On Friday I participated in a ‘Tele-bridge’ which was broadcast by the online Ukrainian TV station, Channel 17. The idea was to promote dialogue between the warring parties in Ukraine by bringing together via Skype representatives of both sides along with outside commentators who could provide an alternative perspective. The ‘Tele-bridge’ participants included military personnel and civilians in Kiev (including a member of the Right Sector organization), representatives of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, a journalist from Minsk (Aleksandr Feduta), and from Ottawa, the former Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia James Bissett, Halyna Mokrushyna who is a PhD student at the University of Ottawa, and me.
Details of the Tele-bridge can be found on the website of Channel 17 here. An abridged version containing only those parts in which the Canadian contingent participated is online here. I apologise for at one point continuing talking when the interviewer was trying to let somebody else have a word – the sound link with Kiev was poor, and I couldn’t hear what was being said.
During the broadcast, I made the following points:
- Both sides are guilty of breaking the ceasefire mandated by the Minsk agreements. I felt it necessary to make this point because until then much of the programme had consisted of the people in Kiev and Donetsk trading accusations about who was responsible for ceasefire breaches, as if the continued hostilities were entirely each other’s fault.
- If the warring parties are really interested in seeing the Minsk agreements work, and therefore in reaching a permanent ceasefire, then they should not respond to breaches of the ceasefire by the other side. I felt a bit uncomfortable saying this. It is very easy to sit in a safe room thousands of kilometres away and to tell people not to respond to provocations. It’s much more difficult if you are the one being shelled and shot at. That said, distance has its advantages, one of which is the ability to look at events more dispassionately, and I think that what I said is valid. If – and it is a big if – a genuine ceasefire is a top priority, then military and political commanders have a duty to tell their subordinates not to fire back when fired upon, unless it is absolutely necessary for self-preservation (which as far as I can tell it generally isn’t).
- This duty is all the more pressing when the responses have a tendency to kill innocent civilians. I expressed doubt as to whether the artillery fire which is responsible for so many civilian casualties is deliberately targeted at civilians – it is a charge which it is very hard to prove. But civilians have been killed so often that by now it should be clear to all involved that artillery fire in this war is generally extremely inaccurate. In these circumstances, responding to breaches of the ceasefire by firing one’s own artillery, and thereby endangering civilians far more than the enemy’s army, is often extremely irresponsible.
- On the issue of constitutional reform, the Ukrainian government is abiding by the strict wording of the Minsk II agreement but not with the good will which is required to produce a political settlement of the country’s problems. In essence it is adopting a legalistic position which allows it to say that it is fulfilling its obligations while in fact it is undermining the political and moral sense of those obligations. Minsk II mandates Kiev to introduce constitutional amendments to decentralize the country, taking into account the special status of Donbass, and in consultation with the representatives of Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Strictly speaking, according to the exact words of the agreement, this doesn’t oblige Kiev to formally give those regions special status in the constitution, nor does it oblige it to negotiate with the leaders of the rebellion (since the agreement doesn’t specify who the representatives of Donetsk and Lugansk are). And Kiev hasn’t. The amendments passed by the Ukrainian parliament last week merely enact a more general decentralization of power in the country and recognize the law on temporary special status for certain parts of Donetsk and Lugansk provinces. These amendments therefore fulfill Kiev’s obligations but only in the most limited sense, while subverting the intent of Minsk II. The result is that the peace process has reached an impasse. I don’t see any way out of this, unless there is a change of heart in Kiev and the Ukrainian government begins to approach the issue with a genuine good will to find solutions rather than make the minimum concessions possible.
- This requires the Ukrainian government to speak to the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR). Aleksandr Feduta argued that Ukraine is a unitary state whose constitution gives the President the right to decide who governs the country’s regions. Only the president, therefore, can determine who represents the people of Donetsk and Lugansk. The leaders of the DPR and LPR, he said, have no right to claim that they are the legitimate representatives of their regions. Kiev, therefore, should not in his view negotiate with them. In response, I commented that this was unrealistic. What the Ukrainian constitution says, and who does or does not have legitimacy, are not the most important questions. What matters are the facts on the ground, and the facts are that the DPR and LPR exist, and that they have an army some 30-40,000 strong, equipped with tanks, artillery, and much more. This army isn’t just going to disappear. If you want peace, you have to talk to the people with the guns, because they are the ones whom you have to persuade to stop fighting. So if Ukraine wants peace, it has to talk to the representatives of the DPR and LPR. Saying this is not an endorsement of the rebellion, it is simply a recognition of reality.
Overall, the impression I got from the Tele-bridge was that the participants were more interested in blaming each other than in finding mutual solutions. Although the broadcast was meant to encourage dialogue, there wasn’t a lot of dialogue going on. The representatives of the DPR seemed at least willing to try, those from Kiev less so, particularly the member of Right Sector, who made it clear that his preference was to continue fighting till final victory. Perhaps the most perturbing comments, however, came from the Belorussian journalist Aleksandr Feduta in response to my remark that in order to preserve the ceasefire people on both sides should avoid responding to breaches. Feduta replied:
In the Second World War Minsk was practically entirely destroyed not only because the Germans were firing on it, but also because it was fired on while being liberated. Nobody knows how to liberate a large town by military means without the civilian population suffering. Therefore I cannot understand or accept the indignation of the inhabitants of Donetsk about the fact that the Armed Forces of Ukraine are shelling Donetsk.
I found this statement rather chilling, and can only hope that Feduta’s opinions are not widely held. The Tele-bridge was a start at encouraging some sort of dialogue in Ukraine, but there is still a long way to go.