Hopko: Russia is killing the Minsk Agreement every day

Hanna Hopko [Euromaidanpress.com]

A summit between Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany is expected to take place within days in an effort to settle the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. But such a summit is pointless, especially when Putin will play his role of ‘нас тут нет’ (we are not here), says Hanna Hopko.

Hanna Hopko was head of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada until August 2019, but did not stand again in the 2019 Ukrainian parliamentary election.

She spoke to EURACTIV’s defence reporter Alexandra Brzozowski on the sidelines of the Warsaw Security Forum 2019.

Mr Zelensky extended his hand to Putin, Trump officials said recently there is no need for him to “rush” into any action regarding Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine. Is it the right moment for such a step? What do you expect will be the Russian response?

First of all, Ukraine, which has been deterring Russian aggression since 2014, has to insist that security comes first. And not seeing a long-lasting ceasefire, because every day we are losing the lives of soldiers or we have wounded people as civilians. So it’s really important to keep insisting that without a ceasefire, we cannot even do disengagement what is happening now happening for example in Lugansk.

This is why it was so important for Zelensky after his visit to the United States to participate in the UN General Assembly and to use the diplomatic corps in Ukraine to work on keeping this transatlantic solidarity and one voice vision what to do, step by step in peaceful settlement through diplomatic means.

Zelensky has agreed to the so-called Steinmeier formula, which calls for elections to be held in the separatist-held territories under Ukrainian legislation and the supervision of the OSCE. 

Details are still unclear, because when Zelensky went to the Ukrainian Parliament, he had a meeting with leaders of factions and different political parties but did not address the whole chamber yet. It seems that he is a bit acting like the still campaigning candidate running for the presidency and making videos. But he’s the president now, he actually needs to answer those key questions. The heaviest question is how he aims to conduct elections without the withdrawal of Russian troops – and without control over the Ukrainian-Russian border, it’s impossible.

I spoke to OSCE Secretary-General Greminger on the sidelines of this forum and asked him: Are you ready to go to visit Donetsk, Lugansk, to check the security situation of the pre-electoral period? You’re talking here about elections, modalities of the elections, but look: even if we see disengagement happening in those two places, there is no ceasefire. It’s horrible.

Would you say agreeing to this formula could be a way to peace or surrender?

It’s a trap. First of all, Ukraine needs to analyze what happened in Georgia with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, what happened in Transnistria more than 27 years ago. Those are frozen conflicts – and the Russian troops are still there in Transnistria, they never withdrew their military from the territory of a sovereign country like Moldova is.

In our situation, we have to learn the lessons from Kremlin behaviour in some of our neighbourhood countries to be aware that Putin’s strategy towards Ukraine, towards the European continent, hasn’t changed. Putin still wants to rebuild the Soviet empire, there is no illusion in this. And without Ukraine, he cannot achieve this. This is why to return Ukraine back to the Russian sphere of influence is his key goal and he understands that he needs to use the temporarily occupied territories of Donbas and with arguing for autonomy for that region block our move towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration, which is incorporated in our constitution.

Do you fear that any solution in any direction could split the Ukrainian society again as we witnessed in 2014?

It’s already very polarised. Only this week, in front of the presidential office, there had been big protests. Citizens demand clear answers on all questions and also to publish the transcripts of phone conversations between Zelinsky and Putin, Zelinsky and Merkel, Zelinsky and Macron, to have an idea what was negotiated on their behalf during these phone calls.

Considering the Normandy process – the EU is not really involved, the US neither. Are you worried about the lack of involvement from the rest of the international community?

Compared to three years ago, we see a lack of interest. We see fatigue of having to deal with the Russian aggression. Macron is talking about the Europeanisation of the Russian Federation to Wladiwostok, Merkel has to deal with domestic problems and Nord Stream 2, the UK is leaving the EU. Unfortunately, the EU has no single voice. But it is really important for us that the EU stays united because the proposed Steinmeier Formula – this is not the implementation of the original Minsk Agreement.

