Among the numerous advances received by Volodymyr Zelensky in the presidential election, one of the most important was the resolving Donbas issue, preferably peacefully. This largely predetermined sympathy of the numerically predominant electorate of the south-east of the country, which ensured the victory of the new head of state.
At first, it seemed that these hopes had a right to exist - there was practically no aggressive rhetoric in the words of Zelensky, and ex-president Leonid Kuchma unexpectedly returned to the Minsk process, as if confirming it. Visible confirmation of this was the next concluded "harvest truce" on June 21, however, like the previous ones, de facto unobservable.
A more important visible confirmation of a diplomatic resolution to the conflict was the exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and the Russian Federation on September 7.
In Ukraine, the return of political prisoners and hostages served as a serious argument in favor of the possibility of a diplomatic settlement and became a source of additional hope. In Russia, the assessment of what happened was much more restrained, and, as it turned out, not in vain.
Already on September 12-13, another crisis flared up around the negotiations on Donbas, which was the result of high-profile statements from both sides.
On September 12, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko distinguished himself with a loud statement about future local elections in Ukraine, which the head of the department would like to hold throughout the country, including the occupied one. Although he clarified that this would be an ideal option and it is not known whether it will work in time, the minister raised a storm. The main problem was the presence of armed groups in the self-proclaimed "people's republics”, which will clearly affect the outcome of future elections. Therefore, Ukraine has already twice failed to recognize the "elections" held there, which Minister Prystaiko also said.
The burning match approached the future bonfire from one edge, and the next day the "fireman" had to go on stage.
On the other hand, a burning match in the person of the “head” of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” Denis Pushilin was brought closer to the fire. All the same, on September 12, the “head of the DPR” announced his desire to integrate into the Russian Federation, ideally to enter it as a federal district. The hope that this is possible, according to Pushilin, was given by Russian President Vladimir Putin, facilitating the procedure for issuing citizenship of the Russian Federation to residents of the "republic" and what allegedly 15 000 people have already taken advantage of.
In essence, the so-called “head of the DPR” did not say anything new – before it, Alexander Zakharchenko had repeatedly stated the existence of such plans, and in the spring of 2014 it all started under the slogan of the entry of Donbas into the Russian Federation and under Russian flags. In a word, there was absolutely nothing new, much less sensational in this statement, however, a fireman was needed here.
Pushilin’s statement in the Russian Foreign Ministry was either considered worthless or, on the contrary, they decided to keep silent. And State Duma MP Konstantin Zatulin said that this is irrelevant, as it contradicts the Minsk agreements, but could not resist kicking Ukraine and, defending the interests of the committee, traditionally accused the country of violating the rights of Russian-speaking citizens.
The statement of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine was paid much more attention. On September 13, President Zelensky, after meeting with Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, said that the holding of local elections was part of the Minsk agreements and should be implemented, but only after a number of conditions were fulfilled, including the withdrawal of Russian troops.
In addition, the president recalled the importance of maintaining sanctions against the Russian Federation until the restoration of peace in Ukraine.
Finally, as if correcting the mistake made earlier, at a briefing on September 14, Minister Vadym Prystaiko said that the Constitution of Ukraine would not be amended by the so-called “special status” of Donbas, and the occupied territories were offered to develop along the path of decentralization, as well as the rest of Ukraine.
This time, the Russian diplomatic corps did not keep quiet, and Boris Gryzlov, the Russian envoy in the contact group for a settlement in eastern Ukraine, said that a statement refusing to grant "special status to Donbas" is a direct violation of Minsk agreements, which threatens the peace process.
Crimea for Donbas?
There can be two reasons for such a crisis in a diplomatic settlement:
- fear of leaders of self-proclaimed republics to be left with nothing;
- too high requirements of the Russian Federation for the return of Donbas.
In favor of the first speak the loyal statements made on September 12 about the desire to enter the Russian Federation. It is also enough to recall the numerous high-profile statements made by the so-called "DPR officials" about the aggravation of tension in Donbas to the level of 2015, shelling of peaceful objects, and even loud statements like Zelensky is "worse" than Poroshenko.
Indeed, the "truce" is not de facto observed, but such is the nature of all the "truces" in Donbas, which are never 100% observed. But at the same time, there are practically no casualties among the civilian population, so statements about shelling are clearly speculative.
On the other hand, this serves as an excellent illustration of serious concern among the “leadership of the so-called DPR”, which has the nightmare of returning the uncontrolled part to Ukraine and its own uselessness. This nightmare is fueled by the apparent reluctance of the Russian Federation to accept the so-called “LPR” and “DPR” into its membership and the desire to merge them into Ukraine, however, on its own terms.
The return of Donbas to Ukraine on its own terms is another option for exacerbating the situation around the region on the diplomatic front, and it remains the most difficult part of the process.
Although the conditions for the return of part of Donbas to Ukraine seem to be spelled out in the Minsk agreements, in fact, there is no progress in their implementation, which makes us suspect "pitfalls" in this process. For example, the presence of certain conditions that do not sound official, but are present in the diplomatic process.
So, on the same day, September 13, the head of state announced work on the “formula for the return of Crimea,” although he did not specify what it consisted of, saying only that it would be too early to talk about it and the process would be difficult.
Prior to this, the president rarely recalled the issue of the peninsula and suddenly did it in such a difficult diplomatic situation. Involuntarily, the thought arises whether this was an accidental or intentional statement, albeit caused by questions from journalists.
Is the recognition of Crimea as Russian land the very condition that is actually required for the return of Donbas to Ukraine? The idea can explain those failures on the diplomatic front around the "Donbas issue", but it also has a significant minus.
Not a single president in the world, in his right mind and in a critical situation, will ever recognize the rejection of part of his country's territory, albeit for the sake of returning another part of it, and Zelensky is no exception to this. It is unlikely that the Russian diplomatic corps, which undoubtedly has experienced diplomatic personnel, does not understand this.
However, the next sharp statements between Ukraine and the Russian Federation provoked a reaction in the world. Other politicians basically promised support to Ukraine and called on Russia to continue negotiations to end the armed conflict in Donbas, which it started and ignited.
All this indirectly indicates that the Russian side became the cause of another crisis in the negotiations around eastern Ukraine, or at least in the West they think so.
In any case, it can be stated so far that the end of the Donbas issue settlement has not come close with the change of president.