“We have a massive military tension, but I still believe that the end of the diplomatic dialogue has not been reached.” He said that during a local inspection at the so-called line of contact between government troops and separatists.
“The channels are running at full speed,” said Schallenberg to Austrian journalists in the Ukrainian conflict zone Donbass. “The possibilities are on the table, all that’s missing is the diplomatic will.” A negotiation process is needed “to get out of this oppressive situation”.
From Kharkiv, the ministers and their delegations flew to Luhansk Oblast in an hour and a half in old helicopters. There, armed with bulletproof vests and soldiers’ helmets, they got an idea of the military and humanitarian situation at the “Stanitsa Luhanska” checkpoint during a meeting with Governor Serhiy Haidai.
Up to 2,000 crossings at the checkpoint every day
The checkpoint is a kind of border crossing with a three meter high lattice fence, security checkpoints and several counters for checking people. On average, up to 2,000 people cross the line of contact between Ukrainian territory and the region near Luhansk occupied by pro-Russian separatists every day between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. The capacity would of course be much higher, explained a local commander. On some days, up to 17,000 people used to be out and about.
On the one hand, Corona is responsible for the current lower frequency, on the other hand, the Russian separatists are very restrictive. Some residents of the region are only allowed to cross the contact line once a month. They mostly use this to get their pension, which they continue to draw from Ukrainian banks. Therefore, they also have bank cards for shopping. Otherwise they would also have to change money, on the separatist side they pay in Russian rubles.
Why are the Separatists so restrictive? For Schallenberg, it’s obvious: “It’s probably not in their interest for the people in the occupied territories to see the difference in development between Ukraine and the occupied territories in recent years.”
After the fall of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, Moscow first annexed the Crimean peninsula and then supported the Russian-speaking separatists in Donbass. Parts of the regions bordering Russia around the city of Luhansk and the metropolis of Donetsk broke away from the central government in Kiev.
Joint trip in “Slavkov format”
On Tuesday, Schallenberg will also meet with representatives of the Crimean Tatars in Kiev and hold bilateral talks with his counterpart Dmytro Kuleba before the trio of foreign ministers meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The visit is intended to “send a strong signal of central European solidarity,” it said. “We will express our solidarity with a country that is under great pressure,” Czech Foreign Minister Lipavsky said, according to the CTK news agency. Before the trip, Schallenberg had stated: “Even if Austria is a neutral state from a military point of view, we are not neutral towards violence. When it comes to the territorial integrity of a sovereign state, we will never remain silent, but always stand up for it.”
The Foreign Ministry said that the “joint trip in the “Slavkov format” shows “the close ties between our three countries and Ukraine”. After all, Ukraine is “part of Europe and its sovereignty is also a question of our own security”. Slavkov” or “Austerlitz format” is an initiative with which Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia want to strengthen their cooperation. The three-country group was founded at the end of January 2015 in Slavkov (Austerlitz) – in the place in southern Moravia after which the legendary battle of the Three Emperors was named in 1805.
Video: Diplomatic efforts in the Ukraine conflict continue
During the course of the trip, Schallenberg also announced that the Council of Ministers would decide in February on the payment of 2.5 million euros from the Foreign Ministry’s foreign disaster fund. To combat the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, one million euros will be made available for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and 1.5 million euros for local Austrian NGOs. The Austrian Development Agency (ADA) was commissioned to handle the project.
As part of the EU civil protection mechanism, on Tuesday, Schallenberg will also hand over 42 pallets of tools, including five diesel generators and 28 water tanks, each with a capacity of 1,000 liters. The Czech Republic and Slovakia also announced support for the Ukrainian Red Cross and NGOs.
In Kiev, the chief diplomats are currently shaking hands. Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock will also be in Ukraine for two days starting Monday. French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian will also join on Tuesday. He is traveling with President Emmanuel Macron, who, after a visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, also wants to consult with his counterpart Selenskyj in Kiev. France currently holds the EU Council Presidency. Poland’s Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, currently also Chairman of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), will follow on Wednesday.
OSCE as “essential vehicle”
Schallenberg sees the OSCE as an “essential vehicle” for mediation in the Ukraine conflict, but also made it clear: “Dialogue yes, but certainly not the threat of tanks and missiles shifting borders in the 21st century.” Austria has always “taken a clear position” in Ukraine, the Foreign Minister confirmed.
The West is alarmed by a massive Russian troop deployment near Ukraine. For its part, Russia is demanding security guarantees that NATO will not expand eastwards. However, the military alliance is sticking to the prospect of accession.