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Why Zelensky's voters don't let him make the "Donbas breakthrough"

Воскресенье, 1 Сентября 2019, 09:55
Implementation of any plan is impossible without the society consolidation around it. Zelensky's team does not have such a consolidation plan, so it refrains from promulgating any holistic project because of the public opinion split threat.
Photo: Presidential Office

Photo: Presidential Office

To date, the attempts of the new administration to form its own approach to the negotiations concerning termination of the armed conflict (i.e., the Russian aggression and occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk regions part) in the Donbas do not differ in terms of their originality from the approaches of their predecessors.

Space for maneuver

However, the President Volodymyr Zelensky's team needs any quick result, at least the one that could be presented to the voter as success. And considerable risk of hasty approval of simple decisions gladly pushed by the Russian side in time of certain relaxation of the Western countries is hidden in this need to "demonstrate something".

As to relaxation, in particular, attention can be drawn to the U.S. President Donald Trump's statements that either the West can reach an agreement with Putin or Zelensky is able to do so, as well as to the position of the French President Emmanuel Macron who also calls for a restart of talks with Russia and promises to bring it back to the G8 if it "stops its aggression in the Donbas". Which, let us remind, Moscow does not accept (and therefore, from the Russian Federation standpoint there is no subject for discussion). However, over the time that has passed, one can also see some tiny but new features in the Ukrainian-Russian dialogue, if it can be called so.

The direct telephone conversations between the Presidents Zelensky and Putin are the most obvious ones among them. Probably, based on them, the Russian dictator commented the prospects of the peace process as "cautious optimism". Unfortunately, such a formula cannot but be alarming, since optimism of the aggressor country ruler can be aroused only by such steps of Kyiv that are aimed at achieving Moscow goals in its policy of war against Ukraine and, indirectly, the West. Namely, in this case, pushing ORDLO (certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts) back into Ukraine as almost confederate units capable of vetoing the country's foreign policy in a way similar to that implemented in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This is a key task that Russia's actual control over ORDLO local authorities picks on, conversion of the occupation forces into the "people's police", amnesty for war criminals - and possibly, the nuances of the gas deal. At the same time, countdown is accelerating: soon the new parliament will either prolong pending "special status" legislation (which has been adopted under extraordinary circumstances, though due to obvious federalization and occupational implications it does not work in reality), or will not prolong it, but the issue of gas transit should be addressed till December. Seems, the latter issue is more of a concern to the Europeans - Denmark has appeared on the way of "Nord Stream-2", the project participants are blackmailed by the USA, and the tap from another pipe is held by the Turkish President Recep Erdogan. And this gas factor may still lead to pressure increase on Ukraine by the European partners in the context of the Donbas issue fix-up.

At the same time, while Russia is holding all the trump cards in the negotiation process, Moscow is forced to hurry - its share in the EU gas market has started to shrink again. In addition, after the Osaka summit, Putin must demonstrate Washington, Beijing, Paris and Berlin his ability to negotiate.

As such, space for maneuver really emerges. Attempts to separate forces in certain areas of the front that please the U.S. Special Representative in Ukraine Kurt Volker, as well as, probably, the ambassadors of a number of the European countries in Kyiv, cannot be left unseen, but nothing more. Much will obviously depend on the recruitment in the number of agencies directly involved in the defense and security infrastructure on the Ukrainian side as well as on the whole range of political rhetoric associated with it.

It is also important to understand that, leaving aside better propensity of Zelensky's team to negotiate with Moscow, the only way to get Kyiv to make concessions to Moscow is to close the financial aid tap. Both direct, through the IMF and the European institutional banks, and in the form of guarantees from the U.S. government. Something similar may theoretically happen to the U.S. military assistance - this is primarily about the U.S. budget money which is temporarily blocked but should be used for the American weapons purchase.

However, there are no such prospects as of today; for such situation worsening either grave mistakes of the Ukrainian leadership or a real conspiracy of the West and Russia behind Ukraine's back - and its contours seemed to have emerged during the G20 summit and Volodymyr Putin's August visit to France - are required.

But here, stubbornness and self-confidence of the Russian leadership becomes useful for Kyiv. After all, Trump would soften his stance on Moscow if Putin publicly acknowledged that he had intervened in the U.S. electoral processes - but, let's say, on the Democrats side (and would never do it again). Such a gift the 45th President of the United States would not have ignored.

But Russia is moving in a single direction - and it's about the most impudent behavior on the world stage; that is why such a path is closed for it. The fact that Moscow will continue to act in the same way is further confirmed by Putin's statements in Paris, in which he puts pressure on the Ukrainians and the Europeans with the "preconditions" to resume negotiations in the "Normandy format".

Opportunities for maneuver

But a non-trivial question is about the ways open for Ukraine in the current situation - in the realm of both the Minsk and Normandy, as well as the half-forgotten Geneva formats or bilateral U.S.-Russian dialogue at the level of the special representatives (or other level).

