On July 20-21, two closely related news regarding the occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk regions burst into the Ukrainian media space.
Firstly, this is an interview by Dmitry Kozak, deputy chief of Vladimir Putin’s administration and chief of the Russian delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group on Donbas settlement (TCG), to France’s Politique Internationale, where the official suggested that the war in Donbas could end within a year, but on one condition: the Ukrainian side is supposed to do what’s essentially impossible as it runs absolutely against its national interests. After all, this has been stated a thousand times… In short, what Kozak demanded was to pursue the implementation of Minsk Agreements (signed off by Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE) in line with the Kremlin scenario. There’s nothing to discuss here. Therefore, the end of war is nowhere around, at least in the foreseeable future, which forces Ukrainians to once again return to the issue of freezing the conflict. Due to various circumstances, first of all, in economic and social terms, the option wouldn’t be beneficial for Russia, while for Ukraine it would fix the status quo and allow avoiding unacceptable developments, such as “immediate” elections in the occupied areas before the region is purged of separatists. That is, the elections in the occupied Donbas... But are the Ukrainian people ready for this? What are the dynamics of opinion polls and public mood outlooks?
Secondly, Russia’s central election body, the CEC, has allowed residents of the occupied parts of Donbas who hold e Russian passports (nearly 600,000 people – ed.) to vote online in the State Duma elections, as per Russia’s Kommersant newspaper. It should be recalled that six months ago, when the issue was only being discussed in Russia, the Ukrainian foreign ministry had issued a statement condemning such potential move by the Russian authorities, branding them as illegitimate and aimed at deliberately destroying the Minsk Agreements. "Participation in this election of the occupied Donbas residents, as well as those of the occupied Crimea, would call into question their legitimacy, while neither Ukraine nor the international community will recognize the results of such a vote," MFA Ukraine Spokesman Oleh Nikolenko told Radio Svoboda on February 20. Now, everything is official, so condemning the move will clearly not be enough. So what should – or must – Ukraine’s response be?
The "war freeze" could be seen by Ukrainians as a temporary and relatively acceptable transitional option
Volodymyr Fesenko, Chairman of the Board at Penta Center for Applied Political Studies, told Ukrinform that, before asking Ukrainians, whether they are prepared for an actual freeze of the conflict in Donbas, people must see an explanation of what such a freeze implies. After all, different people (even politicians and experts) perceive the concept differently.
"In Ukrainian society, there is no unity on specific ways to resolve the conflict. Most are inclined to achieve peace based on some compromise, but not all of them. According to surveys by Razumkov Center and Democratic Initiatives Foundation, in November 2019 the option saw support of about two-thirds of respondents, while in May 2021 it was a bit below half of the respondents (46%). At the same time, when asked about specific ways to settle the conflict, opinions remain significantly divided," said the expert.
When sociologists with Razumkov Center and Democratic Initiatives Foundation asked respondents about the future they see fit for the occupied areas of Donbas, Fesenko continues, 55% of respondents turned out to be in favor of Ukraine regaining them on the same terms as before (without any "special status" applied). Only 3% are ready to recognize the independence of the self-styled "DPR" and "LPR", while another 3% are willing to agree that they become part of the Russian Federation.
"If the conflict freeze implies the cessation of hostilities without altering the current political status of the occupied areas, then, in my subjective opinion, a relative majority of Ukrainians will directly or indirectly support such an option, provided that the Ukrainian authorities don’t give these territories up by officially recognizing the separatist ‘republics,’” the political scientist emphasizes.
In his opinion, ceasing hostilities without the ultimate liberation and reintegration of the occupied areas would be seen as a temporary and relatively acceptable transitional option, “lesser evil compared to continued hostilities,” said Volodymyr Fesenko.
Political expert Ihor Reiterovych puts it in a similar way: “Over the last few years, I’ve seen various outcomes of opinion polls. And the maximum share of respondents supporting the idea of freezing the Donbas war stood at 44%.”
In fact, that's a lot. That's almost half of Ukrainian citizens. By the way, in the survey by Rating Group, run in December 2019, some 38% of respondents were in favor of "freezing" the conflict, so we’ve been seeing a growth dynamic on the issue.
