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Ukraine’s diplomatic efforts towards Russia today could be seen almost everywhere, but not in Russia. The country is actively participating in unsuccessful Minsk talks and Normandy Four negotiations, it defends its interests in the UN Security Council, PACE, and the Hague court, but the work of our diplomats is not seen in Russia. However, those diplomats are there! After all, our state has not cut off diplomatic relations with Russia, despite all the hardships.
After occupation of Crimea in 2014, it would be quite logical to cease the diplomatic activities with the "aggressor," and introduce a visa regime. Instead of demonstrating an independent policy, we should take into account our national interests. The state has obeyed the will of the West that practically has told us what to do.
We had reasonable grounds to make our own decisions, including legal ones. Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations Security Council determines the existence of an act of aggression and "makes recommendations or decides," what measures should be taken to restore international peace and security. These measures, among other things, include cutting off the diplomatic relations. At the beginning of 2014, Ukrainian side could initiate the application of these provisions with respect to Russia at the Security Council, but it did not do that.
However, we sat together and negotiated in Minsk, hoping to please Western partners and Russia. Moreover, we involved some unexperienced diplomats and a politician that has long moved away from public affairs (Ukraine’s ex-President Leonid Kuchma – Ed.). By the way, Moscow has chosen Mikhail Zurabov for the role of Ambassador to Ukraine. Who is better suited for these tasks than the ambassador, who understands the problems of the host country, the basics of diplomacy and international law. Question: where was our ambassador to Russia at that time?
Who is in charge of our diplomacy in Russia?
At the beginning of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, in the spring of 2014, Volodymyr Yelchenko was Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ukraine to Russia. Professional Ukrainian diplomat with 35 years of experience; he held different posts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, including a deputy minister; he was the Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the UN Security Council and Ambassador to Austria.
In 2010, in the days of Yanukovych, Yelchenko led Ukraine’s Embassy in Russia and he distinguished himself in excelled in a number of achievements, such as conflict resolution around the Library of Ukrainian Literature in Moscow (2010-2011).
March 17, 2014, immediately after the "pseudo-referendum" in Crimea, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has recalled its ambassador from Moscow. Most interestingly, Yelchenko had never returned there, but officially remained Ukraine’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation until December 2015, when he was removed from the post the presidential decree and appointed Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the UN Security Council. There were no official references to his activities during these two years. Could Yelchenko, with his many years of experience, spend those two years "on the bench?"
After graduation in 1995, Nimchynsky had started work at Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is an expert on international issues in the field of armament and military-technical cooperation. As a Ukrainian delegate, he participated in the meetings of corresponding international organizations. He started his direct foreign diplomatic work in Russia. That is, he received his literal “baptism of fire.”
His occupied position in the Embassy simply means "temporarily exercising the powers." It does not give diplomat the right to independently head the diplomatic missions, but he is rather introduced only for the period of representative’s inability to fulfill the duties. Now Ukraine and Russia maintain their diplomatic relationship via temporary Chargés d’affaires, which once again demonstrates the titular character of the Ukrainian-Russian diplomatic relations. Not only in the absence of ambassadors is the evidence.
What we are doing in Russia?
As is known, the main objective of any embassy is the representation of the interests of its country, to promote the development of bilateral relations at all levels and in all spheres of life. In addition, the embassy carries out consular functions, protecting the rights and interests of citizens and legal persons in the host country.
However, after the situation with Crimea, Donbas conflict, political prisoners in Russia, and other stumbling blocks, apparently, we cannot talk about any "development of bilateral relations" with Russia. In this case, why our diplomats are still there?
Ukrainian consuls are concerned about retention of political prisoners in Russia, although their efforts have not been rewarded with some changes in this direction.
In May 2015, the Russian Foreign Ministry brought our chargé d'affaire on the map to discuss the fate of convicted Russians in Ukraine, two members of the Russian Special Forces, Alexandrov and Yerofeyev, who were arrested in Luhansk region by the Ukrainian military. The Russian side expressed abhorrence of the fact that Ukraine was "politicizing" the situation and did not allow the alleged Russian consul to the prisoners, and called to ensure his access to the members of the Russian Special Forces as soon as possible. This is despite the fact that our consuls have been waiting long months for a meeting with the Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. But now it is not about that.
In September of the same year, Ruslan Nimchynsky was once again called to visit Russian Foreign Ministry. This time, Russian colleagues wanted to protest against the sanctions list, because Ukrainian government has included a number of Russian politicians and public figures into this black list.
Due to the absence of any other news about the activities of Ukrainian diplomats in Russia, we could assume that their job was to listen to the Kremlin's claims personally.
After that, the media published some sporadic news about the obscure activities of representatives of the Ukrainian Embassy in Russia. Holodomor victims remembrance, presentation of the book of Oleg Sentsov (Ukrainian film director, convicted by Russian court to 20 years of strict colony for alleged planning of terrorist acts in Crimea – Ed.), and historical exhibition "German-Soviet War: Ukrainian accent," participation in the opening of Ukrainian Sunday school in Moscow – that is what our diplomats were busy with during last three years.
