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Near a bomb shelter in the town of Yasynuvata. Donetsk region. March 24, 2021.
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Ukraine says it will no longer visit Minsk for peace talks. Is this another sign of future conflict?

Source: Meduza
Near a bomb shelter in the town of Yasynuvata. Donetsk region. March 24, 2021.
Near a bomb shelter in the town of Yasynuvata. Donetsk region. March 24, 2021.
Valentin Sprinchak / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Kyiv will no longer be sending its delegation to Minsk for negotiations within the framework of the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine (TCG). The reason? “Belarus today is under the influence of Russia and Kyiv has no trust in this territory.” This was announced by Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Oleksii Reznikov on Monday, April 5 — his pronouncement came against the backdrop of an ongoing escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Meduza spoke with sources close to the Ukrainian leadership to find out whether these statements could threaten the entire negotiation process.

Ukraine no longer wants to hold the Donbas peace talks in Minsk, but intends to continue them somewhere else

Ukraine will not be participating in the Donbas peace talks if they continue to take place in Minsk after pandemic restrictions are lifted, announced the country’s Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories Oleksii Reznikov. “The Ukrainian delegation will not send members of its delegation to Minsk. To conduct [negotiations] in real life, you’ll have to find another country, another place,” he underscored.

In response, the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that he didn’t know “how officially Ukraine’s position had been announced and whether it’s a complete refusal” to participate in any negotiations on Donbas. At the same time, he noted that the negotiation group is trilateral, so it’s necessary to work out the position of two or more parties, “and as of yet there is no position on this matter.”

A Meduza source close to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, someone in the leadership of his ruling party, Servant of the People, has no doubts that Reznikov’s actions are being coordinated continuously with the president’s office, and that his statements reflect Kyiv’s official position.

However, asked about the prospect of moving the talks to a different location, another Meduza source close to Zelensky’s office said, “definitely not in the near term.”

“Physically, right now no one is travelling to Minsk because of the pandemic. And it’s difficult to predict when it will end. But theoretically, Kyiv is considering the possibility of transferring the venue [from Belarus to another country],” the source said. He also recalled that Kyiv is still participating in the Minsk negotiations via video conferences; Ukraine isn’t insisting on changing the negotiators — only on changing the location.

Ukraine’s plans to continue the trilateral negotiations were confirmed on April 6, after Reznikov’s statements, when the Ukrainian delegation announced on Telegram that they were calling an emergency meeting of the TCG. The reason? The need to restore the ceasefire after “gross violations” and an “unprecedented strengthening of Russian troops” near the Ukrainin border, the announcement said.

Based on open source analysis, the Moscow-based Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) reached the conclusion that the buildup of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine is the highest concentration seen since 2015. 

The sharp escalation in Donbas has played a significant role in Ukraine’s desire to change the location of the negotiations, Meduza’s source in the Servant of the People party leadership confirmed. “Every day soldiers are dying, Russian troops [are massing] at the border. Everything Ukraine now says and produces on this topic is connected to the intensification of Russian aggression.”

The first Minsk agreements, which provided for a ceasefire in Donbas, were reached in September 2014. The second ones, which specified the details of the political settlement, were concluded in February 2015. The agreements were signed by Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE, as well as representatives of the self-proclaimed republics in the Donbas. Minsk became the location for the meetings of the delegations, though Belarus itself isn’t involved in the negotiation process.

Since the very beginning, the parties interpreted the main provisions of the agreements differently, which has why the Minsk process has been in constant crisis for several years. 

Moscow insists that the political provisions of the agreements ought to be fulfilled first, while Kyiv insists that security issues be resolved first and foremost.

Among other things, Russia is seeking a special status for Donbas to be enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution, and that elections be held in the region with the involvement of local political forces.

Kyiv has repeatedly stated that such a course of action is unacceptable. In order for elections to take place in the Donbas, Ukraine must first be given back control of its border with Russia. Former President Petro Poroshenko stood firm on this issue, and current President Volodymyr Zelensky has as well (to some extent).

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Ukraine has more than one reason for wanting to move the peace talks, but Russia is unlikely to agree to a relocation

Meduza’s source close to Zelensky’s office couldn’t explain how changing the location of the peace talks might affect the situation in the conflict zone. Ukrainian political scientist Vladimir Fesenko believes that the key issue isn’t potential Russian aggression, but rather the sharp deterioration of Ukrainian-Belarusian relations. Things soured during last year’s opposition protests in Belarus, when President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to start “a dialogue with the people.” The Ukrainian leader suggested that otherwise, Belarus “could end up with something similar to Maidan” (referring to the 2014 Euromaidan protests that overthrew the Ukrainian government and ousted then-president Viktor Yanukovych). On September 15, 2020, the Ukrainian parliament supported the European Union’s opinion on the undemocratic nature of the presidential elections in Belarus, along with its decision to impose sanctions against those responsible for falsifying the elections.

The Ukrainian side started to talk about changing the location of the peace talks back in August 2020. Reznikov himself spoke about the fact that after the online format comes to a close, Kyiv will strive to conduct the negotiations in another country, as did the head of Ukraine’s TCG delegation, former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma

Options for alternative locations have already been announced, recalled political scientist Vladimir Fesenko — including Vienna (where the OSCE is headquartered), Istanbul, or the Moldovan capital, Chișinău. In addition, Kazakhstan has been offering to host the peace talks since 2014, Fesenko continued. For unofficial contacts, including with representatives of the unrecognized republics, the OSCE previously used the Albanian capital, Tirana, he added. However, he couldn’t speak to which options have been agreed upon.

Instead of Belarus, Ukraine is considering Switzerland and Poland, the source from the Servant of the People party’s leadership noted, without giving any details. On the other hand, the source close to Zelensky’s office said that so far there are no specifics on alternative locations for the negotiations.

That said, it may be difficult for representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics to attend meetings in a European country, given that many of them are subject to Western sanctions, Fesenko recalled. 

A member of the Russian TCG delegation declined to comment on Reznikov’s statement. “I think not,” he told Meduza, when asked if Moscow would agree to changing the location of the negotiations.

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Text by Elizaveta Antonova

Translated by Eilish Hart

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