Interview with the former Foreign Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic

Interview with the former Foreign Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic

Enrique Refoyo: Dear Natalia Nikonorova, thank you very much for the opportunity of this interview so that our global audience can also get to know you. I would like to divide this interview into three parts – present, past and future – so that we can get a first-hand look at the situation in Donbass, as you have been the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Donetsk People’s Republic for six years (2016-2022).

1. The present.

How would you describe the current situation in Donbass, regarding the humanitarian and economic aspects on the one hand, and the Special Military Operation (SMO) on the other?

Natalia Nikonorova: Thank you for your question and for this opportunity to speak in front of a global audience, because it is very important to us that the foreign audience, especially the European and American one learn first-hand about the facts and events that have been happening in reality in Donbass during all this time. Regarding your question, from an economic and humanitarian point of view, let’s say that there are two different focuses that needs to be treated separately.

The humanitarian situation is quite difficult at the moment if we talk about the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), because the terrible shelling by the Ukrainian armed formations continues and is directed mainly against the civilian population and civilian infrastructure. Above all electrical installations and civil installations, such as schools and hospitals are targeted and suffer, which is why the situation is very difficult.

Besides, of course, the population is trying not to leave the house as much as possible in order to avoid unnecessary threats and risks to their lives and health. It is also important to mention here what is happening in regards to the water supply to the Republic. As you know, the Ukrainian side has completely closed the water system that supplies water to almost the entire territory of the DPR. Because of that, now the volume of water necessary for full water supply, let’s say in the region of one million cubic meters, has actually been reduced to a fifth, so the situation is very bad.

Water is supplied according to a schedule: once and during two or three hours every three days. It is a very difficult situation from a humanitarian point of view, and it is the civilian population that suffers above all. In addition, the question of heating is also related to this situation. As you know, it’s winter now. It’s quite cold. It is below 0 degrees and therefore heating is dependent on water supply, so now it is very difficult to provide heating to apartment buildings, which have always been heated by a central system. However, we understood that this is what Ukraine would do.

Even as the fighting escalated, we understood that the first step they would take would be to cut off the water supply, so of course we started preparing for this situation immediately, literally immediately back in the summer, and now it is more or less resolved: That is, heating continues to be provided to homes. Certainly not to the extent that we would like, but we still managed to resolve these issues. But the problem also arises when, for example, electrical substations are affected and heating depends, among other things, on the availability of electricity. And the Ukrainian side is trying to attack them, to destroy exactly these facilities.

And when repair crews go out to repair this or that installation, they are also under attack. I can give a recent example: On January 25 [2023] a substation in Gorlovka was bombed. 150,000 people lost power, actually the entire city. And on January 23 [2023], when the same situation occurred in the Donetsk city substation: a repair team came out and was targeted by the Ukrainian army. Three people were injured. But still, our municipal services, repair teams… are still working under these conditions, so they try to improve the situation and help people to continue to use all the services, but again, because of these factors, the situation is quite difficult.

In addition, due to the constant shelling, in order not to endanger the lives of our young residents and not expose them to threats, at this time almost all schools, except for secondary schools and institutions of higher learning, have moved to teaching from distance. I mean, all this naturally does not have a very positive effect, and as for the question about the SMO: Here I would put these two aspects together, because the more our armed forces advance, the more cities the Russian Armed Forces liberate, the easier the situation it becomes. We hope that in the near future the points that supply water to the Republic will also be liberated. But despite this, measures have been taken so that it remains possible to establish a water supply from the Don River, that is, a new water line is now being built at an accelerated pace.

Here it has already been announced that the opening of this conduit is scheduled for April 1, that is, of course we are looking forward to it. And the SMO is proceeding as planned: more and more settlements are being liberated, that is, if in percentages, before the start of the Special Military Operation we controlled 45-50% of the DPR area, now it is more than 65%. That means there are significant successes in the south of the Republic. As you know, Mariupol has been liberated.

