On the air of a Savik Shuster show on 6 December, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy stated that elections in occupied Donbas can only be held after Ukraine gains control of its territory. Photo: president.gov.ua
President Zelenskyy’s statesmanship is about to be put on its biggest test so far. He will be making several extremely difficult decisions in the years to come. The first one, will be made on Monday 9 December, during a meeting of the Normandy Four in Paris.
The Normandy Four meeting scheduled for 9 December might very well be one of the most important events since the start of the Russian aggressions in 2014.
While trying to predict the outcome of the first Normandy Four meeting since 2016, it might be useful to ask: “Why does Ukraine negotiate at all?”
It’s not so much a question about the need for dialogue between the victim and aggressor, or the wish for a political solution to the Russian instigated war. Nor is it about what Ukraine needs. It is rather a question about managing expectations in the face of unabated Russian aggressions. It’s a question about Ukraine’s motives and motivation.
Why? Russia shows no signs of compromise. The strategic communication has remained unchanged for more than five years. Russia has on the contrary, raised the stakes during the last year. The militarization of Crimea and build-up of forces along the Ukrainian border continues unabated. The overall level of cease fire violations has remained since the war started. In accordance to OSCE SMM reporting, the yearly total for the last three years has been 320 130, 401 336 and 305 300 (2016-18) respectively. My forecast for 2019 is approximately 302 000 cease fire violations. The use of weapons that should have been withdrawn under the Minsk Protocol as well as the intensity of the individual engagements has however, both increased. The use of heavy weapons in 2019 has increased seven times compared to last year. Additionally, the conflict turned maritime in 2018. Russia started restricting the freedom of navigation in the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov, attacked 3 Ukrainian naval vessels and imprisoned their crew and is in the process of turning the Black Sea into a “Russian lake.” Russia’s respect for international laws and conventions is still absent within all spheres.
So, why negotiate? Have we experienced any strategic shifts in Ukraine, Russia or the international community that supports the idea of a political solution? If yes, beneficial to whom? Ukraine, Russia or the international community? If not, why seek negotiations with an aggressor who is not only are increasing the stakes, but is actively using both military and non-military means to destabilize Ukraine, while at the same time is lacking the moral character to admit responsibility?
I believe that the driving force behind President Zelenskyy’s peace initiative and willingness to compromise is derived from five different, but interlinked factors.
1) Ukrainian desire for peace. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians want an end to the five-year war (but not at any costs). After more than five years of Russian aggression, there is a sense of fatigue within the Ukrainian population. The ongoing hybrid war has denied Ukraine a much-needed economic recovery and development. Costs of living have increased. The conflict has both triggered and limited Ukraine’s ability to reform.
2) International pressure. Since it only covers the military element of the hybrid war, neither the Minsk Protocol nor Steinmeier’s formula were meant to solve the war. It introduced the hope for a political settlement and engaged the international community, first of all France and Germany. The nations have invested both political and diplomatic capital in the process. They are, consequently, actively working with both the aggressor and the victim in order to limit the consequences of the military actions and ultimately, facilitate peace. Unfortunately, their level of influence over the two nations is not balanced. Not even close.
President Macron recently stated that “Pushing Russia from Europe is a profound strategic error” and “it’s time for Europe to reach out to Russia.” The Ukrainian President has concluded that the French relationship with Russia is changing. He recently stated that
“I think some of these words are linked with the weakening of sanctions policy.  I understand, because economically, [the sanctions policy] doesn’t benefit France and Germany.”
During a meeting on the side-lines of the UN, President Trump told Zelenskyy that “I really hope you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem.” President Trump has not only talked Ukraine down, but also temporarily withheld military aid allegedly in order to ensure a quid pro quo.
Trump and Macron’s statements adds up to a strategic shift away from Ukraine and consequently, a mounting pressure on Ukraine. There is a risk that France and Germany will pressure Ukraine into compromising with Russia on at least some of Moscow’s terms in order for them to normalize their relations with Russia.
For Ukraine, a nation at war, it’s a brutal reminder of Henry Kissinger’s statement “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” In an interview on Saturday, President Zelenskyy said, “I don’t trust anyone at all.  Everybody just has their interests.”
