The question of leaving behind the Minsk site for the Trilateral Contact Group negotiations was once again raised after a joint effort by Belarusian and Russian security agencies to nab a dissident blogger Roman Protasevich right from a plane carrying him from Athens to Vilnius.
In this regard, we need to start off with separating unrealistic expectations from actual opportunities and benefits emerging in the view of such a shift.
By raising the issue of quitting Minsk as a site for Donbas settlement talks, we can show our attitude to the further integration of Belarus into the "big union state" project
The most obvious advantage of moving negotiations to another country is about being able to testify our stance on what's happening in the Republic of Belarus. As a state, Ukraine cannot and must not silently observe how, in the name of their "eternal president", peaceful protesters have been tortured in a temporary detention center on Okrestsin Street, how government cracked down on opposition leaders, and now engaged in an outrageous act of air piracy to kidnap a blogger who they see as a liability – while jeopardizing lives of other passengers on board the ill-fated plane who in fact have nothing to do with the Belarus events.
A bit less apparent but no less important to us as a party to the TCG talks is ensuring safety of our negotiators. It's no secret that in Belarus, intelligence agents of a neighboring Russia feel at home. The case of Pavlo Hryb, a Ukrainian teen who had been lured to Belarus before being taken by force to Russia where he was illegally detained and deprived of much required medical assistance proved that not a single Ukrainian can feel safe on the Belarusian territory. This doesn't mean, of course, that the Russian intelligence are plotting to kidnap Ukrainian negotiators, but it's a sure fact that all their movements and communications have been and would remain closely monitored. This, too, is additional leverage over the Ukrainian delegation.
In addition, by raising the issue of quitting Minsk as a site for Donbas settlement talks, we can show our attitude to the further integration of Belarus into the "big union state" project – something Russia is obviously firmly intended to implement. This Russian concept is Ukraine's problem, too. After all, it also affects the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine, to which eloquently testifies Russia's move to allow Donbas residents with newly obtained Russian passports voting at the upcoming election to the State Duma of the Russian Federation, as well as the recent "integration fora" held in the occupied areas earlier this year.
Speaking of expectations, it should be noted straight away: moving the talks to another country will in no way change the meaning of the Minsk Agreements, much disadvantageous to Ukraine in many respects. Ukraine's Armed Forces and the illegal armed groups operating in the occupied areas of Donbas will still be mentioned as parties to military confrontation, and it's to this text that the Russian delegates will constantly appeal.
The coronavirus pandemic hasn't gone anywhere and many delegates represent vulnerable groups. So at the current stage, discussions about moving the talks to another city will in no way help Ukraine get rid of representatives of illegal armed groups
Optimists will say that if the negotiations are postponed, Ukraine will try to prevent militants from participating in the process, thereby once and for all returning to the TCG its true meaning, and bringing the format in accordance with its name – the Trilateral Contact Group, with the three participants – Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE as a mediator – working to discuss pressing issues of Donbas settlement. This attempt though will most likely fail: the option of sanctions-related argument against certain individuals is not valid pending talks. For example, Vladislav Surkov, known in Europe and the United States as one of the main ideologists and masterminds of the Russian occupation of eastern Ukraine, who was among the first ones among Russian officials to be sanctioned, nevertheless attended the talks of advisers to Normandy Four leaders in Paris in 2019. Indeed, he was asked to leave Paris immediately after the talks were completed, but this is rather a tiny oral compensation rather than a pattern that should guide Ukraine in shaping up its line in relation to Russian proxies and their participation in the TCG.
Of course, Ukraine could claim that militants can in no way represent certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine if they try to cross into other countries holding Russian passports issued in Donbas (the ones the EU doesn't recognize), but this argument has already been used by our negotiators, and to little avail.
Besides, the TCG isn't going back offline any time soon as the coronavirus pandemic hasn't gone anywhere and many delegates represent vulnerable groups. So at the current stage, discussions about moving the talks to another city will in no way help Ukraine get rid of representatives of illegal armed groups. Speaking of a wider perspective, such a possibility seems questionable as such. That's at least as long as the political subgroup is moderated by Pierre Morel, known for his lack of attention to discrepancies between the number of negotiators declared by the format and the actual number of those present at the table, while Ukraine is trying to play the meaning of words "Representatives of the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions (ORDLO)" instead of demanding a revision of existing agreements to make sure the current situation is reflected in the deal correctly. After all, it was no "ORDLO representatives" who have unleashed war against Ukraine – it was Russia, which annexed Crimea and launched hostilities in eastern Ukraine. And it's precisely this issue, not a hypothetical new site for talks, that should be discussed with partners in the Normandy format.
In the medium term, it does make sense to talk about moving the talks to another country, and this should be done, first of all, jointly with the OSCE. Although we should also be prepared to face the fact that this could be a PR stunt that in no way affects the content of agreements and negotiations. However, taking care of the country's image isn't bad at all. Especially for those who have consistently ignored the issue for several years.
Maria Kucherenko is a Ukrainian analyst, ex-project manager with Center for Civil Society Research