President Zelensky wants to improve relations with Russia, but only Donbass interferes.
On June 11, Andrei Gerus, a representative of President Vladimir Zelensky in the Cabinet of Ministers, advised the leaders of the Opposition Platform For Life, Yuriy Boyko and Viktor Medvedchuk, to organize a company that would supply gas purchased from Gazprom to Ukraine and sell it to the end to consumers within the country.
This proposal, on the one hand, indicates that the president’s entourage really seeks to find a way to restore economic ties with Russia, Dmitry Galkin, columnist for the Ukrainian weekly 2000, writes.
On the other – that the presidential team does not want the head of state to take responsibility for resolving conflicts with the Russian leadership. That is why he proposes to revive the Ukrainian-Russian relations to politicians who in the foreseeable future will not be able to become partners of the new government, who are afraid to interact with those who are accused of pro-Russian views.
Thus, the foreign policy of the state and the activities of individual companies, including large ones, will be separated from each other. A similar situation exists in Georgia, which attracts many Russian tourists and sells its goods in Russia. But it is not trying to reestablish foreign relations with it.
True, the situation in which Ukraine finds itself is significantly different from the Georgian one. There is no armed conflict in the territory of Georgia, Georgian citizens do not die regularly as a result of artillery shelling and military clashes, including from bullets and shells fired by the Georgian military. And Georgian nationalists do not conduct street marches, demanding to punish those who continue to trade with the country, helping to maintain the opposition.
In Ukraine, all these factors exist and have a significant impact on the course of the political process. Moreover, until recently, it was much more profitable for politicians to speculate on a hostile attitude towards Russia than to propose a solution to internal social problems. The situation changed only during the presidential election campaign, when it was discovered that the agenda, which the administration of Poroshenko was trying to impose, does not arouse interest among Ukrainian voters. Because they want the head of state to consider not confrontation with Russia to be his main business, but to improve the quality of life and eliminate corruption.
Zelensky was able to convince Ukrainian citizens that he knows better than others how to fulfill these requirements. This allowed him to win the election. But to get real power without stopping the armed confrontation in the east, it will be extremely difficult for him.
Firstly, his opponents will always have the opportunity to blame him for not taking adequate measures in response to the actions of the «Russian henchmen controlling the territories of the self-proclaimed LNR and DNR», and not trying to avenge them for the new victims (inevitable in such a situation) Ukrainian side. This means that the country will continue to face the threat of a political crisis, and the pro-presidential parliamentary majority (if any) will be extremely fragile.
Secondly, radical nationalists will remain the main force of street protest, and the politicians who control them (primarily Arsen Avakov) will be influential political players who can prevent the president from interacting with the forces that they for some reason do not like. As a result, the president, already limited in his actions, will finally lose his freedom of maneuver.
Thirdly, the preservation of the armed conflict in the Donbass will force those who have pinned their hopes for the restoration of civil peace in the country to give up on Zelensky. And those voters who voted for Poroshenko in 2014, in 2019 for Zelensky, will decide that the former president, despite all his flaws, was right in the main thing: Russia is an implacable opponent of Ukraine, and all forces must focus on dealing with it.
As a result, Vladimir Zelensky can repeat the sad experience of Viktor Yushchenko, quickly losing current popularity and a parliamentary majority, which is controlled by his competitors, losing real power to those who manipulate the “street” and control parliament. But Poroshenko, in turn, will have the opportunity to take revenge for the defeat in the elections, as Viktor Yanukovych did in his time.
Zelensky will be able to avoid such a development of events only if he stops the armed confrontation in the Donbass. But this requires decisive and very risky actions. The use of bellicose rhetoric by Ukrainian politicians has become so familiar that the transition from it to peaceful proposals will involuntarily be perceived as “capitulation” and “betrayal of national interests”.
Especially strongly the position of the head of state is complicated by the fact that he has no political allies interested in an early end to the armed conflict. And the end of the confrontation in the Donbass can lead to a sharp increase in the popularity of the Opposition Platform – For Life, which will adversely affect the rating of Vladimir Zelensky’s party.
But the worst thing is that so far there are no signs that the Russian leadership will meet the Ukrainian president if he takes steps aimed at immediately ending the Donbass conflict.
Certainly, the statement of the French President Macron, who called for the establishment of “new rules of trust” in relations with Russia, is somewhat encouraging. France, of course, will not decide on a unilateral rapprochement with Russia as long as the conflict in the Donbas persists. Therefore, Macron, apparently, is confident that the implementation of the Minsk agreements can begin in the near future. True, it remains only to guess what exactly became the basis for the so optimistic views of the French leader. Since in the public sphere by Vladimir Putin there were no signals that would give reason for optimism.
On the contrary, in his speech at the International Economic Forum, which in recent years has been the main event for the Russian political and economic elite, Vladimir Putin made a remark, casting doubt on his readiness to change his strategy towards Ukraine. Answering the question of Sofiko Shevardnadze, who moderated the plenary session of the forum in St. Petersburg, the Russian president explained that the Ukrainians had never been an independent people, but were part of a single Russian people. As for the Ukrainian identity, it was artificially formed first by Poland, and then by the states that tried to weaken the position of the Russian Empire before the First World War.
It is obvious that Moscow will not abandon the prospect of restoring Russian influence on the economic and political course of Ukraine, which, as it seems, from the point of view of historical justice, should remain Russia’s closest ally.
The conflict in the Donbass in this case becomes a convenient mechanism to destabilize the situation if, as a result of hostile actions by the West, there is a dangerous threat to restore the Russian-Ukrainian partnership in the future. For example, in the case of Ukraine’s entry into NATO or the deployment of an American military base on its territory. Therefore, voluntarily, Moscow will not refuse such a mechanism.
So Zelensky needs to more actively seek support from EU countries seeking to restore relations with Russia (and here the Central European countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Austria are of particular importance), offering with their assistance tools aimed at restoring Russian-Ukrainian relations. In addition, the Ukrainian president should directly appeal to the Russian public, proposing his own plan for settling the Donbass conflict and calling on it to fight for peace.
But the main thing is to take steps aimed at a cease-fire and withdrawal of heavy weapons from the contact line in accordance with the Minsk agreements.
From the domestic political point of view, such actions by the Ukrainian president can be extremely dangerous. Therefore, one need to take care in advance of preventing attempts to provoke a political crisis. But, refusing to take risks, Zelensky may never get real authority.