Avakov talks his plan for Donbas reintegration

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Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov is not a big fan of speaking to the press, preferring a one-way communication: Facebook posts.

But the minister has given two big interviews in April to major Ukrainian news outlets Ukrainska Pravda and Liga.net where he shared his plan for reintegrating the Russian-occupied parts of the Donbas with the rest of Ukraine, as well as his geopolitical views, and his disdain for critics of police reform.

Avakov also took credit in the interviews for visa-free travel, the creation of Ukraine’s volunteer battalions, and the National Guard’s successes in the war-torn parts of the Donbas.

Liga.net said the minister personally reviewed and edited the interview before the publication, while Ukrainska Pravda said the minister himself offered to talk.

Avakov is one of the leaders of the People’s Front party and one of the very few cabinet ministers in office since early 2014. He has been seen as a major counterweight to President Petro Poroshenko, and as a minister who boasts power way above his direct jurisdiction.

He upheld that reputation in both interviews when he touched upon subjects like the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections and the ways of finishing the war in the Donbas.

Avakov said that he sees himself essential for the balance of forces in the government.

“Every government is a matter of balance. I’m trying to be an element of that balance. It is a success for now,” Avakov told Liga.net on April 6 in an interview that he described as “uncomfortable.”

The Ukrainian media has long been presenting Avakov as the main rival of Poroshenko in the government, citing unnamed sources within the president’s and interior minister’s close circles. None of the two have addressed the supposed conflict.

Avakov’s advisor and lawmaker with the 81-member People’s Front faction Anton Gerashchenko confirmed the conflict between Avakov and Poroshenko exists. Talking to ICTV channel, he said that it started in the first days of Poroshenko’s presidency in 2014, and was allegedly triggered by their different views on national security and criminal investigation procedures.

On future of Donbas

In an April 16 interview with Ukrainska Pravda, Avakov spoke mainly about how the war-torn Donbas could be brought back under Ukrainian government’s control. The eastern Ukrainian region has been occupied by the Kremlin-backed mercenaries since 2014.

After months of heavy fighting in 2014-2015 between the Ukrainian government forces and the separatists, backed by the Russian regular army, the war became a stalemate with skirmishes taking place daily along the front line. The conflict has seen over 10,000 people killed, according to the United Nations.

Avakov claims that based on his insider knowledge, there are two equally likely scenarios for the future of the war. One would see Russian President Vladimir Putin backing down under the increasing pressure of international sanctions and seeking compromise with Ukraine.

In the second scenario, Putin, led by what Avakov called the Russian president’s self-imposed mission of establishing a new Russian empire, would escalate the war and send both separatist forces and Russian regular army in the attack against Ukrainians.

“It would be a very tough mission for Russia because we’re not living in 2014 anymore,” Avakov said, referring to the strengthening of the Ukrainian army that was unprepared for the invasion in 2014. “But still, we need to understand that our forces and Russia’s forces are very unequal. We have no choice though, we need to prepare for this scenario – and protect ourselves.”

On his big plan

Avakov spoke cautiously about the long-discussed plan to invite the UN peacekeepers into the conflict zone to stop the war – a plan favored for Poroshenko. According to the interior minister, the reintegration of the region won’t be possible if the Russian-backed separatists are “walking the streets along with UN peacekeepers.”

Ousting all the Russian-backed forces at once, however, is problematic.

So Avakov shared what he calls his “plan of small steps” which he claimed would benefit everyone – including Russia.

His idea is to first take back a small piece of the occupied land – for instance, Horlivka, the city of 250,000 people in Donetsk Oblast close to the front line – upon agreement that Russian-backed mercenaries leave it.

The returning city will then be allowed to hold local elections. International foundations will help with rebuilding infrastructure and reviving the area. This, in the interior minister’s idea, will prompt the people living in the remaining occupied territories to see that the quality of life is improving in the reintegrated areas, and set the ground for returning more territories.

At the same time, Avakov wants the citizens of the reintegrated territories to be banned from voting for Ukrainian president and parliament for up to 10 years – to “calm down the emotions.”

This step-by-step reintegration would end when Ukrainian forces reach the Ukrainian-Russian border – and patrol it together with UN peacekeepers.

Why would Russians quit the Donbas? Avakov says that to make them do it, it could be enough to promise to give the Russian language a special status in the liberated territories. This, in his opinion, would make Russians look like they completed their mission of protecting the Russian-speaking population of eastern Ukraine – and offer them a smooth way out of the conflict that has cost the country a lot in term of sanctions.

Not that Ukraine would call for lifting the sanctions once Russia withdraws from the Donbas, Avakov says. That would be something to do when Russia gives back Crimea that it annexed in 2014.

“This is a different issue – and a much more sensitive one for Russia,” Avakov told Ukrainska Pravda. “Of course, we can’t say ‘Here’s Crimea, give us back the Donbas, and we call it even.’ No Ukrainian politician, or anyone in their right mind, would ever offer that.”

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