Two months after Volodymyr Zelensky was elected as president of Ukraine, a change in Kyiv’s policy toward Donbas is evident. Even though the new president has struggled to take over the state bureaucracy, his policy towards east Ukraine is shaping up.
The Donbas strategy of his predecessor Petro Poroshenko rested on preventing Moscow from conquering more territory and mobilising international support for Ukraine, emphasising Russian aggression. Poroshenko’s staggering loss at the presidential elections, as well as Russia’s return to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, were signs of the obvious limits of this policy, especially as Ukraine has failed to live up to – much exaggerated – expectations when it comes to domestic reform.
Zelensky continues to rely on Western diplomacy to mobilise support. He necessarily borrows from Poroshenko’s talking points. But in comparison to Poroshenko, Zelensky is focusing on steps Kyiv is capable of taking without (appearing to) make concessions to Russia, which would cost him political capital at home. He adopted the OSCE Slovak Chairmanship’s efforts on military disengagement, rebuilding the bridge at Stanytsya Luhanska, as well as the EU’s investment in the Sea of Azov following the Kerch Straight incident last year.
Due to the heavy casualties in the Donbas conflict – over 13,000 dead and counting – reintegration will be a lengthy process under any conditions. Conflict settlement negotiations have been seriously hampered by mutual mistrust on all sides, especially in Kyiv and Moscow.
Therefore, president Zelensky’s immediate objective is not reintegrating Donbas, but to freeze the conflict and put people first. This would allow shifting attention and resources where they are needed the most. Such an approach would reduce the costs of the military operation, place Ukraine into a different (more positive) light among investors and boost trust-building and reconciliation at the societal level.
The new policy’s key focus is humanitarian, and includes steps such as ensuring access to water, focusing on wages and pensions, repairing key infrastructure and connecting the region with the rest of Ukraine. It is also informational, about winning hearts and minds, but falls short of reintegrating of the territory not controlled by the government (NGCA). By investing more seriously into improving infrastructure in Eastern Ukraine overall as well as improving connectivity of the government-controlled Donbas with the rest of the country, Zelensky is trying to rebalance the previous government’s policies favoring Western and Central Ukraine.
In addition, the Zelensky team is showing signs of compromise when it comes to the language issue. The president speaks Ukrainian but switches frequently into Russian. His head of administration even proposed giving the Russian language the status of a regional, second language in the Donbas, in contradiction to the new language law adopted just after the presidential elections.
No breakthrough is on the horizon though. Even though 51 per cent of Ukrainians would support autonomy for Donbas, the majority of Ukrainians oppose the rapid reintegration of the region for a number of reasons, with enormous economic and political costs being the most prominent. This may be the reason why Zelensky has started to emphasise the price tag – estimated at over 10 billion euros – as well as connecting the reintegration of Donbas with the return of Crimea.
As such, the Zelensky team is in search of a compromise that the majority could stand behind, while riding waves of resistance. The sense of status quo in Kyiv is still strong, supported by bureaucratic inertia. The self-titled “patriotic” political minority – (around 25 per cent, Poroshenko’s result in the second round of presidential elections) – is, with the help of the media, actively smearing every move of the new administration as a capitulation to Russia.
On the contrary, Russia has the luxury of time. The Kremlin’s international isolation is weakening – and it would be the same if Poroshenko had won the presidential election. As Ukrainians are fed up with the war, which many connect with the lack of investment and the weak economy, they also displayed a significant increase in public sympathy towards Russians. According to polls, 57 per cent of Ukrainians have a positive attitude towards Russia and 77 per cent to the Russian people, although only 13 per cent hold similar views about the Russian government.
Moscow hopes to see the openly pro-Russian Opposition Platform-For Life party, consolidating under Vladimir Putin only remaining ally Viktor Medvedchuk, as one of the winners of the forthcoming parliamentary elections. The party is polling at 13 per cent and is a serious competition for Zelensky in the country’s south-east. Its main sponsor, Viktor Medvedchuk recently caused uproar after purchasing another TV channel. Medvedchuk’s provocative tactics show that he can rely on Ukraine’s far right to make things worse for Zelensky, helping his own as well as Poroshenko’s patriotic party at the elections.
Moscow meanwhile keeps pressuring Kyiv – an uptick in fighting was evident during the Minsk talks as well as during Zelensky’s visit to Brussels, Paris and Berlin – and depriving Kyiv of time. The limited passportisation of Donbas as well as a fuel embargo is pushing Kyiv to make concessions about its policies toward the region.
Zelensky’s Servant of the People party will win the parliamentary elections this week, but will unlikely gain enough seats to form a majority on its own, due to the single mandate districts. A coalition government that would include patriotic forces may further complicate Zelensky’s search for compromise despite the majority of Ukrainians considering peace in Donbas as an absolute policy priority. Don’t expect a breakthrough in relations with Russia, but Ukraine’s new policy toward Donbas is emerging.