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By John Helmer, Moscow 
  @bears_with

The Kiev regime of Volodymyr Zelensky is now in the same strategically vulnerable position as Petro Poroshenko’s regime was after the presidential election of May 2014.

Both were facing domestic alienation and armed opposition, which for different reasons in the east of the country and the west, were impossible for the presidents to overcome, compose,  or coordinate.  Both have calculated they should provoke a military confrontation in the Donbass in order to draw the US Government and the NATO allies into rushing a combination of fresh money into Kiev and arms on to the line of contact in the east.

The shooting-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 on July 17, 2014, was a provocation planned to draw direct NATO military intervention on the ground; recovery of the MH17 victims’ bodies and aircraft black boxes was the cover story and camouflage.  But the scheme – devised by the US and Ukrainian secret services, adopted by Poroshenko, promoted by the Dutch, and manned by the Australians – failed; read the book explaining how.

The present situation in the Donbass is understood by the Russian General Staff, the Foreign Ministry, the intelligence agencies, and the Kremlin to be at this point of ignition. They also understand what has changed since mid-2014. The political capacity of the Germans to resist US folly has been eroded by the Navalny Novichok operation since last August,  and by party battles to replace Angela Merkel and her government at the September 26 election; so Germany is much weaker than it was seven years ago. The Dutch, having just re-elected Mark Rutte and continuing the MH17 show trial, are exactly where they were then. Everyone else in Europe, including the British, are more uncertain and unconfident than they were. Joseph Biden was Kiev’s principal ally in Washington then; now he’s mentally less capable of calculation or control.

An unusually detailed presentation of the Russian positions, as well as the Russian interpretation of the positions of the other sides in the conflict, was published this week in Kommersant. Reporter Vladimir Soloviev has transcribed what his source, the chief Russian negotiator Dmitry Kozak (lead image, right), deputy chief of the presidential administration, has provided verbally and in documents.

The current map of the war zone (lead image, left) can be expanded for view here.  A semi-official Russian military situation report can be read here.  

This is the Russian text of Kozak’s briefing.  Here is my translation, unabridged and unedited.

Negotiations on Donbass turn into a decree on peace

Kommersant has studied the peace initiatives and discovered why no single plan has been produced.

Dmitry Kozak, who oversees the negotiations on the Donbass, is obliged to closely monitor the hands of his colleagues in the ‘Normandy Format’ in order that the peace plan does not include anything superfluous.

The settlement of the conflict in the Donbass has reached an impasse, and at the same time has become overgrown with multi-page peace initiatives of both the warring parties and the mediators who are helping them to reach agreement. At the disposal of Kommersant were the so-called clusters for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, which have been discussed in the Normandy Format since the end of last year. From them, it becomes clear why it is not possible to draw up a unified peace plan. For the original Minsk Agreements, click to read.

Showing the players’ cards

Moscow, Kiev and the unrecognized republics of Donbass recognise that the settlement of the conflict is at an impasse. We can say this is the only point on which everyone’s positions fully coincide. Everyone explains the reasons for the freeze in their own way. Russia and the DPR/LPR [Donetsk People’s Republic/Luhansk People’s Republic] accuse the Ukrainian authorities of unwillingness to implement the Minsk Agreements. Kiev blames Moscow for exactly the same thing.

Meanwhile, as Kommersant has found out, there is no shortage of peace initiatives,  neither in the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) [comprising Ukraine, Russia, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE]  to resolve the situation in eastern Ukraine, nor in the Normandy Format (Germany, Russia, Ukraine, France). These two platforms exist in order, firstly to stop the war, and secondly, to stitch together the Ukrainian state, returning to its composition certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk [Lugansk] regions (ORDLO).

In October last year, the self-proclaimed DPR and LPR sent their road map — the ‘Action Plan for resolving the conflict in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine in accordance with the Minsk Agreements’ — to the TCG. Ukraine refuses to consider it. Former President Leonid Kravchuk, who represents Kiev in the TCG, according to a source of Kommersant, even offered to treat it as non-existent. Then on November 2, Kiev proposed its ‘Plan of joint steps of the participants of the Trilateral Contact Group on the implementation of the Minsk Agreements.

