Ukraine Passes Bill to Get Occupied Regions Back from Russia

Protesters with a Ukrainian national flag burn tires while clashing with police during a rally outside the Supreme Rada in Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko)

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s parliament on Thursday passed a bill to reintegrate the country’s eastern territories that are currently controlled by Russia-backed separatists, even supporting taking them back by military force if necessary.

The bill describes the areas in Ukraine’s the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as “temporarily occupied” by “aggressor country” Russia. President Petro Poroshenko welcomed the new bill, saying it would help restore control of the east by “political and diplomatic means.”

Russian lawmakers warned, however, that the deal effectively kills the Minsk peace agreement that aimed to end the conflict.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine erupted weeks after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and has killed more than 10,000 people since April 2014. The 2015 Minsk peace deal helped reduce the scope of hostilities, but clashes have continued and attempts at a political settlement have stalled.

The bill, passed after raucous debate, contains no reference to the 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany that obliged Ukraine to pass legislation offering a broad autonomy to the separatist regions and a sweeping amnesty to the rebels. Most Ukrainian political parties rejected that idea.

“We can’t make diplomatic and political agreements that are prone to change part of Ukraine’s legislation,” Ivan Vinnyk, a member of Poroshenko’s faction in parliament, said while explaining why the Minsk deal wasn’t mentioned.

Konstantin Kosachev, the head of foreign affairs committee in the Russian parliament’s upper house, said the new bill effectively spikes the Minsk peace pact, the implementation of which the U.S. and the European Union have said was a condition for lifting sanctions against Russia.

“Kiev has gone from sabotaging the Minsk agreements to burying them,” he said.

The bill backs a ban on trade and a transport blockade of the east that Ukraine introduced last year. Of all the documents issued by separatist authorities, Ukraine would only recognize birth and death certificates.

Alexander Zakharchenko, the chief rebel leader in the Donetsk region, criticized the new bill as a flagrant violation of the Minsk agreement signed by Ukraine and the rebels, saying it would encourage hawkish elements in Ukraine and fuel hostilities.

Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta research center, an independent Kiev-based think-tank, said the main purpose of the bill is to defend Ukraine’s interests in international courts.

Alexei Pushkov, a senior member of the upper house of Russian parliament, noted Ukraine’s reluctance to sever diplomatic relations with Russia despite calling it an aggressor.

“It’s a paradox to have diplomatic ties with aggressor,” he said.

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