The impending victory of Volodymyr Zelensky in the Ukrainian presidential election is splitting the commentariat into two. On the one hand, there are the optimists. Zelensky is less beholden to the nationalist vote than Ukraine’s current president, Petro Poroshenko, and has avoided divisive ethno-national language of the sort which has characterized Poroshenko’s campaign. According to the optimists, therefore, he will be much better placed to bring the conflict in Donbass to an end. Serhiy Kudelia, for instance, remarks that, Zelensky ‘offers a new type of political leadership that could improve prospects for reconciliation and the peaceful reintegration of the Donbas in the near to medium term.’
That scares the hell out of hardliners who believe that any peaceful settlement of the war in Donbass would inevitably involve some sort of surrender to Russia. Poroshenko’s supporters thus view Zelensky’s coming triumph far more pessimistically. Poroshenko has been resolute in his refusal to make the concessions necessary to bring peace to Donbass; he has approved numerous nationalist projects, such as laws restricting the use of the Russian language in the media and education, and the decommunization law; and he struck a blow at the Moscow Patriarchate by negotiating the formation of a new Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Zelensky, it is feared, will not be so reliable.
Both the optimists and the pessimists share the assumption that Zelensky may help bring peace to Ukraine by softening the tough line taken up to now by President Poroshenko; they just differ in their opinion as to whether that’s a good thing. The problem with this assumption is that it’s not exactly reliable.
A common solution to civil conflicts is some sort of power sharing system. This can involve mechanisms to guarantee that minorities are represented in central government structures (e.g. Lebanon and Northern Ireland) or some sort of federalization or confederalization of the country in question (e.g. Bosnia-Herzegovina). These mechanisms have definite disadvantages (for instance, they entrench the divisions which caused conflict in the political system), but in general people consider the price to be one worth paying for peace. In Ukraine’s case, it has long been obvious that the only way to reintegrate Donbass into Ukraine and thereby bring the war there to an end in a manner favourable to Ukraine is through constitutional reform which would give Donbass some sort of special status (i.e. autonomy) within Ukraine, combined with an amnesty for all involved. This is in effect what was promised in the Minsk II agreement of February 2015.
To date, Poroshenko’s government has not only failed to make concessions of this sort. but has also done its best to make it impossible for future governments to do so, by means for instance of a law redefining the conflict in Donbass as a war against the Russian Federation. It is precisely a fear that Zelensky will change direction that inspires the hardliners’ dislike of Ukraine’s likely future president.
These fears, however, are unjustified. As the UNIAN information agency announced today:
Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky has said Donbas does not need to be granted any special status. … Zelensky also said that, if elected president, he is not going to sign the law on amnesty for the militants of the so-called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics’.
Since these are two absolutely necessary conditions for any peaceful settlement of the war in Donbass, this pretty well nixes the idea that Zelensky is the ‘peace candidate’. Further evidence of Zelensky’s future policies towards Donbass can be seen also in a statement of the first ten steps he plans to take upon taking power. Number one is ‘invite the United Kingdom and the United States to join the Normandy format’ – in other words to join the process which is meant to negotiate how the Minsk agreements will be put into practice.
The Normandy format, like the Minsk agreements, are pretty much dead. But bringing the UK and the USA into the peace process is about the last thing you’d suggest if you were truly interested in bringing them back to life. Not only are those countries the two states in NATO (perhaps barring Canada) which are the most resolutely hostile to Russia, but they have also shown not the slightest interest in persuading Ukraine to make the concessions required to fulfil its obligations in the Minsk agreements. On the contrary, the Americans have very much pushed Ukraine in the other direction. Take, for instance, the American response to Vladimir Putin’s proposal for a peacekeeping force in Donbass. Whereas Putin proposed a force which would be deployed along the front line and physically separate the two warring parties, the Americans, through their representative Kurt Volker, have suggested creating a force which would occupy all of rebel-controlled Donbass, take over the rebel republic’s borders with Russia, and disarm rebel formations, all before any political reforms (such as granting of autonomy) are enacted. This plan turns the order of events laid out in the Minsk agreement on its head, and in effect amounts to an abandonment of the agreement and to the rebels’ total abject surrender. For that very reason, it has no hopes of succeeding.
Ukrainian politicians do not yet seem to have grasped the need to compromise, and the Americans in particular have encouraged this blindness. Bringing them into the peace process only makes sense if you have no intention of making concessions yourself and see the solution as lying entirely in pushing things in a more hardline direction through increased pressure on the Russian Federation. The fact that Zelensky has proposed this tells us a lot therefore about his attitude towards Minsk and the peace process more generally – namely, that at this point in time, he’s very much not somebody who’s prepared to do what needs to be done to obtain peace on terms favourable to Ukraine (i.e. see Donbass restored to Ukrainian control).
Instead, based on his current statements, we are more likely to see a continued insistence on the absolute capitulation of the rebel forces and the Russian Federation. The result will be that the conflict in Donbass will continue to dribble along at its current low level for the indefinite future. Of course, the things politicians do once elected often differs from what they promise during elections. And much may change during Zelensky’s presidency which may push him in a different direction. For now, though, the idea that his election will do much to accelerate the arrival of peace in Ukraine seems a little far-fetched.