Poroshenko makes warnings, recommendations on Donbas withdrawal

10 October 2019

Ukraine stands to lose control of about 30 population centers in the Donbas region and valuable positions of height in their defense in the current Steinmeier plan for withdrawal, former President Poroshenko said in a video statement released on Oct. 9. Moreover, the 2016 military positions that the Ukrainian military leaders have been referring to in their plans for withdrawal are “mythical,” Poroshenko added, indicating that there is no recognized record of these positions. Instead, he called for a withdrawal to the demarcation line set in Minsk in Sept. 19, 2014. Ukraine’s Armed Forces have spent recent years capturing positions in the so-called “gray zone” surrounding the separation line in order to capture strategic heights to prevent the shooting of nearby population centers, the pravda.com.ua news site.


Instead of the Steinmeier formula for withdrawal, which Poroshenko referred to as a “Russian trap,” the former president offered his own seven conditions to withdraw forces, the first being the principles of “safety first, nothing is not agreed upon until everything is not agreed upon, and only through safety to elections.” The other steps are: (2) the Steinmeier formula must be considered as a component of the road map to fulfilling the Minsk Accords, including the withdrawal of Russian soldiers, hardware and arms; the disarming of illegal military formations; and the transfer of control of the Ukrainian-Russian border under Kyiv’s control; (3) the withdrawal occurs only under a permanent and all-encompassing ceasefire, and Russia should return 2,500 kilometers; (4) the OSCE special monitoring mission gaining full access to all of occupied Donbas and establishing permanent control of the Russian-Ukrainian border; (5) the creation of a subgroup on border issues within the framework of the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk; (6) the launch of a UN peacekeeping mission on all the territory of occupied Donbas; (7) the re-establishment of taxation in Donbas within Ukraine’s legal framework, as well as the financial and banking systems.


Zenon Zawada: Losing control of towns and villages isn’t a problem if they become part of a demilitarized zone along the separation line that is well enforced by international observers until the Minsk Accords are fully implemented. What Poroshenko is implying with his remarks is that Russia won’t allow for such an internationally monitored zone – let alone the fully authorized presence of the OSCE and UN – and instead will take advantage of the withdrawal to make military advances.


So a key question is whether (1) the Russians will take advantage of the withdrawal to make military advances, as Poroshenko is warning, or whether (2) their strategy will consist of fulfilling the Minsk Accords in good faith, with the knowledge that the agreement’s very implementation achieves their ultimate goal of anchoring Ukraine in Russia’s geopolitical orbit.


We share Poroshenko’s view that Russia has set a trap for Ukraine that Zelensky is walking directly into. But the trap is not necessarily the Steinmeier formula, but the very Minsk Accords themselves (that Poroshenko himself agreed to). Therefore, we are leaning towards believing the latter strategy will be employed, though we can’t rule out anything with the Russians.


Poroshenko deserves credit for proposing his own formula to withdrawing forces, rather than merely criticizing Zelensky and the Steinmeier formula, which rings hollow with Ukrainians. In light of his unique insight on the war in Donbas, it’s equally tragic that Poroshenko discredited himself so deeply with the Ukrainian public, with his alleged corruption, that most Ukrainians don’t trust him.


Moreover, the Zelensky administration can’t take Poroshenko’s advice explicitly, lest it lose the public’s trust for collaborating with the enemy that it has made the former president out to be. We expect the Zelensky administration will move forward with a clumsy, perhaps even reckless withdrawal in the early spring, even if it does incur some losses for Ukraine. In the view of Zelensky and his millions of supporters, a bad peace is better than a good war. It remains to be seen how they will deal with those millions of Ukrainians who don’t agree.

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