The key question are the sanctions. It will be really important in December during the decision of the EU to continue imposing the sanctions against the Russian Federation and actually to have this strategic view that they need to be uphold until Ukraine restores its territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Are they effective enough in your opinion?

When we ask this question to European officials, they say ‘You should be very happy, because sanctions are still in place’. When we demanded strengthening of sanctions, they said ‘Look at Georgia, there the sanctions did not last that long.’ We lost thousands of life, we have around 30.000 wounded people, 5% GDP goes to security and defence instead of investing this money into education, innovation, the future.

We are contributing to European security, but Europeans say imposing sanctions is a very big burden for their economies. Meanwhile, Ukraine lost 8% of territories to occupation, 20% of our GDP.

Recent talks between Moscow and Kyiv have opened the way to the first international summit in three years being convened on ending the war, potentially end of the month. What are your expectations of such a meeting?

We have to look back to 2016, to the Normandy Format’s leaders summit in Berlin, when everybody agreed, even Putin, agreed to the ‘Security first’-approach. But since then nothing has changed: No ceasefire, no withdrawal of troops, the continuation of heavy hostilities, Russia expropriated Ukrainian companies. Russia killed Minsk by passportisation, first for Crimea, then for the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Lugansk Oblast, and then for the whole of Ukraine.

Russia is killing Minsk every day. And instead of coming back to the key decision of ‘Security first’, we are now talking about conducting elections.

Maybe, for those leaders that insist on elections, we should propose a Normany summit to take place in the Donetsk and Lugansk region? I would like to see how the Russian military troops will guarantee security for all those people.

Mr. Zelensky was also talking about compromise. Do you think there’s any compromise Kyiv would be ready to take?

For four years, when I was still the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee, each year we prolonged the law on the special status of the Donbas region. Why should Ukraine be now going for another compromise? Ukraine never announced any passportisation of Russian citizens like Moscow did.

Zelensky proposed Lugansk to build a bridge, disengagement and representatives of armed forces, veterans, they have heavily criticized Zelensky for making these compromises, but he showed ‘Look, Ukraine is ready to do something, to see some progress.’ But in return, Russia is not telling its armed forces to stop fighting. Russia could open in the zone a checkpoint, at least for normal people to cross, but then nothing happens.

This is why to have a Normandy summit just for the sake of having a summit – especially when Putin will play his role of ‘нас тут нет’ (we are not here), is pointless.

Do you believe your country is heading in the right direction when it comes to reforms? Do you see progress happening towards accession or do we have to hold how soon this can take place?

According to a recent poll, more than 59% of Ukrainians now have a more optimistic view on the future of Ukraine, because of the president, the new parliament, and are they saying that we are moving in the right direction. But this is our citizens, they want us to to be in illusions in some dreams and this is good for citizens.

And it’s also a great opportunity for President Zelensky to use the highest popularity ever in this country, 70%, not for populist steps like taking all the immunity from MPs but to take real, concrete steps in privatisation, in the anti-corruption sector, judiciary reform, economic growth, tackling corruption to receive more money to the state budget and also to help citizens to provide them opportunities to earn money in Ukraine, for them not to leave Ukraine but to stay. Everything depends on Zelinsky, how he deals with oligarchs.

The question is how the West could help and here, for example, the strange case of Mr Firtasch comes to mind, who strangely for more than three years is sitting in Vienna, but was never extradited.

Do you think lack of progress in those fields could backfire on him when the European dream is not approached quickly enough?

Zelensky has a window of opportunity, probably less than one year. He has won a majority in the Parliament, has his own government, has his say in the State Security Service, National Council of Security and Defence, National Bank but everything and two before local elections. We look forward to our local elections, too.

Zelenskiy has to be very smart because oligarchs and fifth column pro-Russian parties have control of a range of media, some of the most popular TV channels – if they have an interest to kill his reputation, they maybe need less than three months.

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