Ukrainians ignore impeachment drama to focus on Russia
Thousands protest proposed special status for pro-Russian, rebel-held region of eastern Ukraine
Ukraine may be at the epicentre of the Donald Trump impeachment drama, but on the streets of the capital, Kyiv, Ukrainians made it clear Monday they're preoccupied with a different great power crisis — a potential peace deal involving Russia.
"It seems to me, and an increasing number of people, the solution being proposed is capitulation," said Bohdan Chomiak, a Canadian who moved to Ukraine 21 years ago and now works as an investor in the agri-food industry.
Chomiak marched through Kyiv on Saturday with up to 20,000 flag-waving Ukrainians from a mix of nationalist groups in what was dubbed as a "no to capitulation" protest.
President Volodymyr Zelensky has agreed to participate in a process that could bring the five-year-long conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine to an end.
But many Ukrainians believe that Zelensky is rushing too fast into a complicated arrangement that he is sure to lose control over.
"It will legitimize the Russian forces in Donbass," said Chomiak, echoing a widely held view in Kyiv that Russia's intention is not to allow Ukraine to regain workable control over the region's two territories, Donetsk and Luhansk.
The process is the first step in adopting what's become known as the "Steinmeier Formula," a Russian-supported plan that calls for both sides to withdraw troops, hold local elections and then allow Ukraine to regain control of the international border with Russia, which is currently under the control of the separatists.
The disagreement has been focused on the timing of each event and whether Russian will maintain military control over Donbass during any future elections in the separatist-held territories.
Ukrainian critics also fear the institutions and political structures that have been set up in the breakaway republics over the past five years will remain even after elections, giving Russia tremendous influence in the region.
Volodymyr Yermolenko, a political scientist and editor-in-chief of Ukraine World.org, says the arrangement could effectively give the Russian-backed administration a veto on future Ukrainian decisions, such as joining NATO or the European Union.
"Of course Ukraine wants peace, but not on Russian terms, meaning that Russia will create a semi-state inside Ukraine that will influence Ukrainian politics," said Yermolenko.
"I think what is true is that no Ukrainian president can control society. And Zelensky was extremely popular with over 70 per cent (in the March election), but he even he cannot impose something on Ukrainian society that it doesn't like," said Yermolenko.
'Never betray' Ukraine
In a marathon 14-hour news conference last week, Zelensky tried to assuage some of those fears by suggesting no elections would happen unless independent observers verify them and that he "would never betray" Ukraine. He also tried to downplay his role in the ongoing impeachment drama, by suggesting he wasn't blackmailed by the U.S. president into agreeing to look for political dirt on his likely opponent in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
At Monday's protest, which coincided with Defenders Day, a holiday celebrating Ukraine's military, speaker after speaker voiced concern about the terms of the peace deal that Zelensky appears to be signing on to.
"Don't try to BS our citizens with unclear formulas," said Andreii Sheyam, a burly 23-year-old special forces veteran of the Donbass conflict.
"Pulling our troops (away from the conflict line) is not an option for us. Why do we have to pull out from our own land?"
The first part of the peace process involves troops from both sides pulling back from the so-called conflict line, to create a sort of demilitarized zone.
By Ukrainian estimates, 145 towns or villages would be left without protection and many people at Monday's gatherings expressed their vulnerability.
Natalia Zhurbanko, 66, lives in Stanitsa Luganskaya, which is the first — and so far only — front-line community where both sides have withdrawn.
She told CBC News that she doesn't trust Russia's president to follow any agreement with Ukraine in good faith.
"I have never believed Putin ... the words (of Russia's president) mean nothing."
Ukraine's foreign minister told Reuters earlier in the day that the "last hope" for a four-way summit involving Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany to agree on the implementation of a peace plan was likely mid-November.
Zelensky has only acknowledged that the "communication" on signing the Steinmeier Formula was poorly handled by his government, but Yermolenko, the political analyst, says the distrust is far more widespread.
"They (the two breakaway republics) will be Russian puppets. So the risk is there — and intuitively many Ukrainians understand it."
WATCH | From The National, thousands in Ukraine march against peace deal with Russia: