The occupation by Ukrainian forces of Staromarievka village, which located in the neutral zone, statements about the use of a Turkish-made Bayraktar drones, that contradicts the Minsk agreements, shelling of residential areas with heavy weaponry, and UAV attacks – this is the current situation in Donbass. In an interview with RIA Novosti, Natalia Nikonorova, a representative of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in the Contact Group and DPR Foreign Minister, spoke about conflict escalation, the use of drones by Ukrainian forces to attack Donbass and the prospects for conflict resolution.
- What is the current situation in Staromarievka village, which is located in the neutral zone? What do you know?
- Ukrainian armed formations have de facto taken control of this village, although it was in the "grey zone", was demilitarized and was neither under the control of the AFU nor under the control of the DPR People's Militia. This fact was previously confirmed by the OSCE SMM. But now the Ukrainian armed formations have moved forward, essentially seized Staromarievka, hung a Ukrainian flag there, built up new fortifications, and dug trenches. All of this is a flagrant violation of both the Minsk agreements and Measures to strengthen the ceasefire regime. We tried to interact with them within the coordination mechanism, we told the Ukrainian representatives at the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination of the Ceasefire (JCCC) that these activities had to stop, that this was a very serious violation. But all these attempts to stop the escalation by diplomatic means were completely ignored by the Ukrainian side. Accordingly, these new structures had to be destroyed by our defenders in order to prevent further AFU advancement. Now we are very concerned about the fate of Staromarievka’s residents. We managed to agree with international organizations to provide the residents with humanitarian aid, in particular, the ICRC brought water and food and delivered coal, since cold weather is coming and there is an objective need to heat houses. All possible humanitarian steps are being taken by us.
- It was reported that 37 people with Russian citizenship live in the village. Do you know about their fate?
- It is difficult to communicate with the villagers. Residents are afraid to openly use telephones with Phoenix connection (Republican communication operator - ed.). According to the information we currently have, we know of cases where DPR license plates were taken away from people and destroyed, and passports of the DPR and the Russian Federation were taken out as well. It will be checked how accurate and correct this information is, when the settlement is liberated. Obviously, representatives of the Republic will not be able to give any official confirmation or denial of what is happening in Staromarievka without the opportunity to go there, talk to the residents, obtain witness statements, and record all the incidents on the spot. Another option is an official statement by the Ukrainian side, but whether such statements is worth to believe is another question. We know very well how the Ukrainian side treats the legal order in principle and I mean that in the case of Ukraine it is more appropriate to talk about disorder and arbitrariness.
- Why did Ukrainian security forces occupy this particular village?
- Firstly, it is practically the only village that remains in the so-called "grey zone," where there are no representatives of armed formations: neither the People's Militia, nor the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Secondly, it’s due to the location. The village is closer to Ukrainian positions. Besides, Staromarievka is situated in a lowland area, while the positions of the Ukrainian formations are on high ground. Therefore, they can see perfectly well what is happening there, control the situation, and so on. They have taken advantage of this situation by brazen, cynical and blatant violation of the Minsk agreements and, in particular, the Measures to strengthen the ceasefire. These measures unequivocally and clearly prohibit any forward movement, intelligence activities, construction of new engineering structures, trench positions and so on.
- Can we describe it as Kiev`s return to the old tactic of the "creeping offensive", when the Ukrainian forces had taken control of areas in the neutral zone?
- This is more of a provocation than a deliberate tactic. We are being provoked into resuming full-scale hostilities. This is when all factors must be considered comprehensively. This includes the seizure of Staromarievka, the open use of Bayraktars, and confirmation of this at the official level – besides, we received a letter from the Ukrainian side in which it absolutely openly admits that it uses UAVs, although this is strictly forbidden by a number of Minsk Protocol documents. This includes the third attempt to drop an explosive device from a UAV on an oil depot in the Kirovsky district, the constant shelling of peaceful settlements, all of this together is nothing more than provoking a symmetrical or even asymmetrical response, which could lead to a resumption of the "hot" phase of the conflict.
In addition, it is also worth considering that Ukraine presents all these acts of aggression as imaginary "victories" in order to distract the Ukrainian population from its failure in internal politcy. Zelensky is now in the anti-rating, the entire Ukrainian leadership is in the anti-rating, and they need to do something to get out of this reputation bottom, but they do not choose real ways to improve people's lives, but PR actions and fake victories on the contact line. But what kind of victories are these? Yes, we seized Staromarievka, but this is by no means an achievement, because there is an exclusively peaceful, unarmed population living there. The UAVs hit the people in Golmovskoe, but they are civilians, innocent people. And there is no need to say something of the fact that the use of UAVs is prohibited.
Kiev understands that if it succeeds in provoking us into full-scale hostilities, then all the attention of both the domestic Ukrainian audience and the international community will be devoted to this topic, which means that Ukraine will be able to return to the international agenda and get bonuses from its "partners" as well. But what is most cynical is that Ukrainian officials keep saying that they are supposedly at war with Russia, that they are victims of aggression, that Ukraine needs to be protected. Meanwhile, Ukrainian formations, under the cover of this lie, are simply destroying the civilian population.
- Is Kiev's report about the first use of Bayraktars confirmed?
