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Protesters defy lockdown as coronavirus threatens Ukraine-Russia peace push

The spread of the coronavirus is affecting how Ukraine resolves the war still raging in its eastern fringes.
Image: Yaryna Chornoguz, 24, a military medic from the Hospitaliery battalion in Kyiv,  on a protest near the Presidential Office in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 19, 2020.
Yaryna Chornoguz, 24, a military medic from the Hospitaliery battalion in Kyiv, on a protest near the Presidential Office in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 19, 2020.Oksana Parafeniuk / for NBC News

KYIV, Ukraine — The streets of Kyiv are empty. Restaurants, bars and shops are closed. Only a few passersby can be spotted on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square in the Ukrainian capital, where thousands gathered during the EuroMaidan Revolution in 2014.

The massive protests led to the ouster of the pro–Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and fueled pro–Russian uprisings in the eastern Donbass region.

Now, like much of the rest of Europe, Ukraine is on lockdown, but the spread of the coronavirus comes at a critical time for the future of the country and how it might resolve the war still raging in its eastern fringes. Restrictions on movement not only could slow the peace process but also could hinder a protest movement that is passionately calling for Ukraine not to give two breakaway regions run by Russian rebels, Luhansk and Donetsk, any legitimacy.

Public protests and other gatherings are forbidden on Ukraine's streets, because of a virus that has already infected more than 460,000 people worldwide and killed more than 21,000.

Image: Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Emmanuel Macron, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel
From left, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a working session during a summit on the conflict in Ukraine in Paris in December 2019.Ian Langsdon / Reuters file

With 156 confirmed cases so far and five deaths in Ukraine, according to the country's Health Ministry, the government has closed public institutions and limited transportation within and outside of the country.

However, Yaryna Chornoguz, 24, a military medic who fought in the Donbass war, is not following the rules. She is one of many protesters demanding that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who took office last year, reverse a decision to include representatives from Luhansk and Donetsk on a new advisory council tasked with coming up with peace solutions in the Donbass.

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Like others, she fears that the new council will oblige Kyiv to lead negotiations directly with the separatists and Russia, which is widely seen as having a direct hand in the conflict and which protesters fear will step back from the talks, leaving the rebels in charge.

"When I found out about the new deal in Minsk that would legitimize Russian proxies and turn Russia from an aggressor into just an observer, I understood our novice president just spit upon six years of the Ukrainian diplomacy and years of our resistance to the Russian invasion," Chornoguz told NBC News. "He needs to back down and cancel the decision, or he should be impeached."

Chornoguz's boyfriend, Mykola Sorochuk, 22, was killed on Jan. 22 in the Donbass war. "It was Russian sniper who killed him," she said.

She took her sleeping bag and went to a protest at the building of the Presidential Office in central Kyiv on March 13, when the advisory council was announced in Minsk after talks among Ukraine, Russia and a group of other European nations, four days before the coronavirus lockdown.

Soon Chornoguz's friends, also war veterans, joined her protest. On March 17, in direct contravention of a ban on public gatherings, 500 more Ukrainians came to the Presidential Office to protest — but they left as fears over the coronavirus intensified.

"Many people called me to explain they didn't show up because of the coronavirus," said Pavlo Bilous, 50, a protest organizer. "Some were afraid to get infected. Others were afraid to infect people, because they felt sick."

He added: "We are not afraid to come back even despite the lockdown. We don't want to be healthy but wake up in Russia after the epidemic."

Now, in defiance of the lockdown, around a dozen people still keep watch during the night near the Presidential Office. There have been no arrests so far, but the Interior Ministry has warned that police and the National Guard will patrol the streets to arrest people who violate the lockdown rules.

The official name for their protest movement translates to "Spring on Granite 2020," and a Facebook page encourages others to join.

"I think a lot more people would have joined us," said Viktor Pylypenko, 33, a Donbass war veteran and protester. "However, the coronavirus is an important constraining factor."

Image: A Ukrainian soldier
A Ukrainian soldier of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade at the Yavoriv Combat Training Center in Yavoriv district in the Lviv region of Ukraine in November 2019.Oksana Parafeniuk / NBC News file

The new advisory council is proposing to give people who live in Luhansk and Donetsk the right to vote on the future of the territories, which have been torn apart by a war that had killed more than 13,000 people as of January, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

While Zelenskiy's office called the decision to form the council risky, its proponents defended it as a possible breakthrough that could break Russia's influence over the occupied territories. The agreement said the council should be created after Wednesday March 25, after consultations with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, France, and Germany.

But on Wednesday Dmytro Reznikov, Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister, said in an interview with the news website that there will be no agreement signed in Minsk this week on the new advisory council, due to Covid-19. Instead, the meeting will be held via Skype and the signing postponed.

Nevertheless, many in Ukraine still see the council as surrendering national interests to the Kremlin.

"The so–called coordination council is a direct step towards Russia," Pavlo Klimkin, a former Ukrainian foreign affairs minister, wrote on Twitter. "It is the acknowledgement of the occupation authorities of the Donbass. While Russia is going to be turned from the aggressor into a mediator, like Germany or France."

Despite the wave of criticism, Ukraine's government continues to defend the decision.

"During the March 11 meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk the sides agreed to create the council as a mechanism needed to bring full ceasefire and achieve the long–awaited peace with the representatives of the rebel–held regions of the Donbass," said Iuliia Mendel, a spokesperson for Zelenskiy.

Mendel added that there will be no Russian proxies in the new council.

Image: A Ukrainian armored personal carrier
An armored personal carrier on the front line with Russian-backed separatists near Krasnogorivka village in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on March 10, 2020.Anatolii Stepanov / AFP - Getty Images file

In a bid to stop the war, Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany signed the so–called Minsk Peace Agreements in Belarus in 2015. Ukraine agreed to lead the local election and decentralization reforms with the representatives of the occupied parts of the Donbass. However, it demanded that Russia cede control over parts of the border that Ukraine lost in 2014. The Kremlin has so far refused to do so.

Although international watchdogs and journalists have alleged that Russia is an active participant in the war in the Donbass, the Kremlin has denied sending soldiers to fight in Ukraine.

A Dutch–led team of international investigators confirmed the work of the open–source news outfit Bellingcat in 2018 when it said that a mobile Buk missile that brought down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over the contested part of Ukraine in 2014 had come from the Russian military.

The trial of four men, three Russians and a Ukrainian, charged with murder in the downing of the plane, which killed all 298 people on board, has been adjourned until June 8. Russia has consistently denied any involvement in the attack.