Resetting Minsk format

In an exclusive soon-to-be-published interview for The Day, Yevhen MARCHUK answers thorny questions – first of all, why he agreed to take part in the negotiations

The Minsk format of negotiations has been radically reset. At first, Russia replaced its representative in the Trilateral Donbas Peace Settlement Group – instead of Mikhail Zurabov, the Russian Ambassador to Ukraine, Azamat Kulmukhametov, Russia’s former ambassador to Syria, will now represent the Kremlin’s interests. Ukraine also made a move by essentially reformatting and reinforcing its negotiating team in Minsk. Leonid Kuchma remains Ukraine’s representative in the Trilateral Group, but, in addition, subgroups have been formed with experienced and well-known negotiators at the head. Yevhen Marchuk; Volodymyr Horbulin; Iryna Herashchenko and Viktor Medvedchuk; Ihor Veremii are in charge of the security, political, humanitarian, and socioeconomic subgroups, respectively. The so-called DNR and LNR also have their Kremlin-appointed representatives.

The revamped Ukrainian delegation immediately left for Minsk on the same day, where talks were held on May 6 in a usual format and in separate subgroups. “We gathered in Minsk to launch working subgroups in such fields as security, political matters, refugees and humanitarian aid, and economic matters. The subgroups had their first meeting today to discuss the agenda of the next meetings. They worked in a constructive key and laid the groundwork for resolving all the problems at the negotiating table,” OSCE representative Heidi Tagliavini said after the meeting. The subgroups are expected to meet again on May 19 and 22.

Taking into account the fundamental attitude of the newspaper Den, which favored the “Geneva format,” where the Americans would be present, and opposed the “Minsk format” from the very outset, the situation needs to be clarified – all the more so that we categorically asserted that ex-president Kuchma must in no way be appointed as Ukraine’s representative in the capital of Belarus. For it is due to the results of his presidency and personal dependency on Moscow that we have had some of our territories occupied and thousands of Ukrainians killed. But, unfortunately, we were not heeded, and the ensuing actions were in the wake of Putin’s policy (the “Minsk format” is part of this policy). This finally resulted in an absolutely critical situation in the Donbas, not to mention Crimea. Very few, including Ukrainian officials, are speaking of the peninsula today. So the Russians managed to impose their “agenda” on us. What is the result?

Officially, in the president’s words, the aggregate strength of the enemy grouping in the Donbas, including the illegal armed militants, is over 40,000, and the Russian military grouping near the state border numbers about 50,000 servicemen, almost 1.5 times up on July 2014. Moreover, Petro Poroshenko says: “Rosvoyentorg continues to regularly supply militants with weapons, military hardware, ammunition, materials, and fuel. A rifle that hangs on the wall will fire sooner or later. This rule applies not only to the drama theater, but also to the theater of war.” Incidentally, this became possible also as a result of the Kremlin’s successful attempt to draw Ukraine and Western countries into the Minsk talks. Meanwhile, Russia has been “heating up” the Donbas militarily.

“Clearly, the enemy is much better prepared than Ukraine’s defense forces,” Valentyn Badrak, director of the Conversion and Disarmament Center, comments to The Day. “Although morale remains very high in the Armed Forces and a huge step forward has been made in building up the Ukrainian army, we must admit that forces will remain unequal in an open full-scale war if Russia uses all the armaments and equipment it has procured in the past five years. It is no secret that, after the Georgian military campaign, the Russian Federation has been actively rearming and really has a technological advantage.”

“Serious rearming is somewhat slowing down in Ukraine for a number of reasons,” the expert continues. “Firstly, it is a limited financial resource. Secondly, a very weak administrative resource is involved in this. I can see no great efforts of the government, including those in charge of the defense industry, at a time when there is in fact a war. All these points have an impact on the structure of the defense order and the quality of workmanship. So, I don’t think Ukraine will have any strategic deterrent weapons in this or next year. So far, it is only the question of ‘patching up holes’ in the zone of hostilities, improving the mobility and capacity of the communication and target-designation equipment, repairing the damaged artillery and military hardware.”

What about the situation in the international aspect? As is known, the West is on our side, but, with due account of the absence of domestic reforms, which the current leadership promised a year ago, and of the Western partners’ demand to begin this country’s modernization at last, this support is changing today. Moreover, the countries of Europe and America are suffering essential losses as a result of sanctions against Russia. Meanwhile, Putin is skillfully taking advantage of the Europeans’ weak spots: he makes use of domestic contradictions, financial leverage, and old ties with such countries as Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, and Greece. “Today, Europe remains in fact torn apart and very weak when it comes to making key decisions, particularly as far as military aid to Ukraine is concerned,” Badrak emphasizes. “The US President Obama administration is also more and more inclined to offer Ukraine limited support.”

