Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy dismissed on September 30 Vitold Fokin from his position of deputy head of Ukraine’s delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG), the main negotiation platform on the Donbass conflict between Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE.
The decision comes a day after Fokin declared during an official meeting that he “hadn’t seen [...] any confirmation that a war between Russia and Ukraine [was] going on” (Novosti Donbassa). A massive public outcry followed, with the 87 years-old former Prime minister disavowed by the entire government: head of the president’s office and main Donbass negotiator Andriy Yermak quickly called on Fokin to resign, while Interior minister Arsen Avakov called him an “utter fool” who “should, at the very least, go back to retirement.”
Fokin did not last long — we covered his arrival at the TCG in our August 7 issue. Since then, he had become known for a series of controversial statements, most recently when he voiced support for a general amnesty in separatist-controlled Donbass as well as for a “special status” that would apply not only to the territories currently controlled by Russia-backed groups, but to the entire Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Reports that he had earned his position in the TCG thanks to his granddaughter’s relationship with Andriy Yermak also did not help make him a credible figure.
His departure highlights two ongoing trends of the Donbass negotiations in the Zelenskiy era. On the surface level, communications have been consistently fumbled, messy and confused, with several instances of decisions or statements followed by speedy and embarrassed back-tracking. The second trend partly explains the messy PR: Kyiv has tried to find compromises with Moscow without setting off Ukraine’s opposition and civil society. It hasn’t always failed — this summer’s successful ceasefire is testament to that — but it still is a shaky tightrope to walk, especially considering the lack of experience of some of the people in charge of Ukraine’s Donbass negotiations.
This article originally appeared in FPRI's BMB Ukraine newsletter. Click here to learn more about BMB Ukraine and subscribe to the newsletter.