The coronavirus epidemic mixed all the cards in the already complicated relations between Russia and Ukraine - the borders are closed; negotiations are paused or they are conducted in an unusual format of video conferencing. It is already clear that the breakthrough in Donbas issue settlement, for which there were timid hopes in 2020, is canceled, and the further trajectory of the conflict and relations as a whole will depend primarily on the socio-economic state of the two countries emerging from the epidemic.
Donbas issue on pause
For the Ukrainian authorities, the outbreak of the epidemic actually prevented the brewing political crisis associated with the Donbas conflict settlement. The head of the President’s Office, Andriy Yermak, weakened by the corruption scandal with his brother, was hit by an agreement signed in Minsk with Russian counterpart Dmitry Kozak. An attempt to create an advisory council with the participation of representatives of “Luhansk/Donetsk People’s Republics” (LPR/DPR) threatened to turn into protests in Kyiv, but against the background of the outbreak of the disease and quarantine, Donbas agenda receded into the background.
The transfer of negotiations to the remote mode, without informal meetings and behind-the-scenes agreements, sharply reduced their effectiveness. The Russian side is unhappy that Yermak, being under pressure, began to justify himself and abandon the agreements reached, and requires more transparency in the work of the tripartite group.
The large exchange of prisoners planned for Easter actually had rather modest proportions and could hardly be called a breakthrough. Shelling in Donbas does not stop, and the parties actively include coronavirus on the agenda of the information war. It got to the point that Roskomnadzor for the first time blocked the Ukrainian government website for publishing concealment of Covid-19 cases in a part of Donbas that was not controlled by Kyiv.
In fact, the entire breakthrough outlined for 2020 in a peaceful settlement was disrupted. The holding of local elections announced by Ukraine in October throughout the country, including Donbas enclave, obviously will not take place (and the elections themselves can be postponed). The opposition blocked the possibility of concessions to Russia with its “red lines.” The Kremlin, in turn, notes the incompatibility of the Kyiv authorities and is in no hurry to soften its position.
The extension of quarantine postpones for an indefinite time a new meeting in the Normandy Four format, and the parties, in fact, have nothing to go to. Without the ability and the will to solve key political issues, it seems that until the end of 2020, Kyiv and Moscow will be limited to some point tasks – a new exchange limited to the withdrawal of troops and so on.
But the longer the epidemic and quarantine last, the stronger will be the blow to the economy – of both Russia and Ukraine. Against the background of economists' apocalyptic forecasts, previous foreign policy priorities might be revised.
Moscow and the oligarchs
Russia continues to make symbolic gestures against the part of Donbas, which is not controlled by Ukraine. After Russia restricted entry for foreigners, the residents of the "LPR" and "DPR" were made an exception for some time. The State Duma abolished the state duty when applying for a Russian passport with "simplified citizens" from Donbas. However, soon the epidemic suspended the very procedure for issuing passports.
However, the economic crisis and the recession in the energy market can make the "LPR" and "DPR" too expensive for the Kremlin. Not only the direct costs of their maintenance but also international sanctions, most of which were imposed due to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, can play a role here. Of course, in the eyes of the Kremlin, geopolitical prestige has always outweighed economic considerations, but if the scope of the recession reaches critical levels, then Russia's willingness to compromise will inevitably increase.
Some signals of greater openness on the Russian side have already appeared. Moscow lifted sanctions from partner oligarch Rinat Akhmetov Vadym Novinsky and another metallurgical magnate, Andriy Kyseliov.
It seems that the Kremlin is looking for new partners and new approaches to the Kyiv authorities.
Do not forget about Kolomoisky, whose relationship with Zelensky finally deteriorated. Because of problems with American justice, the oligarch is increasingly willing to try on the image of an anti-Western opposition. It is hard to imagine that the Kremlin can consider Kolomoisky as a partner, but it is quite another lever of pressure on the Ukrainian authorities.
Kyiv is hoping that the economic crisis would soften Russia's position. The head of the new Ministry for Reintegration, Aleksei Reznikov, said in an interview: "Russia is pouring large sums of money on maintaining the occupied territories, on paying salaries, ensuring the work of the state apparatus, on the army that is present there. Is that acceptable for their [Russian] citizens? Now we have this “pad piece” but what will happen next? Everything will change, and very quickly, and we may have a window of opportunity.”
Such hopes that some external factor unexpectedly changes the situation in their favor are typical of the improvisational tactics of Zelensky’s team. They readily believe in a miracle of salvation: the Lord blew, and they scattered. At the same time, the question remains, what is the safety margin of Ukraine itself and whether its economy, where the recession began even before the epidemic, can show the best results in such a survival race.
The combination of gloomy economic prospects with the specter of surrender in Donbas plays into the hands of the national-patriotic opposition. Former Ukrainian Foreign Minister under Poroshenko Pavlo Klimkin already warns that the pandemic is chaos and, conversely, is untying the Kremlin’s hands in relation to weakened neighbors.
The epidemic increases uncertainty and catastrophic moods in Ukrainian society (68% of Ukrainians believe that the situation in the country will worsen), which already affects Zelensky’s main asset – his popularity. The presidential rating fell from 74% in the fall of 2019 to 44% this April. The number of supporters of the party Poroshenko, on the contrary, is increasing. Her rating has almost doubled.
Waiting tactics, which the Kremlin can still afford, are an impermissible luxury for Zelensky. Losing support even in the ranks of his own party, the president is forced to maneuver and resort to situational alliances either with the national-patriotic camp (for example, when voting for a key reform of the land market) or with the pro-Russian opposition (with staff appointments of the prosecutor general and new ministers). He seeks to maintain the centrist core of his constituents, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a universal, satisfying option.
The personnel crisis is pushing Zelensky to make bizarre decisions. His idea of appointing Mikheil Saakashvili as deputy prime minister for reform has not been realized, but there is no doubt that the possibility of such an appointment has not added credibility to the Ukrainian president in the Kremlin.
In addition, instead of playing for a long time, Zelensky himself sets himself deliberately impracticable terms: to solve Donbas issue in a year, "on the eve of the elections" and so on. In his rhetoric, he does not take into account the real state of negotiations, nor the balance of power. He did not have a complete and consistent strategy during this time.
A year ago Zelensky won with the promise of peace, but now he has faced the threat of not fulfilling it. He overestimated the willingness of Ukrainian society to compromise: the passive majority, by whose votes Zelensky was elected, is waiting for immediate results, the active 25% are eager for his failure. The idea of peace at all costs is unpopular even in the pro-Russian Donbas, but Ukrainians do not want to continue the war.
High expectations turn into a wave of disappointment - a typical Ukrainian story. Zelensky has little choice: the adoption of Russian conditions will lead to a large-scale crisis that may cost him power, freezing the conflict will deprive Ukraine of the support of European allies. It remains only to maintain the status quo, hoping that in a changing world for Ukraine a window of opportunity will open.