Zelensky and the Donbas Conflict
Why Kyiv’s confrontation with Moscow in Eastern Ukraine will continue without an EU policy change.
July 6, 2019
In spring 2019, when it became clear that Ukraine’s leadership would soon fundamentally change, this gave reason for hope that the Donbas conflict might get closer to a solution.
And indeed, Ukraine has since gotten a new and demonstratively less nationalist President than Petro Poroshenko.
The latter, much like former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko had done ten years earlier, despite an auspicious beginning turned to the right by the end of his term in office.
It also became clear that Ukraine’s parliament and government would also change radically. As it looks now, Ukraine will soon reshape itself with a largely rejuvenated, less ardently anti-Moscow and more cosmopolitan political elite.
The deadlocked Donbas conflict
And yet, vis-à-vis Russia, on the Donbas conflict, there is little what Volodymyr Zelensky can do differently from Petro Poroshenko in terms of substance.
Regardless of the Kremlin’s wishes, Zelensky can neither give away Ukrainian territory nor sacrifice Ukrainian sovereignty in the Donbas and Crimea, as a means to achieve peace with Russia.
He can also not (and does not want to) withdraw Ukraine’s interest in NATO and EU membership.
The issue of decentralization raised in the February 2015 Minsk Agreement — as a sometimes presumed solution to the Donbas problem — is also a non-starter.
Since April 2014, Kyiv has been conducting a far-reaching all-Ukrainian decentralization campaign.
This initiative was undertaken independently from the conflict of the Donbas and is also unrelated to the negotiations with Moscow.
At the same time, the ongoing devolution of power from the center to municipalities, has not helped Poroshenko to solve the Donbas conflict. It also won’t help Zelensky in his attempts to do so.
In general, there is little that Zelensky can come up with to help solving the Donbas conflict. Instead, there was a hope that Putin would take advantage of the more Russia-friendly image of post-electoral Ukraine in order to justify, to his various domestic audiences, a less confrontational approach vis-à-vis Kyiv.
Such an expectation was built on the supposition that the EU’s sanctions may have done their job. The underlying assumption was that Moscow would be seeking a reset of Russian-Western relations via a solution to the Donbas conflict.
This move would come not out of sympathy for Ukrainian sovereignty or concern for overall European stability, but in Russia’s self-interest.
In that scenario, the Kremlin — who needs the EU as a foreign investor, modernization collaborator and trading partner for Russia — would become more accommodative.
A friendlier approach to Moscow?
With a Russian-speaking new President in Ukraine, it was assumed, this would be easier to do than with a loudly anti-Putinist Poroshenko still in office.
Poroshenko’s reputation among Russians was thoroughly damaged by relentless defamation in Kremlin-controlled mass media. Little wonder that the former Ukrainian President’s Russia rhetoric hardened ever more over the five years of his presidency.
Zelensky, in contrast, is a well-known and sympathetic entity not only in Ukraine, but also in Russia. After all, the former showman and television actor performed in numerous Russian popular television programs and cinema movies.
The “passportization” strategy
Alas, there is no substantive progress in sight so far. On the contrary, shortly after Zelensky won the presidential election with a spectacular margin, Moscow announced a significant easing of rules, for the Donbas’s Ukrainian population to obtain Russian citizenship.
This strategy has become known as “passportization.” It previously guided Moscow’s approach to territories of Georgia that had first been indirectly and later became directly controlled by Russia.
The Kremlin’s sharp and demonstrative policy change, during the election period, is not only an affront to Ukraine and its new president. It also undermines the logic of the agreed-upon plan of returning the currently occupied territories under Kyiv control, as outlined in the Minsk Agreements of 2014 and 2015.
A new situation in which a large part of the Ukrainian Donbas’s population will have become Russian citizens also needs to be seen in the context of Moscow’s immoderate public foreign policy doctrine. Various official Russian documents explicitly allow and even prescribe Moscow’s active “protection” of its citizens abroad.
Russia’s unapologetic approach to furthering the supposed interests of its foreign “compatriots” — which first came to attention in the West when they were originally developed for the Baltics — will also apply in full to the newly minted Russian citizens in Ukraine.
It would thus – even in the best-case scenario of a successful implementation of the Minsk Agreements – remain unclear whether the Kremlin will actually let the currently occupied East Ukrainian territories go if many of their inhabitants are Russian citizens.
That such a far-reaching modification of the status quo occurred when it was already clear that Poroshenko and his government would soon be gone does not bode well for the future of conflict-solution in Eastern Ukraine.
Passport politics backfire on Moscow
However, it is interesting to note that so far only about 8,000 Ukrainians have taken up Putin’s proposition.
This may reflect the fear that Donbas inhabitants would lose their Ukrainian passports, if the Ukrainian state gets to know that they have obtained Russian citizenship.
Ukrainian passports are far more valuable in terms of travel freedom. (Currently, Ukrainian legislation forbids double citizenship for holders of a passport of Ukraine.)
And as long as the EU does not provide visa-freedom in the Schengen zone for Russian citizens, as it has been doing for Ukrainians since 2017, many Donbas citizens may fear to lose more than they win by obtaining a Russian passport.
An unpopular policy at home
What ultimately seems to be preventing a more resolute destruction of the post-Cold War order by the Kremlin in Eastern Ukraine is not EU sanctions. Rather, it is the lukewarm reaction of ordinary Russians to Moscow’s Donbas adventure.
According to opinion polls, many Russians do not support annexing the Donbas, and even do not endorse giving out Russian Federation passports to supposedly pro-Russian Ukrainians.
The reason is that obtaining Russian citizenship leads to claims to receive social support from the Russian state budget — for instance, pensions. Many Russians fear that this will reduce their share of budgetary subsidies.
If the West really wanted to solve at least the Donbas conflict (not to mention the Crimea issue) — and not just freeze it in time — then the current sanctions regime would need to be intensified, perhaps significantly so.
While this will imply certain expenses for the sanctioning states, the eventual overall costs for Europe, if no such actions are undertaken, may be higher or even much higher.
Most Europeans currently perceive the Donbas conflict as an exclusively Ukrainian problem. Yet, its continuation and escalation could easily turn it into an all-European headache with potentially devastating consequences not only for Ukrainians, but many other Europeans too.
Why will Kyiv’s confrontation with Moscow in Eastern Ukraine continue without an EU policy change?
Ukraine will soon reshape itself with a largely rejuvenated, less ardently anti-Moscow and more cosmopolitan political elite.
It was hoped that Putin would take advantage of the more Russia-friendly image of post-electoral Ukraine to justify a less confrontational approach to Kyiv.
The underlying assumption was that Moscow would be seeking a reset of Russian-Western relations via a solution to the Donbas conflict.
What is preventing a more resolute destruction of the post-Cold War order by the Kremlin in Eastern Ukraine is not EU sanctions, but Russians’ lukewarm reaction to Moscow’s Donbas adventure.