On January 18, the Ukrainian media outlet Newsone published an article citing independent Ukraine’s first president Leonid Kravchuk.
Kravchuck now serves as a representative to the Trilateral Contact Group, which is trying to negotiate a political settlement to the separatist war with pro-Russian actors in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Newsone claimed Kravchuck had effectively recognized Russia’s proxy states in Donbas – the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” – as sovereign states.
“The head of the Ukrainian delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group Leonid Kravchuk actually recognized ORDO and ORLO (the Donetsk People’s Republic, or DPR, and Luhansk People’s Republic, or LPR, respectively; ) as separate states,” the article states.
“Kravchuk publicly insists that the issue of the release of detainees is ‘an interstate issue,’ and states should study the issue and resolve it at the state level in accordance with international law and within the framework of the Normandy format."
Other outlets in Ukraine and Russia quickly picked up the same story.
The problem is that it's false: Kravchuck's words were taken out of context.
In referring to an “interstate issue” and the “state” level, Kravchuk was talking about Ukraine and Russia, not Ukraine and the Donbas oblasts (administrative regions), where Russia incited a separatist conflict in 2014.
The Trilateral Contact Group, which meets in Minsk, Belarus, was created in 2014 to provide a forum for dialogue between Russia and Ukraine. It is composed of delegates from Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Although separatist representatives have advanced proposals via the group, they are not official participants in the Trilateral process and don't represent states.
Kravchuk's views on that point are further underscored by an interview with RBK-Ukraine on January 21.
In the interview, Kravchuk complained that Russia was deliberately blocking progress on prisoner exchanges. Further, he said that representatives from Russia’s proxy states “act at the talks like participants, although they are just invitees.”
“Thus, through the back door … they did everything to make our Trilateral Contact Group a five-sided one," Kravchuk added.
Similarly, the “Normandy format” talks Kravchuk referred to are the informal negotiations that have been held since June 6, 2014, when representatives of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine discussed the Donbas issue while attending the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
The two "separatist republics” in Donbas have never been included in these talks, just as they are not official participants in the Trilateral Contact Group.
In his RBK-Ukraine interview, Kravchuk was criticizing a proposal to arrange a prisoner exchange with Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch who is a personal friend of Vladimir Putin. In 2019, the leaders of the DPR and LPR released four people their forces held. The release was purportedly made at Medvedchuk’s request.
But when Kravchuk brought up detainees in the quote cited by Newsone, he'd already made clear that states -- not individuals -- should be involved.
“And the [prisoner] return is peculiar – not to Ukraine, but to the mediator Medvedchuk. We do not know such a thing for a private person to perform the functions of a state. We stated that this is an interstate issue, and states should study the issue and resolve it at the state level in accordance with international law and within the framework of the Normandy format.”
Other Moscow-leaning media outlets had similar omissions.
On January 29, Kravchuk announced that he had rejected the latest proposal to exchange prisoners via the mediation of Medvedchuk.
"The swap did not happen and it would not happen the way it is proposed," Kravchuk said. "There is an established and proven procedure for an exchange. And this shall be done at the level of the state rather than individuals."
So, Kravchuk was not referring to Russia's proxies in Donbas as states.
It’s not the first time Moscow-leaning media in Ukraine misrepresented Kravchuk’s words. In 2016, some outlets reported that Kravchuk suggested Crimea had never been Ukrainian, and that it couldn’t possibly return to Ukrainian control. (Russia annexed Crimea by force in 2014, garnering international condemnation.)
In reality, Kravchuk was saying the relationship between Crimea and the central government in Kyiv could not be the same as what it was before the 2014 annexation.
Leonid Kravchuk was the first president of Ukraine after the country achieved independence from the Soviet Union on August 24, 1991. He served in the office until 1994. On December 8, 1991, Kravchuk, along with Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus and Boris Yeltsin of Russia, signed the Belavezha Accords that ended the Soviet era.