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'Little Russia': Ukraine peace deal in danger?

Roman Goncharenko
July 18, 2017

Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk have declared all of Ukraine to be part of "Little Russia." Could the move undo the Minsk Protocol aimed at keeping the peace in the region?

Fighting in Donetsk
Image: picture-alliance/Tass/dpa/V. Drachev

Worry in Kyiv, criticism from Berlin and Paris and surprise from policy experts: Alexander Zakharchenko's abrupt announcement landed like a stone on still water. On Tuesday, the separatist leader of the self-declared "People's Republic" of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine called his new state Malorossiya, which translates as "Little Russia." Zakharchenko called Ukraine's government in Kyiv "illegitimate" and made a plea to the country's various regions to join the new state, with Donetsk as its capital. Crimea, annexed by Russia, was excluded.

"Ukraine will disappear," said Alexander Timofeyev, a deputy premiere of Donetsk. "It will be war for those who do not heed our peaceful overtures."

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Map of eastern Ukraine

Concern in Kyiv

The war in Donbass, which broke out three years ago, finds itself at a possible turning point - and the consequences are unclear. Donetsk's "sister republic" of Luhansk, supported by Russia, was itself unaware of the pending statehood announcement and reacted with caution.

Kyiv's initial response was a mix of calm as well as concern about possible escalation. President Petro Poroshenko, visiting Georgia, called Zakharchenko "no political figure," but rather a Russian "puppet." Viktor Muzhenko, the head of Ukraine's military, said the statement was one of "sick fantasies." The national security secretary, Oleksandr Turchynov, called the announcement "Russia's aggressive plan" to prevent a peaceful outcome to the conflict.

Read: EU adopts association agreement with Ukraine

Alexander Zakharchenko in Ukraine
Zakharchenko called Ukraine's government in Kyiv 'llegitimate'Image: Imago/Tass

Sharp criticism from Berlin

Germany's government said the move was "completely unacceptable." A government spokesperson told DW that "Zakharchenko has no legitimacy whatsoever to speak for this part of Ukraine" adding, "We expect Russia to see this step the same way, and will neither respect nor recognize it." The French Foreign Ministry responded similarly.

"The declaration of the so-called State of Malorossiya is another Russian provocation in its perfidious power game to dominate Europe," Jürgen Hardt, who heads the conservative CDU/CSU faction in the German parliament, told DW. "It once again proves that no one should trust [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. He is constantly calling for talks with the West, but his word is clearly unreliable."

'Minsk agreement is the only alternative to fighting'

Tension before high-level call

Moscow's official reaction was initially cautious. Some lawmakers expressed understanding for the separatists, but made clear the move violated the Minsk Protocol, which calls for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from eastern Ukraine's separatist area, followed by the creation of de facto autonomous rule for the region while remaining under the auspices of the central government in Kyiv.

The announcement from Donetsk came just days ahead of a high-level call among the leaders of the Normandy Format countries - Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France's President Emmanuel Macron met with Russia's President Putin during the recent G20 summit in Hamburg to discuss the situation in eastern Ukraine and the possibility of a permanent ceasefire. That is one of Kyiv's central demands, which it sees as going unfulfilled by the 2015 peace negotiations.

Read: Rex Tillerson has sharp words for Moscow during Ukraine visit

Merkel, Putin and Macron at the G20 in Hamburg
Macron, Putin and Merkel discussed the situation in eastern Ukraine during the G20 summit in HamburgImage: picture alliance/dpa/T. Schwarz

Future peace process

Experts for the region were puzzled by Tuesday's development. "This is definitely a sick fantasy," Ukraine-based Winfried Schneider-Deters, an author on the conflict, told DW. "I find it hard to believe that this is coming from the Kremlin." Ukraine need not be overly concerned, but should prepare for military escalation, he added.

The model is "absurd," said Stefan Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations, explaining that more and more Ukrainians are turning away from Russia. Unlike Schneider-Deters, Meister sees Russia's fingerprints on the Little Russia plan. "It is an obstruction of and an attempt to distract from the Minsk Protocol," he told DW.

Read: Ukraine and Russia blame each other for death of OSCE monitor in Eastern Ukraine

Some experts in Kyiv consider the proclamation to be the death of the peace accords. "There can be no talk of elections should martial law be introduced and political parties banned," Mykola Sunhurovsky of the Kyiv-based think tank, Rasumkow-Zentrum, told DW. Both are moves Zakharchenko suggested when declaring his Little Russia.

Elections for the separatist region, agreed to in the Minsk Protocol, are a key point of contention between Kyiv and Donetsk.

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