There are many facilities being rebuilt there right now, and the city is being reconstructed very fast. Now there are also advances to the north, and in that sense recently the liberated city of Soledar and the village of Sol have been taken under control, and in fact the road to Ugledar is now under control. Our guys are very actively improving their positions in the Avdeevka direction, that is, in fact, there are offensive actions along the entire line of contact, even if they are not large, but in any case important settlements are being liberated for us. And as for the economy, of course the situation has changed a lot for the DPR.

Probably already at the time of recognition by Russia, because 24 subjects of the Russian Federation seized settlements of the republic under their patronage and each of these subjects helps each particular city, settlement or district. And at that moment the rebuilding process began. Now we see how the situation evolves. There are already investment projects; there are already investors for ten mines in the DPR. There are already plans to build a waste treatment plant, there are plans to rebuild a ship repair plant on the coast of the Azov Sea. There is good cooperation with Ural enterprises in the sectors of metallurgy, oil and gas refining… Chelyabinsk and Orenburg have already fully restored and will continue to overhaul locomotives, that is, rail transport. Chuvashia is working with our companies in the energy sector, so now in Donetsk, in the DPR, in economic terms, there is development, growth, at an unbridled and very active pace.

We can see how the Republic and its companies are recovering, literally before our eyes. We hope that this process will take on even greater proportions when the entire territory is liberated, because, of course, the current shelling is complicating the situation considerably. However, with control of the entire territory of the Republic, the situation will only improve.

Let’s go back to January and February 2022. How did you experience the first days between February 22 and 24, between the recognition of the Donetsk People’s Republics Donestk and Luhansk (DPR and PRL) and the start of the operation?

Emotionally very intense, I would say, because there are two aspects: on the one hand, of course, with joy, because the decision to recognize the DPR was made by the Russian Federation and for us it is of course a long-awaited moment. And of course very… I’ll say it directly – it’s happiness, this is what the population of the DPR has been waiting for so long, that is, everyone was very happy. But, on the other hand, the Ukrainian troops began the escalation on February 17 [2022], that is, before, and there were serious shelling and also many risks to the life and safety of the population of the Republic, so it was not even possible to celebrate neither properly. Despite all the threats, people came to the central square of Donetsk and there were even fireworks, but from the position of the authorities we tried to keep people away from the mass celebrations because it was really dangerous. Such were, in fact, those days.

On the one hand, there was the escalation by Ukraine, and on the other, the desire to rejoice, the desire to share these happy moments with all the inhabitants of the Republic, but we are confident that we will continue to do so when the entire territory is liberated.

Speaking of the West, what is your opinion of Western countries? What do you think of the American and European sanctions against Russia?

I think it was totally absurd for the leaders of the Western countries to suggest that these instruments would only affect Russia and have no impact on their own economy in the first place. Secondly, I will not touch on the legal aspect of these sanctions – they were not imposed in accordance with international law – but when it comes to the economy itself, we can see that the situation has consolidated and we can say that it has already splashed the waters in this story, because Russia is facing and successfully overcoming the consequences of these sanctions: its foreign debt is decreasing.

Everyone perfectly understands that Russian industry, production and the economy have coped with these instruments that were imposed on it and done so on purpose. We understand why. And as a result we see that sanctions actually have the opposite effect on the countries that imposed them. It’s always a double-edged sword, but Russia got through it, and as we can see, it’s getting harder and harder for European countries to deal with it.

And speaking frankly, I will tell you my point of view about this process: I believe that not everything is a consequence of the European countries because some processes have to be considered in their kinesis, that is, in which direction they are developing and this is a negative direction for the European countries. European citizens are not facing the entire picture yet, because many industries are cutting their production in Europe and this means a budget revenue shortfall. Consequently, such revenue shortfalls will affect the further development of the economy.

Well, therefore, this… I wish it sounded like some kind of threat or warning, but it’s a natural and logical process, it’s the way the economy works. Consequently, before imposing sanctions, European leaders should have thought about how these would affect their own countries. But unfortunately, the situation turned in favor of a single hegemon who wins in this situation: the United States of America. Unfortunately, European governments have made these decisions and now we see that these European countries are suffering for it.

