On June 17, a book compiling the text of film director Oliver Stone’s interviews with Russian President Vladimir Putin was published in the United States. Russian state media had lavished the release of the interview film and book with extensive coverage, with many short excerpts run as articles over the preceding weeks. On the day of the book's publication the state-owned TASS news agency ran a report highlighting comments made by Putin, the book claims, in May 2016.
In this excerpt, Putin is discussing the issue of restoring to Ukraine control of the stretch of the Russian-Ukrainian border that runs alongside areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions controlled by Russia-backed forces:
“The Ukrainian government is insisting that the section of the border in the area of the unrecognized republics must be closed. And indeed, the Minsk protocols require that the border with Russia be closed by Ukrainian border guards, but only after the key political decisions are adopted.”
Putin is correct in stating that the second Minsk agreement, signed on February 12, 2015, does stipulate that full Ukrainian control of this section of the border will be restored on the day after local elections are held in the occupied regions of the Donbas.
Article 9 of the Minsk agreement states:
“Reinstatement of full control of the state border by the government of Ukraine throughout the conflict area, starting on day 1 after the local elections and ending after the comprehensive political settlement (local elections in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on the basis of the Law of Ukraine and constitutional reform) to be finalized by the end of 2015, provided that paragraph 11 has been implemented in consultation with and upon agreement by representatives of certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the framework of the Trilateral Contact Group.”
The prerequisite constitutional amendments, referred to above as “paragraph 11” - the so-called “special status law” granting limited self-government for the Donbas, are yet to be fully implemented.
The legislation passed its first reading in August, 2015, but the process was marred by violent protests which resulted in the deaths of four National Guard servicemen. The second and final vote on the controversial measures has yet to take place.
The Ukrainian government announced in March, 2015, that such a law will only come into effect after local elections are held in the Donbas, however the Russian government and the separatist leaders in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine oppose this, claiming that it violates the Minsk agreement.
But progress towards holding elections has also been hamstrung by repeated declarations from the separatist leadership that they will not allow elections to be held in accordance with Ukrainian law, as stipulated by Minsk II, instead announcing that any Ukrainian party that supported the military operation in the east would be barred from appearing on the ballot.
Furthermore, separatist leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk, on several occasions, unilaterally announced dates for such elections to be held, only to repeatedly postpone them. They have also held “primaries” to select the leaders of the parties that will run without allowing Ukrainian political factions to compete. These votes were not monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which oversees the peace process in Ukraine, or any other international body.
Meanwhile, the Russian or Russia-backed forces in the Donbas have continued to launch attacks daily, with no sign of a decrease in the casualty rate. Any chance of a political solution, least of all the holding of elections under conditions acceptable to the OSCE, seems far off.
And it is this point that matters most when one considers Putin’s comments in the Oliver Stone interview.
According to the Russian leader, the border cannot be closed until the main political components of Minsk II - local elections and the special status law - come into place. But those political commitments will not be realized until there is a lasting cease-fire in Ukraine’s east. And for this to come into effect the Kremlin must give the order to its proxies to halt their attacks, and curtail the free flow of weapons and fighters across the border.
Putin told Stone that closing this border would lead to disaster in the occupied regions:
“As long as the people in these unrecognized republics are not safe, the closure of the border will mean only one thing - that the people will be surrounded and then destroyed.”
By stating that the closure of the border would lead to military defeat for the separatists, Putin is effectively admitting that they are dependent on military support from the Russian side.