In the wake of last month’s (December 2019) “Normandy” summit (see EDM, December 11, 12, 2019), and awaiting the same forum’s April 2020 top-level meeting, Ukrainian officials are airing proposals to revise the Kremlin-imposed Minsk “accords” of 2014 and 2015. The “accords,” designed to legalize Russia’s control of the Donetsk-Luhansk territory and to disrupt Ukraine farther afield, remain unimplemented to date thanks to the previous Ukrainian government’s successful maneuvering and stalling. That work has made it possible for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration now to call for revising the Minsk “accords.”
Whereas the former president, Petro Poroshenko, and the Ukrainian parliament had unilaterally introduced domestic legal barriers to the implementation of the Minsk “accords,” Zelenskyy’s administration proposes to revise these documents by negotiation with Russia, Germany and France in the so-called “Normandy” format. Kyiv launched its revision campaign in a stunning volte-face on the eve of the recent Normandy summit (see EDM, December 9, 2019), partly adopting Ukrainian civil society’s „red lines“ against a solution on Moscow’s terms. Zelenskyy, however, failed to make any headway with revisions at the recent summit. He is, moreover, trapped by his consent to negotiate a new “special status” law for Donetsk-Luhansk and his acceptance of the Steinmeier Formula, two commitments that the Ukrainian president confirmed at the recent Normandy summit.
Nevertheless, Zelenskyy’s administration persists with its proposals in the Minsk Contact Group and in the public arena to revise the Minsk “accords” in Ukraine’s favor. The proposed revisions concern a common interpretation of certain key clauses, the sequence of their eventual implementation, and a reconfiguration of the Minsk Contact Group. The Ukrainian side is channeling these proposals through the Contact Group in anticipation of the next Normandy summit to be held in April, in Berlin. It introduced these proposals in the Contact Group’s December 18 and January 16 sessions, marking the start to a hoped-for revision process (Ukrinform.ua, Hromadske.ua, December 18, 19, 2019 and January 16, 17, 2020).
– Donetsk-Luhansk Special Status: Ukraine’s presidential office is currently drafting constitutional amendments on the country’s administrative decentralization, which applies country-wide. Moscow wants the amended constitution to include a reference to Donetsk-Luhansk’s special status, as the Minsk “agreements” prescribe. However, the draft amendments’ latest published version (Ukraiynska Pravda, December 16, 2019) does not reference any special status for any territory of Ukraine.
This version has, in the meantime, been withdrawn for reworking due to domestic political considerations unrelated to Donetsk and Luhansk. President Zelenskyy is committed to enacting the special status in a new law—one that would, moreover, incorporate the Steinmeier Formula. This is the high price that Zelenskyy agreed to pay for meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the recent Normandy summit. However, Zelenskyy plans an enactment by ordinary law, necessitating a simple majority in the parliament. Enshrining the special status into the constitution would require a two-thirds majority, forcing Zelenskyy into a deeply embarrassing collaboration with Viktor Medvedchuk’s pro-Kremlin party.
– “Elections” in Donetsk-Luhansk: The Ukrainian side calls for the right of internally displaced persons (IDP) to participate in these local elections as a precondition to such elections being held in this territory. The IDPs are those war refugees who moved to Ukraine’s interior (as distinct from those who moved to Russia). The IDPs’ return to participate in elections is a new precondition on Kyiv’s part. It is also a security issue, as are the disarmament and/or withdrawal of “unlawful forces” and the replacement of Russian control by some form of international control of the Ukraine-Russia border as prerequisites to any elections in this territory.
– Sequencing of military and political steps: The Contact Group’s December 18 and January 16 sessions have seen Kyiv reaffirm the “security first, elections afterward” principle (see above). For its part, Russia maintains that the term “unlawful forces” in the Minsk “accords” does not apply to the Donetsk-Luhansk forces (let alone to the Russian military, which Russia claims is not present there). Similarly, Russia holds strictly to the letter of the Minsk “accords,” whereby Ukraine would not regain control of the Ukraine-Russia border in that territory even after the local “elections” there. Instead, under those 2014 and 2015 documents, Kyiv would merely begin negotiating with Donetsk-Luhansk about sharing control of that border. Kyiv considers, however, the possibility of accepting local “elections” in return for Moscow’s acceptance of international control of that border, as a transitional solution toward ultimate Ukrainian control.
– Working Group on Border Control: Ukraine proposes that the Minsk Contact Group create an additional (fifth) working group to deal with the status of the Ukraine-Russia border in the Russian-controlled territory. Under Kyiv’s proposal, Ukraine and Russia would delegate representatives of their respective border troops and customs services to begin discussing the procedures for transferring border control from Russian hands to international or Ukrainian hands, in conjunction with local elections (see above).
– Working Group on Political Issues: Ukraine proposes changing the composition of this working group within the Minsk Contact Group. This particular working group is mandated to discuss a special status for Donetsk-Luhansk and related issues such as local elections under the Minsk “agreements.” Representing Donetsk and Luhansk in this working group are the delegates of those two “people’s republics.” But Kyiv is now challenging their claims to represent this territory’s population. Instead, President Zelenskyy and his envoy to this working group, Oleksiy Reznikov, propose empaneling a larger and more diverse Donetsk-Luhansk delegation, one half of whose members would be approved by Kyiv from among IDPs (see above) or local residents not connected to those “people’s republics.”
– Crimea: President Zelenskyy had promised more than once to raise the issue of Crimea at the December 9 Normandy summit. That promise was one of his justifications for seeking that summit as avidly as he did. He failed to bring up Crimea at the summit, claiming afterward to have run out of time and promising to bring it up at the next Normandy summit. Doing so would play well domestically and might also provide a smokescreen for concessions on the Donetsk-Luhansk special status and the Steinmeier Formula. But the Normandy format is only mandated to address the conflict in Ukraine’s east.