So far, at least at this stage, only the United States has benefited from it.

And regarding Ukraine: what can you tell us? What is happening to that country?

Actually, for us everything is obvious and clear on what is happening to that country at the moment. We could not fully understand the situation that was taking place in 2014, and yet, we had some opinion or hope or belief that this situation could be resolved peacefully. And now, in principle, everything is absolutely clear. We understand that that country, if the rest of Ukraine can be called “country”, is on the way to self-destruction.

I made this observation because any state must have the appropriate attributes of statehood and in particular sovereignty, but we see that the current Ukrainian authorities have absolutely no sovereignty: they make decisions that exclusively come to them as instructions from the Western partners. So it’s hard to call it an independent state. But what is happening there is the total denial of human rights, it is the total denial of its own Constitution, it is the total violation of it, it is the absence of any social orientation when making any decision. In other words, I think that all these manifestations are obvious to attentive European viewers and analysts, even because it is very difficult to hide them.

Another issue is that, at the moment in favor of immediate political interests, these acts are somehow justified, many things are ignored, due attention is not paid to what is happening in Ukraine. If we look closer, we can get a lot of information including from refugees, who come from Ukraine to European countries. There are facts and it is necessary first of all to analyze them and pay attention to them. That is, we understand that at the moment there is absolutely no opposition in Ukraine, there is no freedom of speech, no one can calmly express an idea if it contradicts what the special services say, and by the way these same special services immediately come and arrest the citizens involved.

We perfectly see what is happening in the sphere of mobilization, we perfectly see what is happening in the foreign activity of, if you can call it that, the leadership of Ukraine. In other words, for the moment it is the path of complete degradation and self-destruction and so far we do not see any possibility that civil society can counter it, because the authorities, which exist now in Ukraine, most likely are aiming the complete destruction of the country.

2. The past

Referendums were held in Donetsk and Luhansk in May 2014, after which the DPR and PRL were formed. For the western public, can you explain why these referendums were held? What was the background of the situation?

Of course the background was tense, that’s for sure. But we should probably start a little earlier, from February 2014, when there was an unconstitutional coup in Kyiv. In fact, at that time, the Constitution of Ukraine ceased to be in force, that is, a usurpation of power took place. As we know, there were victims and people suffered, like the residents of the southeast of Ukraine, and I am not just talking about Donbass, but I am including Odessa and Kharkov. It was quite clear to us that in this situation those people who came to power in Kyiv would continue their unconstitutional criminal actions and I want to remind you that as soon as they came to power, the first bill that was considered and passed was the law for the repeal of the law on the basis of language policy, that is, the statute of the Russian language was repealed. Accordingly, all documents, all interaction with the authorities had to be carried out in the Ukrainian language, which for the south-east of Ukraine this is factually unacceptable because the whole world there communicates in Russian. And ethnically and historically, it’s a majority Russian population, so you’re actually depriving this part of the population of the country, at that time another country, they’re being deprived of their human rights.

And so, let me remind you, with the terrible situation in Kyiv and the mass of unresolved problems – what was the first law considered by the Ukrainian Parliament after the change of power. Since then, the inhabitants of Donetsk and Luhansk, Kharkov and Odessa, Zaporizhia and Kherson naturally began to demand that their local authorities pay attention to this issue.

I can tell you in more detail what happened in Donetsk. We turned to the local deputies of the Regional Council with the request that they defend our rights before the new authorities of Ukraine, before the new Parliament and that they protect us. We even prepared some petitions. At that time, nobody was calling for secession; nobody was calling for any military action. In general, the people of Donbass were scared and we asked the local authorities to protect us, but unfortunately, the reaction of the local deputies was the following: they simply fled Donetsk.

