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Eastern European insights: The repercussions of Zelensky’s deadline for Donbas

Optimarc / Shutterstock
Optimarc / Shutterstock

Leonid Litra, Senior Research Fellow at the New Europe Center (Ukraine) takes stock of the first year of Volodymyr Zelensky's presidency. Special focus is given to his political concessions and Germany's role in the conflict settlement with Russia in Eastern 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.

About the Berlin Policy Hub – Europeanization beyond process project: The Berlin Policy Hub, as part of the "Europeanisation beyond process" initiative, aims at networking research institutions and decision makers from different EU member states with think tanks from Eastern Partnership countries.

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