In recent days, news from Kiev and the Donbas has been very unusual for a six-year conflict, but really good.
Thus, the truce of July 27 looks absolutely different as compared to any so far. From August 1 to 7, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) recorded 31 ceasefire violations, including 20 explosions. A year ago, when there was also truce considered one of the most successful, the SMM recorded 286 explosions over the same period, without reporting the number of other violations. That could well be the case, because there were always three-digit figures to indicate those. Suffice it to say that in the first seven days of August last year, the mission's video cameras noticed 237 rounds of ammunition fired by the parties, and this time there were none.
And this despite the fact that the current truce basically patterns upon last year's one. The only major difference is the paragraph stipulating the creation and activation of a coordinating ceasefire violation response mechanism. However, such a mechanism has only been vaguely proclaimed. The agreement does not even provide for what it's meant to be. Logic suggests that it should involve representatives of both Ukraine and the DPR/ LPR. In real practice, this is the precise reason for its absence: Kiev is uncomfortable about formalizing a direct dialogue with the republics. And yet, according to information coming from Donetsk and Lugansk, one can assume that in real-world terms such a dialogue does occur after all, although once in a while.
But it is for the first time that Kiev's new representatives in the contact group have touched upon a direct dialogue on a wider range of issues. So, July 31 saw head of the Ukrainian delegation and first President of the country Leonid Kravchuk say the following on the Ukraine 24 TV channel: "There are people there (in the Donbass beyond Kiev's control – author's note) who are not tied with purely political issues. Maybe scientists or someone else. The sides can start talking at this level, so that it doesn't immediately look nationwide. And when sort of a road map is created and agreed upon, it will be possible to take the issue to a higher level for the final settlement."
Such a statement can be hardly called accidental, as evidenced by Kravchuk's similar message of August 4 in an interview with the 112 Ukraine TV channel: "Here you need to distinguish between whom to talk to and what about. We do not imply the need for the DPR and LPR leaders to immediately negotiate with either President Zelensky or the Prime Minister or the head of the Parliament. We say that Ukrainians live in Donetsk and Lugansk... There is a civil society, its representatives, there are organizations and scientific institutions. One can ultimately create some action group and engage representatives of those who left the region or live in other regions." At the same time, he generally said that Ukrainian representatives need to head for uncontrolled territories, but only after the shooting stops.
The same subject is developed by Kiev's another new person in the contact group, first Prime Minister of independent Ukraine (1990-1992) Vitold Fokin. Interviewed by Dmitry Gordon on August 3, he expressed readiness to go to the uncontrolled Donbass "with a group of specialists and politicians" and talk to people, get at their stance, and try to find ways to be flexible with them, but certainly without impairing Ukraine's interests and sovereignty. This position was aligned with Leonid Kravchuk, he clarified at the same time.
Fokin has not looked a prominent figure for a while now in contrast to Kravchuk, who regularly attends talk-show program, but he nevertheless regularly gave major interviews and said things extraordinary in the eyes of mainstream Ukrainian politicians, except separate representatives of the Opposition Platform – For Life like Viktor Medvedchuk. For instance, January 2019 witnessed Fokin state that the authorities "managed to instigate armed resistance by attempts to get tough with the five-million-strong industrial Donbass over its residents' willingness to keep to native language. It didn't work."
In other words, the new negotiators articulate the idea of direct negotiations with representatives of the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics. Yes, this formally refers to a dialogue with the civil society, but Kravchuk has twice made it clear that such negotiations are a mere preliminary stage, with the final one being a formalized agreement with the DPR and LPR leadership. The implication is that the case in hand should be a virtual dialogue with authorized agents of Donetsk and Lugansk actual authorities.
In fact, this is a willingness to go to even greater extremes than it was with the Advisory Council, which the parties agreed to establish in March and which Kiev immediately flinched from. But not then or ever was the possibility of Ukrainian representatives' trips to Donetsk and Lugansk announced.
What Kravchuk and Fokin say about direct negotiations undermines the institutionalized thesis about Russia's occupation of the Donbass region and the hitherto existing official position on Kiev's obligation to resolve all the issues regarding the conflict with Moscow. At the same time, the duet did not utter any standard statements about Russian aggression (Kravchuk, however, with his great many interviews, might have said something on the issue, though inconspicuous anyway). The very recognition of a civil society in the uncontrolled Donbas region contradicts the propaganda picture of the "occupiers'" indiscriminate terror.
However, all the new accents exist amid the everlasting long-known theses. For instance, the same Kravchuk may misrepresent the Minsk agreements, claiming that the Constitution of Ukraine contains nothing about a special status. The ex-President also admits a lack of understanding of what this status should represent, although its key elements are outlined in the Minsk comprehensive set of measures and are fixed in the Ukrainian law "On the Special Status of Local Self-Government in Some Districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk Regions" adopted in 2014.
And on August 4, Deputy Prime Minister Oleksii Reznikov, the formal deputy head of the Ukrainian delegation in the contact group being its actual key figure, published a new op-ed in the Atlantic Council devoted to the creation of a special investment regime in the Donbass, which he deems as a special status, urging to reject Russia's interpretation of the relevant term. In other words, the Deputy Prime Minister does not want any special status as a regime with specific powers for the regional authorities and humanitarian discretions for its residents, as required by the Minsk agreements.
In general, there are two explanations for the contradictory rhetoric of Ukrainian spokespeople.
First. Kiev's genuine purpose is to exchange the Russian language rights and the Donbass local authorities' powers for a free economic zone. Defending this narrative is the fact that Kravchuk says nothing about the Russian language and is extremely confused about the status. Under this strategy, the novel idea of direct negotiations with the DPR and the LPR should be promoted as part of a plan to convince Donetsk and Lugansk of all the benefits the mentioned exchange will yield. I can't imagine, however, that the Donbass agrees to this. But the objective may prove lowlier – the spread of such an idea amid a really sustainable truce may help achieve a Normandy Format summit before the local elections due in late October and thus secure votes cast for the "servants of the people".
Second. Kiev, shielding itself with traditional rhetoric and exploiting the unprecedented truce, adjusts its position and is ready for real compromise. However, that is not to say such a plan will remain consistent and stand the trial of radicals' protests and the likely discontent of the West. After all, no great length of time has yet elapsed since the Advisory Council's decision and Serhiy Sivokho's dismissal from the post of adviser to the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, as well as the engagement in negotiations of Poroshenko admirers from among the displaced Donbass residents. After that, Zelensky's readiness to change the policy formed by Poroshenko is much more hard to believe in than it was a year or even six months ago.