- Prisoner swap the lastest step on road to implementation of Minsk-2 accord
- Swap accomplished after months of negotiations, criminal trials, pardons
- Release of Ukrainian servicewoman seems diplomatic victory for Ukrainian president
- Russian side must also expect concessions, such as elections in Donbass
- Majority in Ukraine oppose giving separatists legitimacy via elections
- Resolution of border issue could lead to lifting of sanctions against Russia
- Removal of sanctions a matter of urgency for Russia
Ukrainian soldiers parading on Ukraine's August 24 independence day. Photo: iStock
By Nadia Kazakova
The Ukrainian president's airplane flew the Ukrainian servicewoman Nadiya Savchenko from Rostov-on-Don in the southern Russia to Kiev on Wednesday. Simultaneously, two Russian military intelligence officers were flown from Kiev to Moscow. The swap was compete after months of negotiations, criminal trials in Russia and Ukraine, which ended in long prison sentences and, in the end, presidential pardons for Savchenko from Russian President Vladimir Putin and to the Russian officers Alexandrov and Erofeev from President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine.
The high-profile prisoner swap could be read as a sign that both Russia and Ukraine are slowly moving forward towards implementation of last year's Minsk-2 accord
to end the conflict that erupted in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region in 2014. The release of Savchenko, who became a potent symbol of Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression, could count as a diplomatic victory for the Ukrainian president (whose approval ratings linger in single digits). The swap was likely impossible, however, without the Russian side expecting a concession or two, to even things out.
The release of Savchenko could be a clever attempt to radicalise the Ukrainian political situation, making it more difficult for Poroshenko to push through unpopular policies. The failure of the Minsk agreement could be then blamed on Kiev, while Russia could claim that it was doing all it can, giving ammunition to its supporters for lifting the sanctions.
If the prisoner swap was a part of a political trade-off, Russia might be expecting that the Ukrainian presidential administration would push through legislation on elections in the separatist Donbass region. The idea of holding elections in Donbass is highly contentious in Ukraine, where a majority of public opinion is against giving separatists legitimacy via elections, according to the Ukrainian media
The draft legislation on elections, however, seems to be ready (it was prepared with international mediation) and could shortly go to the Ukrainian parliament. Once the law is passed (and it could take some time), elections could be held in Donbass within six months.
The Ukrainian and pro-Russian (or Russian) sides are still far apart on the election issue. Ukraine insists on the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe policing the region during elections, with up to 11,000 military personnel with small arms and armed vehicles involved. Russia seems to agree on merely a monitoring mission, but it is a major shift in accepting a wider role for the OSCE in the region.
The Russian-Ukrainian conflct erupted in 2014. Image: iStock
Ukraine wants all residents to have the right to vote, including those who fled the region. The pro-Russian side insists that only those who have lived in the region for at least twelve months should vote. Ukraine wants free access of the Ukrainian media and political parties as well as a key role for its central election commission.
The local elections would unlock the next and most vital step of the Minsk-2 agreement: transfer of the Ukrainian-Russian border control in separatist regions to Ukraine or, possibly, to an international monitoring organisation. The resolution of the border issue could lead to the lifting of anti-Russian sanctions.
Lifting the sanctions is seen by Ukraine as a whip to force through implementation of the Minsk-2 accords, which could reduce tensions with Russia but would leave Ukraine with a quasi-state within a state (with associated political and economic costs). European politicians might see Minsk-2 as the only viable option at the moment.
Matter of urgency
The latest chatter from Brussels, as relayed by the Russian RIA Novosti
, is that the automatic extension of the anti-Russian sanctions in June would be the last. By December, those opposed to the sanctions within the EU (such as a very vocal Hungary) might be given a full hearing.
For Russia the removal of sanctions is clearly a matter of urgency. For all the talk about the country coping and adapting, the reality is very different. The political elite must understand that Russia would be unable to claw its way back from the recession without proper access to international financial and technological markets.
So it is puzzling that the recent positive political steps are accompanied by what looks like a military nudge. Just days before the prisoner swap and a tentative agreement on an OSCE monitoring mission, there were reports of high casualties by the Ukrainian military along the separation line in eastern Ukraine.
The Russian administration is yet to recognise that unless the aggression recedes, there is much less hope of achieving its economic and political goals in the region.
Russian soldiers guard a Ukrainian naval base during Russia's 2014
invasion of the Crimean peninsula. Photo: iStock
— Edited by John Acher