Left to right: Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk People’s Republic; Leonid Pasechnik, head of the Luhansk People’s Republic; Leonid Kravchuk, Kiev representative to the Trilateral Contact Group.

This has already been criticised by representatives of the Donbass, saying that the plan is 78% contrary to the Minsk Agreements. In the plan (on file at Kommersant), there are indeed oddities. For example, it says that on December 10, the armed forces of Ukraine would return to their permanent locations in the Donbass, and on December 15, the exchange of prisoners would commence.  Even about the title of the document there have been questions. From the name it follows that the ‘joint steps’ are engaged in by the participants of the TCG. This is no coincidence: Kiev proceeds from the fact that the contracting parties in the group are Ukraine and Russia, which is at war with Ukraine, and the OSCE [Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe] is the mediator.

Kiev calls for a stop to shooting in eastern Ukraine with a kind word

Moscow, and with it the Donbass, reject this interpretation. Every time the Ukrainian side at the talks declares that it opposes Russia in the east, Moscow reminds everyone of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2202 of February 17, 2015. That approved the ‘Package of measures for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements’, and it emphasized that Kiev should negotiate with the ORDLO.

Ukraine is dissatisfied with the Minsk Agreements mainly for the reason described.  But attempts to revise them are met with an argument about the UN resolution.

Where did the clusters come from

Kiev’s unwillingness to deal with the ORDLO as a party to the conflict led to the negotiating deadlock in the TCG. In the end, France and Germany took the initiative. They proposed to divide the agreements into so-called clusters. The idea, as explained by an interlocutor of the ‘Normandy Four’ negotiations, is to agree on the sequence of actions for the parties to implement the ‘Package of measures…’; and, when this happens, to transfer the clusters to the TCG in the form of recommendations for the development of a ‘road map’ to get there. It is assumed that it would be the final peace plan for the settlement of the conflict in accordance with the Minsk Agreements.

On November 12, 2020, the advisers to the President of France and the Chancellor of Germany, Emmanuel Bonne and Jan Hecker, presented the first draft of the‘Key Clusters for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements’ to their colleagues in the Normandy Format — Deputy head of the Kremlin administration Dmitry Kozak and head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Andriy Yermak (right).

From this moment, a new stage of the negotiation marathon in the Normandy Four began. On November 13, the advisers held a video conference and decided that the ‘key clusters’ would be based on the Minsk Agreements and would be recommendations for the TCG. On November 20, Berlin and Paris clarified the draft clusters, and on the 25th, Moscow presented its own version of them. On December 1, the Ukrainian clusters were transferred to the Normandy Four by Yermak. On December 14, he updated them, and later refined them again.

The head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Andriy Yermak, is unable to persuade Moscow to accept his project of ‘peaceful clusters’ for the Donbass

Now there are three main documents on the table of the Normandy Format participants (Kommersant has read all of them): the Ukrainian cluster draft of January 19; the updated French and German draft submitted on February 8; and the Russian amendments to the Franco-German draft of February 16. Representatives of the ORDLO also joined the work on the clusters indirectly — at the request of the Russian side. Their comments on the Ukrainian document were passed to the advisers  Bonne and Hecker,  by Dmitry Kozak.

After Moscow made its comments on February 16, there was a pause in the diplomatic ping-pong. This was due to the lack of reaction from Kiev to the Franco-German draft and the Russian amendments to it.

What’s in the documents

The Franco-German project is the shortest and most general: eleven clusters occupy three pages. The preamble emphasizes that “in order to avoid discrepancies,” the future road map — which Ukraine and Donbass should jointly develop in the TCG – “should not contain declarative and vague provisions.” “Actions and measures which contradict the Minsk Agreements will not be included. The time frame for action and implementation of all agreed measures must be realistic.”

