Written by Nikolaus von Twickel


Separatist leaders and their official media showed no positive reaction to the latest conciliatory signals from Ukraine and continued their line of accusing Kyiv of war-mongering. They also paid little attention to the major prisoner swap, which included a key MH17 witness. Meanwhile, the “LNR” Interior Minister resurfaced after rumours that he has been arrested when he led an investigation into a mysterious explosion under a bridge.

Separatists lambast Kyiv over “Steinmeier Formula”

After the latest round of the Trilateral Contact Group talks in Minsk on 18 September, separatist leaders lambasted the fact that Ukraine had refused to sign the “Steinmeier Formula”, a step that they said had been agreed during a meeting of the “Normandy Four” leaders’ political advisers in Berlin on 2 September.

“DNR” Foreign “Minister” Natalia Nikonorova, who represents the “DNR” at the talks, declared that Kyiv’s position made it unlikely that a summit in the Normandy Format – which includes Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France – could be held soon. Her “LNR” colleague Vladislav Deinego said that Ukraine demonstrated that it had no will to implement the Minsk agreements. Boris Gryzlov, the top Russian envoy to the talks, argued that Kyiv’s refusal meant that no progress can be achieved in implementing the disengagement agreement because both must be agreed at the same time.

Ukraine argues that it is ready to sign the “Steinmeier Formula”, but only if a number of conditions are fulfilled, among them a disengagement of all forces along the whole front line. An agreement to disengage, i.e. withdraw 2 kilometres on both sides from the frontline, was signed back in 2016, and the sides agreed to implement it in three areas – Stanytsia, Zolote and Petrivske. However, that proved elusive until June, when a withdrawal finally happened in Stanytsia Luhanska (see Newsletter 59). A footbridge in Stanytsia is the only crossing point into non-government-held areas in the entire Luhansk region, and disengagement is supposed to allow badly needed repair works. While the works have not begun, the local Ukrainian administration has set up a webcam showing its side of the bridge.

Ukraine offers total disengagement

The newly appointed Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Vadym Prystaiko, told the Rada’s foreign policy committee on 18 September that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy supports a disengagement along the entire frontline because if the agreement was implemented piecemeal, both sides “will be disengaging for 300 years”. Such a step would be unprecedented in the seemingly intractable conflict, and it seems unlikely to happen soon, not least because it is just one of a number of conditions for Ukraine to enter a political settlement.

The ”Steinmeier Formula”, named after former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, lies at the heart of the political part of the Minsk agreement. Talks about its implementation have been ongoing in the Minsk Contact Group since 2016. The formula states that Ukraine should grant the separatist-held areas wide-ranging autonomy (special political status) preliminarily after local elections have been held there and permanently (by amending the constitution) after the vote has been approved by OSCE election observers. Local elections are a core element in the Minsk “Package of Measures”, which stipulates that they should be held under Ukrainian law.

Ukraine and her western partners argue that Kyiv first needs to regain control of the areas. Kurt Volker, the US special representative for Ukraine, argued in a recent interview that in order to hold free and fair elections, the occupation needs to end and Russian-controlled forces must leave.

However, separatist leaders regularly stress that they want union with Russia rather than return to Ukraine. During a meeting with (pro-Kremlin) journalists and bloggers in Moscow on 12 September, “DNR” leader Denis Pushilin said that ideally Donbass should become a Federal District of Russia. On 19 September, while on a visit to the Georgian breakaway province South Ossetia, Pushilin said that he does not believe that the conflict will end any time soon because new Ukrainian government was carrying out the same policies as under former President Poroshenko.

Prisoner swap largely ignored

The separatists also said little about the high-profile prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine on 7 September, which brought the release of film director Oleh Sentsov and the 35 Ukrainian sailors who had been detained after the Kerch strait incident in November. “DNR” ombudswoman Daria Morozova merely issued a statement in which she thanked Russia for achieving the release of Vladimir Tsemakh, the former separatist field commander thought to be a witness to the 2014 shooting down of Air Malaysia Flight MH17, for which international investigators have blamed Russia.

