"No Red Lines Crossed on Donbas Issue" - First Ukraine President Leonid Kravchuk
27 November, 2020
Former President of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk during the solemn celebration on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Honorary Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, His Beatitude Filaret Photo: UNIAN / Mykhailo Markiv

Several weeks ago, the head of the Ukrainian delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group, Leonid Kravchuk, presented a plan to establish peace in the Donbas. He was immediately criticized in the parliament by the opposition and ruling party MPs alike. Among the items on the agenda are local elections in Donbas on March 31, 2021, the withdrawal of armed groups, and an amnesty for the parties to the conflict.

In our latest interview, Kravchuk spoke of how realistic the implementation of the points of this peace plan is, how Russia reacted to it, where the Minsk negotiation process is heading, as well as the "red lines" in the Donbas for Volodymyr Zelenskyy.


What was the reaction to the peace plan for Donbas presented by you at the last meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group? There were reports that it was "taken as a basis." What does it mean?

The war in the Donbas has been going on for six years and the Trilateral Contact Group has been working for six years. We cannot say that our main goal has been achieved, namely peace in Donbas. Over the past six months, we have managed to make a decision at the Minsk talks on a comprehensive ceasefire. Yes, it is violated at times, but these violations and the scale of the war that existed before are incomparable. Thus we can say: there has been some progress.

Ukraine has prepared its step-by-step plan to achieve peace in Donbas. It is characterized by realism, characterized by the fact that Ukraine is a state that must ensure the implementation on the basis of the law, the decisions of the Ukrainian parliament concerning the integration of the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions separated as a result of aggression into Ukrainian reality. In order for Ukrainian laws and the Ukrainian Constitution to take effect there, that is, the Ukrainian government [to be established].

Of course, we are aware that this cannot be automatic, there are serious differences. We want them to be taken into account, and the Verkhovna Rada will pass laws in which the situation and the specifics of local realities will be taken into account. We simply say: let's start analyzing what needs to be taken into account in these laws that we will pass. We consider it important that the citizens living in these non-government-controlled territories also speak out.

We want to give the Minsk process a new lease of life. There are many problems that need to be addressed immediately, and we offer this path. War cannot make people happy, we must bring peace closer. And Russia probably sees this too. We must decide in the near future and gradually, step by step, move forward and toward peace.

But Russia insists on the implementation of the Minsk agreements and elections first, then the withdrawal of armed groups and the transfer of control over the border to Ukraine. That is, we can state that in political terms the Minsk process is bogged down...

We can't talk about elections when there are illegal military formations, mercenaries, people who came there to fight and earn money in the war. There are no Ukrainian laws, no Ukrainian parties, no media. There is nothing Ukrainian there now. And there are no preconditions for elections.

For example, suddenly the elections would be called in the format that Russia and [unrecognized republics] want - first the elections, and then the border. Observers are invited to the election. Observers ask the question: who should ensure their safety there?

“Certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions” {ORDLO) is not a state formation recognized by the world. Russia says it is Ukrainian territory. And this is true - this is Ukrainian territory, temporarily occupied. So, observers are appealing to the Ukrainian authorities: can you ensure the peace and quiet of the people who will be observing? Well, how can we say that "we can" when we are not there? Neither Russia nor ORDLO wants to see and accept this.

So we assert that it's unrealistic. It’s not because we want it or don’t. It’s unrealistic - first elections, then the border. We will first prepare the conditions - this is the first and foremost, and then we will talk about the elections.

The Verkhovna Rada should adopt three - in our opinion - basic laws in the near future: on the demilitarization of these districts, on amnesty, and on elections. They must be adopted to begin this important move forward.

Ukraine has made concrete proposals, now we need the will of Russia and ORDLO. And both France and Germany see this. They will also contend to Russia that in order to move forward, you need to be realistic, and not just make statements or [hit a stone wall]. Everyone already sees that it will not be resolved in such a format, and no one wants to make changes.

The Minsk format, or the Minsk negotiation process, must reach a qualitatively new level. I think Russia feels uncomfortable in a situation, where the problem is being resolved for six years, and there is no progress, the war continues, it claims lives, causes huge destruction and financial costs.

Екс-президент України Леонід Кравчук під час презентації своєї книги «Перший про владу»

Former President of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk during the presentation of his book "The First on Power". Photo: UNIAN / Inna Sokolovska

What should be the election and amnesty laws? Who will be eligible to vote and be elected and who can be amnestied and who cannot?

Above all, these are questions to the parliament. This is not the first time the issue of amnesty has been raised. The law on amnesty was passed, but it has not been signed, it is in the Verkhovna Rada. I think that it should be studied in depth once again, taking into account the proposals of those people who live in the territories not controlled by Ukraine, so that there are no accidents.

