KRUK REPORT: Is Ukraine changing its Donbas policies?

KRUK REPORT: Is Ukraine changing its Donbas policies?
By Kateryna Kruk in Kyiv October 13, 2017

We all know by now that Ukrainian politicians have a tendency to overdramatise. Often instead of productive discussion and attempts to negotiate an acceptable compromise, they cry "it's treason, the end of the world", block the tribune, start fighting or bring out the smoke grenades. Drama staged by Ukrainian MPs averted attention from the essence of the recently considered Donbas laws and made a professional and quality discussion impossible. Which is really sad, because the Ukrainian parliament had before it probably the most decisive law on Donbas ever and it's aimed at something a bit bigger than just making Russia angry.

To remind you, on October 6 the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine considered two laws on Donbas. The first one was about prolonging the special status of Donbas as required under the Minsk agreements, the second one is shortly called the "Donbas reintegration law”. 

The law on the special status of Donbas is well known in Ukraine as a controversial one. The first version was passed in September 2014 as an aftermath to the signing of the Minsk agreement. Little has been done since then in terms of creating a lasting ceasefire and providing conditions for the peaceful settlement of the war. Many called it a "dead law" due to the lack of the real progress in implementing the Minsk agreement. 

Nevertheless, its prolongation appeared to be an uneasy task for the Ukrainian parliament. Criticism of the Minsk agreement is one of the very few things in Ukraine on which there is a popular consensus. Requirements for special status - such as amnesty for those who fought for the separatist Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People's Republic (LNR) or served in their institutions, the creation of a local militia, organisation of elections, full financial support from the Ukrainian budget to the regions - are popularly called "giving in to Russia” in Ukraine. Prolongation of the highly criticised law took place in a dramatic atmosphere with fights, a blocking of the tribune by MPs and smoke grenades involved. 

In a desperate attempt to convince MPs to vote for the law, the president's representative in the parliament emphasised that prolongation of this law is an important factor to keep the international sanctions against Russia and prove Ukraine's willingness to implement the Minsk agreement. This is, undoubtedly, the most important reason to prolong the law. 

While in Ukraine it was accepted with skepticism and concern, the country’s international partners, especially those involved in the Normandy format, quickly congratulated Ukraine on adopting the law and showing willingness to keep up with the Minsk requirements. Kurt Volker, a special US representative for the Ukraine negotiations, tweeted "special status extension shows Ukraine is taking tough steps for peace".  

Nevertheless, this law will remain largely declarative. During the negotiations in the parliament, it was agreed to add a provision that the law will be implemented only "after all conditions stated in Article 10 of the law [on special local self-governance procedures] are fulfilled, specifically as regards the withdrawal from the territory of Ukraine of all illegal armed formations, their military equipment, and militants and mercenaries." However fair the demand is, it "freezes" the law’s implementation and gives Ukrainian society belief that the largely criticised provisions of the Minsk agreement won't be fulfilled any time soon.

It should be added that President Petro Poroshenko is in a quite troubled situation regarding Minsk. Just as much as he must prove to the international society that Ukraine is implementing Minsk, for the domestic audience he has to play a different game of convincing people Ukraine won't give in to Russian demands outlined in the agreement. Knowing that there is no escape from the foreign partners with regard to the prolongation of the special status for Donbas, the so-called Donbas reintegration law looked like an attention seeking manoeuvre for the Ukrainian audience. To a certain extent, it paid off: a lot of attention was given to the law that finally declares Russia an aggressor and sets the names straight: war, not an anti-terrorist operation. Nevertheless, if the law is adopted in the second reading, it will become the strongest manifestation of the Ukrainian position so far. 

First of all, it is supposed to bring an end to the confusion over terms. Parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions where the Russian occupation administration and troops are based are declared territories occupied by Russia. No more separatists or terrorists, but Russian regular troops or mercenaries supported and financed by Russia. Secondly, the draft law declares that this temporary occupation is illegal and that it creates no rights for territorial claims by Russia. Ukraine's main task is to liberate its territories and restore a constitutional order, guarantee the protection of rights of Ukrainian citizens and take the necessary steps to strengthen the independence, statehood, territorial integrity and unity of Ukraine. Also, since the law clearly underlines that Russia is an aggressor, it gives permission to the president to use the armed forces of Ukraine to rebuff the aggression. Nevertheless, the document repeats that implementation of the Minsk agreement remains a priority for Ukraine in restoring peace in Eastern Ukraine.

One of the most debated provisions of the law allows ending the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) regime and transferring control over the regions along the front line from the Security Service of Ukraine to the Joint Operational headquarters. This means that Ukraine legally recognises that this is a war against Russian organised troops and mercenaries supported by Moscow, not an anti-terrorist operation fighting terrorists.

The law that seems tough is, in a way, nothing more than an articulate description of the reality. There is a war and Russia is an aggressor. The natural question arises: why didn’t Ukraine come up with this law three years ago? The answer might not necessarily come from within Ukraine. It is no secret that Ukraine was long restrained by its international partners as to the language and framing of the conflict. 

The timing of the proposed law is significant. Currently, Ukraine is conducting a tough diplomatic battle over the future of the UN peacekeepers’ mission to Donbas. Two years after the concept was proposed by Poroshenko, Russia took the idea and started to move forward with it. The biggest issues concern the territory on which the mission will be deployed, as well as its composition. Ukraine rejects Russian conditions and insists the UN troops should be deployed on the entire Donbas territory and that the mission cannot include any Russian soldiers. Many in Ukraine believe that recognising Russia as an aggressor could possibly prevent it from taking part in the UN peacekeeping mission in Donbas. That could be one of the reasons why Kyiv has finally decided to toughen its official language and, let's admit it, to finally start calling things by their names.

With these laws, Ukraine sounds more determined and confident. Although it declares that all its actions still remain within the Minsk agreement framework, the reintegration law looks a bit like flexing its muscles and telling Russia if it doesn't want to settle on the proposed terms, Ukraine is ready to take things to another level. This could be true only if Kyiv is sure of the support of the international community and a certain level of fatigue with Russian President Vladimir Putin among Western leaders. Nevertheless, the reintegration law felt more like another step in the game, rather than a game-changer itself. One thing is clear: it won't take us long to find out.