Peace candidate?

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.


17 thoughts on “Peace candidate?”

  1. The pessimistic view is, of course, that this is just another reconfiguration of oligarchical power, with Kolomoisky getting the upper hand in this round. Which is likely to turn out even worse than the status quo. Oh well.

    Here, for example:


  2. Who thought this clown was for peace?

    He is running for president as a front for Igor
    kolomoski .

    Ukraine keep having revolutions and elections that replace one group of oligarchs with another.

    Zelensky is about to become very rich and he will pander to the Nazi who control the streets and the Rada to do it.

    That interview he gave when he supports quota on Russian language ( he doesn’t seem to speak Ukrainian) and the ban on Russian artists in Ukraine – suggest that he is desperate to become a rich oligarch

    The people of Ukraine really need to stop voting and giving legitimacy to this corrupt system


  3. Tl;dr – Rujina as usual. Only when the territory of the former Ukraine transfroms into Malorossiyan governorate (under Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky – they owe him and his family for that brick-making factory!) things have a chance to improve slightly.


  4. That he is not a peace candidate is fairly obvious. However, he might just be a “freeze” candidate, reducing the intencity of the frontline clashes and upholding status quo – he won’t need a hot front as much as Poroshenko does to keep popularity up. Not ideal, but at least the Donbass people would get less shells falling on them daily.


    1. “he won’t need a hot front as much as Poroshenko does to keep popularity up”

      And what makes you so sure that Zelensky’s popularity (based, mostly, on populism and “protest vote”) won’t evaporate by, say, Verkhovna Rada’s elections later this year, thus requiring a stop-gap measure of commencing Short We-Don’t-Really-Hope-To-Win-Just-To-Cry-MOMMY!-To-The-West War?


      1. I’m not sure. Just being optimistic. Bad (though not worst) case scenario – a half year reprieve before returning things to exactly how they are now – is still better than nothing. Decent case scenario – the reprieve could last for most of his term.


      2. “I’m not sure. Just being optimistic. “

        Aule, remember how about 5 months ago you were voicing/reiterating “hopes” that Russia and Japan are “as close to signing the peace treaty as ever” and how I said that nothing will come out of it? I even offered a bet to you – long before that disastrous Foreign Ministers meeting in January. Do you remember what you said, Aule? “I won’t bet, cuz you are probably right” (c).

        Soooo… wanna bet this time? 😉 Or have you finally come to the conclusion, that rose-tinted glasses are a dubious choice for navigating the vagaries of life?


      3. This is the danger – as the Nazi thugs have not gone away- they have been mainstreamed into Ukrainian political hierarchy.

        This interview shows that he is happy to do just that, he is going to be servant of the oligarchs not the people.

        War will be the way in which he can keep them onside and make money


  5. I have heard rumors from Donbass connected people that the kremlins were planning to start giving out passports en masse by the summer for a few months now. Main risk with Ze – so far as the long-suffering Donbass is concerned – is that they might have given him a “reset”. Good to see him put the kibosh on that.


    1. were planning to start giving out passports en masse by the summer for a few months now.

      were planning … for a few month? Are planning giving out starting in Summer? Are already doing so “now”?

      Considering you posted this in the Ukraine election context. Excuse me, if these are daft questions:
      They are trapped in some state of siege? A passport would give them a way out? Like fleeing to Russia? Or elect the new ….? People in Donbass are excluded?

      Ok, I have no idea how the rumor could be connected to present context of Ukrainian elections. But strictly the combination seems to suggest some type of support by “Donbass connected” circles to “Ze”, the comedian who mainly speaks Russian.

      consider me perplexed.


    2. Ok, took a look at your last post somewhere else. Maybe I got it now. Statistics are helpful, no doubt. And elections may help create business opportunities in the larger field of bio-politics. Some call it Machiavellian politics, I guess. 😉


  6. “That he is not a peace candidate is fairly obvious.”

    It is fairly obvious.

    However, from Zelensky’s campaign point of view: considering that Poroshenko, having nothing to brag about in his first term, painted himself into the ultra-nationalist corner in the first round, I think any competent political consultant would advise Zelensky to move to the right (nationalist) direction, to maximize his share of the vote in the second round.

    Liked by 1 person

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