Reznikov to the triple-hatted role of deputy prime minister (a newly created post for inter-departmental coordination), minister for reintegration of the occupied territories, and first deputy chief of Kyiv’s delegation to the Contact Group (the titular chief of delegation, former President Kuchma, has announced his intention to resign) (Ukrinform, May 6).
Mr. Zelenskyy has seconded the Ukrainian Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee chair, Andrei Kostin, as Kyiv’s chief delegate to the Minsk Contact Group’s political working group (on “elections” and “special status”); Deputy Defense Minister Oleksandr Polishchuk as chief delegate to the Minsk security working group (mainly on military affairs); Deputy Economy Minister Yulia Svyridenko as chief delegate to the socio-economic working group (on the territories’ reintegration); and the Parliament’s Social Policy And Veterans’ Affairs Committee chair, Galyna Tretiakova, as chief delegate to the humanitarian working group (this deals, inter alia, with prisoner exchanges, which Mr. Zelenskyy treats as a ratings-bolstering issue).
Under the Minsk process, the Contact Group should draft legislative proposals – by agreement between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk – for the Verkhovna Rada to adopt as Ukrainian laws. This mechanism was designed to insert Donetsk-Luhansk deeply into Ukraine’s legislative and constitutional processes. Thus, the Minsk political working group is supposed to produce, inter alia, a special Ukrainian law on “elections” in Donetsk-Luhansk and a constitutional law of Ukraine on the “special status” of Donetsk-Luhansk, as spelled out in the Minsk agreements.
According to Oleksandr Merezhko, the chair of the Ukrainian Parliament’s Foreign Policy Committee and deputy chief of the delegation to the Minsk Contact Group, more members of the Verkhovna Rada should be involved in the Contact Group’s work. Their involvement in working out legislative proposals could facilitate their subsequent acceptance by the Rada (Levyy Bereg, May 29, June 9).
Kyiv hopes against hope to discuss such enactments (“elections,” “special status”) with loyal Ukrainian citizens from Donetsk-Luhansk (see EDM, June 15, 17) rather than negotiate them with the two illegitimate “republics.” But on the other hand, the Zelenskyy administration is in a hurry to achieve “peace” through a political settlement by self-assumed deadlines.
That would require Moscow’s involvement in ways that would overrule its own proxies. And this is probably why Mr. Yermak and some other Kyiv officials are urging Moscow to beef up Russia’s delegation to the Minsk Contact Group, appointing Russian governmental and parliamentary officials equivalent in rank to the Ukrainian delegation. This could clear the way for negotiation above the heads of Donetsk and Luhansk. It would also thereby negate Russia’s own logic that shaped the Minsk process from 2014 onward. According to Mr. Merezhko again, a heavier Russian presence – e.g., adding Russian parliamentarians to the Contact Group – would increase the latter’s authority and its sense of responsibility for decisions to be made, boost confidence in and respect for the Minsk process and its goals on all sides, and, ultimately, facilitate Ukraine’s adoption of those laws that must be enacted (Levyy Bereg, May 29, June 9).
Ukraine’s move to raise its delegation to the Minsk Contact Group from a semi-official level to a full-fledged, senior-level governmental and parliamentary delegation marks a shift from defensive to offensive diplomacy. According to President Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Mr. Yermak, when adumbrating this shift, “Our conduct will be proactive, Ukraine will come forward as the initiating side, the dominant side in the negotiations” (Ukrinform, May 7).
As Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba elaborated during the latest Contact Group negotiating round (June 9-15), “We are taking over the initiative, we shall conduct offensive-type diplomacy to impose our own agenda, we shall create situations in which Russia has to react to us, not the other way around” (Ukrinform, June 14).
At the same time, Kyiv is comprehensively challenging Russia’s interpretation of the Minsk agreements – the interpretation that has thus far prevailed in the Contact Group and the Normandy processes. The goal of accelerating the negotiations and that of changing the foundation of the negotiations, however, would seem to be potentially contradictory goals. Mr. Yermak has attempted to address this potential contradiction after the latest Minsk round: “The people of Ukraine want peace more than anything else. Peace in line with Ukraine’s interests and on Ukraine’s conditions. We are only talking about a peace that would end the fighting, return our territories, return our people” (Levyy Bereg, June 17).
