Advisory Council with Donbas warlords: canceled or delayed?
Deputy Prime Minister for the reintegration of temporarily occupied territories, Oleksandr Reznikov, who also represents Ukraine in the political team of the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) on Donbas settlement in Minsk, said that the Advisory Council involving envoys of the unrecognized occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions would not be set up on March 25, as previously planned.
However, the "zrada" [treason] – that's how Ukrainians colloquially brand government moves they believe put national interest at risk – is not off the table. It's just being delayed.
Moreover, it would be too early to suggest that the TCG meeting won't bring any other type of "zrada" in some other plane. Judging by reports of those close to the negotiation process, as well as by controlled leaks on the part of the militants, the political subgroup was supposed to convene via videolink, but the meeting was eventually canceled altogether. The reasons being voiced vary. Militants say that this was due to health issues concerning part of the Ukrainian delegation, which is definitely manipulation. The Ukrainian side, in turn, says that in the current circumstances, making decisions such as on setting up an Advisory Council would simply be wrong. ...
Three days of negotiations, March 24-26, may bring other unpleasant surprises
However, as far as I know, nobody canceled the talks of the military, humanitarian, and economic subgroups. Therefore, three days of negotiations, March 24-26, may bring other unpleasant surprises.
Indeed, perhaps Ukraine will delay the creation of the Advisory Board. But I don't rule out the possibility that new sections for the disengagement of troops will be agreed, which will be disadvantageous for Ukraine. It is very likely that the Russian side will push for the simultaneous opening of crossing checkpoints in Zolote and Shchastia – something that's unacceptable for Ukraine because it is nothing but an attempt by Russia to sell its old - and unfulfilled - obligations at a higher price. After all, they were obliged to open the checkpoint in Zolote regardless of any new ones, but simply in exchange for the withdrawal of troops in this location.
Therefore, I believe certain unpleasant surprises are possible following these talks. And, judging by whether we see them happen, we'll draw conclusions both on further negotiations and the prospects of the Advisory Council being created.
If the Russian side now succeeds in pushing through certain security solutions, this will mean that in the next 30 days, while Ukraine remains under quarantine restrictions, Russian military and political negotiators will boost pressure on Ukraine. That's even despite all the reports claiming that the talks would be suspended... Therefore, it is important for everyone – Ukrainian experts, journalists, and regular citizens who have not yet been engulfed by panic moods over the coronavirus – to carefully monitor all statements regarding the course of the TCG talks and all manipulations by Ukrainian authorities, despite assurances that setting up an Advisory Council is not about recognizing militants as equal actors and legitimizing them. In any case, the main point here is that thanks to this Advisory Council, militants will be recognized as a negotiating party, which was never the case before.
Besides, Oleksiy Reznikov has assured the public that the decision to create the Advisory Council will be made only after the relevant consultations with Germany, France, and the OSCE. However, none of them will be telling Ukraine directly: "do it!" or "don't!"
But, if we analyze the information available in open sources, we will see that at least two parties – German and the OSCE – are already openly hinting to Ukraine that Kyiv shouldn't give up its negotiating positions.
Just look at the OSCE reports over the past year – it is obvious that the Mission started "seeing" much more... Among other things, monitors constantly report on spotted e-warfare systems that only the Russian army has in service. This isn't Soviet equipment, it's Russian-made, which, in fact, proves that Ukraine is fighting with Russia in Donbas, rather than with some militants or "republics".
Remember the statement Angela Merkel voiced following the Normandy summit? She said that the Minsk deal is no frozen substance – it's flexible and it can be transformed. This refers to the part concerning the transfer of control over the state border.
In addition, a statement should be noted of the German Green Party, which openly opposed the creation of this Advisory Council as a platform. They argued that such a step would put behind the brackets the true role of the Russian Federation, which is already openly exploiting the situation that has developed in the world and in our countries.
Quite a lot will depend on how we, ourselves, will interpret the situation
So there are at least two voices that Ukraine can rely on. In any case, we should also read between the lines: all our international partners would be happy if we could become the ones to lift off of them the burden of sanctions. So everything now depends on us and no one else.
There's nothing comforting for Ukraine in France's stance. The French government has clearly outlined its course towards rapprochement with the Russian position.
Meanwhile, we can and should work with the remaining two voices – of Germany and the OSCE. In many ways, everything that's happening in and around the TCG is the art of interpretation. And quite a lot will depend on how we, ourselves, will interpret the situation.
Maria Kucherenko is a project manager at the Center for Civil Society Studies