Ukrainians ignore impeachment drama to focus on Russia

More than 20,000 Ukrainians came out to protest a possible peace deal with Russia on Monday, ignoring the drama over Ukraine's role in Donald Trump's impeachment drama.

Thousands protest proposed special status for pro-Russian, rebel-held region of eastern Ukraine

A Ukrainian protester in Kyiv uses a flare during Monday's demonstrations. Thousands of people marched to protest against a proposed deal with Moscow to grant special status to a pro-Russian, rebel-held region of eastern Ukraine as part of efforts to end a five-year conflict there. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

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.

Ukrainian nationalists march in Kyiv carrying a banner that says 'no special status for Donbass.' (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

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.

Russian terms

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.

A woman plays accordion during Monday's protest in Kyiv. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

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, 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.

Popular president

"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.

Andreii Sheyam served in special operations for Ukraine's army fighting separatists in Donbass. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

'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.

Drummers attended Monday's march in Kyiv. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

"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.

Vulnerable towns

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.   

Natalia Zhurbanko of Stanitsa Luganskaya was part of a ceremony of concern for more than 140 Ukrainian towns that could be part of a new demilitarized zone. Each brick placed in the wall represented a community. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

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."

'Last hope'

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:

Thousands in Ukraine march against peace deal with Russia

4 years ago
Duration 2:02
Thousands of Ukrainian nationalists marched as part of a “no to capitulation” protest in Kyiv, fearful that their president may be too eager to sign a deal to end a conflict with Russia on Russian terms.


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.