Written by Nikolaus von Twickel


Amid setbacks at the recently revived peace talks, separatist leader Pushilin called for the dissolution of Ukraine in response to Ukraine demanding the dissolution of the People’s Republics”. Pushilin also sacked a minister and purged his party, while Russia sent new aid convoys to Donetsk and Luhansk. A long prison sentence for Donetsk journalist Stanislav Aseyev caused international outrage while the “DNR” said that it opened an “office” in Belgium.

Disengagement fails again

The latest round of the Trilateral Contact Group talks in Minsk on 15 October failed to agree to implement the disengagement agreement, a condition set by Russia for a “Normandy Format” summit of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia.

The agreement of 2016 stipulates that both sides withdraw their troops and military hardware two kilometres each from the contact line, preliminarily in three locations. It was implemented this summer in Stanytsia Luhanska, allowing for the repair of a badly damaged bridge there. However, no withdrawal happened in the other two locations Zolote and Petrivske.

Ukraine argues that it can only begin withdrawal after a seven-day ceasefire and blames the separatists for violating this. The separatists claim that the disengagement agreement’s seven-day clause only needs to be observed the first time – and point out that disengagement was implemented in both Zolote and Petrivske briefly in 2016 (after which the troops re-engaged, i.e. returned). Furthermore, activists, among them nationalists and war veterans, protested against withdrawal in Zolote, arguing that it would leave the civilian population defenceless against the separatists.

Despite these difficulties, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an interview published on 23 October that preparations for implementing the disengagement were ongoing.

Pushilin demands dissolution of Ukraine

The atmosphere deteriorated further after the Ukrainian delegation said after the 15 October talks that both “DNR” and “LNR” have to be dissolved in order to implement the Minsk Agreement’s political parts. While such demands were made in the past by then US envoy Kurt Volker, Ukraine has never directly put this condition on the table, but branded the “People’s Republics” as terrorist organizations.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov merely said that the demand was “unexpected”. “DNR” leader Denis Pushilin reacted one day later by arguing that in order to implement the Minsk Agreement the current Ukrainian state needs to be dismantled because it is illegitimate. “It was set up as a result of a government overthrow and outside interference in 2014,” Pushilin said, repeating a common Kremlin narrative.  Pushilin’s Luhansk colleague Leonid Pasechnik did not comment publicly, but prominent MP Nelli Zadiraka called it “the ravings of a madman”.

The Minsk agreement nowhere mentions People’s Republics but speaks of “Certain Areas” of the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions respectively. Its three parts were signed by the then separatist leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky without mentioning their positions.

“DNR” leader sacks Telecoms minister

Pushilin on 14 October sacked “DNR” telecoms minister Viktor Yatsenko and replaced him with Igor Khalepa, who had hitherto served as a deputy minister. Neither Pushilin, nor the separatist-controlled media nor Yatsenko himself, who posted a self-congratulatory letter of thanks on his “ministry” website, gave a reason for the sacking.

Yatsenko was often blamed for the dismal quality of mobile phone services in Donetsk. In office since 2014, he was responsible for the seizure of the Ukrainian-owned Kyivstar mobile phone network. The separatists subsequently used the infrastructure to install their own network called Phoenix. The new carrier gained a lot of customers during a three-month outage of the Vodafone network in 2018 but failed to offer reliable services (see Newsletter 27).

Originally from Kherson, Yatsenko was associated with Pavel Gubarev, who led the Donetsk pro-Russian movement in 2014 and his wife Yekaterina. He was thought to represent their Free Donbass ”movement” in the “DNR” government and survived numerous attempts to blackmail him. In 2018, he was accused by Moscow-based blogger Konstantin Dolgov of being a Ukrainian agent. In September he was part of a “DNR” delegation that sought economic cooperation in Syria.

The Phoenix operator made headlines after an explosion damaged one of its base stations in Donetsk on 27 October. Shortly afterwards, a video of the explosion was uploaded on Youtube at the end of which a written statement is held into the camera saying that if the “fascist republic” will be left without mobile communications if people won’t protest against torture by the State Security “Ministry”. The Ministry did not mention the video when it said that it was investigating the explosion as an act of “diversion”.

Pushilin purges party

On 23 October, Pushilin replaced nine members of his ruling Donetsk Republic “movement’s” political council with his own people. Among those sacked was Alexander Levchenko, whom Pushilin had earlier dismissed as mayor of Khartsyzsk, and Alexander Oprishchenko, who had been health “minister” under Pushilin’s predecessor Alexander Zakharchenko.

Donetsk Republic and Free Donbass function as parties subservient to the separatist leadership and de facto have political monopoly inside the “DNR”. During the 23 October Donetsk Republic congress, party executive Alexei Muratov said that the People’s Republic” would soon join Russia: “Our dream is almost become true. We just need to take some last but very important and hard steps to return to our home big Russia.”