Of course, these cultural events with some unobtrusive Ukrainian propaganda should be carried out by diplomats in the foreign country (especially, if it is recognized a military adversary). However, in this case, the effectiveness of such propaganda and to counteracting the Russian media are equal to zero. This is a not a fault of our diplomats, because their options are quite limited. Undoubtedly, the Russians conduct active counter-intelligence work in relation to the Ukrainian diplomatic corps. And given the working methods of security services, the problem will not keep you waiting. For example, Russian radicals are always ready to throw eggs or pour brilliant green on Ukrainian Embassy on any Russian state holiday.
However, in April last year, Nimchynsky took part in the Council of CIS Foreign Ministers as a delegate of Ukraine. Apparently, according to Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Klimkin, diplomatic experience in Russia was supposed to be an auxiliary factor in understanding the situation in Commonwealth countries.
At the same time, it is interesting that the minister of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly voiced the idea of Ukraine's exit from the CIS. Nevertheless, according to the statements of the Ministry: "It is impossible at one point to break the long-term international relations in various spheres of life of the participating countries."
Ukraine's Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin
So, we have an embassy without an ambassador and with a reduced staff, paralleled with absence of active work. Apparently, Ukrainian Embassy in Russia remains politically inactive. Many Ukrainians ask, why do we need them then?
Why don’t we stop that diplomatic relations?
In March 2014, the leader of the Radical Party, Oleg Lyashko tried to "promote" a bill to break diplomatic relations with Russia and suggested to introduce the visa regime. But this attempt, as well as all the other suggestions from the other MPs, was failed. And the power had a number of reasons for that.
When in March of last year many MPs registered a bill on the next break up of diplomatic relations with Russia, Poroshenko has made it clear that nobody would support this initiative. "Parliament will not support this bill, let's not even discuss it," he said.
At the same time, we can see that the diplomatic relations between the two countries have become technical (ambassador is recalled, staff is reduced). "Our diplomatic relations are now virtually frozen. Russians have already recalled their ambassador. Therefore, we can assume that we do not have full diplomatic relations," former speaker of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry and Chairman of the International Centre for Policy Studies Vasyl Filipchuk assumed.
But even such "technical" ties can be useful for Ukraine in order to preserve some space for diplomatic maneuvering in the settlement of Donbas conflict, return of Crimea, and getting support of our Western partners. Especially, since "peaceful format talks" were imposed on us. After all, according to an international affairs expert Anton Kuchukhidze “if Ukraine initiates cutting off the diplomatic relations with Russia, the latter might think that Ukraine is preparing for war and breaks the peace negotiations. Russia will talk about it in all international organizations and with all foreign partners."
He is convinced that the severance of diplomatic relations with Russia is lossmaking, especially for Ukraine. Because in contrast to Georgia, which after the events of 2008 has severed diplomatic relations with Russia, Ukraine still has a "mandatory, from the point of view of international law, mechanisms for returning its border." "The difference is that Georgia broke off diplomatic relations with Russia not just on the fact of aggression, but after the Russian president signed decrees recognizing the independence of the Georgian territories. That is, there were no internationally recognized mechanisms of returning these territories back to Georgia. In other words, Georgia did not have "Minsk process," says Kuchukhidze.
Thus, the problem is that the West, as well as Poroshenko sees in Minsk arrangements only way to solve the problem. The US and Europe refer their anti-Russian sanctions to the implementation of these agreements, but not to the actual cessation of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. At the same time, they tried to convince us that the "Minsk accords" are impossible without diplomatic relations. "Our Western partners claimed that we did not sever the relationship because of the fact that there is hope for the implementation of a peace plan. In order to practically implement this peace, there should be some practical diplomatic relations," says Olexiy Krysenko, a political scientist in foreign policy Council at "Ukrainian prism."
He considers Minsk and Norman negotiation processes to be ineffective "random tools." "There were no other formats, so they used these ones. They were looking for some hands-on tools and platforms to solve pressing issues of the military sphere. These processes do not have an autonomous diplomatic status, which could be a reason to stop diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation," the expert believes.
The real reason for this, he called the presence of a significant number of infrastructure issues involved into our relations with Russia, including some profitable issues for the EU. For example, Ukraine has always been a transit zone between Russia and Europe. Both seek to maintain this status quo, and therefore put pressure on our government to keep it from severance of diplomatic relations with the aggressor.
So, the authorities has different view. There is a need to maintain diplomatic relations (even those nominal ones) as a kind of connection to other circumstances, such as the negotiation processes or transit of goods. Therefore, Ukrainian side is not ready to break diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation. But that does not mean you have to sit idly. Especially when the existing tools such as the Minsk agreements do not work.
What could be done?
1) Severe the diplomatic relations (after all, these procedures are approved by various international treaties – the Vienna Conventions of 1961 and 1963 respectively), not the consular ones.
Actually, this severance would not affect anything, because the political activity of our diplomats in the Russian Federation is almost absent. And, therefore, the embassy workers would be simply recalled from Moscow to Ukraine. Consular department would continue its work, and therefore even the apartment of our diplomatic mission (owned by Ukraine on property rights) would remain Ukrainian property. It would not affect the work of the General Consulates in other Russian cities.
