Op-Ed: “The repercussions of Zelensky’s deadline for Donbas”

Leonid Litra, Senior Research Fellow, New Europe Center, Ukraine

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has pledged to achieve peace in Donbas based on the Minsk Agree­ments and Normandy Format by the end of 2020. Zelensky’s rush to deliver results in the settlement process derives from his electoral promise to achieve peace in the East of Ukraine. However, the “Donba­sization” of his policy (settlement first) and the self-imposed deadline to achieve peace by the end of the year is leading to unintended conse­quences. What origi­nally appeared to be Zelensky’s strength during the electoral campaign, is now turning out to be his biggest vulner­a­bility during his presi­dency, as Russia skill­fully seeks to benefit from Zelensky’s own promise to deliver results.

Ukraine’s conces­sions are falling short of reciprocity

Taking stock of the first year of Zelensky’s presi­dency, one can note that he has shown a genuine will to move forward with the conflict settlement process. Unlike his prede­cessor, he did not hesitate to be the first to make painful conces­sions in this process. President Zelensky accepted the “Stein­meier Formula” and managed to complete the disen­gagement of troops from several sections of the admin­is­trative line between Ukraine and the so-called “People’s Republics.” These conces­sions have been heavily criti­cized in Ukraine and have sparked protests there, while no substantial conces­sions have been made from the Russian side. Furthermore, despite the president’s pledge to move forward with the conflict settlement, he is unable to do so due to a lack of reciprocity from the Russian side.

The risks of a deadline-based settlement

Any conces­sions from this point onwards, that are not matched by the Russian side, could further harm the standing of Zelensky, whose popularity is already fading. Additional contested steps could lead to a greater polar­ization and internal conflict within Ukrainian society. The Kremlin has been testing the limits of Zelensky’s presi­dency by pushing for unpopular decisions and has managed to achieve consid­erable conces­sions. Zelensky was sharply criti­cized by members of his own party for taking into consid­er­ation the recent “Minsk”-based initiative for the creation of a “consul­tative council” between Ukraine and the so-called People’s Republics. The coming together of the MPs from his own party with the declared pro-European opposition showed President Zelensky that he has limited room for making more commit­ments in managing the conflict settlement and that the self-imposed deadline, which is causing him to rush forward, could cost him his political career.

In its quest for achieving peace by the end of the year, the Ukrainian government was even ready to conduct elections in the occupied regions in the fall of 2020. Consid­ering that there is no stable ceasefire, the demil­i­ta­rization of the region is not progressing, and in light of the given admin­is­trative obstacles, the results would be highly contested both among Ukraine’s wider population and its political class. This shows that any fast-track settlement process which lacks public and political support and severely harms Ukrainian interests could lead to more internal conflicts and to an unsus­tainable conflict settlement.

Role of Germany in the current settlement process

Germany has supported the settlement process since the Minsk Agree­ments both directly and also indirectly due to its weight within the EU. The skeptical German position towards the proposal for a “consul­tative council” combined with the opposition in the parliament and from the Ukrainian population forced Zelensky to step back from it. He may now realize that the council could have led to an incre­mental process of legal­izing the direct negoti­a­tions between Ukraine and the separatists and thus shift the respon­si­bility for the conflict from the Kremlin to its local proxies in Donbas.

Russia is pursuing a long-term strategy and can afford to wait until future presi­dents of Ukraine try to deliver on promises to bring peace to Donbas and thus step by step further erode formerly strong Ukrainian positions. Germany should therefore advise President Zelensky that he should not push ahead with his pledge to meet the settlement schedule at any cost, as this could lead to negative reper­cus­sions for a sustainable settlement process.

The opinions expressed in this publi­cation are those of the author(s) and do not neces­sarily reflect the opinions or views of IEP.