“Operation Reintegration”: What Do the Main Ukrainian Presidential Candidates Plan To Do With the War And Donbass

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard



In Ukraine presidential elections come closer and closer. And every new candidate first of all speaks about how they will solve the problem of Donbass and the end of the war.

This question interests Ukrainians most of all – so say opinion polls.

And if already very few people pay attention to the traditionally rhetorical promises of candidates (“investment”, “increased salaries”), then the topic of Donetsk and Lugansk is a litmus test. After all, without pacification in the region, there will be no distinct economic growth and investments. Thus, the position on Donbass is key to understanding if the victory of this or that candidate will bring real change.

“Strana” tried to find out what the main candidates for the presidential chair say in this respect.

What is written in the Minsk Agreements vs. what is actually happening

The main plan of reconciliation is the so-called Minsk Agreements from February 2015, which were approved by the decision of the UN Security Council.

On the one hand, they envisage a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the line of demarcation. On the other hand, they envisage enshrining in the Constitution special status for the non-controlled part of Donbass (local authorities form the courts, the prosecutor’s office, and“people’s militia” units, determine the status of the Russian language, and have separate relations with Russian regions) and amnesty for participants of the “separatist” movement (everything combined is called the political part of the Minsk Agreements).

At the same time, the full restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over the territory (through control over the border with Russia) is supposed to begin immediately after local elections are held and end after amendments to the Constitution about special status enter into force.

I.e., the main condition for the peaceful reintegration of Donbass, according to the Minsk Agreements, is the implementation of their political part by Ukraine.

Tactics of the Ukrainian government – the war seemingly exists, but it’s as if it doesn’t

At the same time, the government in Kiev has actually being sabotaging this process since 2015.

Amendments to the Constitution regarding special status were adopted at the first reading, but were then shelved. For the current Ukrainian government it is profitable from all points of view to continue the current situation – when there is no big war (so there are no new shameful cauldrons and many thousands of losses), but there is some kind of war. Thus it is always possible to say that “during war only traitors criticise the commander-in-chief” and at the same time profit from the use of a bloated defensive budget and smuggling through the line of demarcation.

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And in order to not directly renounce the Minsk Agreements, Kiev put forward a condition – the implementation of the political part is possible only after the border is transferred to Ukraine’s control (or alternatively – international forces establish control over it and over all the territory of the DPR/LPR), which neither Moscow nor the “separatists” want since they consider that the Ukrainian authorities will just cleanse the territory and there won’t be special status and amnesty.

Therefore, negotiations are still at an impasse. But such a situation suits Poroshenko very much so for the reasons stated above. And the Ukrainian authorities are more likely to link the future return of Donbass not with the Minsk Agreements, but with hypothetical jolts in Russia, against the background of which it will be possible to militarily restore control over Donetsk and Lugansk. Or if Russia capitulates under the strain of western sanctions and will ditch Donbass voluntarily. But of course, there could be a need to wait for an eternity for this.

The only way to achieve quick peace in Donbass and its reintegration into Ukraine is Kiev’s implementation of the political part of the Minsk Agreements. But Poroshenko & Co aren’t ready to opt for this (also because he isn’t interested in several million voters from Donbass who are in opposition to him participating in elections).

This is also the case for other leading candidates – Yuliya Tymoshenko and Anatoly Gritsenko.

Gritsenko, for example, considers that the non-controlled regions of Donbass can be returned within five years. But currently the conditions for this purpose aren’t present.

“We have prepared our plan for diplomatic balance in addressing these questions when using a military police mission and so on. But currently the political conditions aren’t present. And what is happening now only complicates things”

said the politician in an interview with Dmitry Gordon

Tymoshenko at her congress declared in fact the same thing as Poroshenko. According to her, in order to restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine the new government will have to strengthen the diplomatic front, expand the “Budapest+” negotiations format, and create a modern army in accordance with NATO standards.

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I.e., both politicians don’t speak aloud about the procedure stated in the Minsk Agreements. And it follows from their words that returning the region is an indefinite process. It is only clear that both Tymoshenko and Gritsenko are going to ask the West to put more pressure on Russia. However, Poroshenko is doing the same thing even now.

In addition, the support group of both candidates (again, similar to the incumbent president) interprets any concessions to Russia in respect of a compromise on Donbass as a betrayal of national interests.

Vladimir Zelensky, however, talks about peace and negotiations with the Russians. But judging by how quickly he renounced his business in Russia and any ties with Moscow in general, it is unlikely that he will opt to implement the political part of the Minsk Agreements, since he will be afraid of attracting the anger of the “patriotic public”.

Autonomy of Donbass – what it is and why

From all the candidates who stand a chance of entering the second round of voting, only Yury Boyko and his supporting “Opposition Platform – For Life” [a party that was formed as a result of the split in the “Opposition Bloc”, a part of which joined forces with Rabinovich’s party – ed] are in favour of implementing the political part of Minsk and direct peace negotiations with Donetsk, Lugansk, and Russia.

At the last “Opposition Platform” congress that took place on Tuesday January 29th, one of the leaders of this political force, Viktor Medvedchuk, announced the details of this peace plan.

“It is necessary to reach an agreement in a ‘quadrangle’ – Kiev, Donetsk, Lugansk, and Moscow. Our peace plan assumes the creation of the Donetsk autonomous region as a part of Ukraine. We suggest to make changes to the Constitution, which will secure this status”

said Medvedchuk

The autonomy of Donbass is a rather important point that supplements the Minsk Agreements. In them there are two unresolved points.

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The first is that “local elections in certain districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions” were registered in the Agreements, after which the local authorities elected via them will receive expanded powers according to “special status”. But local authorities are, conditionally speaking, city and district councils. In the Minsk Agreements it isn’t stated who, in fact, will govern the entire region, which will receive such broad self-governance.

The creation of the Donetsk autonomous region will solve this problem.

The second issue is connected to the fact that the Minsk Agreements talks about “certain districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions”. I.e., logically speaking, this is referring to the current territory of the DPR/LPR. At the same time, it is clear that the normal economic functioning of these districts (not to mention their restoration) is impossible in separation from the rest of Donbass (which was created as a single economic system).

Therefore, it would be correct to give special status to all of Donbass, which would also provide the possibility of its fast recovery after war. The creation of an autonomous area in the scale of two regions is completely logical from this point of view.

And formally this also doesn’t contradict the Minsk Agreements, according to which the “list of certain districts” is determined by the decision of the Verkhovna Rada (and theoretically it include the entire territory of the two regions in it).

At the same time, it is clear that such ideas can be implemented only if the configuration of the Ukrainian government is completely changed. And not only during presidential elections, but also parliamentary ones too (autumn of 2019).

Whether or not this will happen will be seen by the end of the year. At this time it will become clear if Ukraine will stand a real chance of quickly achieving peace and reintegrating Donbass.

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