After all, if we’re talking about a "freeze," then, says the political scientist, the logic should be the same as, for example, that of Japan with regard to the southern Kuril Islands currently occupied by Russia. So, the Japanese say: "These are our territories, we consider them part of Japan. And while we can't gain control of them today, we don't give them up in any way and we will definitely get them back one day." According to Reiterovych, such an option may also be applicable to Ukraine.
"That is, we officially declare that these are our territories, that they are an integral part of Ukraine (it was and will be the case), but we recognize them as occupied by the Russian Federation – we shift all responsibility onto the occupying power, which, according to international terminology, shall "effectively manage’ these areas. In essence, this is equal to the annexation, but in a somewhat simplified shape. We officially say that we’re unable to regain these territories yet, but we will wait for a good opportunity (once the Russian occupation forces withdraw, etc.) to do so,” the expert said. “Simply put, we limit communication with the region, we create a line of demarcation – a wall – where no one will pass, except, of course, in certain cases, for example, if a family member has died or something like that. Next, we let only those people pass who hold a single passport, a Ukrainian one. At the same time, those who have received a Russian ‘Ausweis’ shall not pass. This can be easily verified as databases are available, as well as our special services are able to do it."
According to the expert, if the situation isn’t resolved soon, if there’s no progress within the TCG and Normandy Four platforms, nearly half of Ukrainian citizens, or even more, could opt for "freezing" the Donbas conflict. "This, in turn, could form a pretext for the authorities to put the issue up for a referendum. That’s because the Verkhovna Rada won’t be able to easily pass such decision – lawmakers need their constituents’ approval," Ihor Reiterovych emphasized.
Ukraine's reaction to the decision of Russia’s CEC: Not to recognize the Duma and the government it will form
"This is a serious signal. This territory is actually becoming part of Russia’s socio-cultural, economic, and political field, "said rights activist and international commentator Andriy Buzarov.
Therefore, the foreign ministry should draw maximum attention of the international community to the issue. This is the first point to note.
Secondly, Buzarov continues, “we must offer some alternative, encourage Ukrainians to come here, where the most comfortable conditions would be created... Seeing what Russia is doing, we need to develop an effective program to fight for people's minds. Ukraine mustn’t be idle," he said.
Today, Ukraine is unlikely to be able to prevent the vote of 600,000 Ukrainians who have obtained Russian passports. "But there’s another 1.5 million people who haven’t received Russian passports. And we have to fight for them," Andriy Buzarov added.
"The reaction should be critical both on the part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and on the part of other state institutions," Volodymyr Fesenko stressed.
He is convinced that this is exactly what it will be like. It should be emphasized that such a vote would prove the fact of the occupation of these territories.
Ihor Reiterovych says Ukraine should at least actively raise the issue before its Western partners and the most influential international organizations, including the UN, OSCE, and PACE… It should be emphasized that "Russia is moving to the second stage, which is creeping annexation, which at any moment could lead to some sort of pseudo-referendum on the Donbas accession to Russia.
The second point is that, if the elections to the State Duma take place – and they definitely will – and Ukrainian citizens holding Russian passports cast their ballots, then, says Reiterovych, at least 1.5-2% of the votes will be provided to a you-know-which party (the expert means the ruling United Russia – author). And this calls into question the legitimacy of the election in general and the ruling party in particular. Accordingly, Ukraine is fully entitled to not recognize the State Duma of the Russian Federation and the government the latter will form. "Thus, all those who will pass through the parliamentary or executive component in Russia we mustn’t recognize. And we also need to convey this to our Western partners," he said.
And the third point is that Ukraine must demand that sanctions be expanded. It must also raise or block certain issues at TCG meetings. "We must apply all possible resources and mechanisms to stop the Russian "passportization" of the Ukrainian Donbas or at least ensure that these people don’t vote in our elections. Indeed, the statements were voiced at the level of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other agencies, which is good, but as for specific options for addressing the issue, they haven’t yet emerged, although they should have."
Myroslav Liskovych, Kyiv
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