Written by Nikolaus von Twickel
The killing of four government soldiers in a frontline position in the Donetsk region caused political turbulences in Kyiv. President Zelenskiy called Vladimir Putin and fired an outspoken Ukrainian envoy to the Minsk talks – while the separatists denied responsibility and blamed Ukraine for covering up what they said was an accident. In more bad news from the local economy, the Donetsk separatists admitted that another large plant had halted production. The fact that Russia has sent just a single aid convoy to Donbass this year was interpreted as a sign of Moscow’s waning interest in sending goods to the separatists. The issuing of Russian passports further accelerated.
Zelenskiy calls Putin, fires negotiator, after four soldiers killed
The death of four government soldiers on 6 August in what the Ukrainian General Staff said was an enemy attack in the Donetsk region village of Pavlopil prompted President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to call his Russian colleague Vladimir Putin one day later and ask him to put pressure on the “DNR” to adhere to the latest ceasefire – which was agreed last month. It was the second time that Zelenskiy called the Kremlin leader since his inauguration in May. Also on 7 August, Zelenskiy held urgent talks with the military leadership and said that he wanted to hold a summit in the “Normandy format”, which includes Russia, France and Germany, soon.
However, despite a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, no such summit has happened so far and neither Russia nor the “DNR” have made any public concessions. Alexei Chesnakov, a Moscow-based political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, said that a summit should not be called on short notice but only after serious and substantial preparations.
The Ukrainian General Staff said that the four soldiers were killed when a mortar hit a trench in Pavlopil where they carried out repair works for a military position at about 10:30 am. It said that the mortar was probably fired from a grenade launcher, which has a smaller caliber not prohibited under the Minsk agreement’s provision to withdraw heavy weapons.
The separatists accused Kyiv of masking an accident as an attack. The command of the Donetsk “People’s Militia” claimed that the deadly explosion did not happen at a trench in Pavlopil but in the nearby village of Orlivske, when an anti-personnel mine exploded during unloading. In a more detailed statement released on 7 August, the separatists said that Orlivske was too far away from their closest military position.
The international monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) did not record any significant fighting in the area that day. Located northeast of Mariupol, Pavlopil was a “grey zone” village controlled by no-one until government troops entered it in late 2015. While Ukrainian military positions have been there since then, the village has never been a hot spot.
In another fallout from the incident, President Zelenskiy on 13 August sacked Roman Bezsmertniy as Ukraine’s envoy to the political working group at the Minsk Trilateral talks. Bezsmertniy had said in an interview that Ukraine should cut off water, electricity and food supplies to the “People’s Republics” and suspend the Minsk talks in response to the deadly incident. He also argued that Ukraine would never change its constitution to give special political status to the non-government-controlled areas, as foreseen in the Minsk agreement.
Zelenskiy’s office did not explain the reasons for the sacking, but a source quoted by Russia’s Kommersant newspaper (which had conducted the original interview) said that the President disagrees with Bezsmertniy’s “view on the perspectives for the Minsk process”. A successor was not immediately named for the negotiations, which are scheduled to continue on 21 August. The “DNR”, who had assailed Bezsmertniy’s comments as untenable, said that it had little hope that his successor would be any better.
Monitors record less ceasefire violations
Despite the deadly incident, the OSCE Monitoring Mission recorded a significant fall in ceasefire violations. According to figures released on August 16, the number of violations in the two weeks between 29 July and 11 August went down by more than half to 2,700, compared to the previous two weeks, when over 6,000 violations were recorded. The ceasefire went into effect on 21 July (see Newsletter 60).
The OSCE Mission also said that it recorded no ceasefire violations inside the so-called disengagement area of Stanytsia Luhanska since the sides began to implement a troop withdrawal on 17 June. The withdrawal allows urgently needed repairs of the bridge in Stanytsia, the only crossing point inside the Luhansk region. The works are thought to begin after mines and other explosive devices have been removed (see Newsletter 61).
Deinego comes to Stanytsia, Pasechnik invites Zelenskiy to come to Luhansk
Also on 6 August, “LNR” foreign “minister” Vladislav Deinego and ombudswoman Olga Kobtseva crossed the contact line and walked into government-controlled territory just north of the bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska. The two separatist officials wanted to meet an UN official but were stopped and questioned by local administration head Yury Zolkin, while a Ukrainian TV crew was filming. In the ensuing exchange of words Deinego claimed that Stanytsia belonged to the separatists (who habitually call the government-controlled parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions “temporarily occupied” by Ukraine).
