Written by Nikolaus von Twickel
The ongoing Minsk talks did not bring progress on trade, but in a small significant breakthrough, the warring sides began to withdraw from the frontline in Stanytsia Luhanska. Moreover, separatist leaders offered to hand over four captured Ukrainian soldiers. Earlier, they promised to raise state wages by 70 per cent and to speed up the processing of Russian passport applications. Rumours about the downfall of Vladislav Surkov stopped and one his brainchildren, Public Chambers, were set up in Donbass. The birthday of slain Donetsk leader Zakharchenko was marked by fresh allegations against Ukraine, albeit not necessarily convincing.
Disengagement begins in Stanitsya Luhanska
In what could be a major breakthrough in efforts to reduce violence in eastern Ukraine, government forces and the Russian-backed armed formations began a mutual withdrawal in Stanytsia Luhanska on 26 June. Monitors for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) confirmed that both sides had withdrawn armed personnel and weapons from their forward positions in the town.
The withdrawal marks the first time the so-called disengagement agreement of 2016 is implemented in Stanytsia, whose footbridge over the Donets river is the only crossing point for civilians in Luhansk Oblast. The OSCE-brokered agreement stipulates that both sides must withdraw at least two kilometres from the Line of Contact. The agreement was previously implemented in two areas, Zolote and Petrivske, but quickly faltered as trust between both sides is low.
The news comes three weeks after the Trilateral Contact Group resumed its talks in Minsk on 5 June under Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelenskiy. A first attempt to disengage forces in Stanytsia failed under mutual accusations on 7 June (see Newsletter 58).
The disengagement in Stanytsia is a concession from the Ukrainian side, because government forces here are disadvantaged over the separatists, whose military positions are located on heights on the river’s south bank overlooking the town. Serzh Marko, a Ukrainian activist and blogger, pointed out that local civilians had in the past asked government troops not to leave Stanytsia because they felt defenceless otherwise. Other Ukrainian observers argued that the progress in Stanytsia should not obscure the fact that the situation along the 500-kilometre long front line overall worsening.
Medvedchuk meets Pushilin and Pasechnik in Minsk
However, on 27 June, Ukrainian politician Vyktor Medvedchuk appeared in Minsk together with separatist leaders Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik and declared that they would hand over four Ukrainian prisoners. Ukrainian commentators argued that this was more a PR stunt for Medvedchuk, who is running on a pro-Russian ticket in the 21 July parliamentary elections. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy stressed that Medvedchuk’s mission was not sanctioned and that he had never even spoken with him. The prisoners were handed over at Minsk airport on 28 June.
Meanwhile, the official Minsk talks brought no progress on a much bigger initiative, lifting the trade ban between government- and non-government-controlled Donbass. After the last meeting on 19 June in the Belarusian capital, OSCE envoy Martin Sajdik did not even mention the issue.
Massive wage rises for Donetsk and Luhansk
An end to the trade blockade would remove major obstacles for economic revival in the “People’s Republics”, who suffer from a lack of resources and sales markets for their metals and mining-oriented economies. They are also facing massive brain drain and ensuing labour shortages because of extremely low wage levels of between 5,000 and 10,000 Russian roubles (70-140 euros, see Newsletter 29).
The People’s Republics sought to address this when they announced massive 70 per cent wage rises for public sector workers. Both separatist leaders Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik said on 13 June that wages would climb by 35 per cent in June and another 35 per cent in January. Pensions would rise by 52 per cent in the same period. Neither Pushilin nor Pasechnik said where the money will come from but their almost exactly similar announcements, published one minute from another and one day after Russia Day, the Russian national holiday, strongly suggests that this was a decision taken in Moscow.
In fact, Pushilin had actually announced during a visit to Moscow in October that Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin aide in charge of eastern Ukraine, promised “significant” wages increases for his “DNR” (see Newsletter 46). Despite increasing efforts to boost their economies, both “People’s Republics” are believed to heavily depend on Russian subsidies. It is probably no coincidence that the wage announcements came shortly after Pushilin and leading “DNR” government figures visited the St Petersburg Economic Forum, where they could talk to both investors and Russian government officials (see Newsletter 58).
