"Strengthening" of Ukraine's negotiating group in Minsk: master class on driving yourself into a corner
The concept, promoted by head of Ukrainian President's Office Andriy Yermak and deputy chief of the Ukrainian team in Minsk talks on Donbas settlement, regarding the "strengthening" of the Ukrainian delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk is, in fact, multidimensional. The first dimension is about involving in talks chiefs of parliamentary committees and their deputies, as well as deputy ministers. The second is to attract internally displaced persons to work in the TCG subgroups.
Commenting on that first dimension, Yermak said he was driven by the assumption that "the negotiation process cannot go on forever", and that raising the status of the Ukrainian representation in the TCG format will push Russia toward taking mirror measures.
This hope is akin to believing in "synchronized, mirror withdrawal of forces and means" at three pilot disengagement sites in the warzone, which never happened. It would be more than naïve to expect from Russia any mirror measures within the framework of the TCG as they keep generating options for distancing themselves from their true role of in the conflict through various "direct negotiation mechanisms". Among them is the idea of the infamous Advisory Council with the direct involvement of representatives of the occupied territories, various requirements to urgently agree some amendments to the Ukrainian legislation with members of the illegal armed groups (IAGs), additional "ceasefire" initiatives, which Russia sees as the need to establish in case of truce violations direct contacts between the non-existent "Joint Ceasefire Control and Coordination of the LPR-DPR" and the Ukrainian military command, etc.
The wording used by the head of the Ukrainian President's Office makes it look as if the problem with the implementation of the Minsk agreements really lies in the insufficiently high representation of the Ukrainian team, rather than in Russia and IAGs it controls failing to stop escalating the front line
That's not to mention the fact that such specific accents put by the Ukrainian side could be interpreted ambiguously: instead of the apparent attempt to "demonstrate Ukraine's enormous will for political settlement", it can easily be considered as an attempt to impose on the Ukrainian side additional responsibility for the lack of progress in the implementation of Minsk agreements.
The wording used by the head of the Ukrainian President's Office makes it look as if the problem with the implementation of the Minsk agreements really lies in the insufficiently high representation of the Ukrainian team, rather than being due to Russia and IAGs it controls failing to stop escalating the front line and having held sham "elections" in the occupied territories in 2018 (while the Minsk agreements say elections in the certain regions of Donetsk and Luhansk regions [ORDLO] shall be held only in line with Ukrainian law).
Besides, the actions of the President's Office aimed at the ultimate formalization of the negotiation process within the TCG (this is not only about increasing the level of our representation, but also Reznikov's consent to the formalization of the very TCG, of which he spoke in his interviews), contribute to shifting the discussion of settlement-related political issues to the TCG platform. At the same time, for Ukraine, it would be much more favorable to discuss any serious political steps in the Normandy format. So, such kind of a shift toward the TCG is exactly what Russia has long been striving for. The idea has been put on many occasions both by Russia's think tanks and personally their Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The second dimension – the one about the participation of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the work of TCG subgroups – will one way or another pave the way for new manipulations by Russia in terms of a "direct dialogue" between Ukraine and ORDLO. After all, it is absolutely clear that the representatives of the illegal armed groups, who are simply attendees at the talks but not a party to negotiations will not go anywhere from those TCG meetings. And the attempt to motivate the presence of IDPs as "an ORDLO side with whom we will conduct a political dialogue", described in Paragraph 12 of the Package of Measures, will not cancel this fact. That is, Ukraine risks becoming a victim of its own rhetoric: having taken a great interest in disputes about the semantics of such words "ORDLO representatives", Reznikov and Yermak failed to notice how they started talking about internally displaced persons as a "counterweight to the illegal armed groups". And it is precisely on this that Russia's further initiatives will be built to push for "direct dialogue between Kyiv and Donbas within the framework of the TCG".
The position set forth in the "Yermak Minutes of Meeting" of March 11 is exactly what Russia will further be insisting on. Moreover, as it became clear immediately following the TCG meeting on March 26, it's not that important how the initiative will be called – be it the "Advisory Council" or some other name, which hasn't already become a red flag for the Ukrainian public. It is much more important for Russia to confront the Ukrainian delegation with the need to conduct a dialogue with the illegal armed formations. The way Yermak intends to "confuse" Russia is more likely to confuse Ukrainian negotiators. And it will lead to the same result that the Advisory Council could have led to in the form described in the "Yermak Minutes of Meeting", only a little later. Of course, that's if these initiatives involving IDPs will ever be implemented.
The way Yermak intends to "confuse" Russia is more likely to confuse Ukrainian negotiators. And it will lead to the same result that the Advisory Council could have led to in the form described in the "Yermak Minutes of Meeting", only a little later
In general, it remains unclear why the Ukrainian negotiators decided to read the Package of Measures from the bottom of the document – namely, from paragraphs 13 and 12 where it lays down the issues of new subgroups within the framework of the TCG and the dialogue with representatives of the ORDLO. It would be wiser to get back to reading this Package from the beginning, from Paragraph 1 – the one on a ceasefire. It's no accident that in the text of these documents – imperfect in many respects – it's security that comes first.
Maria Kucherenko is a project manager at the Center for Civil Society Studies