But consular relations is quite another matter.
"If the consular relations are severed, then the other country will represent our interests. If the diplomatic relations are severed, there must be another “mediating,” neutral country, which would protect the rights and interests of the citizens. Switzerland often acts as a “mediating” country. Then all questions regarding visas, protection of the rights of our citizens, who are, for example, in the prison, the diplomats of the "mediator" country become responsible for them,” explains the president of the Ukrainian Association of foreign policy, the diplomat Volodymyr Khandogiy.
For example, Ambassador of Switzerland protects Georgian interests in Russia. Of course, such a scenario is not too suitable for the Ukrainian-Russian relations. As of 2014, there were about 26 thousand Russians in Georgia. As of 2010, about 3 million Ukrainians lived in the Russian Federation. Maybe, these figures are outdated, but the difference is really enormous, and the changes cannot be significant. Not a single country in the world would like to carry out consular functions for such a large number of Ukrainians in Russia.
Now seven Ukraine’s Consulates General operate in various cities of Russia, and a separate Consular Section has been created as part of the Embassy in Moscow. This is more than sufficient to protect the interests of Ukrainians in Russia.
2) Reduce the level of diplomatic relations.
International law provides two kinds of diplomatic representation: embassies and missions. Officially, there is no fundamental difference between them. However, there are unspoken rules that missions take lower diplomatic level than the embassy.
The leadership of diplomatic mission is also important. Embassies are run by ambassadors, and missions – by the chargés d'affaires. The missions might be led by special envoys and ministers that are lower than those further down the range.
Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow thrown with smoke bombs
In our situation with Russia, we use a hybrid system. As we already noted, Ukraine and Russia have embassies led by chargés d'affaires. Even from a legal point of view, this is wrong. Because they do not replace anyone. Ambassadors are not assigned, and therefore chargés d'affaires actually run the embassies not having enough grounds for that.
Instead, Ukraine could reduce the level of formal diplomatic relations with Russia to the level of the diplomatic mission, which would be headed by the charge d'affaires. Such a decision would be a logical, and at the same time “softer” than the full-scale diplomatic severance.
Firstly, it would actually formalize the existing level of diplomatic relations.
Second, it would be a "message" for Russia and the European Union that in case of failure of one instrument (Minsk), Ukraine will apply another one. Thus, we would have shown the ability to take independent foreign policy steps.
Third, Ukrainian society would once again read the message of threat from the Russian Federation. History of diplomatic relations shows that reducing the level of diplomacy means that the relations between states might become hostile soon. Russian threat seems obvious, but for some reason it does not stop thousands of our citizens to travel to the Russian Federation, exposing themselves to danger. This is not surprising. "Ordinary people do not understand what is happening. On the one hand, they hear about the hostilities, and that the Russian Federation is doing everything to undermine the situation in our country, and on the other hand, Ukraine does not have its ambassador in Russia," says Olexiy Krysenko. He recalls some cases when after arrival to Russia, ordinary Ukrainians were accused of espionage just for some innocent "posts" in social networks. "People should know that the travelling to Russia is dangerous. People tend to behave like nothing had happened… They thing that the embassy is working, no one needs any visas. Just buy a ticket and go ahead. There is no information campaign that would give a signal to society," noted the analyst.
3) Introduce visa regime with the Russian Federation.
The world practice shows that the visa relations between the two countries are usually based on the principle of reciprocity. However, Ukraine in this regard is quite loyal. Thus, numerous countries do not allow Ukrainians to visit their territory without having a visa, while Ukraine does not require such (EU, USA, Canada, etc.).
Since 2014, crossing the Ukrainian-Russian border was a formality, and this procedure even did not require having a foreign passport. But the circumstances have changed. However, the Ukrainian government is delaying the issue of visa regime for the Russian Federation; probably, it is afraid of the possible consequences.
It would be a significant problem for the two countries, which have been so close for decades. Russian media and some Ukrainian politicians speculate on the issue of inability to meet relatives because of such legal innovations. In particular, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin called it "propaganda spiral, which will be endlessly developed." According to him, Russians can enter Ukrainian territory only with foreign passports and after passing international and interstate checkpoints. "If we introduce a visa regime, it will allow us to more effectively infiltrate FSB agents and other members of Russian special services that try to destabilize our country. I think there is no definite answer here," Klimkin claimed.
But the visa regime again would have shown Russia our commitment when it comes to the weakening of inter-state relations, if it does not stop its aggression. Ukrainians would better understood that our countries do not have those relations like they had before. And special services of the Russian Federation would not be able to easily carry out subversion against our country. In addition, visa regime is a normal practice in developed countries, which are concerned about their own internal security. And it is not an indication of a negative attitude to a foreign country!
Knowing the ambitions of the President in the questions of diplomacy (caused by the short-lived experience in managing Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and manual control of the embassy, we might assume that Ukraine would not announce severance of diplomatic relations with Russia. The government should at least organize them. Introduction the visa regime and deintensification of diplomatic relations are the necessary steps in this direction. Because if you do not use diplomatic relations as intended, they become just an empty phrase.