Almost every day, Ukraine’s new president appears with some new high-profile initiatives, statements and appointments. The situation around the uncontrolled part of Donbas is not an exception.
First, Andriy Bogdan, the head of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine, suggested that the Ukrainians decide by referendum how to solve situation in Donbas - to conduct peace negotiations with the Russian Federation on the fate of the region or not. The proposal was perceived ambiguously, so two days later, president’s press office stated that the proposed referendum was not a legislative one, but merely an “informational” one and was intended to get public opinion.
Negotiator comes back
A new surge on agreements was spotted June 3, during the joint briefing of president Zelensky and his former counterpart Leonid Kuchma, the latter was announced to return to the negotiating group in Minsk.
On October 2, 2018, Leonid Kuchma took part in the last meeting of the Minsk process and left, citing his state of health (after all, he turned 80 years old). However, many experts assumed that the ex-president simply did not see prospects in continuing his work and attempts to “reanimate the dead” Minsk process.
However, officials have denied an opinion on the “deadness” of this process, in general, they were right, simply because Ukraine did not better options. So the news about the return of Leonid Kuchma, who had left the negotiating process on the basis of age, caused some interest to this event. The negotiator, who had only become older, decided to return to the negotiations, which immediately raised the question – did he see a prospect in these peace deals?
Leonid Kuchma noted that he wanted to make his contribution for the benefit of Ukraine, hinting that Volodymyr Zelensky gave him some additional guarantees and powers for negotiations.
What can bring peace to Donbas?
In fact, there are two ways to resolve the current situation with the self-proclaimed republics of Donbas - military or diplomatic one.
As the summer of 2014 showed, a military attempt to resolve the conflict was opposed by intervention of Russia’s "polite men" or "northern wind." The diplomatic option can be implemented in two ways – direct negotiations between the Russian Federation, Luhansk/Donetsk People’s Republics (“LPR” and “DPR”), and Ukraine (or with the participation of some international mediators).
Actually, the Minsk negotiation process in the framework of the Normandy four format is a version of international mediators, which proved that if the parties do not want to fulfill the agreement, and the mediators don’t want or cannot pressure the parties, nothing will work.
In this case, direct negotiations between Ukraine and the Russian Federation, "LNR" and "DNR" seem more promising. However, there is the same dead end here that has been stopping Petro Poroshenko for 5 years - the price of peace for each of the parties and the president of Ukraine personally. Any contract is the result of a compromise between the parties; the only question is what kind of compromise the parties are ready to make.
Due to objective reasons, the position of the Russian Federation is stronger than Ukrainian one, and if President Zelensky wants to solve Donbas conflict in a peaceful way,misk he will most likely be in the role of an inferior party.
Any politician, and Volodymyr Zelensky is not an exception, is simply obliged to take public opinion into account, and actually “withdrawal” of the referendum and reducing its status to “informational” one should be analyzed.
How will Zelensky actually behave? There are not so many options, but they can radically change everything:
- Zelensky might used Leonid Kuchma to “probe” the proposals of the Russian Federation on unblocking the Minsk process;
- Ukraine’s new president might leave everything as it is, at least until the new parliament is formed, the chances of the pro-presidential Servant of the People party look much preferable to the competitors, and based on the election results, they might structure some new Minsk strategy.
- He might play all-in – that is try to negotiate peace with the Russian Federation today, or at least some progress in the negotiations by giving in to the self-proclaimed "people's republics."
In this case, the president’s stakes will be higher than ever – on the one hand, there is a risk of losing part of the electorate due to the betrayal of national interests (as it might be presented by opponents), while on the other, Servant of the People party might maximize voter enfranchisement of the Opposition Bloc electorate.
If an all-in bet is played, and Volodymyr Zelensky gets a parliament under his control, as it was planned back in May, it is unlikely that his position will be threatened by the next few years.