This situation has in fact come about as a result of a number of systemic errors the current government has made. And the problem is not so much in that it is often incompetent in many respects (suffice it to recall the evacuation of Ukrainians from the earthquake-hit Nepal) as in that the government did not wish to learn and heed some really professional and experienced people, let alone vest them with governmental functions. Officials were not only advised at closed-door meetings – they were openly told about the aggressor’s further steps and, what is more, about how to respond. Yevhen Marchuk’s official Facebook page is ample proof of this. But, instead of taking advice and inviting professionals, they talked – in the heat of the Russian offensive – about some unavoidable “quota principle” of portfolio distribution. Thus we have reached a deadlock, pure and simple.

“Yet the Ukrainian military-political leadership has finally decided to revitalize the negotiating process,” Badrak stressed. “It is a very good decision, for it is aimed, above all, at drawing Russia into the talks. But the leadership should not rely on this way only. The negotiations as such will decide nothing. All they can do is drag out the time until Ukraine is able to strengthen its defense, obtain the strategic deterrent weapons, when sanctions have a stronger effect, and this country receives more aid from the West not only on the political and diplomatic, but also on the military and technological level, which includes the supply of weapons. It is not until a certain counterbalance is achieved that we will be able to consider other scenarios of conflict resolution.”

The leadership seems to have seen at last the true critical condition the country is in. They need help again to be able to put out the fire. This calls back the “tape scandal” of the early 2000s, when president Kuchma in fact found himself in international isolation. It is Yevhen Marchuk, National Security and Defense Council secretary at the time, who had to “clear the logjam.” But what was at stake was not so much the problem of the leadership as the destiny of this country. Ukraine managed to keep its reputation unsullied. Moreover, Mr. Marchuk steered the Ukraine-NATO cooperation to the level when we were a step away from receiving the Membership Action Plan at the NATO Istanbul Summit in 2004. But, “thanks” to the efforts of Russia and… Kuchma, this plan was thwarted.

A fire has broken out again – a much more serious fire. And Mr. Marchuk is here again. What was the reaction to this news?

“As for the invitation of experienced governmental experts to the Minsk negotiations, I like this step better than, say, what was the case during the first talks in that city in September past year or in February this year,” Badrak says.

“In my opinion, the formation of ‘working groups’ will not result in any progress for the simple reason that Russia, the aggressor, will never and in no way allow the situation to be reversed,” ex-foreign minister Volodymyr Ohryzko says. “Russia has a different goal – to freeze the current situation and use it to destabilize Ukraine. This was and still is Russia’s policy in all the ‘hot spots’ it has created on the post-Soviet expanses. I am somewhat sorry for the new highly-respected representatives of Ukraine, who have undertaken the difficult mission of these subgroups’ leaders on our side. The point is not at all in their ability to achieve a result. There is no doubt about this. The point is different: Russia will not opt for settlement. And this will produce the corresponding results. Let us drop illusions – analyze the effectiveness of similar ‘working groups’ in Transnistria or Abkhazia, and you will draw an inconsolable conclusion.”

And here is the position of a well-known journalist Vitalii Portnykov: “We should remember that the attempts to restrict Ukrainian sovereignty began during the presidency of Yeltsin, not Putin. And the election of Leonid Kuchma as president of Ukraine created a temptation to turn Ukraine into a colony of Moscow,” he writes on the website espreso.tv. “Marchuk stirred up unhidden resentment. In a chat with me, Yury Dubinin, the then Russian ambassador to Ukraine, a brilliant Soviet diplomat, called Marchuk one of the strongest and toughest negotiators in his career (incidentally, Dubinin came to the Ukrainian capital after working in Washington). The point is not even in capabilities. The point is in the understanding of mentality. Russia is being ruled by Soviet-style bureaucrats, and their mentality is clear to both Horbulin and Marchuk. Of course, the Russians always have an option to fight, not to negotiate. But if they opt for diplomacy, they will lose to our negotiators.”

The first reaction of the people who are far from politics is as follows: “We saw Marchuk in Minsk yesterday. Clearly, Kuchmists are in such a fix that they turned to Mr. Marchuk again. But does he really need this?” This doubt is absolutely logical. What for? Firstly, he openly opposed the “Minsk format” and warned about the results of this error, with due account of the composition of Ukraine’s negotiating team. Secondly, how many human efforts will it take to “clear the logjam” again after somebody else?