Ukraine’s president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy was swept to power on the basis of two promises: bring peace to the Donbas region in the east of the country and end corruption. Of the two promises by far the hardest is ending the undeclared war with Russia.
The Kremlin has been cool to the election of Zelenskiy, although it surely welcomes the change of president, as outgoing president Petro Poroshenko was an implacable enemy of Russia. There is clearly a window of opportunity to “reboot the peace process” as Zelenskiy promised on election night.
However, the Kremlin is taking a wait and see stance. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was “too soon” to congratulate the comic on his election and the Kremlin was waiting to see “concrete actions” before making up its mind on whether it wants to welcome the change of guard in Kyiv.
There are several issues the Kremlin wants resolved before it reaches out, according to a paper from the Centre of Current Policy (CCP), a Russian think tank.
The first is that the Kremlin wants to see a change in tone in Kyiv’s rhetoric. Poroshenko campaigned on the slogan “Army, Faith, Language” that played on people’s disquiet over the war in the east – the issue that most concerned votes going into the election according to a poll from the International Republican Institute (IRI).
Poroshenko painted a picture of Ukraine facing an existential threat from Russia, which was the “enemy”. A mild scandal broke out following the April 19 debate just before the elections when Zelenskiy referred to the fighters in Donbas as “rebels”, whereas Poroshenko calls them “terrorists”. (After the issue blew up on social media, Poroshenko went through all his social media accounts deleting his own use of the world “rebels” and replacing it with “terrorists”.)
The use of the word “rebel” will play well with the Kremlin, which will maintain its line that the conflict is an internal Ukrainian issue, which can only be solved through a dialogue between the “rebels” and Kyiv.
Secondly, the Kremlin will want to see a softening in Zelenskiy's language towards Russia and an end to the demonising language that Poroshenko used. This also extends to relaxing the laws restricting the use of the Russian language in Ukraine, such as Ukrainian language quotas imposed on TV programming.
But the biggest issue that concerns the Kremlin, according to CCP, is the Kremlin wants to see that Zelenskiy has the authority to carry out any deals he may agree. Zelenskiy won the presidential elections by a landslide, but he has no representation in Ukraine's parliament the Verkhovna Rada and so it will be very difficult for him to pass any legislation at all, at least until after October’s parliamentary election. But the new president does have control, by dint of his office, over the army, the law enforcement agencies and the defence and foreign ministries. However, quite apart from his own lack of experience, the lack of a base in the Rada means Zelenskiy could end up as a lame duck president.
The battle for control over the parliament has only just begun and in all probability it will take at least until October to decide as Ukrainian political parties scramble to assimilate the new political realities. But any policy that is seen as appeasing Russia will be an extremely hard sell – especially ahead of the October elections where Zelenskiy’s new Servant of the People party hopes to win a big share of the seats.
CCP goes on to outline four scenarios: Status Quo, Georgian, Escalation, and Compromise.
The last is the least likely. Given that Ukraine has lost some 13,000 killed in action in the war with Russia, no one is in a mood to make any compromises with Russia. Zelenskiy himself said during the campaign that his priorities are to bring home the POWs (including the sailors captured in last November’s naval clash in the Kerch Straits) and has demanded Russia pay compensation for its attack.
The most likely scenario, according to CCP, is Status Quo. Given Zelenskiy's political weakness he is unlikely to attempt to make much progress in ending the conflict. He has already called for a ceasefire in the combat zone, but there is not much more he can do until after the October elections pass.
“There are simply no objective conditions for reconciliation. Decisions taken by the parties since 2014 will continue to determine the bilateral agenda and dictate the behaviour of Moscow and Kyiv,” CCP said in its paper. “It is beneficial for both Russia and Ukraine to remain within their irreconcilable positions, which will work to preserve the current situation of controlled conflict.”
The Georgian scenario is possible where both sides make small, largely symbolic concessions. A similar story has played out between Russia and Georgia since they fought a short war in 2008. Today Russians are flocking to Tbilisi on holiday and the famous wine imports to Russia, along with other goods, have restarted after several years of sanctions.
“The problem with this scenario is that each of the parties is not ready to be satisfied with small steps and retains the desire to achieve victory in the confrontation as a zero-sum game,” says CCP.
The issue for the Kremlin is that it doesn't just want peace in Ukraine, it wants to force Ukraine to opt out of Nato and at least declare neutrality and respect Russia’s interests in the region. (The Kremlin is more ambivalent on Ukraine’s aspiration to join the EU, which it would accept provided a suitable trade deal was also struck with Russia to regulate EU imports entering Russia over the Ukrainian border.)
The prospects for Ukraine’s neutrality are very distant. Zelenskiy has been less outspoken on Poroshenko’s ambition to join Nato, but Ivan Aparshyn, a security and defence expert on Zelensky's team, said on April 23 that the new president backs continuing the cooperation with Nato.
"The security and defence forces will continue intensive cooperation with Nato and relevant EU organizations; in particular, as regards the achievement of interoperability in conducting possible joint operations. We will clearly support the implementation of the measures stipulated by the annual Nato-Ukraine national cooperation programme under the aegis of the Nato-Ukraine Commission," Aparshyn said as cited by Interfax Ukraine.
So far it appears that the Escalation scenario is not part of Zelenskiy's agenda. The bulk of Aparshyn's comments on security issues covered reorganisation of the defence ministry to improve transparency and end corruption. Importantly, Zelenskiy intends to reform Ukroboronprom, the state-owned arms manufacturer, a notorious opaque black hole where corruption and inefficiency is rampant. One of the reasons Poroshenko lost so badly in the elections is he was personally implicated in a defence sector scandal shortly before the vote. However, Escalation is still possible in a war by other means.
“Escalation, or further degradation of relations is a scenario that at any moment can follow from the simple fact of maintaining the status quo. The parties have not yet exhausted the entire arsenal of sanctions in relation to each other and can use various symbolic actions to demonstrate their own determination to “go to the end”,” CCP said.
Russia is in no rush to end the showdown. As long as the breakaway regions in Donbas and Luhansk exist Ukraine cannot join Nato, as the rules preclude a country in conflict from joining the organisation. So Russia can freeze the conflict until Ukraine is ready to negotiate. Moreover, with the October elections coming up it is possible, even likely, that the pro-Russia political parties –the Opposition Bloc of Yuriy Boyko (aka Boiko), who came fourth in the presidential race, in particular – will do well and while it is unlikely the pro-Russia bloc will win enough votes to form the government, a powerful pro-Russia opposition would at least open up new routes for shaping the debate for the Kremlin. So the Kremlin is happy to wait. Pulling in the opposite direction from the compromising faction led by Boyko is the informal coalition of the “party of war” that want to take a tough line on Russia and will probably be led by Poroshenko now.