Idée D&B: Zelenskyy’s big bluff?

What if the results of yesterday’s “Normandy format” are the best configuration Ukraine could ever get? Observers of the summit regret that they was no “breakthrough”. Zelenskyy himself confessed the results of the meeting are “not enough”. Yet it was unrealistic to expect a breakthrough within the framework of the 2015 Minsk peace process. This process can only work provided one of the parties agrees to cave, be it the Ukrainians to the holding of elections with no security conditions or the Russians to transferring the control of the border. The process that was engaged yesterday gives the impression that political progress is possible. In fact it is strictly unrealistic unless Kyiv or Moscow makes concessions. Yesterday’s press conference has shown both Zelenskyy and Putin both agree to stick to the Minsk process yet both have a fundamentally different vision of the situation.

One way to understand the negotiations would be to see Zelenskyy as an unexpected poker player: he bluffs he is ready for political reintegration yet he knows it would never happen. In parallel with initiating a process that has only small chances to produce any concrete outcome, Zelenskyy works on two of his main priorities: to end the fight in Donbass (ceasefire, planned military disengagement) and to improve the humanitarian conditions for local populations (exchange of prisoners, new crossing points). The Ukrainian president basically got in Paris most of what he came for. He even managed to put the stress on a few of the “red lines” he had drawn for himself (Crimea, unitary status of Ukraine), to appease nationalists back home and to render Poroshenko / Tyahnybok / Tymoshenko irrelevant. A career comedian just a year ago, Zelenskyy found a place at the table with three of the world’s most powerful leaders. The fact that he cannot help himself trying to crack jokes in such a solemn press conference is a bit disturbing to me, but well. In Ukraine he secured himself a few more months of popular support.

On a side note, I believe the extension of the OSCE observation mission for them to work around the clock is a major breakthrough in itself. When I come to think of all the resources and energy that has been invested in thousands of reports and hundreds of observers who have to check in at their hotels by nightfall “for security reasons”… Although the guys did a great job since 2014 in documenting various aspects of the conflict, they will be dispatched much more efficiently if they are able to report on night shelling.

Not striking a peace deal is bad for Donbass and it is bad for the 7 million people or so who live on both sides of the contact line. It will most certainly fuel the ratings of Medvechuk / Boyko & Co. who advocate for an immediate peace and full reconciliation with Russia. The political status quo will remain detrimental to the economic reconstruction and recovery of the region, in case it is confirmed within the next four months that political progress and holding of elections is impossible. At the same time, there will be no political process to destabilise Ukraine or to stir up tensions in Parliament. The government may initiate some sort of dialogue with self-proclaimed authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk on a sole oblast level or as a subgroup of the Minsk contact group. Humanitarian conditions would improve over time. Ukraine’s ability to invest resources into the Russia-controlled territories would be limited, hence the financial burden would be kept to a minimum. Meanwhile the rest of Ukraine may have some time to develop and to grow economically, although that is a different perspective that remains to be verified.

To paraphrase Konrad Adenauer, it is a scenario that favours “freedom over unity”. In the post-Soviet context, it is a Transnistria-like scenario. So it is far from ideal. It is also entirely dependent on the assumption that the Kremlin would sit back and watch, which is far from granted. Last but not least, it depends on the implementation of yesterday’s results: “all for all” exchange of prisoners, more military disengagements and a complete ceasefire by the years’ end.

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