This was apparently the first direct encounter between Ukrainian and separatist officials outside the Minsk talks
On the same day, “LNR” leader Leonid Pasechnik issued an invitation to President Zelenskiy to visit Luhansk. “I am ready for dialogue with Mr Zelenskiy . If he comes, he will be received according to international protocol. We will speak to him about peace”, Pasechnik wrote during a question and answer session on Twitter. Such “direct lines” appeared in the “LNR” only in March, when the hitherto shy and secretive Pasechnik launched a Twitter account (see Newsletter 54). There is no evidence that he actually tweets himself.
A direct dialogue between separatists and Kyiv has been a long-standing Russian demand which Ukraine has so far refused, arguing that the separatists are merely Russian puppets. Formally, the Minsk trilateral talks are between Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE, while the separatists are present, but not a party to the talks. Neither Zelenskiy nor his office commented on Pasechnik’s proposal.
Ownership change at cable plant highlights economic difficulties
Reports that the Donetsk separatists handed a big cable factory to a Russian-registered company highlighted the “People’s Republics” ongoing economic woes. The new Director of the Silur plant in Khartsyzk, Ivan Mikhalchenko, admitted that the factory was standing idle when he said on 6 August that he hoped that it would start working again later this month, according to a local TV report. Like all other industrial plants in the non-government-controlled areas, Silur suffers from the fact that it largely depends on raw materials and sales markets from (government-controlled) Ukraine, which are unavailable since a wide-ranging trade blockade was imposed by Ukraine in early 2017.
The “DNR” had seized the plant already in December 2016 and claimed with much fanfare in 2017 that it had restarted production. In October 2018 the Industry “Ministry” claimed that Silur had more than quadrupled output from 480 to 2,000 tons per month.
According to the Ukrainian Novosti Donbassa news site, the new owner is a company called “Rostecsposnab 8” that was registered in Rostov-on Don just one year ago. The handover was not reported by any other separatist-controlled media and as of 16 August, Silur was still listed as one of 11 “state companies” on the Donetsk Industry and Trade “Ministry’s” website.
There is widespread suspicion that much of the industry inside the “People’s Republics” is controlled by Serhiy Kurchenko, a Ukrainian businessman who rose to prominence under former President Viktor Yanukovych and is believed to be in Russia today. Prominent Ukrainian businessman Ihor Kolomoisky said in an interview published on 6 August that Kurchenko controls all the big plants in the “LNR” and “DNR” and sells their production in Russia. A key element in this scheme is believed to be Vneshtorgservis, a secretive company that holds the biggest industrial assets. Both the “DNR” Prime Minister and his key deputy are former Vneshtorgservis executives. It is not clear why Silur was not handed to Vneshtorgservis.
On anniversary, “DNR” makes no mention of missing Russian aid convoys
Despite the obvious economic hardship, Russia stopped sending regular aid convoys to Donetsk and Luhansk. The last monthly convoy, the 82nd according to the OSCE’s count, arrived in December 2018. In July, Russia sent another 9-vehicle convoy, the only one so far in this year. “DNR” Foreign “Minister” Natalia Nikonorova made no mention of this fact when she thanked Russia for years of humanitarian aid on the fifth anniversary of the first convoy which left Moscow on 12 August 2014.
The fact that Russia is no longer sending aid convoys has been interpreted as a sign that Moscow is seeing Donbass as a bottomless pit that it would rather not pay for, the Ukrainian Ostro.org website wrote in July.
Since the separatists in 2017 stopped allowing aid convoys from Ukrainian businessman Rinat Akhmetov to enter the areas they control, the last major source of outside aid has been the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). According to a spokesman in Kyiv, the ICRC sent 327 trucks with a total of 6,065 tons of humanitarian assistance to the no-controlled areas between January and July, slightly more than in the same period last year, when the figure was 5,470 tons and 281 trucks.
Number of Russian passports issued rises
Meanwhile, the number of Russian passports issued to inhabitants of the “People’s Republics” rose further to more than 15,000. The “DNR” said on 14 August that 9,825 of its citizens had received them, while the “LNR” said that 5,640 people had been bused to neighbouring Russia to receive passports by the end of July. Luhansk Transport “Minister” Alexander Basov said that he plans to double numbers from 200 per day to to 400 per day. According to Luhansk justice “minister” Anna Aviltseva, some 20,000 applications were filed in the “LNR” by the end of July.
The issuing of Russian passports, which began after a decree issued by President Vladimir Putin before the Ukrainian presidential election in April, has been criticized by Ukraine and her western allies as violating the Minsk agreement.
“DNR” leader Denis Pushilin reiterated that his goal was not independence but union with Russia. Speaking at a festival with Russian biker Alexander Saldostanov in Sevastopol in Russian-annexed Crimea on 14 August, he said the Donbass “Republics” are already “significantly closer” to Russia. “I hope that the day will come when we will return home to the motherland, he said. President Putin visited the festival earlier, prompting the Foreign Ministry in Kyiv to complain against a “blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty”.