The Minsk Cease-fire Agreement is Still a Viable Solution

Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s keynote address in January at the DGAP stressed the importance of EU support for Ukraine

08/01/2015 | 10:00 - 01:00 | DGAP Berlin | Members only

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Addressing the Council shortly before his meeting with Chancellor Merkel on January 8, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk of Ukraine described Ukraine’s current troubling foreign policy situation and answered questions that ranged from the country’s internal processes of political and economic reform to whether Ukraine aspired to NATO membership. He was joined by Aivaras Abromavicius, the minister of economic development and trade, and Andriy Kobolyev, CEO of Naftogas.

© DGAP/Dirk Enters

Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, Prime Minister of Ukraine, at the DGAP on January 8, 2015.

In a short keynote address, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk stressed the importance of German and European Union support for Ukraine, noting the effectiveness of the EU’s continued sanctions against Russia. He also repeated his country’s willingness to uphold its side of the cease-fire agreement forged at Minsk in September 2014. Speculating about Russia’s motivations for waging “war against the Ukrainian people,” Yatsenyuk said Putin’s tactics were driven by “nationalist sentiments.” He dismissed the oft-cited reasons given by Moscow: to protect Russian speakers living in Ukraine. “Everyone in Ukraine speaks Russian,” said the prime minister. “We don’t need any kind of protection from Putin.”

The need to uphold the Minsk Agreement

According to Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, the cease-fire agreement Presidents Poroshenko and Putin hammered out at Minsk in September 2014, though imperfect, must nonetheless serve as the foundation for all future attempts to resolve the separatist conflict. It will not be effective, however, unless both Moscow and Kiev hold up their sides of the deal. Yatsenyuk listed the measures Kiev has taken, including awarding special status to Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, passing a bill offering amnesty to most of the separatists in the region, and, crucially, pulling back Ukrainian military forces. Moscow, however, has not met any of the pre-conditions. Most notably it has failed to seal the border, stop the flow of weapons, ammunitions, and aid to the separatists, or pull back its own forces from the Ukrainian border.” The Russian reluctance to seal the border is a particularly sore point. As Yatsenyuk described it, “Putin was the one who supported the deal [at Minsk] but … he made a U-turn.”

Difficult tasks ahead

Prime Minister Yatsenyuk fielded extensive questions from the audience, together with fellow panelists Naftogas CEO Andriy Kobolyev and Ukrainian economic and trade minister Aivaras Abromavicius. Questions ranged from the current state of the humanitarian situation in Eastern Ukraine to the breadth of Kiev’s own measures to fight internal corruption and institute domestic reform, with specific inquiries about the energy sector and the state of the Ukrainian economy.

Long winter in the Donbas

Yatsenyuk was adamant that Kiev had not cut off pension or wage payments this winter to the residents of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. “It is not true that we cut down pensions.” He went on to describe his deep concern for residents in the region. They are being “held hostage” by separatists, he said. “Billions” continue to be paid by the central government, he said – including pensions, wages, salaries, social entitlement programs – though it is practically impossible to deliver cash or humanitarian aid to the region because of the separatists.

Yatsenyuk also emphasized that the government still supplies gas and electricity to the region, despite the fact that it has not been able to collect any revenue since the beginning of the conflict. “Utility bills are being covered by Ukrainian taxpayers,” he said. “We bear this brunt in order to support those who live in Donetsk and Luhansk because they are all Ukrainian citizens.”

When asked whether the war in Eastern Ukraine could well become protracted or “frozen” – an all-too familiar scenario in the post-Soviet realm – the prime minister admitted that Russian foreign policy had an interest in maintaining the conflict. The separatist struggle could go on “for god knows how many years.” There is real hope of resolving the conflict if the points outlined in the Minsk Agreement are respected, but in the face of Putin’s “U-turn” on Minsk, the Russian “Plan B” is clearly to maintain “leverage in how to trigger some kind of crisis inside Ukraine.”

Fighting corruption

Responding to a bundle of questions about internal reforms, Yatsenyuk acknowledged that reform measures were unpopular but nevertheless being energetically implemented. Sweeping efforts to “tackle corruption” at the Ukrainian energy company, Naftogas, had been successful. “We eliminated the entire corruption in Naftogas,” he declared. But more work is needed there and in other areas, especially the internal revenue service, in customs duty, and the public service sector. He mentioned “five pieces of very tough anti-corruption legislation” that had recently been passed and recognized the help the EU has provided in implementing these laws. Parallel to fighting corruption, measures for deregulation are being put in place to remove “red tape” and “big government” and protect the rule of law in the country.

Oligarchs and business tycoons, he admitted, remained a powerful force in the country, particularly in the media, and the conditions for small and middle-level businesses were still far from ideal.

In facing this mountain of tasks, the prime minister was adamant that he had a “political ally” rather than a rival in Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko. “President Poroshenko is my close political ally. We are together, and in the last six months we showed it to the entire world. We can have different points of view and tough talks [in private] but politically we fight together.”

Is Ukraine a NATO aspirant?

Asked about Ukraine’s perspective on joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Yatsenyuk pointed out that filing an actual application for NATO membership is only the fourth step in an extensive process. Only the first of these steps – passing a bill in parliament that eliminated the “non-block” status – has thus far been completed. (In 2010, Viktor Yanukovich had pushed a bill through parliament stating Ukraine would not seek NATO membership, officially reversing the long pro-NATO course that had been launched by Leonid Kuchma.) Subsequent steps involve passing a slew of major reforms to meet NATO membership criteria and holding a referendum to ask the Ukrainian people whether they want membership.

On the need for allies and broad unity, Yatsenyuk said: “Look at what Russian jets are doing. They are constantly violating not only Ukrainian but [also] YOUR airspace. Look at Russian submarines. Look at Russian military. Russia is constantly threatening the Alliance [NATO] and the Western World. So the more security we have in Ukraine, the more security you will have in Berlin, in Lisbon, in France. This is about global European security.”

European unity and continued sanctions

Yatsenyuk also noted that Russia and President Putin had “miscalculated” on the EU. “He miscalculated that the European Union [would not] retain a strong unity. And I personally commend the efforts of Chancellor Merkel and the federal government in Germany. We feel the German people stand by the Ukrainian people in our fight for our independence and for our freedom.”

Yatsenyuk concluded by exhorting the EU to stay united in its support of Ukraine. “I firmly believe that you will stay united despite the fact that Russia is desperately trying to split the unity among a number of EU member states.… If you stay united – if you speak in one voice – you are fighting for your own values and for your security and for your countries, too. This is our joint fight: for freedom, for democracy, for liberal European values, and for liberty.”

The speech was introduced by Elmar Brok, the president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament. Questions from the audience were presented to the panelists by Sylke Tempel, editor-in-chief of the DGAP’s publication INTERNATIONALE POLITIK.

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