Since taking office in spring 2019, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made ending the Russian-Ukrainian War his top priority. However, almost one-and-a-half years later, he has little to show for his efforts. A ceasefire introduced in late July has succeeded in reducing the death toll in eastern Ukraine, but the Russian occupation continues and genuine breakthroughs towards a lasting settlement remain as elusive as ever.
Zelenskyy’s commitment to peace was central to his success in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. Despite this focus, his administration has yet to demonstrate a clear strategy for ending the six-year conflict. Instead, Zelenskyy has adopted a scattergun approach that has included numerous front-line concessions to the Kremlin and a conscious effort to downplay bilateral tensions.
These attempts to win favor in Moscow have failed to alter Russia’s intransigent approach to the conflict. On the contrary, the Kremlin has responded by refusing to revise the Minsk Agreements, consolidating its hold over eastern Ukraine, and issuing Russian passports to local residents.
It is not hard to understand why peace has proven so elusive for Zelenskyy. In addition to the Kremlin’s own uncompromising position, he must reckon with considerable domestic influences such as Ukraine’s formidable civil society and the country’s sizeable veteran community. Zelensky also faces a complex Ukrainian political landscape and international pressures from Normandy Format partners France and Germany.
It is equally clear that Zelenskyy has only a limited grasp of the geopolitical objectives that are driving Russian aggression against Ukraine. The former showman appears to have entered office believing his considerable personal charisma could prove decisive during one-on-one interaction with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. As Razumkov Centre military analyst Mykolas Sunhurovsky recently explained to me, such wishful thinking fails to take into account Putin’s long-term goal of a weak Ukraine led by a pro-Russian satrap.
This combination of misplaced optimism and populist campaign trail commitments has shaped Zelenskyy’s somewhat haphazard approach to the peace process. It has also succeeded in creating confusion over the Ukrainian leader’s stance regarding the various “red lines” that lie at the heart of ongoing peace negotiations.
Nothing illustrates the ambiguity of Zelenskyy’s position better than the euphemistic and often contradictory language he and his colleagues use to describe the conflict. Zelenskyy himself is notoriously reluctant to speak in frank terms about a Russo-Ukrainian War, preferring instead to employ vague terms without naming Russia as the aggressor.
According to Zelenskyy’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak, this reluctance reflects a conscious decision by the Ukrainian president to avoid antagonizing the Kremlin. “The strategy is not to organize large military parades and not to go on TV to blame the Russians for all our misfortunes,” Yermak explained during early October comments at Chatham House think tank in London.
Other members of Zelenskyy’s inner circle have gone even further. Serhiy Sivokho, a comedy colleague from the Ukrainian leader’s showbiz days, was removed from his position as advisor to the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council in spring 2020 following a public outcry over comments labeling the Russo-Ukrainian War an “internal conflict.”
Similarly, former Ukrainian PM Vitold Fokin was recently dismissed from his role as the first deputy head of Ukraine’s delegation to peace talks with Russia in Minsk after he told parliamentarians in Kyiv that he saw no evidence of a Russo-Ukrainian War. These comments sparked considerable outrage within Ukrainian society, but in many ways, they are merely symptoms of the wider confusion created by Zelenskyy’s own mixed messages and disjointed efforts to end the war with Russia.
Zelenskyy’s lack of consistency has left Ukraine’s partners and the country’s adversaries in Moscow equally unsure of where his red lines actually lie. The Ukrainian leader’s decision to accept the so-called Steinmeier Formula governing the sequencing of the peace process is a prominent example of this trend.
In October 2019, Zelenskyy announced that he was committing Ukraine to the Steinmeier Formula, only to later reject core elements of the Formula by ruling out elections in occupied eastern Ukraine until Kyiv regains full security control over the region and border. This apparent attempt to please both Moscow and domestic Ukrainian audiences succeeded in leaving all parties frustrated.
Likewise, the spring 2020 proposal to establish an Advisory Council implied reversing years of Ukrainian refusals to recognize the Kremlin-controlled separatist republics in the east of the country. The proposed Advisory Council was to feature representatives from the separatist republics alongside Ukrainian government officials, with Russia accorded observer status. These plans proved hugely unpopular and were quietly shelved during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, the initiative once again raised doubts about the Ukrainian president’s red lines, while sowing uncertainty among the Ukrainian public and the country’s international partners.
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