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Is peace in eastern Ukraine doomed?

Mikhail Bushuev | Roman Goncharenko
September 3, 2018

Moscow called the high-profile killing of a pro-Russian separatist leader in Ukraine's breakaway Donetsk region "a provocation." DW spoke to experts about what the brutal murder means for long-stalled efforts at peace.

Memorial to murdered separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko in Donetsk, Ukraine
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/V. Sprinchak

Dmitry Peskov made it clear on Monday that Moscow will not withdraw from the Minsk peace agreement, even if it is "very difficult" to hold talks with Ukraine after the attack on Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the Donetsk pro-Russian separatists.

Earlier, the Russian president's press spokesman had said the attack would have "inevitable" consequences and that it wasn't helping the Minsk peace process. His remarks gave rise to speculation about the consequences for the peace plan for parts of eastern Ukraine, not yet implemented but agreed in 2015 in the Belarusian capital under German and French mediation. Kyiv considers the region an area occupied by Russia

High-profile victim

Zakharchenko, 42, died on Friday when a bomb exploded in a cafe in Donetsk. Russia and the separatists quickly blamed Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the attack was a provocation aimed at disrupting the Minsk peace process, President Vladimir Putin called it a "cruel murder."

The Ukrainian government has rejected all accusations. As far as Kyiv is concerned, Zakharchenko was either eliminated on Moscow's orders or died as a result of internal power struggles in the separatist region.

Zakharchenko is the most high-ranking victim in years of attacks on separatist leaders. He headed the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) beginning in August 2014 after his predecessor, a Russian political advisor, left for Moscow.

A woman lays flowers at a memorial for Alexander Zakharchenko
A woman lays flowers at one of several memorials to ZakharchenkoImage: Reuters/P. Rebrov

Paris and Berlin urge talks

It is still unclear what the attack means for the Minsk peace process. Both "people's republics" initially said they would adhere to existing agreements. Lavrov argued "Normandy format" talks any time soon including Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France have become impossible. There has also been talk of a summit meeting held in France.

Paris and Berlin on Monday urged continuing the talks. "It is really important to avoid an escalation now," said German government spokesman Steffen Seibert, adding that Zakharchenko's violent death "does not make the efforts to implement the Minsk agreements any less important — quite the contrary."

Read more: 'No alternative' to peace in Ukraine, says Merkel

Where are the 'people's republics' headed?

Zakharchenko's death is unlikely to have tangible consequences for the peace process in Minsk, which is already stalled, observers say.

Dr. Stefan Meister
Central and Eastern Europe expert Stefan MeisterImage: DPAG

"Zakharchenko was never central to promoting the implementation of this agreement — to the contrary," says Stefan Meister, director of the Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

"It is clear Russia is actually in charge, especially in relation to the Minsk process," agrees Susan Stewart of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

Susan Stewart German Institute for International and Security Affairs
Security expert Susan Stewart: "It is clear Russia is actually in charge"Image: SWP

Getting the Minsk process up and running again and finding dialogue partners in the area has become more difficult for Germany, Meister told DW. "There has been no stabilization of structures, but rather a weakening, there are power struggles," the DGAP expert says.

What matters now, he stresses is how the two "people's republics" will proceed after a number of key figures, including Zakharchenko, have been deliberately killed. "The question is, is the DPR now without leadership, and is Russia even more popular?"

 A look at the neighboring Luhansk People's Republic might help find the answer. Igor Plotnitsky, the head of the republic, was ousted in November 2017 after a brief scuffle with various armed groups, apparently under pressure from Moscow. He is said to be living in Russia today. The change of power in Luhansk had no consequences for the Minsk peace process.

Minsk agreement 'only alternative' to fighting with Russia