That is, the entire regional administration and the entire regional council simply left the territory of Donbass. We were left alone, and then events began to happen that frightened us even more: the events of May 2 in Odessa (as you know, what happened to the people in the House of Trade Unions), the events in Luhansk, the event in which Ukraine sent armed forces against unarmed civilians and on May 9 in Mariupol, people were forced to stop tanks with their bare hands. But at that time it was already clear that we would not get any peaceful recognition of our rights, no peaceful agreement, and no kind of common life with the country that sent its armed forces against us and was ready to kill us, so we held a referendum to know what the population of the Donetsk region thought at that time. Our opinions and positions were absolutely clear and there was no doubt. We had a very impressive turnout and percentage in favor of secession, they speak for themselves, so at that time the independent state – the DPR – was created. But our position was not the same from the beginning: we did not want to separate or have military confrontations on our territory; we only wanted to protect our rights. Alas, Kyiv did not listen to us.

The war in Donbass lasted 8 years with practically no territorial changes until February 2022. Regarding the Minsk agreements, in your opinion: Do you think that peace could have been possible within the framework of the Minsk agreements?

When the Minsk agreements [2014-2015] were signed, we believed it was possible. We really strove to resolve the conflict peacefully by diplomatic means and at first, after the signing, immediately after the signing, there was a sharp decrease in the number of shelling of our territory and, frankly, we even rejoiced at these agreements somewhere, because this brought some relief to the population, especially the population living in the front-line territories but, as it turned out later, first of all, it was not for long, that is, there was literally a lull in shelling for less than a month, and then the Ukrainian side started this practice again. The shelling continued with almost the same intensity, perhaps a little weaker, because the OSCE monitoring mission began to work and, at the time of the signing of the Minsk agreements, we believed that it was impossible.

Once again, we expected that, since the Minsk agreements were approved by a resolution of the UN Security Council, which is binding, that is, it is the only institution that issues binding resolutions, consequently, we thought and believed in the force of the International Law and we expected that these agreements should be fulfilled. Therefore, we applied all efforts for their implementation, that is, many steps were taken on our part: we proposed many initiatives, many projects on how each of the thirteen points can be implemented, but, unfortunately, the Ukrainian side was clear that he participated in these negotiations in bad faith, that is, the representatives of Ukraine did not try to implement them. On the contrary, let’s say, they offered some options that knowingly could not be organized from the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, or somehow distorted the meaning of what was signed. Well, now it is clear that they were simply wasting time, because after the revelations of famous politicians, both the former Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany [Merkel] and Mr. Hollande, it is clear that they initially signed these agreements to buy time and put as many weapons as possible in Ukraine, that is, strengthen it from that point of view. But once again, for our part, we believed that this was possible and we tried to implement these peace agreements with all our might.

Since 2014, the DPR has been facing a Ukrainian blockade and Western sanctions. What political and economic measures have been taken to deal with these sanctions?

First of all, as far as political measures are concerned, overcoming this economic blockade was part of the package of measures to implement the Minsk agreements. This was one of the clauses of those agreements: develop mechanisms and tools to lift the economic blockade. An independent working group was even created to develop these tools, but unfortunately, in this group, both the Ukrainians and the OSCE representatives worked rather punctually, without delving into the process and without resolving any of the main issues of the lifting of the economic blockade. That is, the work there was mainly about the possibility of paying pensions, about the possibility of formalizing such pensions for the population of the country of Ukraine, because… Let me remind you that the pension is paid from earned wages, which means that every person deserves this pension, which, in fact, Ukraine has simply appropriated. However, these are important issues, but not global, that is, not decisive for lifting the economic blockade.

As for economic measures, our companies, which remained to work on the territory of the DPR, found options and mechanisms for further work. At first, of course, they faced great difficulties, due to the impossibility of supplying raw materials to continue their work and the impossibility of entering foreign international markets, but nevertheless after some time the business always works and the entrepreneurs always they have the opportunity to find some alternative mechanisms. By the way, I can say that there were supplies of products, including to some European countries.

