On October 1, 2019, President Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to meet Russia’s conditions for holding peace talks already this autumn. Moscow’s readiness to play, however, should not be mistaken for willingness to solve the conflict. So far, the Kremlin has not made any concessions in Eastern Ukraine that would be irreversible; consequently, it seems to only be testing Zelensky’s limits. Both Zelensky and the EU need to be cautious not to reward easy-to-reverse steps with major, strategic benefits. The report was published by the DGAP think tank.
The report analyzed Russia’s motives in the settlement process. First, Russia’s responses to Zelensky’s moves toward conflict settlement in Donbas are guided by its unchanged objectives for Ukraine – to destabilize the country and keep it as far away from the West as possible.
It is stated that by agreeing to exchange dozens of prisoners in September 2019 and then to the deal of October 1, Russia seemed to have shown its goodwill toward moving forward with the settlement process. Demonstrating readiness, however, should not necessarily be equated with political willingness to fully end the conflict. Likely motives for the Kremlin to (falsely) demonstrate its goodwill are multifold. First and foremost, as the domestic popularity of the “Putin System” shrinks, the perspective of such a major foreign policy success as ending the conflict in Ukraine on Russia’s terms could well provide an impetus for improving public support.
Second, another likely motive for the Kremlin’s show of goodwill is to test how far Zelensky is ready – and able – to go in terms of making concessions.
Third, as most Western sanctions are contingent on the fulfillment of the Minsk agreements, Moscow may hope that, by demonstrating its willingness to move forward with a settlement, it makes the lifting of these sanctions more likely, which would positively affect the Russian economy. In addition, Russia hopes to motivate the West to put pressure on Ukraine and make Kyiv agree to even more concessions.
The authors concluded that at this point, Moscow’s consent to hold elections in the future is rather a political show intended to demonstrate that achieving a settlement does not depend on the Kremlin, not a real move toward a solution.
Russia preserves its leverage regardless of talks, while Zelensky’s options in Donbas remain limited, the think tank states.
Russia still maintains its narrative of non-involvement, which gives the Kremlin ample freedom to be ambiguous and to maneuver.
Politically, Russia’s demand for Zolote and Petrivske puts Zelensky between a rock and a hard place. If he also disengages in these strategically important areas, he risks losing both territory and a key piece of infrastructure that has given Ukraine important leverage, leading to domestic doubts about his competence as the commander-in-chief of its armed forces. But if he refuses to fulfill Russia’s demand, he makes it possible for Moscow to blame Ukraine for the repeated stalling of the Normandy talks. From a military perspective, disengagement in Zolote and Petrivske would cause Ukraine to give up territories in those regions that it had regained since 2016.
In addition, even in the case of complete disengagement, Russian-separatist forces would move only a few kilometers back. Despite taking into account the massive amount of heavy military equipment, including hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces operating in the separatist territories, it would neither require much military effort nor time for Russia to re-enter the disengagement zones abandoned by Ukrainian forces.
“Zelensky’s strong legitimacy is driven by citizens’ demand for visible changes, and it pushes him to seek fast solutions…but without having a thought-out strategy behind it. If negotiations go wrong, freezing the conflict might well be Zelensky’s only alternative – one that will define the rest of his presidency,” the think tank notes.
The deal Zelensky made on October 1 has mobilized various groups in Ukrainian society, including concerned citizens, non-governmental organizations, veterans associations, and political opposition forces, who are against Zelensky’s agreement to sign the “Steinmeier formula” in order for a summit to take place.
Furthermore, Ukraine is losing international support at a critical time when it could be making the most difference to the outcome of potential peace talks. The EU’s cohesive support for sanctions against Russia is gradually weakening, and fatigue over Ukraine, as well as the armed conflict in Donbas, is more vividly present in European capitals each day. In addition, the release of the transcript of US President Donald Trump’s phone call with Zelenskiy on July 25, 2019, has not been to Ukraine’s advantage.
The settlement process and the EU
“Amidst increasing expectations for conflict settlement both in Ukraine and internationally, the current situation within the country – and particularly for President Zelensky – is, however, increasingly tense and unpredictable. Domestically, he is under pressure from the protests, internationally he is pressed to move forward with the settlement process. Meanwhile, Europeans need to acknowledge that – despite all rhetoric to the contrary – Russia’s stance toward the armed conflict in Donbas has not changed,” the report stated.