Zelenskyy's and Poroshenko's Russia Strategies: Novelty or Continuity?

It's been more than one year since V. Zelenskyy was elected president. During this period, the head of state has received mixed reviews, with some applauding him as 'president of peace' and others exposing him as traitor to the nation. Nonetheless, both share one thing: a longing for change, which would bring about success in Ukraine's foreign policy and triumph over Russia.
Silvester Nosenko
Expert of International Relations
Accordingly, this rises at least two questions: does Zelenskyy's strategy differ from that of Poroshenko and what to expect in our relations with Moscow in the future?

Answers to the first question are almost always emotional. Promises of peace, withdrawal of troops, Normandy format, fresh faces appointed - all of these steps by the president sent waves of hope and speculation. Optimists expected that significant strides were in store; pessimists anticipated treason.

In the upshot, both were left empty-handed. The disagreement with Russia predictably turned out too deep to find common ground. Neither did the hope materialise that the West would see Ukraine's commitment to peaceful negotiations and put pressure on Russia. We found ourselves in a well-known neither-war-nor-peace situation, thus giving rise to further speculations in the interest of certain political parties and precluding the resolution of the most urgent problems of our foreign policy. The popular catchphrase 'window of opportunity' was rendered meaningless.

In this regard, Zelenskyy's strategy does not in any way differ from that of Poroshenko. The current administration keeps making the very same mistakes of which two may be identified as principal.

Firstly, it's a flawed vision of the roles our country and Russia play in international politics. From 2014 to 2019, it's been a position of Ukrainian powers-that-be that Ukraine is protecting the entire civilised world from the Russian menace. The problem is that no European country is ready to endorse such a position in bilateral relations with Moscow, sever diplomatic relations, and impose tougher sanctions. And this has less to do with the dependence from Russian gas or failure to understand the Ukrainian position. In the West, Russia was and remains a mighty, though troublesome, international actor with capacity to have an impact on global stability.

Beyond eloquent thought on the Kremlin's 'strategic counteroffensive' against the U.S. and the EU lie purely pragmatic considerations of cooperation - but on Russia's conditions, whereby it is recognised as an equal partner. Specifically, it was most evident in recent attempts to forge ties between the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and the EU, and prior to that in the idea of 'common spaces', Partnership for Modernisation, Petersburg Dialogue, and Meseberg Initiative. The list largely remained relevant even after Russia's 2008 aggression against Georgia, and there are grounds to believe that this will remain true in the foreseeable future due to other factors. The rise of China will be challenging for the West in the global balance of power. With this in mind, maintaining dialogue with Russia, China's close partner, is an essential element of a complicated game, which will run for decades.

Most likely, those in the Kremlin are aware of this too. Activities of a more assertive China in Russia's historical spheres of influence - Central Asia and Eastern Europe - will impede Moscow's 'hybrid' tactics and prevent it from further rapprochement with Beijing. Therefore, Putin's regime is seeking dialogue with the West and resorts to aggressiveness and violation of international law to improve its bargaining power. Here one can also mention another mighty actor, India. For the latter, a diminished role and weakening of Russia will result in imbalance in the already difficult relations with China, thus posing a threat of a conflict with a likely involvement of other great powers.

Those who believe that the West can no longer think strategically, forget about all of these factors. Under such circumstances, the protection of Ukraine's interests to the detriment of long-term priorities becomes irrational. Consequently, V. Zelenskyy's statement that true Europe is possible only with Ukraine as its member is only another version of the same mistake.

Secondly, it's a failure to understand the phrase 'diplomatic conflict settlement'. In Ukraine, it acquires two extreme meanings: its either simplistic bromides about the absence of alternatives to the Minsk accords and reliance on the Normandy format or a belief that negotiating with Russia is a futile exercise, surrender of national interests, and that the key to peace is to be found in the Kremlin. Such opposing views lead only to the polarisation of society, which obscures the necessity of a strategy in our relations with Moscow. During P. Poroshenko's tenure, Russia was exposed as an aggressor more explicitly than now, but the scope for interpretations is still there.

We continue the talks with Russia without an understanding of their purpose, thus confining ourselves to technical issues of prisoner swaps, mine clearance, etc. Ukraine, as before, does not try to manage the negotiation process and leaves everything to chance. Behind this imitation of activity is the reality where the West and Russia are gradually learning to coexist in a conflict setting and play on each other's interests. Under such conditions, our greatest foe is predictability: talks about the value of the EU and NATO and the Russian scourge. The only thing we have been able to offer Europe is the return to the Cold War, which is clearly undesirable.

How will the situation evolve in the future?
The answer to this question is in Russia's perception of the negotiation process. For Putin, only the Minsk framework is important in terms of conflict settlement. Normandy meetings are needed solely for the purpose of guaranteeing the agreements reached at the international level. In such case, Russia will become one of the guarantors and achieve two goals at once: force Ukraine into compliance and start building a new security order in Europe together with France and Germany. Therefore, the Normandy framework is secondary for Putin, which is why he easily 'sold' us the December meeting in Paris. Moscow understood that Ukraine, at best, could only put forward a renewed settlement plan - but it failed to do so, limiting the process to technical issues of prisoner swaps, withdrawal of troops, and mine clearance. Consequently, we lost the much frequented 'window of opportunity'. The result is further shelling, which showed that attempts to leave it there and hope for Russia's weakening will come at a price.

Our perception of these frameworks is just the opposite - and this is the main problem. Refusing to propose its own settlement plans, Ukraine controls neither the negotiations, nor Russia's ability for further aggression. It means that the Kremlin will make Ukraine pay every time it tries to revitalise the Normandy framework in the form of new victims on the contact line, shelling, and ultimatums, thus stalling the negotiations. Under such conditions, among the three possible settlement scenarios - status quo, frozen conflict, and peace - the first one is the most likely with a potential for escalation in order to coerce Ukraine into Russia's terms and deprive us of any leverage.

And such leverage is still there. One of the possible variants may be abolishing the requirement of border control and a demand to introduce a temporary UN-led international administration in Donbas. It differs from peacekeeping forces by the fact that it contains not only a military but also a civilian element, the establishment of local authorities. This instrument can be used to turn Russia's demand about the reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories into its weakness. By having the international administration, Ukraine will significantly reduce Moscow's ability to freely use force in the east and will free up resources to partake in EU's military and civilian missions to bring our security interests closer together. In turn, later it could be traded for a transition of the UN administration into the EU's auspices. In this case, it is better to leave the question of Crimea out of the equation to avoid a package deal, where Ukraine recognises it as part of Russia. The sanctions for the illegal occupation of the peninsula will be preserved, as for the West it is a convenient tool of pressure on Moscow.

In so doing, Ukraine will be able to leave the 'grey zone' of European security and transform from a problem into a partner. If we do want to become an inalienable part of the 'true' Europe with the EU and NATO, we need our project of such Europe. It must proceed from a realistic vision of international politics, not from an imitation of movement towards peace without a vision of the future. Then our chances to prevail in this game will improve.

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