DISPLACED AT THE NEGOTIATING TABLE | Vitaliy Portnykov

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The main event in the Minsk negotiation process – however, it can now be called Minsk rather tentatively, because all negotiations take place in a virtual mode – was the appearance in the Ukrainian delegation of representatives of displaced people from the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.


This decision is the implementation of an old idea coming from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky has been talking about the need to discuss the status of Donbas with displaced, and not with representatives of the puppet government of the "people's republics" almost from the first day after his election as head of the state. And this is a completely logical approach – if we are negotiating the future of Donbas, then the participants in this process should be people who were forced to leave their homes due to Russian aggression. It is alleged that the involvement of displaced citizens in the talks was meant by the head of the president's office, Andriy Yermak, when he proposed the creation of an advisory council, which would include some "respected representatives of civil society" from both sides. Because, from the point of view of Yermak and Zelensky, such approach would allow the negotiations to involve representatives of the displaced. At the same time, from the point of view of Yermak’s vis-a-vis, the Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration Dmitry Kozak, the advisory council could be a step towards direct talks between Kyiv and representatives of the puppet authorities of Donbas. As a result, the idea of creating an advisory council was not supported either in Ukrainian society or in the intermediary countries, Germany and France. Because Berlin and Paris did not want to perceive Russia as an equal mediator in the negotiations, which, in fact, started the war.


So, that idea died before it was born. Then there was a new plan to expand the Ukrainian delegation and involve the displaced in the negotiation process.


The arguments of the supporters of this plan and the newest participants in the negotiations are obvious – it will finally be possible to demonstrate that Donbas is not only militants and puppet authorities, but also millions of people who lost their small homeland due to Russian aggression. And we also need to talk to these people about the future of the region. Critics of the decision to expand the delegation claimed that Russia would simply use the presence of displaced in the talks to defend its thesis about the internal conflict in Donbas. In other words, on both sides are residents of Donbas, let them talk to each other. And what is Russia’s role here?


As is often the case with Russia's assessment of the negotiation approach, both supporters and critics of the decision to include the displaced in the talks did not understand Kremlin. Moscow needs one thing – for the Ukrainian leadership to agree to the possibility of direct talks with the puppet administrations of the "people's republics". And anything that calls into question the legitimacy of these administrations is met with irritation. The very appearance of displaced at the talks is a reminder that after the Russian aggression, millions of people left the occupied territories, found themselves in the open air and – by the way – did not vote for "heads of people's republics", even if we take Russia instigated "elections" seriously.


That is why, after the first appearance of the displaced people in the negotiation process, Russia's representative in the Tripartite Contact Group, Boris Gryzlov, accused Ukraine of "actually withdrawing" from the Minsk process.


This statement by Gryzlov once again demonstrated that the Kremlin does not perceive the Minsk process at all as a process of negotiations to end the conflict and restore Ukraine's territorial integrity. For the Ukrainian leadership, this is really the main goal of the Minsk process. But for the Kremlin, the Minsk process is part of an effort to absorb Ukraine and turn it into a Russian colony or even part of Russia. And in this sense, the goals of Zelensky and Putin are diametrically opposed.


If Zelensky wants to restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine, then Putin wants the territorial integrity of "real" Russia, from Uzhhorod to Vladivostok. And in this sense, the Minsk process has no real significance for Putin, he will not end the war in Donbass simply because the cessation of the war contradicts the strategic goals of the aggressor.


Then why does this process continue at all? There are also very simple answers to this question. For Ukraine, the Minsk process is important only because it allows for the continuation of European sanctions against Russia. And if Ukraine leaves Minsk unilaterally, it will allow Russian "well-wishers" in the European Union to refuse to continue the policy of sanctions. At the same time, this policy by itself does not stop the war, but reminds of the criminality of Russia's actions, harms the country's economy and forces the Kremlin to refrain from escalating the situation.


For Russia, Minsk is important only because the Kremlin sees it as one of the tools to force Kyiv to negotiate directly with the puppet administrations of Donetsk and Luhansk. What Gryzlov once again said – the Kremlin does not agree with the fact that in Kyiv they want to talk to the displaced people, and not with the "real" representatives of the "people of Donbas", in other words the puppets.


And why Putin puts up with such a dialogue? And not just to end the war. Russia simply wants to prove that its attack on Ukraine is an "internal conflict" and get the West to lift sanctions. That is, to achieve a goal directly opposite to Ukraine's goals. To be considered as a mediator, not an aggressor, and at the same time to control Donbas and achieve the lifting of sanctions – that's what the Kremlin wants at this stage. And, by the way, this was the Kremlin's approach to the conflicts in Moldova and Georgia – Russia first seized foreign lands and then forced the legitimate leaders of the states it attacked or incited conflicts to sit down at the negotiating table with puppet "leaders".


What happens next? Nothing unpredictable will happen. If the Ukrainian leadership continues to disagree with direct talks with the puppets, the situation will develop according to the Georgian scenario. Sooner or later, the Kremlin will launch an "operation to force Ukraine into peace", try to seize another part of Donbas, and then recognize the "independence" of the "people's republics" following the example of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If Kyiv agree to direct talks, independence will not be recognized, but Ukraine and the "people's republics" will coexist according to the Moldovan scenario – as three independent entities, legitimate and self-proclaimed. With the ability to generate new conflicts, of course. And with the possibility of residents of the occupied territories to vote for pro-Russian candidates in the elections in Ukraine – they will be specially brought by buses to somewhere like Kramatorsk, as now in the Moldovan elections bring voters from Transnistria. And at the time of the election, by the way, they will "just stop firing."


Then what is the significance of the participation of the displaced citizens in the negotiation process in this case? Virtually none – unless we get the opportunity to learn about the so-called negotiations, first hand, because Donetsk region is represented in the Ukrainian delegation by well-known journalists. But imitating the negotiation process will not change the essence.


There is nothing wrong with such imitation. An alternative to abandoning Minsk is to lift sanctions on Russia. It is important for Ukraine that the negotiation process continues until the socio-political situation in the aggressor country changes and the Russian leadership becomes ready to comprehensively address the problems of occupation of other countries in the post-Soviet space, from Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Donbas and Crimea.


That is what the international community must demand of Putin and his successors.

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