So little by little in terms of the level of interaction, I can’t say we’re back to the level before the conflict, but we’re still working and interacting. Of course, we changed our focus, mainly to other countries, that is, to those that did not impose sanctions, but we continued our work anyway. In the first place, of course, we helped employers to maintain jobs, that is, that was the main concern of the authorities of the Republic at that time: to continue paying salaries, to continue employing people, etc. That’s how things went. Unfortunately, from the Ukrainian side and from an organization like the OSCE, we did not see any effective measures to resolve this issue, so we had to deal with these issues and solve these problems on our own.

3. Future

From your current position as Senator of Russia, what are the initiatives or economic investments that are expected in Donbass to reactivate its economy? Maybe we will see the reopening of mines and steel industries, maybe investments in agriculture and livestock? What is currently the priority?

Of course, Donbass is primarily an industrial region, and of course industrial enterprises such as heavy industry, metallurgy, mechanical engineering will always be a priority for Donbass, especially since the DPR has significant potential in this field. We objectively understand that many plants will have to be restored. We understand that we will have to restore some chains for selling products, obtaining raw materials, etc., that is, production chains, but even so the potential is enormous.

I can say that in 2013, the Donetsk region ranked third in terms of development among all regions of Ukraine and in terms of attractiveness in terms of investment. Therefore, we are confident that after the liberation of the entire territory of the Republic we will increase all our capabilities, we will begin to restore the entire industry, because after all, we are still an industrial region. It will be a priority for us.

I am not saying that no attention is paid to agriculture and livestock. These will naturally develop as well. In addition, we, as a subject of the Russian Federation, will have to comply with the norms of Russian legislation, including the preservation of safety in the environmental sense. There are already some projects and developments in the organization of the Azov [sea] coast, that is, it will be something like an ecological park. In addition, the entire industry that will be created will comply with these norms and standards. And yet the priority, yes, really is given to this field. As I have already indicated to myself in sufficient detail, many processes are currently running, they are already underway, and we are sure that the pace will only increase.

On foreign policy and Russia today: Is Russia isolated and marginalized as claimed in the West? What future plans does Russia have to deal with multiple rounds of Western sanctions?

I can assure you with absolute certainty that this is a delusion of Western politicians. It may not even be a delusion, but a special position to deceive the population of their countries, because there is no isolation, nor can there be. Russia is a huge country with a well-positioned authority on the world stage and it is impossible to deny and somehow change it.

Consequently, the countries that imposed sanctions against Russia and are now trying to imagine that it is a complete isolation and blockade, they are, roughly speaking, pushing themselves towards this isolation and blockade, because by the number of these countries and by the number of population of these countries, frankly speaking, if we compare the number of population of the whole world, such attempts look absurd. Therefore, after Russia became convinced of the injustice of some partners, naturally and logically there was a step of reorientation of some connections, international relations, some economic relations as well, but it is impossible to speak of a blockade and a certain isolation. It is enough to open the news on international politics to verify that this is totally false.

And now the last question, a difficult one: When do you think will the Special Military Operation end? Is there any time or terrain limit for Russia?

Well, first of all, it’s very difficult to predict anything. I don’t think even military experts make clear predictions, and it would be too presumptuous of me to make any kind of timing forecast as to when the SMO will be finished. Once again, the political objectives are known, they have been publicly announced by the President of the Russian Federation, and as for the military aspects, I am not going to make any forecasts. The only emphasis that I would like to put is that at the moment the main task is to preserve and protect the life of the population of the new constituent entities of the Russian Federation.

That’s all. If you want to add something else, don’t hesitate to tell us. Thank you very much for the interview.

Thank you very much. Once again, I will just point out that every visit by a foreign journalist, public figure and politician is important because it shows a genuine interest in what was really happening in Donbass and what is happening in Russia, and we would like to have many more contacts of this kind. For our part, we are open and provide any information. It is in our interest that the truth prevails after all.

Enrique Refoyo
Political scientist, translator and humanitarian activist (Spain)

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December 2023