Dubious "breakthrough": Ukraine bringing Russia-imposed "reconciliation" scenario closer
Following the latest meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group on Donbas settlement, another ceasefire initiative was agreed – from midnight on July 27, 2020. Or, as the President's Office said, referring to the agreement as a "breakthrough": "We agreed on the application of measures to strengthen the ceasefire regime." Let alone the fact that the very wording is rather weird – after all, parties can either cease fire or continue hostilities, so there can be no half-measures – it isn't entirely clear what the "breakthrough" is actually about.
The Russian Federation, as usual, through its proxy forces, announced that an agreement had been reached on additional ceasefire measures, without waiting for an official press release by the OSCE Special Representative, or even for the completion of talks. Following the TCG meeting, it was also they who published the full text of the "List of additional measures to strengthen and control the current indefinite ceasefire regime." At the same time, no clarification came from the Ukrainian negotiating team of what had actually been agreed – only a rather vague statement about the "breakthrough" that appeared on the President's Office website. Later, the OSCE published a release similar to that posted by Russian-led forces.
Russia never for a moment abandoned the idea of pushing for direct negotiations between Ukraine and the illegal armed groups in the occupied areas
It is worth recalling that immediately after the slowdown in developments on the concept of the "Advisory Council" [the body that would envisage direct contacts between Ukrainian authorities and Russian-led forces in Donbas] in the form that emerged in Head of President's Office Andriy Yermak's minutes of meeting, the Russian side, through its proxies, started pushing through precisely the draft of additional ceasefire measures, which implied direct communication of the so-called "representatives of the JCCC [Joint Ceasefire Control and Coordination Center] of the LPR-DPR" with Ukraine's senior military command. In other words, Russia never for a moment gave up the idea of pushing for direct negotiations between Ukraine and the illegal armed groups in the occupied areas.
An attempt to implement this very concept is seen in the new ceasefire deal. Besides the fact that the Armed Forces of Ukraine and illegal armed groups of the occupied Donbas are presented as parties to military confrontation (by analogy with the Package of Measures), the text mentions the establishment and use of an additional negotiating mechanism to respond to ceasefire violations with the assistance of the JCCC in its current composition.
Meanwhile, the JCCC in its current composition consists of only Ukrainian reps. Hence a logical question: will Ukrainian representatives be allowed into the occupied territory in order to monitor compliance with the ceasefire regime by the illegal armed groups? The option seems unlikely.
Initially, the JCCC consisted of Ukrainian and Russian officers. The latter withdrew in 2017 on a far-fetched pretext. In reality though, Russians sought nothing else but to have the Ukrainian side face the need to communicate directly with Russian proxies, who declared that they were now a party to this format and were actively developing this narrative. All news about the efforts of the military subgroup at the TCG would be published by representatives of occupation administrations on a resource titled "JCCC DPR". Also, militants sporting uniform of a fake "JCCC LPR-DPR" attended pilot disengagement sites, which was a violation of the TCG Framework Decision of September 20, 2016.
Today's and future speculation by Russia over the JCCC composition is a direct consequence of Ukraine's overly mild reactions a year ago. There's no doubt such speculation will expand and become more evident
The Ukrainian side has failed to react to these violations the way it should have: after all, if we stress the fact that the JCCC consisted of Ukraine and Russia envoys, and only JCCC representatives were allowed access to the disengagement zones according to the TCG Framework Decision of 2016, militants with sham "JCCC" stripes were present there in a gross violation of disengagement conditions. Therefore, Ukraine had every right to bring its forces back to previous positions (after an extraordinary meeting of the TCG related to the violation of disengagement conditions – if such violations had not been eliminated).
Today's and future speculation by Russia over the JCCC composition is a direct consequence of Ukraine's overly mild reactions a year ago. There's no doubt such speculation will expand and become more evident. Besides, the prescribed algorithm for engaging return fire in the event of offensive action looks frankly absurd: parties can only return fire if the launch of a coordination mechanism fails. That is, before responding to enemy provocations, it is required that the affected party contact the JCCC and notify TCG representatives of their intention to return fire, it appears… Presumably, the enemy is supposed to politely wait until all approvals required have been in place, and not leave their firing positions, right?...
Will this agreement actually work? The simple answer is no. And the signatures of the Normandy Four leaders, which Zelensky seeks to employ, will change nothing. Moreover, the deal's peculiar wording and the signatures under them will almost completely repeat the design of the Package of Measures - Ukraine and the occupied areas of Donbas portrayed as warring adversaries in the agreement's text, as well as a letter of N4 leaders in support of the deal.
Only one thing is clear today: Russia doesn't abandon its plans to replace its true role in the conflict with that of a mediator.
Maria Kucherenko is a project manager at the Center for Civil Society Studies