Volodymyr Zelenskyi initially expected that he would be able to rapidly bring an end to a conflict in Donbas. However, he disregarded that he has either to accept Russia’s terms of peaceful settlement or to maintain a low-intensity conflict, just like Petro Poroshenko. The strengths of this policy include focus on the release of prisoners and the establishment of lasting ceasefire, flexible position on the Minsk agreements and launch of efforts aimed at elaborating the policy of transitional justice. Instead, the weaknesses of the policy on peaceful settlement are excessive acceleration of peace process, disregard of the Crimean issue, poor communication with domestic players and shortage of professional personnel involved in decision-making.
In 2019, the most visible revitalization of peace process over conflict settlement in Donbas has been witnessed over the past four years. A half year of Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s presidency and 100 days of the new government give grounds to draw conclusions from the policy of conflict settlement pursued by the current authorities.
Having portrayed himself as president of peace, Zelenskyi initially expected that he would be able to rapidly bring an end to a simmering conflict in Donbas. However, he disregarded that he has only two doable options: either to accept Russia’s terms of peaceful settlement which de facto leads to restriction of Ukraine’s sovereignty or to maintain a low-intensity conflict, repeating a practice of Petro Poroshenko.
- Focus on the release of prisoners and the establishment of lasting ceasefire. Having directed main efforts to these goals, Zelenskyi demonstrated to international partners that he seeks to step up peace process in order to rescue Ukrainian citizens who suffer from shelling on the contact line and are in captivity. Consequently, Ukraine secured itself against possible accusations of blocking peace process, shifting responsibility for destine of these people on Russia.
- Flexible position on the Minsk agreements. Unlike Petro Poroshenko whose peace steps were bound with the Minsk agreements, Zelenskyi’s team does not rule out either revision of the peace accord or withdrawal from the Minsk process if Russia does not demonstrate progress in peaceful settlement. Thus, the new government signals that the Minsk agreements which were signed under different military, political and economic conditions are not a single recipe for conflict settlement.
- Launch of efforts aimed at elaborating the policy of transitional justice. Zelenskyi’s team initiated elaboration of draft law on transitional justice, adoption in the first reading of a draft law #9438 which brings the Criminal Code of Ukraine in conformity with international law, as well as announced intentions to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, These steps are aimed at restoring the rights of victims of the armed conflict and preventing impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity after control over the occupied territories is restored.
- Excessive acceleration of peace process. Having announced the establishment of peace as a priority of his presidency, Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s rating came under the sway of progress in peaceful settlement. After the prisoner exchange, adoption of the “Steinmeier formula” and disengagement of forces in three areas along the contact line, Zelenskyi’s rating will continue dropping, regardless of his further steps: either political concessions to Russia for the sake of speedy conflict settlement or fruitless peace process. Moreover, his team did not realize that Ukrainian state institutions are far from ready for a hypothetical restoration of control over ORDLO in case elections are conducted there in 2020.
- Disregard of the Crimean issue. Having focused on achieving peace in Donbas, Zelenskyi has not almost raised the Crimean issue during meetings with foreign leaders. There was every reason to step up diplomatic efforts in this direction in 2019 – unprecedented arrests in Crimea on political grounds for the whole period of occupation (38 persons were deprived of liberty over the first ten months of 2019), militarization of the peninsula which creates a threat to both Ukraine and countries in the Black Sea region (Romania, Turkey, Bulgaria) etc. The chances for normalization between European countries and Russia could have been decreased if Kyiv’s key partners were regarding the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Donbas as inter-related consequences of Russia’s aggression.
- Poor communication with Ukrainian militaries, profile state agencies, parliamentary opposition and an active part of society. Outcomes of behind-the-scenes talks (approval of the “Steinmeier formula” in Russian interpretation, extradition of Volodymyr Tsemakh as a part of the prisoner swap) often differ from “red lines” which senior officials announce in their public statements. This causes mistrust in actions of Zelenskyi’s team both among a patriotic part of the Ukrainian society and officials of security agencies who devoted themselves to advancing Ukraine’s national interests. The lack of proper communication with domestic stakeholders fuels protests against Zelenskyi’s policy on peaceful settlement.
- Shortage of professional personnel. A number of persons who realize the true picture of the situation have been either not involved in decision-making or have resigned (Olena Zerkal, Yevhen Marchuk, Roman Bezsmertnyi). As a result, Zelenskyi’s policy on peaceful settlement is significantly shaped by representatives of financial industrial groups, controversial personalities and persons without proper diplomatic experience. This increases the risk of Ukraine’s strategic mistakes during the Normandy format talks and meetings of the Trilateral Contact Group.