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Portnikov: Why Putin and Zelenskyy won’t get together

Remains of a road sign near Donetsk damaged with bullets and shrapnel during Putin's aggression in the Donbass. Photo: Volodymyr Kutsenko /
Remains of a road sign near Donetsk damaged with bullets and shrapnel during Putin’s aggression in the Donbass. Photo: Volodymyr Kutsenko /
Portnikov: Why Putin and Zelenskyy won’t get together
Translated by: A. N.

Despite the obvious and oft-expressed desire of the presidents of France and Ukraine, Emmanuel Macron and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to hold a meeting of leaders of the countries of the so-called “Normandy format” in September, the summit will not take place in the near future. Now they are calling a new date – and, therefore, a new time for the first personal meeting between Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin: October. Moreover, they do not hide it in Kyiv: the date of the meeting was postponed at the initiative of the Russian side. Putin is in no hurry.

In the same way, in fact, Putin did not hurry to hold a meeting in the Normandy format with Zelenskyy’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. As a result, the leaders did not meet for several years. Now Putin wants to get from the new Ukrainian president something that he could not get from the old. The Kremlin even voiced his terms publicly, so everyone can appreciate them.

One of the most important conditions for Moscow is to get a written obligation from Kyiv to comply with the so-called “Steinmeier formula” that governs the conduct of elections in the Russia-occupied territory of Donbas. So what’s wrong with that? After all, this is not Putin’s formula, but a proposal from the former German foreign minister, who is now the president of Germany. He certainly wanted the best for us!

And that’s where the Donbas settlement talks begin to suspiciously resemble the Middle East. In search of a compromise between Israel and the Arab countries, Europeans, as a rule, also strive for the best – but just as always, it turns out poorly. Moreover, each negotiating side interprets initiatives of the peacekeepers in its own way.

From the Russian point of view, they believe a special status – or, rather, an actual autonomy for the Donbas – should be recorded in the Ukrainian Constitution once and for all. And local elections should be held, although under Ukrainian law, but before the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region – the troop placements that Moscow never recognized in the first place. One can imagine how people living there – people who know exactly who and how controls their city – will vote in this scenario. Moreover, nobody would do anything about the strong influence of Moscow television coupled with local TV channels of the “people’s republics.” They all will “explain” to the people who they should vote for.

So, only a hopeless daydreamer will risk describing these elections as free. If local elections in Russia itself can be considered free only by a huge stretch, how will Moscow ensure freedom in a place where have been no law and order for five years?

Kyiv argues that special status for the occupied territory can only be granted on a temporary basis and for a transitional period, and local elections can only be held after the withdrawal of Russian troops. When the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Vadym Prystaiko stated on the sidelines of the Yalta Initiative conference that Kyiv would like to hold local elections in 2020 throughout the entire country, including the Donbas (or almost all, as it would exclude Crimea), such a flurry of criticism fell upon him, that he had to make public excuses: “Yes, the election, yes in 2020. But only if the Russian troops leave.”

As a result, the parties find themselves in almost the same positions that they have been in since 2014 – and no Steinmeier even with his good intentions will help them. Putin is well aware that if he agrees to holding elections after the withdrawal of Russian troops, he will lose the Donbas as a lever of influence on the rest of Ukraine. Because the main argument of the election campaign will not be Russian tanks, but the promises of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the money of Ukrainian oligarchs.

Zelenskyy also cannot help but understand that he does not need a Donbas that is opposed to him, upon which the pro-Russian parties will reign, and upon whose territory the Russian military presence will remain in one form or another. Moreover, if the Ukrainian president at least theoretically agrees with the Kremlin’s interpretation, this could cause such an outburst of indignation in Ukraine that the Donbas settlement risks becoming a secondary issue compared to the new problems.

Thus, the situation is at an impasse – as to whichever of the interpretations, Russian or Ukrainian, the Western participants of the Normandy format would incline to. Zelenskyy wants to end the war and return the Ukrainian territory, and Putin wants to maintain influence, which will decrease if the territory returns on Ukrainian conditions. These are diametrically opposite tasks. Zelenskyy and Putin simply cannot “converge in the middle,” as the Ukrainian president said – as they walk in opposite directions.

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Translated by: A. N.
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