3) Internal pressure (and expectations). The Ukrainian President hasn’t only committed himself for a quick political resolution of the conflict, but has changed the Ukrainian narrative on the ongoing war in the process. His wording is very different from his predecessor, seemingly trying to avoid terms and expressions that might be seen as inflammatory in Kremlin. Additionally, the government appears to be downplaying the significance of the conflict in order to promote foreign investments.
Zelenskyy has indicated willingness to compromise. Giving in to the Russian terms for a Normandy Four meeting, he agreed to both the Steinmeier Formula and disengagement of military forces in three spots along the frontline.
This, together with his less than clear messaging, triggered the biggest demonstration in Kyiv since Euromaidan. On Tuesday, the leaders of three of the opposition parties signed a joint statement calling on President Zelenskyy “not to make concessions they deem unacceptable during his upcoming meeting with his Russian counterpart in Paris.”
4) Political pragmatism. An ever-changing international environment has impact on both Ukraine’s ability to withstand the Russian aggressions as well as uphold its path towards EU and NATO.
The US impeachment process is but one of the factors affecting US-Ukraine bilateral relationship. What has been described as “Ukrainegate” has become a PR disaster for Ukraine. President Trump’s false charges about Ukraine’s role in the 2016 U.S. election and his statements about Ukraine’s corruption problems are being aired on prime-time global TV. In the 2016 election campaign Trump stated that Crimea was “probably Russian anyway, so why the fuss?” Trump is not only damaging Ukraine’s international image, but also signalling lack of support of its defence against the Russian aggressions.
As observed by Derek H. Burney, “The U.S. is Ukraine’s only strategic ally. The Europeans have little stomach for a direct conflict with Russia and President Vladimir Putin knows that. Even though Trump has delivered more lethal aid to Ukraine than his predecessor, the new Ukrainian government had good reason to be wary of Trump’s reliability.”
Even the strong bipartisan support Ukraine has enjoyed during the last five years might fade as a result of the ongoing “Ukrainegate” process.
Europe is busy managing a number of internal challenges, ranging from Brexit and Turkey, to international trade disputes, the growth of right-wing populist movements and the constant fighting between Brussels and eastern European countries admitted to EU in 2004 and 2007.
In the words of Carnegie author Dmitri Trenin, “Europe is divided not so much over what Russia is, as over how to deal with it. While a few countries in the east of the EU  view Russia as an existential threat, a number of others  are more focused on business opportunities in Russia.”
The North Stream 2 project, with potential grave security implications for Ukraine, is an example of the latter. The project has divided Europe. It both increases Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and strengthens the Russian federal budget, reinforcing its ability to modernize its armed forces. Simultaneously, it reduces the Ukrainian GDP by 2.5% (approximately $3 billion in annual revenues, equivalent to a Ukrainian defence budget (2019)) and reduces the European consequences of a potential military escalation in Ukraine, effectively increasing the Russian threat against Ukraine.
According to Danylo Lubkivskyi, Ukraine’s former deputy foreign minister, we
“can see the attitude of appeasement toward the aggressor, pointing to Russia’s return to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, ambiguous statements about Russia’s possible return to the G7, as well as remarks from the French President about Russia’s role in European politics.”
EU and NATO are not out of reach, but still at a great distance. France’s call for a reassessment of EU’s enlargement policy will make it tougher for the European Union to accept new members. The initiative will have consequences for Ukraine, pushing a potential accession several years into the future. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has recently reaffirmed that the decision on Ukraine’s right to join NATO has remained valid since the 2008 Bucharest Summit. However, he also stressed that there is no exact timetable in place.
Additionally, none of the above have any impact whatsoever on Ukraine’s geostrategic realities. Russia will always be its neighbour. Its aspiration for Great Power status, as well as its associated sphere of interest and military power will influence Ukraine indefinitely. Geopolitics and time play against Ukraine as its place in the geopolitical puzzle is shifting. In spite of opinion polls showing steadfast support for a future EU and NATO membership, the lukewarm support from Europe will at one stage take its toll.
5) Vested interests. The Ukrainian economy is dominated by state-owned enterprises and oligarchs. The value of the assets of the 100 richest Ukrainians is estimated to be equivalent to 23% of Ukraine’s GDP. In 2016, it was estimated that local private capital controlled up to 64% of Ukrainian firms.