[We can’t] pass a law and amnesty everyone indiscriminately, just as we can’t punish everyone in sight. War criminals or those who raped, tortured people, etc. cannot be amnestied. But this must be done, firstly, on the basis of the law, and secondly, taking into account the situation and opinion of those people who live there. I am convinced that these people know best who did what and why in those difficult conditions.

The law was voted on during the term of the previous Verkhovna Rada. I think a lot has changed, a lot we have understood on a deeper level. I believe that it will be considered objectively and fairly.

Citing this law, I have given arguments that show that not everything is so simple. So is the law on deoccupation and demilitarization of the region. There are also many mercenaries, foreign military formations, illegal military formations. These people came to this territory with only one purpose – to fight. We must analyze very carefully and very deeply everything that happened around it.

But first, these illegal armed groups must be removed. We can’t hold elections and say that the Ukrainian government operates there, while there are formations of unknown origin nearby.

The issue of peace in Donbas is not only a matter of the Ukrainian delegation. Before each TCG teleconference, I communicate with the Office of the President, with [head of the office Andriy] Yermak, with the President of Ukraine. I see and feel that for them it is a million-dollar question. This is not just a formal step towards something, but a life stance – to achieve peace.

This position was expressed by the president in his program, he adheres to it. After all, the Normandy format had not convened for over two years before Zelenskyy came to power. TCG had worked on paper only. This is also a fact. Thanks to the efforts of the President personally, the entire diplomatic service, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and all authorities, we were able to resume meetings in the Normandy format.

This is a problem that must be solved daily, hourly, minutely. I would probably be the happiest person in the world if I could say, "The war is over." Unfortunately, we cannot say that yet.

Президент України Володимир Зеленський слухає військовослужбовця під час поїздки до Донецької області на сході України.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy listens to a serviceman during a trip to Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. Photo: Press Service of the President of Ukraine

There is often talk of "red lines". In your opinion, does Zelenskyy cross and can he cross them?

Ukrainian political class is divided into parts. One part is those who have lost power and consider themselves offended. And all the time in their arguments and rhetoric there is the same theme - that the current government can not cope with the tasks at hand.

What they do most of the time is scare people that Zelenskyy and the current government are crossing the red lines. When I ask what exact "red lines" Zelenskyy is crossing - there is no specific answer. You see, somewhere he said something like this, and somewhere else he said something like that. Well, are we adults or children? If you are an adult, please provide a document - a law, a decision of the Cabinet of Ministers, a presidential decree, on the basis of which it could be concluded that Zelenskyy is crossing a "red line". There is no such document.

I can tell you frankly - believe me - the President of Ukraine does not cross any "red lines". At every meeting, he says that Ukraine's interests are paramount. We can meet for discussions, we can talk things through, but Ukraine will never give in on territorial integrity, sovereignty, state, and national interests. These are the words of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine. Thus, it is simply an outright lie, which is based on offense that they have lost power. This is one group of politicians.

The second group of politicians thinks that they could do it better, provided they focus on Kremlin policy. And there are factions in the parliament, groups of MPs who listen to the Kremlin's policy, who go there, ostensibly agree on something. But these agreements are fictitious, because the authorities can only negotiate with the authorities. It’s not like the Kremlin government can negotiate with a political party. This is done to mislead people. Like, you see, we have agreed, and the authorities don’t [follow through].

This group of people also ends up dreaming of taking more power or taking all the power. In my opinion, this is ivory-towered with regard to Ukrainian reality, I do not see this [scenario materializing].

And there is a third group of people: these are people who are realists who think about Ukraine, not about themselves. The main thing is the state, the life of the people. How to break this deadlock? If only we could unite all these three forces in at least one issue – the issue of peace.

It sometimes puzzles me that these people were in power yesterday. Just yesterday! All the seats they have vacated are still warm. And they failed to end the war, they failed to overcome corruption, but rather they expanded it to a larger scale, they failed to overcome poverty, they did not solve a number of issues in the life of Ukraine! And the people did not believe them, did not elect them to power. It can’t be: yesterday you failed, and today you are already teaching. Well, they seem a laughingstock. Who is it for? For people who do not have the opportunity to deeply delve into and analyze these documents.

That is why I want people to think calmly and judiciously: such a policy or such a confrontation, when it comes to the most intimate thing – peace, it cannot result in joint action. This is seen by our opponents, our enemies, and they use it in their politics. If they saw a monolith of unity, a monolith of goals to achieve peace in Donbas, all parties [acting cohesively], all public organizations in order to achieve peace – I think they would behave in a completely different manner and the world would have a completely different attitude to Ukraine.

The idea of ​​elections in Donbas on March 31 next year is criticized because it is too fast and unrealistic. Some MPs say that beforehand a long reintegration, return of Ukrainian television, the press, Ukrainian culture to the Donbas should be carried out, because otherwise this election will merely legitimize the militants as local authorities there. Do you allow for such a scenario if the election still takes place?

If we talk regardless of the region, say Donbas, this position seems very deep and realistic. Like, first you have to do this and that, prepare that, and then hold elections. But who will do it when there is nothing Ukrainian there? Without resolving these issues: deoccupation and everything else. Who will come there, who will ORDLO allow in there to come and start doing something there?

When I talk about elections, demilitarization and everything else, I mean that local government will be created. I cannot say now that this will be a high-quality ideal patriotic government. But it will be created on a legitimate basis and it is this local government together with the central government of Ukraine that will begin to move forward, restore the economy, restore life. We are talking here about our step-by-step plan to establish a normal life in the Donbas too, as well as the introduction of a free economic zone.

That is, a whole set of issues that requires specific work of specific people – not those who will come from Kyiv and “put things right” there. If one thinks so, it will never be possible to agree on interaction there. They, these people, will perceive Kyiv as a structure that comes to bring order to them, and it will turn out unpredictable – they are afraid. Russian propaganda has really done a lot of negative things. But will this Russian propaganda stop tomorrow? No. For many of them, Ukraine is an enemy state.

People who criticize – I treat them with great respect–  but they are out of touch with reality. They live in a closed space, where you can sit and fantasize: like that's what one needs to do. And when they are asked how to do it, none of them can say anything [realistic] and reasonable.

Our step-by-step plan mentions how to do it. I will not say that it is perfect, that everything is taken into account there. But this is a real plan and it is prepared on the basis of the opinions of dozens and hundreds of people in Ukraine. I think that it is necessary to start acting, to create conditions, and then these conditions will grow, polish, improve on the basis of concrete work on reconstruction of life in the destroyed territories of Donbas.

Український військовий йде по траншеї на новій лінії розмежування під містом Золоте Луганської області на сході України.

The Ukrainian military walks along a trench on a new demarcation line near the settlement of Zolote in the Luhansk region in the east of Ukraine. Photo: AP / Evgeniy Maloletka

On November 10, new entry-exit checkpoints "Shchastia" and "Zolote" were to open in Luhansk region – why didn't this happen?

This issue was comprehensively discussed at the last meeting. This is not just a question of the Minsk format – it was one of the issues of the last Normandy Four meeting on December 9 last year. Ukraine, for its part, has prepared not only checkpoints, but also all the necessary conditions so that people who cross them can solve a number of issues: social, financial, banking.

Instead of doing its job, that party accuses Ukraine of not taking something into account there. Keep in mind! I said at the last meeting: you do your job. If the bus can’t do a U-turn, then widen the road. What’s the [problem]: are there mountains, ocean – why can’t it be expanded? So instead of doing it, they say: let’s not let people through, because there is no possibility.

I urged to find the possibility of contacts, communication, so that there were no such problems. They arise not by chance, but often due to the lack of understanding from a particular official, a particular person. It is not a matter of big politics – it is a matter of everyone's needs. We discussed them, and I felt that there would be changes.

What do you think are the prospects of a Normandy meeting before the New Year?

The meeting of the Normandy Four in Berlin, which was planned at the highest level, rests on one thing: whether we have fulfilled the previous agreements reached in Paris. Our task in Ukraine is to do everything to fulfill the tasks outlined there.

Speaking at a teleconference, I said that the decisions that were made in Paris at that time in that format, on December 9, were also approved by the President of Russia, [Vladimir] Putin. Therefore, if someone does not comply, either Russia or ORDLO – and these are Russia's proteges – they block the document that Putin approved.

Therefore, our task is not to say whether there will be meetings or not. It is not we who decide, it is not decided by the TCG, it is not decided by one person in Ukraine, it is our joint work. But the Ukrainian delegation to the TCG must and will act to implement the decisions adopted on December 9 in the Normandy format in Paris. And this will be the most important thing when deciding whether the next meeting will go ahead.

Ukraine is interested in such a meeting, and the President of Ukraine has repeatedly reminded about this meeting. We realize that we need to move forward. And the purpose of the meeting is to analyze what has been done and what has not been done. And to highlight key points – what interferes. This obstructor can be removed to move forward.

Will there be an exchange of prisoners with the non-government-controlled territories by the New Year?

We submitted documents for 11 people. They are fully ready. We are waiting for the relevant submissions from ORDLO. Because this exchange is not just a one-sided action. So far, we do not see such counter-steps on the part of ORDLO.

Moreover, we pose the question more broadly. We do not know how many people in those areas suffer from various forms of pressure. But we know that there are such people, and we want the idea of "all for all" [exchange] to begin to materialize.

The first is to exchange those people who are already on the list. And then act on the principle of "all for all" and ensure that this does happen soon.