First Russian passports issued
Moscow’s towering role in the domestic politics of both “republics” was also symbolized when activists carried a massive Russian passport through Luhansk during celebrations for Russia Day. The issuing of Russian passports local inhabitants began in earnest on 14 June, when the first busses began bringing people from Luhansk and Donetsk to neighbouring Russian towns, where they were issued passports. “DNR” leader Pushilin said on 27 June that 1,000 Russian passports had been issued during the first two weeks and promised that the process will speed up in the future.
President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on 24 April that allows holders of “DNR” and “LNR” passports to obtain Russian passports faster and without having to give up their previous citizenship.
An end to the Surkov rumours?
Meanwhile, the rumours that Vladislav Surkov is about to be sacked as the Kremlin’s point man for Donbass seemed to come to an end on 17 June, when the hawkish Russian official Mikhail Babich was appointed a deputy minister for economic development. Babich had been at the centre of the latest round of speculation which began on April 30, when Russian volunteer fighter turned writer Alexander Zhuchkovsky claimed that Surkov would be replaced by Babich (see Newsletter 56). Zhuchkovsky consequently admitted that Surkov was “unsinkable” and apologized for causing confusion.
Surkov’s handwriting can be seen in ongoing political activities inside the “People’s Republics”, like the online flash mob “Choice of Donbass” (https://vybordonbassa.com/), meant to be a mass appeal to new Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, but whose numbers have been shown to be doctored.
Another trademark policy is the creation of Public Chambers in Donetsk and Luhansk. Surkov has been credited with initiating a similar organ in Russia in 2005. Also translated “Civic Chamber”, the body is made up of civil society representatives meant to give extra advice to the executive. In practice, Russia’s chamber has proven to be another sinecure for Kremlin-friendly public figures. In the “People’s Republics”, they seemingly serve to enable the return of separatists previously removed from power.
Disgraced separatists return as “Public Chamber” heads
In Donetsk, 47 participating members on 20 June unanimously voted for Alexander Kofman, a former Foreign „Minister“, to head the “DNR” Public Chamber. Four days later, the “LNR” Public Chamber voted for Alexei Karyakin, a former Speaker of “parliament” as their chairman.
Karyakin, a close ally of first “LNR” leader Valery Bolotov, was sacked as parliamentary speaker in March 2016 by then separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky. He subsequently fled to Russia and was implicated in a plot to topple Plotnitsky later that year (see Newsletter 15). He returned to Luhansk only after Plotnitsky was really overthrown in November 2017 but without taking up any functions inside the “LNR”.
Zakharchenko’s birthday marked by naming purported killers
Meanwhile both Donetsk de-facto authorities and Russian state TV published names of Ukrainian agents whom they accused of organizing the August 31 assassination of former separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko, the most prominent separatist who was killed so far.
The “DNR” Interior “Ministry” said on 26 June, Zakharchenko’s 43. birthday, that two Ukrainian intelligence officers, Serhiy Motoryn and Andriy Baidala, were responsible for las year’s assassination. The report also claims that the two, counterintelligence officers for the SBU Security Service, were also responsible for killing of Arseny Pavlov, a prominent field commander who was killed in October 2016.
Their names and those of other purported agents were already mentioned in a news report on Russian state TV on 16 June. However, the “DNR” report also contained confessions of three Ukrainians who were captured more recently and claim on camera to have been recruited and trained to organize killings of separatist leaders.
The report strongly resembles highly dubious confessions published last October, when Russian TV and local de-facto authorities paraded a prisoner claiming that he had been recruited to kill Pavlov and Zakharchenko (see Newsletter 44/45).
Apart from not containing any new evidence backing the claim that Ukraine ordered and organized Zakharchenko’s killing, the new reports again fail to address the most pressing questions about the assassination, like how the killers got privileged access to Zakharchenko’s favorite café and the mysterious vanishing of its owner, former Zakharchenko bodyguard and MP Alexander Kostenko (see our Annual Report 2018, p6).
“DNR” claims it had no BUKs
The Donetsk separatists also dismissed the announcement by Dutch prosecutors on 19 June that four suspects, three Russians and one Ukrainian will be tried on murder charges for the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 areas they control, which killed all 298 people on board.
The only story published by official the DAN news site on this was the denial by “DNR” military spokesman Daniil Bezsonov, who claimed that the separatist armed formations at the time did not possess a BUK missile system nor personnel capable of operating them.