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Is Zelenskyy’s peace with Russia worth the price of Ukraine’s capitulation?

Peace is obviously better than war but at what price and is it achievable?

December 4, 2019 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Denys Shmyhal, Head of the Ivano-Frankivsk regional administration. Photo: Presidential Administration of Ukraine (cc)

Presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskyy was no different to most other candidates during Ukraine’s presidential elections this year in promising peace but without explaining how it would be achieved. This was a product of naivety about Russian President Vladimir Putin, his inferiority complex towards Russia, lack of professional experience in international affairs and arrogance stemming from his show business status as a TV star.

In the last six months President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s peace plans for Russia’s war against Ukraine in the Donbas have changed on many occasions. Zelenskyy’s team routinely contradict each other or change their positions. Zelenskyy and his team have talked of “Plan A” and “Plan B” to achieve peace but these have changed on many occasions. Indeed, unveiling a “Plan B” so quickly shows a lack of faith in the success of “Plan A”. The extent to which this has become farcical can be seen in the emergence of what can only be termed a “Plan C”. 

What then are these three plans we have heard of to date?

Plan A is the most complicated to understand as it has been changing on a daily basis. Zelenskyy’s desperation to show he is better than former President Petro Poroshenko and his Little Russian inferiority complexes towards Russia and President Vladimir Putin provide explanations as to why there has been a rush.

Zelenskyy and his team were (and probably remain?) unaware of how Ukraine and Ukrainians have changed over the last five years in response to Russian military aggression and were therefore taken aback by the mass all-Ukrainian protests “No to Capitulation!” Zelenskyy’s team response was to follow in the footsteps of Viktor Yanukovych’s Homo Sovieticus political culture and claim the protestors were paid. Taken aback, Zelenskyy and his team began wavering and putting forward continuously changing and contradicting proposals.

We still do not know what “Plan A” entails. When will there be elections? When will parliament change the constitution to grant “special status”? When will Russia return the border to Ukrainian control?

Russia has always had two strategic objectives by supporting Ukraine undertaking political steps. The first objective is to return all of Ukraine to Russia’s sphere of influence and be inside the Russian World. The second objective is to ensure the permanency of the first objective by the DNR-LNR with its “special status” becoming a Russian Trojan Horse inside Ukraine which could veto Kyiv’s domestic and foreign policies.

Therefore, for Russia the key step is changing the constitution to grant “special status” and only when Ukraine has agreed to undertake this step will Putin agree to attend a Normandy summit that Zelenskyy so desperately seeks to have. But, Foreign Minister Vadym Prystayko said in mid-September and again in mid-November that Ukraine would not agree to change the constitution to grant “special status.”

There could be two reasons for this.

The first is the Zelenskyy team are afraid to change the constitution granting “special status” because of what happened in late August 2015 when there were riots outside parliament and 3 National Guards officers were killed by a grenade thrown by a nationalist veteran.

The second is that de-centralisation, one of the successful reforms undertaken under President Poroshenko, is more than sufficient in granting local autonomy and there is no need to therefore have “special status.” Russia of course disagrees.

Therefore, former President Kuchma and Ukraine’s representative in the Minsk process claiming that everything is now ready for a Normandy summit can be understood as fake news. Putin will not agree to attend the summit if Ukraine does not agree on granting “special status” to his 2 Russian proxy enclaves in the Donbas.

Plan B is the same as what former President Poroshenko and his Western backers proposed. Zelenskyy and his team would of course never admit that this was the case because their political immaturity makes them want to “prove” they are better than the “nationalist Poroshenko.”

Kuchma was the same in 1994 when he claimed he would be better at negotiating with Russia than the former “nationalist President” Leonid Kravchuk. Kuchma was wrong then as Zelenskyy will be wrong now.

Poroshenko proposed that the first steps to be undertaken should be in the field of security, such as de-militarisation and returning control of the border to Ukraine. Only after these steps are undertaken could there be political steps, such as changing the constitution to grant some form of “special status” to Russia’s 2 proxy regions and the holding of local elections. Russia has always demanded – and continues to demand – that political steps be undertaken before steps in the security field.

Poroshenko, like Zelenskyy and his team in their “Plan B”, support the introduction of UN peacekeepers on the Ukrainian-Russian border. Russia proposes they be installed on the conflict line. If UN peacekeepers were stationed on the border the artificial DNR and LNR would disintegrate without continued Russian support.

Poroshenko’s sequencing of security before political steps and UN peacekeepers on the border was supported by Western governments, the EU and NATO.

There are now rumours of what can only be called a “Plan C” which is to freeze the conflict along the lines of Northern Cyprus which has been occupied by Turkey since July 1974. “Plan C” is not an original proposal by Zelenskyy and his team as the American-Ukrainian academic Alexander Motyl proposed giving up the Donbas as early as August 2016 and February 2017.