The clusters are labeled with letters of the Latin alphabet from A to K. This is a table divided into two columns: ‘Security/Humanitarian’ and ‘Political/Economic’. Measures to ensure security in the conflict zone are interspersed with political steps.

The Franco-German plan. Source: https://www.kommersant.ru/ 
Click to enlarge and read.

The Franco-German Cluster Project of February 8, 2021 and Russian amendments to it

There are seven points in Cluster A dedicated to security and humanitarian issues: a complete ceasefire, mine clearance, withdrawal of heavy weapons, withdrawal of forces in new sections of the line of contact, opening of additional checkpoints, release and exchange of detainees, safe and reliable access of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) throughout Ukraine.

In the political and economic cluster of four points — the ‘Steinmeier formula’ ([negotiated by German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier] this was approved by the contact group in October 2019; it defines the mechanism for putting into effect the law on the special procedure for local self-government in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions) is included in Ukrainian legislation. Then the leaders of the Normandy Four countries would approve the road map; then Kiev would coordinate with the ORDLO in the contact group all the legal provisions concerning  these regions of Donbass.

The last paragraph of the cluster refers to Ukraine’s constitutional reform, which involves decentralisation as a key element and the adoption of the following laws: on the special status of the ORDLO, on local elections, on amnesty, and on a special economic zone. Each step of the paragraph is provided with a reference to the corresponding provision of the ‘Package of Measures on the implementation of the Minsk Agreements’.

Cluster C on security contains only two items: “the beginning of the withdrawal of all foreign armed groups, military equipment, and mercenaries from the ORDLO” and “the beginning of the disarmament of all illegal groups in the ORDLO, with the exception of the People’s militia”.  

The same number of points are in the next political Cluster D. At this stage, Ukraine temporarily enacts into effect a constitutional reform involving decentralisation, and temporarily begins to operate laws on local elections in ORDLO and the special economic zone there.

Cluster E describes the completion of the withdrawal of foreign military units and the disarmament process spelled out in block C, and adds provisions that security in ORDLO should be maintained by joint patrols of the Ukrainian police and the local People’s militia, with the participation and mediation of the OSCE SMM. It also refers to the expansion of an international presence along the border of Ukraine at the expense of the OSCE.

Political Cluster F in brief: indefinite entry into force of the law on local elections. According to the Minsk Agreements, this must take into account the special circumstances of the ORDLO. After that, according to Cluster G, local elections are to be held in the Donbass, and at 20:00 on the day of the balloting, the Law of Ukraine ‘On the Temporary Order of Local Self-Government in ORDLO’ should come into force.

Then, says Cluster H of the security section, Ukraine would begin to regain full control over its border — the part of it which Kiev has not controlled since 2014 due to the conflict. After that, it is written in Cluster I, the law on amnesty temporarily comes into force (participants of events in the east of Ukraine must fall under it). After that, according to Cluster J, Ukraine’s restoration of control over the border is to be completed.

The final Cluster K states that the constitutional reform, as well as the laws on the special status of the ORDLO, amnesty, and the special economic zone will enter into force on a permanent basis, provided that the local government elections in these territories “generally take place in accordance with OSCE standards.”

Left, Jan Hecker (Germany); right, Emmanuel Bonne (France)

In the cover letter to the document, Hecker and Bonne do not hide — this is the core on which compromise proposals will be based. This explains its brevity.

Cluster vs Cluster

The Ukrainian and Russian drafts proposed on January 19 and February 16 of this year are based on the Franco-German document, but are more detailed. At the same time, they differ not only in the number of points in the clusters and the sequence of steps. There are different approaches,  even to the mechanics of agreeing on recommendations for the proposed peace plan.

Kiev invites everyone to approve its entire proposal. “We count on your support for this project”, Andriy Yermak notes in the cover letter

Kozak insists on approval for each block, article by article approved in writing. He suggests that Ukraine, Germany and France accept or reject the wording proposed by Russia, crossing out the word ‘agree’ or ‘reject’ in the corresponding column. The point of this approach is to approve compromise clusters, put them aside and move on to focus on those where there are still contradictions.