Mr. Yermak is clearly also trying to square his president’s electoral promise of a quick peace with the goal of changing the basis of negotiations. Moreover, he seems intent on overcoming his credibility problems after mishandling the negotiations leading up to the December 2019 Normandy summit, accepting the Steinmeier formula in a Russian reformulation even worse than the German original, and accepting again from Moscow’s hands the project of a “consultative council“ that would have reconfigured the Contact Group to Ukraine’s detriment (see EDM, October 3, 2019 and March 26). Mr. Yermak seemed at a loss for an answer when queried by star interviewer Sonia Koshkina as to the reasons behind his credibility problem (Levyy Bereg, June 17). But, as Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s policy coordinator regarding the occupied territories, has made clear a number of times since then, “We have forgotten about the ‘consultative council’ and are moving on” (Interfax-Ukraine, June 9).
Ukraine’s official reinterpretation of the Minsk agreements has advanced considerably since the December 2019 Normandy summit, when President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian government had collectively announced their intentions to revise that dispensation (see EDM, December 9, 11, 12, 2019). As Moscow invidiously describes it, Kyiv is “rewriting the Minsk agreements by means of drawing Ukrainian red lines” (TASS, June 15). The main reinterpretation concerns the sequencing of key steps: withdrawal of Russian forces, disbandment of the Donetsk-Luhansk unlawful forces and securing the Ukraine-Russia border in that territory (whether under Ukrainian or international control), to be accomplished in advance of any local elections. This has become Ukraine’s firmly entrenched position by now, reversing the Minsk agreements’ Russian-dictated sequence.
Kyiv’s refusal to negotiate with Donetsk-Luhansk not only remains intact but has acquired an additional supportive argument. In the latest Contact Group session, on June 15, the Ukrainian delegation’s deputy chief, Mr. Merezhko, declared (as the Russian side summarized it from the session’s protocol) that the Minsk II agreement’s endorsement by the United Nations Security Council (February 2015) has the character of a recommendation that does not impose any obligations on Ukraine. The Russian delegation’s chief, Boris Gryzlov, retorted that this unprecedented Ukrainian statement “denies the legal basis of the [Minsk] agreements” and “attempts to destroy the negotiating process.” Mr. Gryzlov, Donetsk and Luhansk all noted that Kyiv’s view denies its “obligation” to negotiate the political and legal aspects of the peace settlement with the representatives of Donetsk and Luhansk (TASS, June 15, 17; Donetskoye Agentstvo Novostey, June 17).
In the Contact Group’s latest session (held by video-conference, June 10-15), Kyiv again demanded the withdrawal of foreign forces, the disarmament of unlawful formations and Ukrainian control of the border in advance of any “elections” in Donetsk-Luhansk. And it went further than merely declining Donetsk-Luhansk’s proposal to work out a roadmap toward restoring social-economic ties between “Ukraine and the republics” (Donetskoye Agentstvo, June 17). Proactively, Kyiv called for: restoring Ukraine’s legislation and its monetary and tax systems in the Donetsk-Luhansk territory (where the ruble is now in circulation); ascertaining the situation of Ukrainian state-owned and privately owned enterprises and other economic assets, illegally expropriated by the Donetsk-Luhansk “people’s republics”; and ensuring the operation of Ukrainian mobile phone networks on these territories (President.gov.ua, June 10, 15; Ukrinform, June 17).
Kyiv, however, remains ensnared in its acceptance of the Steinmeier formula. Eager for another Normandy summit, Messrs. Zelenskyy and Yermak feel bound to incorporate the Steinmeier formula into Ukraine’s existing law on Donetsk-Luhansk’s “special status,” such incorporation being a precondition to holding the next Normandy summit in Berlin. The delegations from Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk exchanged documents about their respective views on this matter at the latest Contact Group session. Moscow and Donetsk-Luhansk demand a more binding version of that clause than Kyiv would allow in the existing, but inoperative, law on special status.
The article above is reprinted from Eurasia Daily Monitor with permission from its publisher, the Jamestown Foundation, www.jamestown.org.