Putin’s Ukrainian Ally Medvedchuk Proposes Donbas Autonomy Under Minsk Armistice Terms

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 112

(Source: Foreign Affairs)

On July 17, Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of the pro-Russia opposition in Ukraine’s newly elected parliament, visited the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where he launched a “Concept Plan to Resolve the Crisis in the South-East of Ukraine.” A long-time Kremlin ally, Medvedchuk is also the foremost local proponent of Ukraine’s federalization but has now replaced that incendiary term with some euphemisms. He offers this project as a means to implement the political terms of the Minsk armistice.

The initial presentation was not an official event of the European Parliament, nor a “hearing,” but rather an informal “round table,” which members of the European Parliament are entitled to organize for guest speakers in the side rooms. After unveiling his project in the European Parliament (112.UA TV, July 17, 18; Zagittya.com.ua, July 18, 19), Medvedchuk elaborated on the project one week later (112.UA, July 25; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 28). He then flew to Russia to see President Vladimir Putin, who endorsed the plan (see accompanying article), and continued airing it in Ukraine.

In Strasbourg, Medvedchuk stated upfront that he developed this project following consultations with the leaders of the “unrecognized Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics” and with Russian leaders (unnamed, but hinting at Putin). He connected this project directly to a restart of efforts to implement the political aspects of the Minsk armistice following the recent presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine.

The term “federalization” as such does not occur in Medvedchuk’s project (nor does that word occur in the Minsk armistice documents, from which his concept plan proceeds). This project employs the terms “special status,” “autonomy” and “autonomous region,” instead of federalization. Russia and its local allies have learned that the term “federalization” triggers alarm and defensive reactions in Ukraine and in neighboring Moldova.

Medvedchuk’s project would merge the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” into one “autonomous region of Donbas,” nominally within Ukraine. (It is unclear whether this autonomous region would be limited to territory under Russian control at this time, or perhaps result in further claims to the remainder of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.) The Donbas autonomy would be introduced into Ukraine’s constitution by an addendum to the already-existing section where Crimea’s autonomy is enshrined. Thus the constitution would henceforth provide for two autonomies within Ukraine: Donbas and Crimea, “conferring all of Crimea’s [pre-2014] prerogatives and rights, already stipulated in that section, onto the autonomous region of Donbas as well.”

Crimea had the status of an autonomous republic within Ukraine until Russia seized it from Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine was, however, legally defined as a unitary state before 2014, and it remains so defined to date. Medvedchuk claims that even with two autonomies in its constitution, Ukraine would remain a unitary state. It is a purely legalistic game, since this project stops short of addressing Russia’s military control over both territories.

Medvedchuk’s presentation acknowledged that “Russia refuses any discussion with anyone about Crimea”; but nevertheless, “Our position is that Crimea is a territory of Ukraine under the constitution.” Without at least reopening this issue with Russia, however, Medvedchuk’s project instrumentalizes Crimea’s Ukrainian constitutional status in two ways: as a precedent-setter for Donbas autonomy, and a hook to pull the latter into the same section of the constitution. Politically, the calculation seems to be that the Donbas autonomy might be less difficult to sell if packaged with the Crimean autonomy. That way, the Donbas autonomy would be presented as upholding Ukraine’s legal title to its territorial integrity.

“And therefore, Ukraine would not stop being a unitary state. And there shall be absolutely no federal structure, not a shadow of a federation, no intention of federalizing. We are changing nothing in this regard,” Medvedchuk stated. Kyiv, however, must negotiate the Donbas autonomy status directly with Donetsk-Luhansk in the first stage, then with Moscow in a format comprised of Kyiv, Donetsk/Luhansk, Moscow (112.UA, July 25; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 28). Such a format would clearly point toward a contractual arrangement of a federal type, under Russian mediation and consequently under Russian guarantees in this project’s intent.

In Medvedchuk’s scheme (as well as under the terms of the Minsk armistice), the autonomous Donbas would retain its existing “People’s Militia” [Russia-led military force], intelligence service, police and judiciary. Medvedchuk quotes the Minsk terms to justify his own position in this regard (Zagittya.com.ua, 112.UA TV, July 29, 30).

An “autonomous region of Donbas,” as a single unit merging the two “republics,” is an innovation that revises the political terms of the Minsk armistice. Those terms designated certain areas within Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, viewing these as two distinct entities. Nevertheless, the legislative mechanism to implement Medvedchuk’s scheme is basically the same mechanism as envisaged by the Minsk armistice. It consists of four legislative acts: a law to adopt the constitutional amendments, a law on the special status (or autonomy, per Medvedchuk) of the Russian-controlled Donbas, an amnesty law regarding war crimes and related violent offenses in that territory (for the legal whitewash of Russia’s proxies), and a law on local elections in that territory (for the democratic whitewash).

Those enactments are proposed in execution of the political clauses of the Minsk armistice, from which they directly derive. The Ukrainian parliament began the process of adopting those legislative acts in 2014 and 2015, under pressure from the German government and the United States’ Barack Obama administration. But the parliament together with then-president Petro Poroshenko found the resolve to stop that process by 2016. Those four enactments were never completed and are procedurally dead after the expiry of that parliament’s term. If the new parliament decides to reconsider them, it would have to restart the whole process from scratch.

Meanwhile, the legislation adopted in January 2018 is the law of the land. This blocks a special status for Donbas, elections in the Russian-controlled territory, negotiations with Russia on those topics, or any negotiations with Moscow’s proxies. This legislation sets preconditions that can only be met by Russia’s de-occupation of Donbas and abandonment (closure down) of the two “republics.”

Medvedchuk’s project and his accompanying remarks use the terms autonomy, autonomous region, and special status interchangeably, carefully avoiding the term “federalization.” This is a “concept plan” for further discussion, seeking to inject further ambiguities and confusion into debates as Ukraine’s new parliament and new government take office.