Kozak has been trying to introduce the practice of recording agreements and even omissions on paper, and signing them with initials since he replaced Vladislav Surkov as the key Russian negotiator in the Normandy Format more than a year ago. He has repeatedly offered to make the negotiations public and publish the results of the meetings. This, however, is opposed by both Mr. Kozak’s European colleagues and the representative of Ukraine.

There are many discrepancies in the Ukrainian and Russian versions

They also appear in the names of documents. The Ukrainian one is titled: ‘Key clusters of implementation of the Minsk Agreements’. The Russian version is headed as follows: ‘The list and sequence of implementation of key measures to resolve the conflict in the ORDLO of Ukraine in accordance with the Minsk Agreements (recommendations of the Normandy Four on the development by the TCG of a road map for the settlement of the conflict)’.

Ukrainian Cluster Project of January 19, 2021

Source: https://www.kommersant.ru/  Click to enlarge and read.

Russia’s proposal thus repeats its unchanged position: the Minsk Agreements have fixed that the war in the Donbas is an internal Ukrainian affair, and that the Normandy recommendations being developed reflect the assistance of mediators in the peaceful resolution of the situation in the east of Ukraine by the parties to the conflict. When at the talks Kiev offers to consider the situation from the point of view of the ‘fundamental causes of the conflict’, the Russian delegation responds that the discussion of these reasons ended six years ago with the signing of the Minsk Agreements. Moscow is ready to discuss them, but this will set the negotiating process back six years.

Both Kiev and Moscow in their projects, on the one hand, expanded the dry points of the clusters of the Franco-German version, and on the other, they changed the number of measures and their sequence.

The latter is essential: this is where the intentions of the parties are revealed. Russia strictly adheres to the rhythm set out in the ‘Package of measures for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements’. Ukraine, which has repeatedly publicly stated that it is not satisfied with this document, nevertheless uses the wording in the preamble that “actions and measures which contradict the Minsk Agreements should not be included”. But then it suggests clusters, which in the comments from ORDLO are called contrary to “Minsk”.

Comments of the republics of Donbass on the Ukrainian cluster project of January 22, 2021

In Cluster A of the Security/Humanitarian section, which deals with a complete and final ceasefire, Russia focuses on the guarantees of a regime of ‘silence’. Here Kozak added a  phrase about the need for a “transparent and reliable mechanism” for verifying [the absence of] violations of this regime” with the help of the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination. And in the second point of this cluster, Moscow proposes to fix “the elimination of verified violations of the withdrawal line committed by Ukraine and / or ORDLO”.

Paragraph 3 of the ‘Package of measures for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements’ begins with verification of the ceasefire regime. The Ukrainian version of this cluster refers to a complete and comprehensive ceasefire, but does not mention verification and the elimination of violations.

The approaches of the parties do not fit together in the political section of Cluster B. Kiev suggests that the road map, prepared on the basis of the recommendations of the “Normans”,  should only be discussed in the TCG, and agreed upon within the Normandy Four,  after which a summit of the leaders of Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France should be held so that they could approve the final peace plan.

Representatives of the ORDLO point out that the approval of the road map without their consent goes beyond the competence of the “Normans” and contradicts the Minsk Agreements, which gave Donetsk and Luhansk the right to coordinate and implement measures to resolve the conflict. Moscow also insists that the coordination and approval of the map in the  Normandy Format without the participation of the ORDLO would be a violation of the rights and powers of the Donbass, provided for by Minsk and by the UN Security Council resolution.

Commentary of the Donbass People’s Republic, January 22, 2021. Source: https://www.kommersant.ru/ Click to expand and read.

The position of the Russian Federation is that the recommendations of the “Normans” in the form of agreed clusters should be sent to the TCG, where the negotiators from Kiev and ORDLO will prepare a road map, which should be approved on the one hand by the Verkhovna Rada and the President of Ukraine; , and on the other by the de facto authorities of the republics of Donbass.