As observed in the Washington Post, “Ukraine’s entire post-communist history, then, can pretty much be summed up as follows: Power has alternated between pro-Western and pro-Russian oligarchs who have focused on appropriating as much of the economy as possible for themselves, rather than growing it for everyone else, and not even the country’s periodic revolutions against too-Kremlin-friendly leaders has been able to change this.”
This has clearly been demonstrated in what has been described as an all-out war between the National Bank of Ukraine and Ihor Kolomoiskyi over PrivatBank, which depending on the outcome, will have grave consequences for the future of Ukraine. Being known for his strong patriotic stand in support of Ukrainian independence and sovereignty in 2014, the oligarch recently declared, “It is time for Ukraine to give up on the West and turn back toward Russia.” It is generally believed that Kolomoiskyi has great influence in the present government.
He is however, only one of many oligarchs manoeuvring for control over the Ukrainian parliament. Some of these are openly pro-Russian and seeks a restoration of relationships with Russia.
Why negotiate with Russia? Because circumstances dictate it. The strategic environment and Ukraine’s place within it, is changing. Ironically, this year’s elections in Ukraine might have been an instrumental to the shifts. Ukraine’s situation has not been strengthened by the many challenges facing USA and Europe, nor the diplomatic initiatives of President Trump or President Macron. Ukraine has unwittingly, reinforced the strategic shift due to both changes to its diplomatic efforts, its strategic narrative and unresolved internal issues. The latter includes the unanswered question about the oligarchs influence in Ukrainian politics.
1. The compromise. A compromise involving Russia will be limited in scope, only involving concessions beneficial to its end strategy. This could include yet another cease fire agreement, withdrawal of forces along the whole (or bigger parts of the) frontline and POW exchange.
This would be seen as a victory for international diplomacy as it supports the notion that a political solution is within reach, allowing a realignment between Europe and Russia.
It might be conceived as a political victory for Zelensky as well. He will be able to argue that it is yet one more step closer to resolving the conflict. Additionally, a positive outcome might help attract international investments.
It would however, be a victory for Russia too. It would be seen to be supporting a political solution, while being able to uphold the military situation in or around Ukraine. Since a further withdrawal of Ukrainian Armed Forces might lead to further polarization of Ukrainian politics and society, this compromise might even support the Hybrid War.
Recent statements from both Nikita Poturaev, an MP from the Servant of the People and lieutenant general Volodymyr Kravchenko, Commander of the Joint Forces Operation in the eastern Ukraine, might be seen as preparing the ground for a compromise limited in scope.
2. A Ukrainian concession. Ukrainian loss of sovereignty and federalization will trigger strong reactions from the civil society.
After having triggered the biggest demonstrations since Euromaidan, President Zelenskyy has unambiguously stated that Ukraine will not accept an election on the temporarily occupied territories before the security element of the Minsk Protocol has been resolved.
3. No results. If President Zelenskyy walks away from the table without any tangible results, he might challenge the international cohesion and lose (further) support from the west.
President Zelenskyy’s statesmanship is about to be put on its biggest test so far. He will be making several extremely difficult decisions in the years to come. The first one, will be made on Monday 9 December.
The Ukrainian President must not only manoeuvre within the red lines established by the Ukrainian society, but also the expectations of the aggressor and the international community. Simultaneously, his window of opportunity is diminishing. Even though he is still widely popular, his approval rating is slowly dwindling due to lack of results and progress. Even more importantly, the focus and priorities of the west seems to be shifting.
Several factors have forced him to negotiate with an aggressor who doesn’t admit responsibility and will relentlessly continue its hybrid war after the Normandy Four meeting. The big question is: How will President Zelenskyy weight the various factors and whose expectations are the most important for his choice of strategy. The expectations of the Ukrainian population, the oligarchs, the international community or Ukraine’s unfriendly neighbour?
My advice? Do not underestimate the force and determination within Ukraine itself. The population has decided Ukraine’s path. A lasting peace is not possible without taking due consideration to their demands and expectations. Never.
- Hybrid War in Ukraine – predictions for 2019 and beyond
- Leaked Kremlin emails show Minsk protocol designed as path to Ukraine’s capitulation – Euromaidan Press report
- What Surkov’s hacked emails tell about Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine