The process of peaceful settlement of the Donbass conflict has long come to a standstill. The Minsk agreements are practically not being implemented on any of the points. Every day, the OSCE special monitoring mission records ceasefire regime violations on both sides, whilst a political settlement seems to be a goal impossible to attain.
Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France “Normandy format” has also lost any efficiency and functionality. The intensity of meetings has significantly decreased – the last summit was held almost a year ago – on December 9, 2019 – after a three-year break, and its results boil down to a repetition of certain provisions of the Minsk agreements. Obviously, the success of February 2015, when the famous “Package of Measures” was defined, has not yet been achieved in this format. Now specific achievements in the Donbass settlement depend solely on the dialogue between the parties to the conflict themselves, or rather, on the political will of Ukraine.
In fact, the main cornerstone of the negotiation process remains unchanged and that is the coordination of the political status of Donetsk and Luhansk through amendments to certain laws and the Constitution of Ukraine. This should be followed in a natural way by legitimate elections in the Donbass holding, and all illegal armed groups withdrawal, and control on the Russian-Ukrainian border restoration. The law of Ukraine “On a special procedure for local self-government in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions” was adopted by the Verkhovna Rada in September 2014, but it was not coordinated with the “DPR” and “LPR”. The Ukrainian parliament annually renews the document; however, it has not yet been put into effect.
At first glance, the task seems pretty simple. After coming to power, the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky has a mono-majority in the Verkhovna Rada and his own cabinet. If desired, the country’s leader could easily fulfill the “primary task” to end the military conflict in Donbass. For a year and a half, there were many opportunities for withdrawing troops, agreeing with the separatist regions on amendments to Ukrainian legislation and their adoption in parliament.
However, the Ukrainian president, like his predecessor, took a different path: first, the withdrawal of all paramilitary units, then a settlement on the terms of Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly stated that he is not satisfied with the Minsk agreements but Ukraine simply does not have an alternative format. The Ukrainian President does periodically threaten with certain plans “B” and “C” for Donbass, but they are not officially presented in any of the ways possible. According to the evasive statements of the head of state, plan “B” consists in creating favorable conditions for LDNR residents’ to migrate in the territories controlled by Ukraine. Nothing is known at all about the mysterious Plan C.
However, at the same Paris summit in 2019, the President of Ukraine, along with other leaders of the Normandy Four, officially confirmed their commitment to the Minsk Agreements. And the rest of the participants in the settlement process are not yet ready to work according to other patterns. Therefore, Ukraine has no choice but to block negotiations with ORDLO in all directions. Even for those few advances that have been outlined in the dialogue of the parties in 2020, no significant results have been observed.
So, on July 23, the Trilateral Contact Group, after months of negotiations, managed to agree on additional security measures. These agreements, among other things, provided for a mechanism for responding to ceasefire violations. But when the representatives of Ukraine and ORDLO on September 9 agreed on a joint inspection in the Shuma area, Kiev, for far-fetched reasons, thwarted the inspection. This incident, in fact, devalued the entire package of additional measures.
In 2020, for the first time since the work of the TCG subgroup on political issues, Ukraine began sending its own draft amendments to the law on special status for discussion with the “LDNR”. But any discussions on this topic are so sluggish that the appearance of an updated document in the near future is hardly possible.
One cannot but mention the scandal ahead of the local elections in Ukraine. The resolution of the Verkhovna Rada on appointing the voting date of July 15 emphasizes once again that there will be no elections in ORDLO until the withdrawal of all illegal armed groups from Donbass.
The same applies to the ongoing disputes between representatives of Ukraine and the LDNR about the Action Plan (Roadmap) for the implementation of the Minsk agreements. On October 14, ORDLO took the initiative to develop such a document and presented their vision on its content.
The first place in ORDLO’s proposals belonged to coordination of new enhanced ceasefire measures, the exchange of prisoners, the demining of areas on the line of contact, the disengagement of troops. And after that – amendments to the Constitution and certain laws of Ukraine on the political status of Donetsk and Luhansk. Donbass representatives even made it possible to attach their amendments to the Ukrainian law on the special status.
The roadmap aimed at expanding and clarifying the Minsk agreements, could give a new impetus to the entire negotiation process. However, in November, Kiev presented its own controversial draft document, which allayed such hopes.
In fact, the representatives of Ukraine not only again put the demilitarization of Donbass at the forefront, but also put forward deliberately impracticable conditions. For example, the beginning of the withdrawal of all armed formations (from December 10, 2020) should precede the entry into force of amendments to the law on special status and the Constitution of Ukraine (by the end of 2020). Recall that this law should also determine the status of local authorities, including the security forces, which Kiev also considers illegal. According to the Ukrainian side, in such conditions, local elections can be held no later than March 31, 2021.
Taking into account the failure to comply with the additional ceasefire measures of July 23 and the pace of dialogue between Kiev and Donbass, the Roadmap can be agreed at best in six months, if by that time Ukraine does not curtail this initiative.
Thus, Kiev is doing everything possible to show the futility of negotiations in the format of the Minsk Agreements and will, to the maximum, refuse any new obligations. The only issue on which the parties still find at least some understanding is the exchange of prisoners. This was one of the main achievements in Donbass under Petro Poroshenko and, it seems, will be the main achievement for Volodymyr Zelensky. The last exchange took place in April this year, and it is still possible that the parties will have time to agree on another action before the end of the year.
The Donbass settlement resembles now something in between Karabakh and Transdniestria. On the one hand, there are daily violations of cease-fire regime, on the other hand, there is a sluggish negotiation process within the established formats. At present, the “LDNR” continues expressing its readiness to work out its political status within Ukraine on the basis of Ukrainian legislation, which means that the parties still have directions they can find compromises in. The resumption of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has shown that any status quo can sooner or later be violated. At the same time, although large-scale breakthroughs in the dialogue between Ukraine and ORDLO are not expected in the near future, one cannot expect a sudden escalation on the contact line between the parties.
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