First, as in 2014-2016, the current ruling team renews its efforts to expand the circle of the intermediaries (though it should be clarified that Kyiv is looking not so much for the "intermediaries" as for the actors capable of putting enough pressure on Russia). Germany and France are too connected with the Russian Federation and are too tightly squeezed today by the Americans to really have leverage over Russia.

But from the point of view of diplomatic bureaucracy logic and peace processes scenarios (say, the Middle Eastern, Karabakh or Transnistrian), the Minsk show must go on since it serves as a precarious but permanent deterrent to the Russian aggression. It is easy to observe, however, that Zelensky's administration sees, above all, the United States, Canada, Turkey, and, despite all the differences, Israel in the role of the new players.

It is clear, however, that Moscow is not going to expand the current format - it is quite comfortable for it. The only thing that can force the Russians to consider such structures theoretically is another round of sanctions tightening and a long-term drop in oil prices.

However, secondly, one should not neglect the resignation of Serhiy Glazyev (with further transfer to a minor position) from the advisor to the President of the Russian Federation position. This is a symbolic step: the politician who directly has managed the "Russian spring" and has threatened to drop a nuclear bomb on Kyiv is sent to the periphery, though it is still enough to have the Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev for such kind of advice. Moreover, sooner or later, for purely formal reasons, the International Maritime Tribunal's decision will start to be implemented by certain countries and, on top of it, by unexpected ones (that is, China which pursues extremely heterogeneous and contradictory foreign policy towards Russia) who will simply use this decision as an opportunity to put in place their own interests in the Russian direction.

Thirdly, the USA and the entire infrastructure of the transnational players involved in the Euro-Atlantic project will retain control over the process without letting the Ukrainian president get too far from the main line. Unless, some tectonic shifts will happen (and, frankly speaking, the cycle of Moscow protests cannot be treated as ones in any way). This is on the one hand.

On the other hand, they will wait for some results during a certain period of time from Zelensky with his real or seeming "pragmatic optimism" after which, perhaps, the situation will go back to the pre-election status of "neither war nor peace" (and here the main task of Kyiv will be to prove that Russia itself to be blamed for such a state of affairs). At the same time, internal pressure on Zelensky's administration will also increase since a certain number of his constituents sincerely wants a return to the "pre-war state" at any cost.

At the same time, implementation of any plan is impossible without the society consolidation around it. Zelensky's team does not have such a consolidation plan, so it refrains from promulgating any holistic project because of the public opinion split threat. This fear may be a major reason for non-appearance of such a comprehensive plan.

Therefore, in the face of pressure from several directions, the Ukrainian authorities will have to resort to (or go back to) projects that have already been discussed and have a certain potential for implementation, but are related ideologically rather than structurally.
This is, first of all, the recently introduced and vividly discussed in Washington concept of Arsen Avakov's patchwork reintegration, i.e. advancement in the gray zone, facade examples of stability and security in the territories adjacent to the occupied ones, testing the Russian reaction to such advancement.

It is logical to implement it in a single package with modernization of the Ukrainian propaganda apparatus which would "project" the necessary messages for the occupied territories, as well as for Russia itself. The first segment is not without risks, and the second one, as experience shows, is not cheap and can not bring quick results either (given the distribution of the Russian passports, etc.).

However, the favorable points for the implementation of such a strategy are the following ones: the growth of Moscow's fatigue from the very existence of ORDLO and the growth of staffing from there of the poorly controlled far-right movements in Russia itself. It is also a risk of further destabilization by units loyal to the current occupation authorities which clearly follow the Surkov-Putin ideology stating that "Donbas is Ukraine". As far as propaganda work is concerned, a rational kernel in the debate on new approaches is in place, of course.


In view of all the above, the current strategy of the new administration in terms of peace process and the temporarily occupied territories seems haphazard and momentary, and such a behaviour is related to the motley structure of the electoral base of the sitting president Zelensky and his party. It is hard to predict how long such a period of uncertainty will last, though, given the external factors that may not be directly related to the military-political status quo in the east, namely the gas transit agreement and the share of infrastructure aid, one can determine next January as a "moment of truth". Then it will be clear whether the rhetoric of Kyiv returns to agreeing with the already five-year paradigm of "not-yet-frozen conflict", or turns the curved road of concessions, or (especially in connection with the start of the election campaign in the U.S.) the West changes its approach towards Russia in one or another way.

It should be remembered that the capabilities of Ukraine itself, which has been deprived of the nuclear weapons, as well as the standard option of joining the NATO, are extremely limited in this conflict. The rhetoric of the Ukrainian leaders is partly cyclical (since much of what is said today has been said again and again), but the logic of the Russian-Ukrainian war remains relentless as it is directly dependent on the existential dimension of political being and the basic instinct of national self-preservation.

And these benchmarks cannot be shifted either by rhetoric aimed at the majority or by the search for creative ideas as the world of interstate relations has been remaining conservative in its scenarios for centuries. The current Ukrainian situation is no exception.

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