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Stumbling toward peace in Donbas

Without regional elections, peace efforts in the war-ravaged Donbas stall again

EuropeWar Zones

Heavy tanks and soldiers during the conflict in the Donbas, 2014. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Despite Canada’s long-standing support for the Ukrainian army, there has been almost no coverage of recent peace talks in the war-ravaged Donbas. More concerningly, few have analyzed the implications of stalled progress towards ending the over-six-year-long civil war, even as the Trudeau government continues to fund a military mission in an active conflict most have all but forgotten.

The war in Donbas has been at the heart of a divided Ukraine since fighting erupted in 2014, pitting armed groups sympathetic to Moscow in the largely industrial eastern region against Western-backed forces aligned with Kiev. Ukraine’s National Guard and its fringe extremist factions have since been trained and armed by Western governments—with recent weapons shipments including American Javelin missiles, Canadian armoured vehicles and Manitoba-made PGW sniper rifles.

With the United Kingdom seeking to establish its own diplomatic and trade channels outside of the European Union, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also deepened relations with Ukraine, striking a deal earlier in October on a £1 billion loan for new navy ships. As The Guardian reported, the two countries are also discussing a Ukrainian “EU or NATO centre to combat Russian disinformation and counter propaganda.”

Most recently, during discussions on free trade agreements between Canada and Ukraine in early October, Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne agreed to provide an additional $4.3 million to aid the Ukrainian military.

Most media outlets frame increased arms sales to Ukraine as support for the country’s defensive capabilities against Russia to enable Ukraine to negotiate from a stronger position. Over the years, the region has become an epicenter for attracting far-right extremist and neo-Nazi foreign fighters into units like the Azov, Dnipro and Donbas battalions. As Canadian Dimension reported earlier this spring, recent efforts by the Ukrainian government to observe mutual demilitarization of the region by replacing Ukrainian soldiers with police have been subverted by the Ukrainian army’s extremist factions. These groups have established themselves to counter what they see as a betrayal from Kiev.

Despite the challenges of peace negotiations under the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, several key developments over the summer signaled some hopeful progress toward a resolution to a conflict that has dragged on for more than six years.

A shake-up in Ukraine’s negotiating parties meant that former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma was replaced as the head of the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG)—a group formed in 2014 as a means to facilitate a diplomatic resolution to the war in the Donbas region—by former president Leonid Kravchuk in late July. These names are a rotation of high-level bureaucrats and politicians who oversaw Ukraine through the latter years of the Soviet period and during the radical neoliberal reforms that reverberated through the 1990s. Kuchma, however, was decidedly more vocal about Ukraine’s ambition to join NATO.

In May, Canadian Dimension spoke with former defence official and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, Andrew Rasiulis, about developments concerning peace talks overseen by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and led by the TCG. Holding the TCG negotiations online, Rasiulis noted, creates additional barriers on the path towards lasting peace.

“We are stuck,” he said in a phone interview in October, commenting on the current state of the peace agreement. “We had momentum, but I think that the nationalist side of Ukrainian politics has pushed Volodymyr Zelensky [Ukraine’s current president] to throttle back.”

Rasiulis described how Kuchma—who was appointed head of the TCG under former president Petro Poroshenko, a right-wing nationalist—had shown reticence over the course of his term toward implementing the “Steinmeier Formula”—a simplified version of the Minsk agreements named after German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier—which required demilitarization and local elections for the Donbas region. “After Zelensky got elected,” he said, “Kuchma then had to move on the Steinmeier Formula, and he was not very happy about it.”

With Kuchma’s aversion to move toward a settlement, Ukraine’s Chief of Staff—and Zelensky’s principle negotiator on the Donbas—Andriy Yermak appointed Kravchuk in July. While Kravchuk displayed more willingness to negotiate with the separatist regions and Russia on granting special administrative status to the Donbas region, his appointment has predictably been accused of catering to Russian “revanchism.”

OSCE Special Monitoring Mission observes the movement of heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine. Photo from Flickr.

While overtures by Zelensky were designed to seal the deal on the peace agreement, they nonetheless stirred up controversy in think tank circles in Washington. As Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation insinuated shortly after Kravchuk’s appointment, any direct negotiation between Ukraine and Russia is condemnable: “It was the Yermak-Kozak direct channel that resulted in Ukraine’s signing the Steinmeier Formula … the real negotiations proceed backstage in the Yermak-Kozak channel to Ukraine’s detriment.”

Outrage on the part of Western pundits towards the initiative between Ukraine and Russia to end the conflict as being “to Ukraine’s detriment” is not only patronizing (and dangerous for civilians in the embattled region), but it cynically exposes how threatened “experts” are by an inconvenient peace.

Recalling his own experience setting up the OSCE and negotiating on conventional arms controls in the late 1980s and 1990s, Rasiulis described a less ominous picture of diplomacy. “Most of the negotiations took place outside the negotiating room,” he said. “We would negotiate in the corridors over coffee or wherever, and then we’d come back in the room and make the deal we agreed on outside.”

The change of staff demonstrated Zelensky’s testing of domestic political will for negotiation with the separatist territories and Russia, but the resultant blowback ultimately shows how persistent the problem of Ukrainian far-right nationalists remains for any peace settlement and long-term stability in the region.

Since his appointment, both Kravchuk and his deputy, Vitold Fokin, have been denounced for Kravchuk’s willingness to negotiate with civil society representatives in the embattled Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts, collectively referred to as the Donbas. These negotiations have been crucial to the peace agreements that were defined through the Steinmeier Formula.

Zelensky ultimately fired Fokin from the contact group in September for his comments on the nature of the conflict in the Donbas, where Fokin stated that he “has not seen any proof that there is a war between Russia and Ukraine.” Fokin’s comments, while offensive to the narrative upheld by mainstream Western media and the Ukrainian far-right, speaks to the legitimacy of local disaffection with Kiev’s centralized control over economic development, governance, language rights, and diplomacy with Russia.

“He was doing all these overtures which were very proactive toward a solution,” Rasiulis remarked on Fokin’s term, describing it as a means to “see what was politically possible for Zelensky.” This backlash to Fokin, however, came at the same time as Zelensky’s Servant of the People party was eyeing new legislation leading up to the Ukrainian regional elections on October 25. The elections would have included Donetsk and Lugansk, another key point in the Steinmeier Formula that previous Ukrainian officials had forcefully rejected.

Back in October 2019, Zelensky had agreed to include the Donbas region in the country’s “free and fair” regional elections—which would be overseen by the OSCE. This built up hope for progress in the peace negotiations, yet by October he a ultimately excluded the region entirely.

“We have to come to this fundamental understanding that Ukraine is not a unitary state, politically speaking,” said Rasiulis, recalling a previous conversation with Canadian Dimension on the cultural and historic differences between eastern and western Ukraine that have shaped tensions in the region.

The reality of a pluralistic Ukraine is rarely mentioned in Canadian media accounts about “reunifying” the country. This lack of context effectively erases the legitimate and complex socio-economic divergences in the Donbas region. And as American Javelin missiles were cleared this summer to be moved to the front-lines, any efforts by Ukrainian officials toward demilitarization of particular towns in the Donbas have been painted as capitulation to Russia.

Had local elections happened in the region in October, they would nonetheless have been a temporary measure within a country that still grapples with neo-Nazi cadres deeply embedded throughout Ukrainian industrial bureaucracies and the Ukrainian parliament. Far-right nationalism is an institutional issue that stretches well beyond the military’s extremist battalions, yet Canada has still refused to acknowledge this as both a political reality and a military hazard.

“They are part of what happened in the Maidan, these people are fanatics,” Rasiulis described, alluding to the incident where pro-Russian Ukrainian protesters in Odessa were burned alive in an arson of the Party of Regions headquarters by neo-Nazi extremists. “They are prepared to have a violent situation if necessary to prevent a deal with the Russians which they consider to be a sell-out.”

Memorial to Ukrainians killed in the war in Donbas, Berehove. Photo by Adam Jones/Wikimedia Commons.

The Atlantic Council fell into a panic over a rare bold move by Zelensky this past April, when the Ukrainian president announced an investigation into the charges of murder and political interference in deposed President Viktor Yanukovych’s activities—charges that were placed on former far-right Ukrainian National Assembly–Ukrainian People’s Self-Defence (UNA-UNSO) activist Tatiana Chornovol.

Former President of Freedom House and current Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Adrian Karatnycky described Zelensky’s investigation as “a step towards tyranny.” Meanwhile, Euronews has described Chornovol as an “anti-government journalist,” while the New York Times has favourably portrayed her as an “activist” and “crusader,” deftly avoiding any mention of her ties to far-right elements within Ukranian politics. Chornovol’s husband, Mykola Berezovyi, a volunteer fighter in the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, was killed in 2014 during fighting in eastern Ukraine. Video evidence from the scene of the aforementioned arson at the Party of Regions headquarters also showed Chornovol among the attackers.

