Hard to keep track of Donbass- and Crimea-related news because of the coronavirus psychosis. Yet the situation is evolving very fast. Seems like the framework of Ukraine-Russia relations has changed fundamentally within the scope of a few weeks:
- January 15, Russia: Vladimir Putin proposes a constitutional reform. It becomes clear he intends to stay in power beyond the end of his term in 2024.
- February 11, Ukraine: Andriy Bohdan is fired from his position as head of Zelenskyy’s presidential administration. He is replaced by Andriy Yermak, a very active negotiator in prisoners’ exchanges and peace negotiations. He is considered a more pragmatic and flexible negotiator with Russians than his predecessor and, God forgive, the Poroshenko administration.
- February 11, Russia: Dmitri Kozak is appointed as Russia’s chief negotiator in relations with Kyiv and Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. He is known as the architect of the “federalisation” plan that president Dodon tries to push for in Moldova-Transnistria negotiations. He replaces Surkov who had orchestrated the agressive stance of the puppet republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and insisted on their refusal to reintegrate into Ukraine.
- February 18, Russia: Vladislav Surkov is officially dismissed in Moscow.
- March 4, Ukraine: Verkhovna Rada accepts the resignation of Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk and his government. Denys Shmygal is elected PM two hours later. Security institutions are not affected by the reshuffle – Avakov is still with us, God be blessed! Yet the dismissal of experienced reformers in the course of an uphill battle to pass a historic land reform and to strike a new deal with the IMF raises doubts on international markets. Ukraine’s position on financial and currency markets is weakened.
- March 5, Ukraine: Verkhovna Rada dismisses General Prosecutor Ruslan Ryaboshapka, one more experienced reformer and true anti-corruption activist. Volodymyr Zelenskyy cannot command enough votes from his “Servant of the People” majority – he has to rely on votes from Viktor Medvechuk’s “Opposition Platform – For life” party. For many observers, it marks an irreversible shift in the president’s reform agenda. Journalist Vitaliy Portnikov alarmingly sees the building-up of a “Zelenskyy-Kolomoiskiy-Medvechuk” coalition in Parliament. Akhmetov’s influence is also a source of concern as new PM Denys Shmygal used to work at Akhmetov’s DTEK.
- March 5, Ukraine: New PM Denys Shmygal voices the opinion that Ukraine may resume water supplies to Russia-annexed Crimea. He has to nuance his speech the day after because of a strong media backlash. Yet his comments echo the opinion David Arakhamia – head of the “Servant of the People” party – had expressed before. It shows that the idea of resuming water supplies is up in the air.
- March 10, Russia: Vladimir Putin launches a communications’ blitz and he responds favourably to an “initiative” by a former astronaut turned MP to reset his presidential term count to zero. In the space of a few hours, Putin paves his way to stay in power until 2036. It does not bode well for any change in Russia’s imperial policy regarding “the near abroad”.
- March 11, Russia: The Federation Council adopts a draft law recognising citizens of Ukraine and Belarus as native Russian-speakers. It releases them from the need to be interviewed before obtaining citizenship. Can it
- March 11, Russia: Viktor Medvechuk meets with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin to discuss elections in Donbass, amnesty for Donetsk and Luhansk fighters and “special status” for the self-proclaimed republics.
- March 11, Belarus: Ukraine’s Andriy Yermak meets Russia’s Dmitri Kozak in Minsk during a meeting of the “Trilateral Contact Group”. They discuss an exchange of prisoners to come, further military disengagement in Donbass and the creation of a “consultative assembly” that would include representatives from Ukraine and self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Because of a dramatic lack of communication from Zelenskyy’s office (again!), it takes a few days for Ukrainian journalists and experts to understand what it may entail. In the mind of Roman Bezsmertniy, who represented Ukraine in Minsk in 2015-16 and 2019, it recognises Donetsk and Luhansk as legal entities and as parties to the conflict. Russia is made an observer and a guarantor of the peace process, as the same level as France, Germany and the OSCE. Hence it will be harder to denounce a “Russian aggression” and a “Russia-Ukraine war”, as well as to counter the Kremlin’s discourse on a “civil war”. It weakens the coherence of Ukraine’s international political position.
- March 12, Ukraine: “Kvartal 95” producer turned advisor to the Council of Security and Defense Serhiy Sivokho presents his initiative of a new “platform of reconciliation and unity”. His presentation is violently interrupted by “Azov” nationalists.
- March 13, Ukraine: Following a confusing press briefing by Andriy Yermak, hundreds of protesters gather in front of the office of the president in Kyiv to protest the recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk self-proclaimed republics as parties to the negotiations.
That is a lot of movement in the past few weeks. It shows Putin’s Russia is very consistent in its imperialist approach to Ukraine and in the way it would like to settle the conflict in Donbass (Crime-who? Donbass, only Donbass). The Kremlin is setting the tone of the negotiations and it is the only one to frame the alternatives that are available.
Changes in Kyiv and in Minsk seem to indicate that Zelenskyy may be more flexible. He may consider establishing direct talks with Donetsk and Luhansk self-proclaimed republics. He may be interested to do so as a preparation to an upcoming Normandy format” summit – apparently hoped to be held in late April. Does it mean he is ready to go all the way to implement the “Steinmeier formula” and to allow for some kind of a federalisation of Ukraine? Or is he simply buying time? Everyone knows that the 5+2 format of negotiations (Transnistria, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE, plus the US and the EU as external observers) to settle the Transnistrian conflict produced almost no result 30 years after the end of the war.
A lot depends on the way reforms are implemented in Kyiv and the continuous support of international partners and lenders. Denys Shmygal seems confident that the requirements for a new IMF deal will be fulfilled “within 2 to 3 weeks”. Yet the downgrading of Ukraine’s growth estimates and a weakening of the hryvnia are combined with structural worries from foreign investors. Less Western support automatically darkens Ukraine’s economic perspectives, which means less leverage for Kyiv to resist Russian pressures – or potential generous offers.
Zelenskyy and Yermak’s initiatives may also meet the resistance of Ukraine’s civil society and nationalist groups, let alone opposition parties. Past experiences have shown how street protests may disrupt the legislative process. The nationalists’ stance still has to be analysed cautiously: Interior minister Arsen Avakov’s influence over these groups is real. Several observers and experts consider many of the nationalists’ protests a simple way for Avakov to send some message to Zelenskyy – or to create some kind of diversion that exacerbates public opinion.
As a conclusion, it is also essential to come back to the first of any preconditions for building peace: no permanent ceasefire has taken hold in Donbass. More than 20 Ukrainian soldiers died in fights across the front line since 1st January 2020. Number of casualties of the Russia-backed separatists is undetermined.