Written by Nikolaus von Twickel
Despite the momentous ceasefire agreement and the pledge to restore the bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska, reached during the Minsk talks, separatist leaders and their media continued to focus on accusations against Ukraine. A further decree by President Vladimir Putin widening easy access to Russian passports for Ukrainians in Donbass, which is unlikely to make a future reintegration easier, was completely ignored in Donetsk and Luhansk. And the MH17 anniversary served another pretext to heap accusations against Ukraine.
Separatists downplay Minsk ceasefire, terse on bridge repair
The main separatist-controlled media outlets did not devote much space to the unlimited ceasefire and the pledge to rebuild the bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska that were reached during the Trilateral Contact Group’s meeting on Minsk on 17 July.
The “LNR”- controlled Luhansk 24 channel did not mention Minsk at all in its 17 July evening news. The topic only made it into the news the next midday, sandwiched between Ukrainian attacks and the issuing of Russian passports. The “DNR” main news outlet DAN just carried a short notice, based on Russia’s Tass news agency.
The ceasefire is supposed to begin on 21 July at 00:01 hours – the day of Ukraine’s parliamentary elections. It is unprecedented because it is not a seasonal one (in the past there have been Easter, “harvest” and school ceasefires) but supposed to be unlimited, bans all sorts of firing and stipulates disciplinary measures against those violating the truce. According to Ukrainian negotiator Roman Bessmertniy, the aim is to make the ceasefire hold permanently. However, Bessmertniy later clarified that Ukraine would maintain the right to return enemy fire.
In another breakthrough, Ukraine and the “LNR” agreed to restore the bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska. Ukraine will rebuild the bridge’s body while the “LNR” will build the road and fences, according to the Contact Group statement. The badly damaged bridge, the only civilian crossing point in the entire Luhansk region, can only be used by pedestrians via makeshift wooden panels, a hard and dangerous passage for the mostly elderly crossing it.
Again, separatist-controlled media did not make much of this news, merely publishing a statements by “LNR” ombudswoman Olga Kobtseva and Foreign “Minister” Vladislav Deinego. Earlier, “LNR” leader Pasechnik warned in a belligerent statement on 9 July that a unilateral bridge repair by Ukraine would amount to an “act of aggression”.
Putin’s latest passport decree ignored in separatist media
Wednesday’s Contact Group meeting was overshadowed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to widen the issuing of Russian passports fast track to Ukrainians living in the government-controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Putin’s decree amends his 24 April decision to allow holders of passports issued by the “People’s Republics” to get Russian passports relatively fast and without having to give up other citizenships. Applicants now only need to prove that they were registered on the territory of the two Ukrainian regions in April 2014 – which is usually marked in passports.
Putin’s decree is in line with the “People’s Republics” narrative that their territory comprises all of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions respectively. The government-controlled areas are routinely referred to as “Ukrainian occupied” (just as Ukrainian media call the “republics” (Russian-) occupied). Curiously, separatist-controlled media entirely ignored Putin’s decree. In Donetsk, the official dnr-online.ru portal and the DAN news site mentioned it nowhere. The “LNR” official news outlet LITs also did not report it.
The issue was also not mentioned in the official communications from the Minsk negotiations.
Pushilin and Pasechnik join online appeal to Zelenskiy
Instead, seperatist media devoted much space to an orchestrated campaign calling on Zelenskiy to give special status to Donbass. The campaign’s site claims that more than one million people joined by sending their photo, although there are serious doubt about that. Both Pushilin and Pasechnik joined the bandwagon on 18 July and issued video appeals to Zelenskiy, in which they accuse Ukraine of failure to comply with the Minsk agreement.
However, both addresses turned out rather different. While Pushilin’s slick address was also posted on Instagram, Pasechnik is seen standing uncomfortably among a group of young men and women (apparently local bloggers), who after his short address chant “Zelenskiy, do you hear?” Pasechnik’s PR people set up a new YouTube channel for the address, which had four subscribers by 19 July. Curiously, the channel has enabled user comments, attracting dozens of abusive entries.
The whole campaign was sharply criticized as a mockery by the many separatist activists who reject the Minsk agreement. They argued that demanding special status inside Ukraine hardly squares with separatist leaders’ frequent statements of integration with Russia. Former fighter Alexander Zhuchkovsky wrote on Twitter that a campaign in which “fighting Donbass humbly appeals to the clown Zelenskiy” was “a travesty thought up by Moscow morons.”
Andrei Purgin, a former “DNR” parliamentary Speaker, said that the campaign was a stupid attempt to meddle in Ukrainian politics. Purgin suggested that the aim was to win votes for pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, whose party “For Life” is projected to win 13 per cent in the 21 July Rada elections. Medvedchuk had earlier agreed a prisoner exchange with the separatists that was not coordinated with the Ukrainian government (see Newsletter 59).
Pushilin calls MH17 crash “Ukrainian provocation”
The separatists marked the fifth anniversary of the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 by heaping accusations at Ukraine. At a memorial ceremony on 17 July at the crash site near the village of Grabove, “DNR”-leader Denis Pushilin said that the shooting down of the Boeing 777, which killed all 298 people on board, was a “provocation by the Ukrainian regime” and that all accusations against the separatists and Russia are “absolute lies” and falsifications. Pushilin and other speakers ignored the Dutch-led international investigators’ work, which led to the issuing of arrest warrants last month against former “DNR” commanders suspected of being responsible for the fatal missile launch from a mobile Russian BUK air defence system.
The ceremony was attended by locals carrying victims’ portraits. Behind the memorial stone, activists carried the flags of the victims’ countries of origin. There were no foreign guests to be seen. Even though it was not involved directly, the Luhansk “People’s Republic” also staged a memorial event at Luhansk airport, where youth activists claimed that Ukraine was making baseless accusations against Russia.
Pushilin also accused Ukraine of planning new falsifications in the MH17 case by kidnapping former separatist commander Vladimir Tsemakh. During an address on 9 July, Pushilin suggested that Ukraine would use Tsemakh to produce more fabricated evidence. Tsemakh was abducted by Ukrainian agents from his native Snizhne in late June, brought across the contact line disguised as a paralyzed old man and rushed to Kiev where a court arrested him. The separatists confirmed that Tsemakh headed air defense units in Snizhne in the summer of 2014, which makes him a potentially important eyewitness of the shootdown. Tsemakh’s daughter confirmed he father’s abduction during a press conference in Donetsk on 10 July.
The incident was the first time that Ukraine acknowledged an operation deep inside uncontrolled areas (Snizhne lies east of Donetsk and close to the border with Russia). As a result, Pushilin ordered “DNR” law enforcement during a 15 July meeting to step up vigilance and active measures against the infiltration of Ukrainian agents.
Donetsk National University gets Russian accreditation
In another move that the separatists hailed as integration with Russia, Donetsk National University, the biggest university in the “People’s Republics”, said on 18 July that it has received a Russian accreditation, meaning that graduates can get Russian diplomas. Such accreditation has hitherto been granted to three other Donetsk universities, including the city’s main medical school.
Donetsk National University had some 15,000 students in 2013. After the outbreak of war in 2014 the university officially moved to Vinnitsa in central Ukraine. However, the separatists took over the buildings and teaching staff that did not move away.