UD. 25 February 2017.  

By Iryna Terlecky.

Everyone has a peace plan, except the Kremlin.

Peace plans abound

At the start of this week, The New York Times reported that two associates of President Donald Trump, including Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, presented a sealed envelope to the then National Security Adviser Michael Flynn (before his resignation) containing a secret peace plan to resolve the Russian-backed war in Ukraine. 

According to the report, the plan included the withdrawal of Russian forces from eastern Ukraine, and a Ukrainian referendum on whether Crimea would be leased to Russia for 50 or 100 years. The plan also outlined a way to lift sanctions on Russia.

The reported author of the plan was Andrii Artemenko, who according to the Times “sees himself as a Trump-style leader of a future Ukraine.” 

Natalia Gumenyuk, the head of the, said that Artemenko was “a really obscure member of parliament from a shady political party.”  

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov agreed that “MP Artemenko…is a marginal figure without any authority.” 

Both Avakov and Serhiy Leshchenko, a member of Ukraine’s Rada and a former investigative journalist, suspect the plan originated not with Artemenko, who heads an obscure right-wing party, but among members of the Opposition Bloc, the parliamentary faction that formed in 2014 from remnants of the old Party of the Regions, led by ex-President Viktor Yanukovych.

Artemenko himself claimed to have evidence showing corruption by President Poroshenko, that could help oust him and that he had received encouragement for his plans from top aides to Mr. Putin. 

His US partners in the ‘peace plan’ both have questionable pasts: Felix Sater, a Russian-American, pleaded guilty to a role in a stock manipulation scheme decades ago that involved the Mafia, while Michael Cohen is being investigated by the FBI for links with Russia.

Valeriy Chaly, Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States, said that Artemenko was “not entitled to present any alternative peace plans on behalf of Ukraine to any foreign government, including the U.S. administration.” 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected the idea of Russia “leasing” Crimea from Ukraine as absurd, claiming “we cannot rent from ourselves”. 

Most commentators agree that this ‘peace plan’ originated, not from Artemenko, but from the Kremlin, in tactics designed to test whether the US and Ukrainian society might be ready for some kind of deal. 

Lena Surzhko-Harned, an expert on Ukrainian politics at University of Pittsburgh said that the proposal reeked of Kremlin manipulation: “Find a low-ranking financially interested goon, prop him up, give him instructions and let the games begin.

And then Yanukovych weighed in

In a press conference for foreign media in Moscow on 21 February, ex-President Yanukovych announced he would send letters to the US, French, German and Russian presidents, asking them to act to stop the war in eastern Ukraine and to request an honest and open investigation into the murders of police and protesters in Kyiv in February 2014.

“I wrote to President Trump and told him the war needs to end,” he told reporters in Moscow ahead of the letter’s release, blaming the conflict on “short-sighted and irresponsible actions by the Ukrainian and Western politicians.” 

Yanukovych also repeated his claims that “unidentified snipers” attacked both police and protesters on Maidan in 2014 and that he had evidence which would help identify the real masterminds behind the killings. 

This is not the first time that Yanukovych has made such claims, while at the same time refusing to provide that evidence to Ukrainian investigators.

Munich Security Conference

Ukraine was, as it has been in the last three years, firmly on the agenda at the Munich Security Conference which, amongst other things, saw the first meeting between President Poroshenko and US Vice-President Mike Pence.

Poroshenko said he received a “very strong message supporting Ukraine” in a meeting with Pence and recent talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Asked whether he was concerned that U.S. President Donald Trump and members of his administration were sending mixed signals on Ukraine, Poroshenko dismissed that notion.

Nevertheless, Poroshenko spoke about the need to maintain sanctions against Russia. 

“I hear increasingly obsessive calls for at least some degree of appeasement toward Russia’s appetite. To move in that direction would be naive, wrong and dangerous — not only for Ukraine, but also for Europe and for the world,” he said. 

He also warned against “any agreement behind our back” with Russia on Ukraine.

“We have no intention to give up” on defending Ukraine, he said, speaking in English. “Any deal with Putin behind Ukraine would only aggravate the situation.”

Mike Pence said the Trump administration would demand that Russia honours the 2015 Minsk agreement.

“Know this: The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground, which as you know President Trump believes can be found,” he said.

For his part, Sergiy Lavrov announced a fresh ceasefire brokered by Russian, Ukrainian, German and French negotiators to halt fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists from 20 February, though there was little confidence that this would be any more successful than previous ceasefire agreements, particularly in the light of comments from self-proclaimed DNR leaders that they were ready to use extreme force to push back at Ukrainian troops.

And the opposite message from Putin

Hardly had the talks ended when President Putin dropped an unexpected bombshell by signing an executive order granting visa-free travel to anyone living in self-declared separatist territories in eastern Ukraine and recognising all documents issued by separatist militias.

A Kremlin statement said the order was “guided by universally recognised principles and standards of international humanitarian law and in order to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals”. 

The statement said it related to “certain districts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk”, without specifically referring to the self-proclaimed People’s Republics.

It gives birth, marriage and death certificates, identification, qualification, vehicle registration certificates and other documents issued by pro-Russian separatist “authorities” official recognition in Russia.

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, claimed the recognition was afforded so “Donbass residents” can enter Russia legally, with thousands already fleeing over the border as asylum seekers. 

However, the timing was no coincidence, coming as it did on the heels of Mike Pence’s statement about US support for Ukraine. 

It seems clear that although Russia has repeatedly and consistently denied interference in eastern Ukraine, it will not lessen its political support for the separatists and is challenging the US and the West to test their appetite for further action.

A new twist

This week, an Austrian court approved the extradition of Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash to the United States in a bribery case, overturning an earlier ruling that had said the US request was politically motivated. 

However, minutes after the Austrian judge announced his extradition verdict to a packed courtroom, a spokeswoman for Austrian prosecutors said Firtash had been detained on a European arrest warrant based on a separate Spanish request. 

Firtash was arrested while waiting for the elevator to leave court.

Austrian police took him into custody on an outstanding warrant from Spain that accuses him of money laundering and engaging in organized crime. He denies all the charges.

Mr Firtash gained much of his wealth through arrangements with Russian energy giant Gazprom. 

His business flourished after Yanukovych came to power. 

A key paid adviser in Yanukovych’s campaign was Paul Manafort, who later became Mr Trump’s election campaign adviser. 

Manafort and Firtash were linked in a real estate project to redevelop the Drake Hotel site in Manhattan.

Yulia Tymoshenko argued this was a money-laundering project to siphon huge amounts of cash out of Ukraine. Firtash denies this, telling Bloomberg that although he was initially interested in the project, he changed his mind. 

He said he “always had clean money” and called Tymoshenko a liar.

Last August, the New York Times reported finding ledgers pledging $12.7m (£9.8m) in undisclosed cash payments from the former Russian-backed Ukrainian government to Manafort between 2007 and 2012, and Manafort was forced to resign from the Trump campaign. 

Whatever now happens, it will be interesting to watch how the Firtash story plays out, how it will affect the Trump administration, and indeed, whether the administration might use the power of the oligarch to examine options for its involvement in Ukraine – as some commentators have suggested that Firtash’s support for a ‘neutral’ Ukraine, combined with the significant business and financial leverage he still has in Ukraine might be something that the Trump administration finds useful. 

Whether any of this might work in the interests of the Ukrainian people is an open question.


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