Far-right extremists have vehemently denounced Zelensky’s initial support for regional elections in the Donbas, with Yuriy Syrotyuk of the ultranationalist National Svoboda party calling it “treason”, and Andriy Biletsky of the National Corps declaring that Zelensky “chose shame and now he will get war too.”

Ultimately, wherever Zelensky—who was elected on a pro-peace platform—attempts to hold violent, far-right instigators accountable, he is labelled a puppet of “tyranny.” The Ukrainian president’s lack of decisive action has thus enabled far-right nationalists to remain institutionally embedded, clearly posing a threat to the Ukrainian efforts toward a conclusive settlement.

Sociologist and writer Volodymyr Ishchenko pointed this out in an article for LeftEast, where he also remarked on the noticeable lack of a unified Ukrainian left. Stigmatization of progressives as being “pro-Russian” have disabled the country’s left-wing, he writes, with the gaps filled by rightist nationalists or Western-supported liberal NGOs, think tanks and media organizations. The result has been the further marginalization of class struggle. As Ischenko writes:

Lacking any real party or movement behind Zelenskyi, government positions are staffed with representatives of the liberal segment of civil society, second- or third-rate officials from the previous government, and oligarchic lobbyists. The policies of deregulation, “anti-corruption” and privatization in order to attract foreign investors will be limited only by the special interests of the oligarchs close to the government. The president and government officials have been also regularly conceding to the pressure of radical nationalists.

This begs the question: had elections occurred in the Donbas, would they even have been viewed fairly? With the looming spectre of “Russian interference,” many attempts at conciliation in the region have been dismissed as too obsequious to Moscow.

Zelensky’s refusal to include Donbas in regional elections was supposedly due to the presence of foreign troops and illegal armed groups, with the president’s press office claiming that “the elections must be fair and transparent, with all international standards observed.”

Yet, as the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic Foreign Minister, Natalia Nikonorova stated to Morning Star back in May, “We see this approach at every meeting in Minsk.” As the Ukrainian government wavered on holding regional elections in the Donbas, she pointed out the need to coordinate with Donbas representatives: “those who live in the region during the conflict, not those appointed by Kiev.”

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman described a similar phenomenon in Manufacturing Consent, where they compared the electoral processes in the 1980s in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua: “The refusal of the rebel opposition to participate in the election is portrayed as a rejection of democracy and proof of its antidemocratic tendencies, and the very plan of the election involves the rebels’ exclusion from the ballot.”

Describing the role of official observers in ensuring that elections are a “public-relations success,” they continued:

In elections held in disfavored or enemy states, the US government agenda is turned upside down. Elections are no longer equated with democracy, and US officials no longer marvel at the election being held under adverse conditions. They do not commend the army for supporting the election and agreeing to abide by the results … Now the stress is on the hidden motives of the sponsors of the election, who are trying to legitimize themselves by this tricky device of a so-called election.

In light of the exclusion of Donbas from regional elections, it’s worth recalling similar arguments made in 2019, when the Ukrainian government under Poroshenko refused to recognize Russian participation in an OSCE observation mission to monitor Ukraine’s presidential elections. While Russia, as a member of the OSCE, had the right to send election observers, Ukraine justified this exclusion based on supposed national security threats and risk of “Russian intervention.” The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Ambassador Peter Tejler criticized this decision at the time, stating that it did not “comply with OSCE commitments.”

With this history of Ukraine’s own non-compliance with the OSCE, and weaponized rhetoric of vague Russian “risks” and “threats,” how can Zelensky fail to act on agreements made through the Steinmeier Formula and continue to bow under the pressure of a far-right lobby that poses a very real national security threat? As for the West, wherever Ukraine and Russia attempt to negotiate toward peace on their own terms, they are condemned for supposedly engaging in shady backroom deals.

With the peace process not only dragging on through the challenges of the pandemic, Canada must face more accountability for its role in supplying arms that end up in the hands of warring factions, and its support for a one-sided narrative that has been shaped in part by the Ukrainian far-right.

It is hypocritical on the part of Western media organizations to depict the regional conflict in isolation from local demands, because regional economic and cultural interests inconveniently align more closely with Russia—as if there is no comparable bureaucratic influence or military support from NATO in a region that has not been allowed to attain peace.

Lital Khaikin is an author and journalist based in Tiohtiá:ke (Montréal). She has published articles in Toward Freedom, Warscapes, Briarpatch, and the Media Co-op, and has appeared in literary publications like 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Tripwire, and Black Sun Lit’s “Vestiges” journal. She also runs The Green Violin, a slow-burning samizdat-style literary press for the free distribution of literary paraphernalia.


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