Author: Natig NAZIMOGHLU
Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) on Donbass agreed additional ceasefire control measures. Will this indisputable negotiation success reduce tension in the east of Ukraine and ensure a breakthrough in the peaceful settlement of the long-lasting conflict?
The last meeting of TCG consisting of the representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE was held on July 22 in Minsk. It has a chance to go down in history as a breakthrough event that will contribute to the settlement of the Donbass conflict significantly.
The parties agreed on complete ceasefire starting from July 27, 2020. The deal introduces a ban on offensive, reconnaissance and sabotage operations, as well as ban on operation of any types of aerial vehicles; ban on firing, including sniper fire; ban on the deployment of heavy weapons in and around settlements; etc. The document punishes the violation of the ceasefire regime and creates a special coordination mechanism for joint response to violations.
All these agreements are especially relevant amidst the sharp aggravation of both the political and military situation in the conflict region.
In fact, the parties were very close to agree the document two months ago, but the possibility to declare complete ceasefire at that time was disrupted. By mid-July, as armed incidents became more frequent and the leaders of the Donbass separatists made statements about the impossibility of returning the region to Ukraine, the situation threatened to get out of control.
However, there were signs of imminent decline in escalation. Thus, on July 3 in Berlin the parties of the Normandy format (Ukraine, Russia, Germany, France) announced the development of a special mechanism to ensure stable ceasefire in the Donbass. They agreed on 13 locations for conducting demining operations in the Donbass, and to exchange information on wanted persons. Remarkably, the negotiators discussed the possible opening of two new checkpoints for entry and exit in the cities of Zolotoye and Shchastye of the Luhansk region with necessary security guarantees effective since 10 July.
Finally, the parties concluded an agreement, which, according to the OSCE Special Representative in Ukraine, Heidi Grau, was "to ensure compliance with a comprehensive, sustainable and unlimited ceasefire". By the way, the OSCE special monitoring mission will provide support to the conflicting parties in the implementation of the agreed measures. Ambassador Grau expressed her hope that "the confirmed measures will bring long-awaited silence in the conflict zone and more peace to the civilian population."
The extraordinary character of the TCG agreements was also confirmed by both Kyiv and Moscow. The Ukrainian leadership described them as a "breakthrough in the Minsk process", since "the regime of full and comprehensive ceasefire, if observed by the other party, is a basic precondition for the implementation of the Minsk agreements, which paves the way to the implementation of other provisions of these agreements." The official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, noted "certain positive shifts" in the course of the implementation of decisions adopted at the Paris summit of the Normandy format, which reaffirmed the commitment of the Four to the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements.
In short, there is a real opportunity to stop the fire and, using the full-fledged ceasefire regime, to reach breakthrough political agreements between Ukraine, on the one hand, and the separatist People's Republics of Donbass supported by Russia, on the other. But will this historic opportunity be used to ensure long-awaited peace to the people of eastern Ukraine? After all, a failure can extend the disasters and difficulties they have been suffering from for over six years.
A step towards lasting peace?
Since 2014, the Trilateral Contact Group has adopted a number of documents on specific measures to de-escalate the conflict. However, the implementation of peacekeeping regulations has so far failed, and the Donbass once again plunged into a bloody confrontation. Hence the fragile hopes for a peaceful development of the situation based on the current agreements, which do not exclude chances for the continuation of the settlement process.
It is remarkable that the Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky insisted that the leaders of all countries of the Normandy Four sign an agreement on full and comprehensive ceasefire on the contact line in Donbass effective from July 27. Apparently, Mr. Zelensky has serious doubts about the practical possibility of implementing the agreement, which was difficult to reach. Therefore, it is likely that he is trying to secure confirmation of the corresponding obligations at the highest level of the Normandy format. In addition, it is clear that a ceasefire is only the first, albeit extremely important, step on the path to peace. To successfully complete this step, it is necessary to deal with the entire scope of political contradictions. And this is where the main threats to the peace process exist.
The key issue of political settlement in Donbass is the status of the region in Ukraine. The widely discussed topic of elections in Donetsk and Luhansk regions is of fundamental importance. The resolution of the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) of Ukraine adopted in mid-July does not provide for the holding of local elections scheduled for October 25 in these regions currently controlled by the separatist of the so called republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Russia expressed a serious concern over the decision of Ukrainian parliamentarians, for the Kremlin believes that Kyiv must coordinate the election process in "direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk",, as stipulated in the Minsk agreements. In addition, according to Maria Zakharova of the Russian Foreign Ministry, the Kremlin expects that Kyiv adopts, as a matter of priority and as part of constitutional reforms, the amendments to the constitution of Ukraine and other laws in the context of decentralisation and granting of a special status to Donbass.
Meanwhile, Kyiv has a different vision of the sequence of steps towards resolving the conflict. This includes the withdrawal of Russian military from Donbass, the establishment of Ukraine's control over its eastern borders and Donbass, and only after that the holding of elections based on OSCE standards. This vision was reflected both in the resolution of the Verkhovna Rada and in the statement of the President of Ukraine published on July 22, that is – on the day the ceasefire was agreed. The statement stipulates the possibility of holding elections on territories controlled by the unrecognised republics of Donetsk and Lugansk in accordance with Ukrainian legislation and only after Kyiv regains control over the border with Russia.
Taking into account the position of Ukraine, it is possible to explain the unequivocally high assessment given by the Ukrainian leadership to the TCG agreements. According to the Minister for Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine Alexei Reznikov, the breakthrough was possible because the parties returned to the priority of defense conditions over political and other priorities.
However, it is wrong to think that the Kremlin's support for the latest agreements means its less attention to the political component of a comprehensive settlement of the Donbass conflict. Undoubtedly, Russia views the establishment of ceasefire as a chance for Kyiv to take concrete actions aimed at granting Donbass a special status. In other words, Moscow confirms its readiness to recognise the special status of Donbass within Ukraine. But is it the same Ukraine as it is today, with its inherent political, territorial and administrative components?
Ukraine is afraid that the granting of a special status to Donbass will inevitably mean reformatting the political structure of the state, at least in a federal way, with all the consequences in foreign policy currently heading toward the West as the basis of Ukraine’s state strategy.
All these seemingly insoluble contradictions manifest the fragility of the agreed regime of complete ceasefire in Donbass. Ukrainian Minister of Defense, Andrey Taran, openly stated that “the ceasefire will be cancelled as soon as the separatists open fire. Nobody is going to wait until they kill us. We have the right to defend ourselves according to Article 51 of the UN Charter."
Nevertheless, there is indeed a chance for breakthrough. The July 22 agreement gives reason to believe that all the conflicting and interested parties are tired of the armed confrontation in Donbass. It does not meet their strategic goals and objectives, and therefore the declared ceasefire, provided that the parties demonstrate political will, may become a landmark milestone on the way to a lasting peace.