Tsemakh was surprisingly freed by a Kyiv court on 5 September and subsequently flown to Moscow, apparently after Ukraine yielded to a Russian demand to include him in the swap of political prisoners. The 58-year old was kidnapped in June by government special forces in his home in Snizhne, a town east of Donetsk. According to a Radio Liberty report, one Ukrainian soldier was killed and another was injured during the daring raid.

Tsemakh returned to his home in 10 September according to his daughter, but the “DNR” did not give him a welcome reception. The last time he was mentioned by the official DAN news site was in a 7 September interview with Kremlin insider Alexei Chesnakov, who claimed that Tsemakh was released upon a request from the Donetsk “People’s Republic.

“LNR” Interior Minister resurfaces by claiming terrorist attack

Meanwhile, a mysterious explosion hit a major road bridge in Luhansk in the early hours of 19 September. The explosion, which damaged some of the bridge’s pylons, was quickly denounced as a terrorist attack by “LNR” Interior Minister Igor Kornet, who blamed Ukraine in a video from the scene posted on his ministry website hours after the incident.

The “minister” claimed that a Russian aid convoy was supposed to pass the bridge later the same day. That convoy, which entered and exited eastern Ukraine on just hours later, was just the second this year.

Kornet had been the subject of much speculation after unconfirmed reports in Ukrainian media earlier that he had been arrested. However, the pro-separatist news site Russkaya Vesna reported on 16 September hat Kornet was in Moscow for “important meetings”.

The separatist Interior “Minister” rose to fame in November 2017, when he was at the centre of a coup that removed then separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky from power (see Newsletter 25). Despite leading the rebellion against Plotnitsky in the “LNR” security forces, Kornet did not assume the leadership position afterwards, which was taken instead by the relatively unknown security chief Leonid Pasechnik.

The arrest rumours led to speculation about a leadership struggle between Kornet and Pasechnik. While the two have never openly quarreled, it is striking that Kornet, who had not appeared publicly for weeks, suddenly surfaced by leading an anti-terrorist investigation – while Pasechnik did not show up. The “LNR” leader, who did not join his “DNR” colleague Pushilin in South Ossetia, merely published a tweet in which he called the explosion a “cynical act of aggression”. Even more curiously, his office did not deny the reports about Kornet’s arrest, telling the Russian RIA Novosti news agency merely that Pasechnik “does not comment on rumours”.

The possibility that the explosion was a PR ploy may also be backed by the fact that Kornet and not the State Security “Ministry”, formerly headed by Pasechnik, announced the investigation. In May, that ministry announced a joint investigation with Kornet’s “ministry” after another mystery bomb destroyed a major bridge in Krasny Luch, south of Luhansk (see Newsletter 30). This time, the Security “Ministry” announced the opening of a criminal case because of the explosion but did not mention the interior ministry, which reported the incident much earlier.

It should also be noted that the official “DNR” media gave much attention to the explosion in Luhansk. Speaking during a 19 September press conference in South Ossetia, Donetsk separatist leader Pushilin announced that because of the blast in Luhansk, security would be stepped up also in the “DNR”.

“Minister” admits troubles in cable factory

Meanwhile, the “DNR” admitted ongoing economic difficulties. During a visit of the Silur cable factory in Khartsyzk on 18 September, revenue “Minister” Lavrenov promised visibly skeptical workers that outstanding wages would be paid within two weeks and that he hoped that production would restart soon.

The factory produces steel cables which are traditionally used in coal mines. However, production stopped earlier this summer amid reports that the separatist-controlled plant was handed to an obscure company in Russia (see Newsletter 62).

Like other industrial plants in the “People’s Republics”, Silur suffers from a lack of raw materials and sales markets from since a wide-ranging trade blockade was imposed by Ukraine in early 2017. Lavrenov promised that raw materials would appear soon, but the report suggested that management was looking into switching production from steel to aluminum.

These problems are thought to be widespread, however there is little concrete information about the state of the economy as the separatists have stepped up levels of secrecy. Thus, the DAN news site reported on 13 September that industrial production had risen in the first half of 2019, but the underlying data from the Economic Development Ministry” contained no concrete numbers but only percentage figures.