Pushilin talks of economic revival, Russia sends convoys

Pushilin also told the congress that improving the economy remains the most pressing issue for the “People’s Republic”, thus admitting that past promises of economic revival have not been met. On 16 October, Pushilin suddenly announced that the “DNR” would hold an international economic forum in Donetsk on 29-30 October. The forum, which according to Economic Development “minister” Alexei Polovyan will have (yet unnamed) attendants from the US and EU countries, was widely seen as a reaction to the Ukrainian government’s Re:Think international investment conference in Mariupol at the same time. The Novosti Donbassa news site said it was a clone of the Mariupol forum and pointed out that the domain doninvest-forum.ru was registered only on 10 October.

In another sign that the economy is ailing, Russia sent three humanitarian convoys to Donetsk and Luhansk in October alone. The first, on 17 October, consisted of 11 trucks, according to the OSCE. The next, on 24 October, had 15 trucks. On 25 October, a convoy with 26 new vehicles, including ambulances, excavators and dump trucks, crossed into Ukraine.

The Russian aid convoys came monthly during the past years but stopped without explanation this January. They resumed with a 9-vehicle convoy in July, followed by a ten-vehicle convoy in September. The unusually high number of three convoys in October has not been explained. However, it might be linked to a visit by Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s point man for the “People’s Republics”, who according to unconfirmed rumours was in Donetsk on 24 October.

Ukraine and some of her western allies allege that the convoys are used for the illegal transfer of money, arms and ammunition for the separatists – especially because international observers are not allowed to inspect them. Russia only allows Ukrainian border guards and customs officers to conduct visual observations of the trucks (with opened tarpaulins) from the outside upon arrival at the Russian border with separatist-held Ukrainian territory.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said on 18 October that it sent a protest note to Russia, which it accused of violating the Minsk Agreement by “illegally sending a pseudo-convoy to the temporarily occupied territories”. The Tweet by Ministry spokeswoman Kateryna Zelenko prompted a rare reply from the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account, which argued that the convoys in no way violate the Minsk agreements.

Census worker: 40 per cent of Donetsk apartments empty

Ukraine also protested against the census held in both “People’s Republics” during the first half of October. The Ukrainian delegation to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) demanded an explanation from Russia, Ukrainian media reported on 18 October.

Both “People’s Republics” are thought to have lost large numbers of inhabitants to emigration, and the census is the first attempt to get reliable figures. A census worker from Donetsk told the local edition of “Komsomolskaya Pravda” in an article published on 19 October that up to 40 per cent of apartments are empty in the city’s eastern Kalininsky district, where she worked. The census taker, who was identified only by her first name Alexandra, also said that when asked about ethnicity, some 95 per cent of respondents said that they were Russian.

The separatists have said that the census results will be published by April 2020.

Donetsk journalist sentenced to 15 years

The Donetsk “Prosecutor General’s Office“ said on October 22 that journalist Stanislav Aseyev (sometimes spelt Aseev) had been sentenced to 15 years in prison for “espionage and extremist activities”. Aseyev has been languishing in captivity since being detained in his native Donetsk in the summer of 2017 and the harsh sentence was widely condemned by rights groups, journalism organizations and US-funded Radio Liberty, for whom Aseyev worked as a freelance contributor. The statement actually makes it clear that Aseyev was punished for his journalism by saying that “he emailed texts portraying the DNR in a negative light to members of an extremist community”.

Observers speculated that the sentence means that Aseyev can be included in an upcoming prisoner swap. However, the sentence was apparently handed down in August, and it is currently unclear if and when a prisoner swap might occur.

Also, the separatists continued to hand down long prison sentences to purported spies and Ukrainian agents. On 15 October the “LNR” sentenced a woman to 14 years for “espionage”, on 24 September a man was given 12 years for the same charges. The “DNR” on 4 October sentenced a Ukrainian soldier to 18 years, one day earlier another Ukrainian soldier got 30 years and on 2 October a soldier was given 16 years.

“DNR” office opens in Belgium

The “DNR” claimed on October 18 that it opened its seventh foreign representative office abroad – and the first in Belgium. The centre is located in the private house of Kris Roman, a well-known pro-Russian activist, in the Flemish city of Dendermonde. Some five sympathizers and two Ukrainian TV crews showed up for the opening, according to a report on the Belgian knack.be news site.

The “DNR” Foreign “Ministry” claims on its website that there are currently seven representative offices in European countries, two alone in Italy. However, all of them are private initiatives with no official status. The centre in the Czech city of Olomouc was closed by authorities in April 2018 and the head of the French centre, Hubert Fayard, was in detention on pimping charges for four months until his release in September.