There are eight obstacles to President Zelenskyy achieving peace with Russia.

The first is Russia’s view of Ukraine and Ukrainians as fake news which Zelenskyy does not seem to understand. Russia’s view of Ukrainians has degraded to the White Guard stance which is worse than in the Soviet era.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian identity – especially among Russian speakers – has dramatically changed under the impact of war, deaths, wounded, destruction and refugees.

The bottom line is anybody who believes Kyiv can negotiate anything with a foreign power that has no respect for Ukraine and Ukrainians is deluding themselves.

The second obstacle is Putin himself who Zelenskyy believes he can persuade if he is granted a one-on-one meeting with him. Putin is an unpleasant mix of former “Chekist” culture and Russian chauvinism towards Ukraine and Ukrainians. Compromise for Putin and his allies is a sign of defeat.

The third obstacle is Russia is refusing to negotiate over the Crimea which the Kremlin sees as a closed subject while at the same time blatantly lying about the Donbas when claiming, “we are not present.” This is an attempt to portray the Donbas war as a “civil war” and a demand that Kyiv should negotiate directly with DNR and LNR leaders, which a majority of Ukrainians oppose Kyiv undertakes.

85 per cent of Russians support the annexation of the Crimea. 56 per cent of Russians support Donbas separatism, whether it is becoming an independent state (29 per cent) or joining Russia (27 per cent). Ukrainian public opinion views the Crimea and Donbas as one problem of Russian military aggression and a high majority of them demand the return of the Crimea and an end to Russian military intervention in the Donbas.

The fourth obstacle is what to do with DNR and LNR leaders and civilian personnel? A majority of Ukrainians oppose an amnesty. Related to this is the view of the majority of people living in the DNR and LNR who want to become part of Russia, not return to Ukraine.

It is unlikely that a majority of the 1.7 million IDP’s will want to return to Ukraine because of the trauma they experienced, they have settled elsewhere, and their children are in new schools.  They also would not feel safe if they returned as DNR-LNR sympathisers would see them as pro-Ukrainian.

The fifth obstacle that Zelenskyy has not explained is how de-militarisation
would like?

After the 1997 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland there were tremendous difficulties in de-militarising 2500 terrorists who were only lightly armed. The 1 DNR and 2 LNR Corps are 14 times larger and include a lot of heavy weaponry. They are an army and not terrorists as in Northern Ireland. Plus, there are between 5-10,000 Russian military, FSB and GRU officers who during the de-militarisation would undoubtedly “become locals” and thereby increasing the total number of DNR-LNR security forces to over 40,000.

The sixth obstacle is what happens to the 35-40,000 DNR and LNR army? Ukraine has demanded they “return” to Russia but Russia counters by saying they should be transformed into the new police, internal security and border guards of the DNR and LNR after it receives “special status” in the Ukrainian constitution. No Ukrainian leader could countenance such a step which would legalise a Russian military Trojan Horse within Ukraine.

The seventh obstacle flows from the previous one as Russia has no intention of returning control over the border to Ukraine because if it did the DNR and LNR would quickly collapse. This is because this is a completely artificial war with no similarities to the ethnic conflicts that have plagued the Caucasus. This is plainly seen by Russian-speaking Ukrainians fighting on both sides of the war.

Moscow understands “returning the border” as one whereby the reformed DNR and LNR forces create border guards and they patrol the Russian-Ukrainian border together with Russian border troops. In other words, what exists today would be again legalised.

The final obstacle relates to the second and has been seen many times in Russian-Ukrainian relations since 1991. Moscow is never satisfied with Ukrainian steps that it has demanded Kyiv undertake. Not surprisingly, Russia is adding demands on a daily basis before agreeing to meet Zelensky in the Normandy Format.

Russia’s interest is in the whole of Ukraine returning to its sphere of influence and the Russian World. Putin’s objective is to have a Donbas Trojan Horse with “special status” in a weak federalised and Finlandized Ukraine.

Confusion, political immaturity and naivety are the only words to describe Zelenskyy’s “Plan A” which by the way does not even deserve to be called a “Plan.” Zelenskyy cannot claim ownership of “Plan B” as this is merely a continuation of Poroshenko’s policies. Meanwhile, Zelenskyy and his team should thank Professor Motyl for “Plan C”.

What is clear from the last half year is that Zelenskyy and his team have brought no new ideas to the negotiating table to achieve peace. Instead they have brought confusion and an arrogant desire to achieve – no matter what the cost – “peace” so as to prove they could do what Poroshenko could not. In so doing Zelenskyy has shown he has none of the professionalism exhibited by Poroshenko as Ukraine’s war time commander.

Taras Kuzio is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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