Escalation of conflict on the line of contact and the pulling of Russian troops to Ukraine borders drove the Ukrainian and European media to recall that the war has in fact been going on in eastern Ukraine for the eighth year already. But it seems that the Ukrainian government is not trying to make use of the latest wave of attention in Ukraine's own interests. Instead of forming a new agenda on the existing negotiation formats, they cling to details like the TCG meeting site in the post-pandemic period, their unfulfilled ultimatums regarding the participants in the Trilateral Contact Group, or the idea of clusters, which does not significantly change our situation for the better, because both Russia, Germany, and France are taking the Minsk Agreements as a framework.
But the Ukrainian plan, which some observers tried to present as a breakthrough by our negotiators, in fact includes such "compromise" positions as, for example, the notorious joint patrols consisting of Ukrainian law enforcement officers and "Ukrainian citizens from ORDLO"
The topic of transferring negotiations from Minsk to any other capital can be perceived as promising only as a designation of Ukraine's position on the violation of human rights in the Republic of Belarus. Other arguments of moving the platform to a "truly neutral country" - that it would allow trying to prevent the militants from participating in the format - will be shattered by reality. Sanctioned persons are in fact allowed into the territory of those states supporting the sanctions for the duration of negotiations. An illustrative case Vadislav Surkov's presence at the talks of foreign policy advisers in Paris in the summer of 2019. So the transfer will not change either the format itself or the content of the Minsk Agreements, which were and remain extremely unfavorable for Ukraine.
In this respect, the clusters plan differs little from the initiative to transfer negotiations to another city. The alleged leaks of the draft plan posted by Kommersant allows concluding that Ukraine, although having tried to change the sequence of measures within Minsk Agreements (to have local elections held after control of the border is regained, sealed no support on the part Germany and France, while Russia, naturally, would never back the idea either. But the Ukrainian plan, which some observers tried to present as a breakthrough by our negotiators, in fact, includes such "compromise" positions as, for example, the notorious joint patrols consisting of Ukrainian law enforcement officers and "Ukrainian citizens from ORDLO ('people's militia')" (direct quote from the Kommersant). And the very fact of the leak of the text (translated into Russian and in the Russian media) indicates that Russia will only accept its own version of the plan - that is, no actions and steps that would contradict the "letter-by-letter" reading of existing agreements (apart from, perhaps, some new agreements "between Ukraine and ORDLO", which is spelled out in the Russian draft).
We need to seek new agreements, while doing so in a way not to be accused of the "collapse of Minsk"
Today it is quite obvious that we don't need a new platform, or even another meeting of foreign policy advisers in the Normandy format, where we would offer tools for the potential legalization of illegal armed groups. We need to seek new agreements, while doing so in a way not to be accused of the "collapse of Minsk". This would be a rather difficult endeavor, given the frames the Ukrainian negotiators themselves have drawn for themselves -- "he who will be the first to make a demarche and turn down meetings shall be considered violator unwilling to agree."
The work must move on in the Minsk format along with the search for new solutions in the Normandy format. But this should also imply minimizing the likelihood of any contacts and even formal exchanges of remarks with representatives of illegal armed groups, and honestly assessing the security situation. In fact, the Ukrainian delegation must admit that the ceasefire declared last summer has long been thwarted (presenting to all interested parties the array of evidence proving violations of the TCG-agreed terms of truce that, beyond shellings, include engineering works at front line positions in the enemy direction), and that Russia is not fulfilling Federation its obligations undertaken within the TCG. This will allow rewriting the decision containing an element unfavorable for Ukraine - the phrase "Joint Ceasefire Control and Coordination Center in its current composition", which opened Russia room for maneuver toward legalizing illegal armed groups as party to the conflict.
In parallel lines, it is necessary to seek opportunities for constructive dialogue in N4, while leaving behind the practice of inflating the cost of the very fact of holding meetings, which has been a major mistake of Team Zelensky, which seems to perceive summits and even phone calls as valuable achievements
A step-by-step plan is needed, prepared in Ukraine – and for Ukraine – the one that doesn't imply legalization of "people's militia" or concessions on border control. Of course, after our dangerous maneuvers last year, including the Advisory Council idea and attempts to implement "joint inspections" of Ukrainian positions together with Russian proxies, it will be difficult to convince our partners that this time, the shift is serious, but we have no other options but to try... We have no right to leave unanswered the questions of why and for what all those war victims died over the past seven years.
Maria Kucherenko is a Ukrainian analyst, ex-Project Manager with Center for Civil Society Research