- Yes, we know that the Ukrainian side used Bayraktars for surveillance and intelligence, but these drones have never crossed the line of contact before. A specific case of combat use of the Bayraktars has not been confirmed, so far, according to the data we have, we can say that this is all a fake. The video circulated by the AFU General Staff, in which a Turkish-made UAV is allegedly destroying our positions, does not correspond to our information. But for some reason Kiev keeps insisting on it.
- Сan Kiev's statement about the first use of a drone in Donbass be regarded as a test of the Guarantor Countries possible reaction before further use?
- Most likely, this is both a test and a provocation. Incidentally, we have received a clear position from both France and Germany that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles should be stopped. But we are not seeing an adequate response from the Ukrainian side. What is more, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs even had the audacity to state that instead of expressing concern about the use of "means of defense", as Ukraine called it, France and Germany should have been organizing a meeting in the Normandy format. From a diplomatic point of view, this is quite a boorish response.
- Such Kiev`s behavior in Donbass, such reaction to condemnation by France and Germany could they be connected with the recent visit of Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, to Ukraine? Could this visit have been the cue to intensify hostilities?
- We can't know about that, we weren't there. We can only guess. But indeed, the facts suggest that the escalation of conflict in Donbass began after this visit.
- How could the use of Bayraktars by Ukrainian forces change the balance of forces in Donbass?
- It can hardly influence the balance of forces, but it could affect the degree of escalation. The use of UAVs is prohibited by the Minsk agreements. If Ukraine openly confesses in the use of drones and continues to use them, and not only for intelligence purposes but also for combat, then accordingly, this can be regarded as a direct official withdrawal of the Ukrainian side from measures to strengthen the ceasefire, the unlimited truce and the Minsk process in general.
At the moment we are waiting for the OSCE's reaction both to the existing facts of gross violations of the Minsk agreements by the Ukrainian side and to the statements of the Ukrainian officials, in which these violations are openly confirmed.
- How do you assess the contribution of the OSCE mission, Guarantor Countries of the Minsk agreements to the conflict resolution process?
- You cannot deny the importance of their contribution, especially the guarantor countries. It was with the mediation of Russia, France and Germany that the Minsk agreements were signed. The Normandy quartet summits are also important, as they work out specific recommendations for the implementation of certain points of the Minsk agreements. But we would like to see more activity on the part of both the guarantors of the Minsk agreements and the OSCE SMM to put pressure on the Ukrainian side to implement the signed agreements, since Ukraine begins to commit more and more violations. And the reaction of the guarantors and the mediators represented by the OSCE is rather weak and passive.
The only one who is actively doing everything possible to get Kiev back on the diplomatic track is the Russian Federation. But Russia alone will not be able to influence the Ukrainian side, especially considering that Ukraine claims to be at war with Russia. Influence and a much more active position of other Guarantors are needed. We have heard a negative assessment of the use of Bayraktars from France and Germany, but this assessment is rather vague. There is no clear and firm message that the use of these UAVs should be stopped immediately, because it is a flagrant violation of the Minsk agreements. Without such a firm and convincing response from the Guarantor Countries, Ukraine is likely to continue escalating and interfere with the civilian population.
- How do you assess the work of the new OSCE Contact Group Coordinator Mikko Kinnuen and the new OSCE representatives in the subgroups?
- I would like to see more impartiality and activity on the part of the coordinators. With hindsight, the previous coordinators took a much clearer and more appropriate position in response to provocations of Ukraine. They called on Kiev to return to respectful dialogue and to work on the implementation of the peace agreements, especially when Ukraine's representatives demonstratively used military, threatening rhetoric, when they proposed some projects that contradicted the Minsk agreements. Mr. Kinnunen's predecessors could still have expressed dissatisfaction with the behavior of the Ukrainian negotiators and thereby brought them back to the proper framework of the peace talks.
However, at the last meeting of the Contact group no position was expressed at all by the OSCE coordinator. There was no support for Ukraine's openly outrageous statements, but there was no negative reaction either: no reminders of what the Minsk agreements are, and which terms can and cannot be used, or of the need to remain in peaceful rhetoric. This lack of even the slightest reaction is a very formal approach, and it certainly cannot be called impartial. When one of the parties directly and frankly admits to violations of the documents under which this process takes place, there needs to be an appropriate reaction from those whose mandate includes a commitment to peace and stability. But there is no such response, and this, alas, leads to more tension both on the negotiation table and on the line of contact.
- What is the most probable scenario for the development of the situation in Donbass in the near future?
- It is likely that Ukraine will continue its filthy provocations. It is to their advantage to begin large-scale hostilities now, which will both shift the focus of attention away from internal Ukrainian problems and facilitate new tranches of aid from Western partners. But there is still hope that we will hear a more active position from the Western guarantors of the Minsk agreements and that appropriate pressure will be exerted on Kiev to immediately stop the lawlessness it is causing. If there is a tough stance from the guarantor countries and the OSCE, in our opinion, it will be able to stop the aggression by the Ukrainian authorities.
- Why is Kiev not starting active combat actions right now, what is it waiting for?
- With all of its actions, Ukraine provokes Republics to make the first steps in order to declare itself as a victim of aggression, to declare that Republics have violated the Minsk agreements, that the Minsk agreements no longer exist. It has, by the way, another benefit for the Ukrainian side: to announce that we have withdrawn from the Minsk agreements and that these agreements need to be rewritten, amended, supplemented, modernized. This is the goal that Ukraine has been pursuing for a long time, so far without success.