Significant discrepancies highlight the diplomatic game.

Kiev is trying to take the negotiations on the Donbass to the Normandy Format, where there is Moscow, but there is no ORDLO, so that the conflict will be officially considered a Ukrainian-Russian problem. Russia, as can be seen from its proposals, does not agree with this approach. Moscow opposes this, relying on the fact that the Minsk Agreements were confirmed by a unanimously approved UN Security Council resolution, which no one has revoked.

There is a similar story with the political cluster, in which we are talking about the adoption of a package of special laws by Ukraine. In the Ukrainian version, this is marked with the letter C and consists of a single paragraph, which lists the legislative changes. These are the adoption of the law ‘On the special order of local self-government in ORDLO’; implementation of the  ‘Steinmeier formula’; approval by the Rada of the laws ‘On the peculiarities of local elections’. ‘On Amnesty’,  on the creation of a special economic zone in the territories of the current DPR and LPR,  and amendments to the Constitution of Ukraine in terms of decentralisation. Representatives of the DPR and LPR Natalia Nikonorova and Vladislav Deinego believe that in this form, this paragraph also contradicts Minsk, since the proposed amendments to the Constitution “do not indicate that the features of the ORDLO must be taken into account.”

Left, Vlaidslav Deinego (DPR); right, Natalia Nikonorova (LPR) meeting in Minsk, October 1, 2019.

In principle, in the Ukrainian clusters the phrase ‘special status’, used in the Minsk Agreements in relation to the ORDLO, does not appear.  At the same time, in the Russian version, when listing special laws, it is emphasized that they must ensure that “the special status functions on a permanent basis”.  Moscow also mentions the repeal or amendment of the laws of Ukraine ‘On Education’, ‘On ensuring the operation of the Ukrainian language as the state language’, ‘On the specifics of state policy to ensure the state sovereignty of Ukraine over the temporarily occupied territories in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions’, and other laws “according to the list agreed with the ORDLO.”

These and other discrepancies which have already emerged are unlikely to be overcome quickly. If that is possible at all. At the last video conference of the advisers to the heads of state of the Normandy Four, which took place on March 18, Yermak promised to send his response to the Russian comments of February 16 on the same day. That still hasn’t happened.

But even if Moscow and Kiev come to a compromise in the Normandy Format, it is not certain that the agreements reached will stand

One of the most recent examples is the ‘Measures to strengthen the ceasefire regime’ agreed on July 22, 2020.

The document provides, among other things, that the Ukrainian side and the security forces of the two unrecognized republics of Donbass issue orders according to which return fire can be opened only on the orders of the leadership of the armed forces of Ukraine and the leadership of the armed formations of the ORDLO. This wording, according to Kommersant, Kozak and Yermak agreed during a video link with the participation of the OSCE representative in the TCG, [Swiss diplomat] Heidi Grau (right).

After that, the DPR and LPR issued and made public their orders, fully outlining the agreements reached in them. The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine issued a statement also. It says that “in the event of violation by the enemy of the regime of ‘silence’[ceasefire] and creating a threat to the lives of Ukrainian servicemen, the armed forces of Ukraine have the right to respond to hostile attacks.” The agreed phrase that this is possible only by order of the army command was not included in the text for reasons unknown. In Moscow, it is believed that in this way, the decision on whether to open retaliatory fire would be left to the discretion of field personnel, and that would lead to constant skirmishes.

Vladimir Zelensky is waiting for a summit on the Donbass, which no one is preparing
During the last video conference of the “Normans” on March 18, Kozak raised the issue of bringing the statement of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry into line with the agreements of July 22. Hecker, Bonne and Yermak avoided discussing this topic.

“The shootings should stop today, and with that the verbal balancing act”,  Mr. Kozak told Kommersant. “Skirmishes, either organized or chaotic, due to the order of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense,  continue. With all the sad consequences that follow for both sides. As demonstrated by the last negotiations in the Normandy Format on March 18, the representatives of Germany and France are not very discouraged. It doesn’t spill over them.”



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