Position of President Volodymyr Zelenskyi
Throughout the 2019 election cycle, Volodymyr Zelenskyi has positioned himself as a politician who would come to an agreement with Vladimir Putin and bring peace to Donbas. The use of peacemaking rhetoric in political competition allowed Zelenskyi win the presidential election and form a mono majority of the “Servant of the People” in the Parliament.
In all comments and speeches in the media, Zelenskyi constantly emphasizes that he, in the first place, wants to reduce the suffering of people in the Specific Areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Regions (SADLR) and preserve lives of every military and civilian in Donbas. The second priority of the President is the struggle for the minds and the mentality of those Ukrainians who live in the SADLR, but do not perceive themselves as part of Ukraine. Thus, the government of Zelenskyi plans to launch news broadcasts in the occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea to fight for the “minds of the people”, convey information about Ukraine and counter Russian propaganda. Presidential team member being Advisor to the Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council Serhii Syvokho has repeatedly stated that it was best to establish a dialogue with the SADLR with the help of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine having the highest authority and maintaining its institutionalization and affiliation with Kyiv.
Having obtained a record public credential mandate, Zelenskyi took a number of steps aimed at resuming and intensifying the negotiation process with Russia.
Main steps of Volodymyr Zelenskyi towards resuming dialogue with Russia:
- Restoration of direct communication with the Russian side at the level of Presidents and informal negotiators.
- Reduction of anti-Russian rhetoric and anti-Kremlin state propaganda in Ukraine and abroad.
- A steady course for a complete ceasefire and ignoring provocations in Donbas.
- Desire to solve humanitarian problems and reduce the suffering of people in the SADLR.
- Distancing from the use of linguistic and religious issues in domestic political competition.
- Gradual withdrawal from economic and trade confrontation with the Russian Federation.
The first six months of Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s presidency have passed in the light of resumption of dialogue with Russia where conflict settlement in Donbas was a priority. In this context, the key events in 2019 are worth noting.
On September 7, 2019 Russia and Ukraine made a first exchange of prisoners based on the “35 for 35” formula, which restored confidence and set a new track for dialogue.
On October 1, 2019, representatives of the Trilateral Contact Group signed the so-called “Steinmeier formula” in Minsk.
In addition, the disengagement of forces was conducted near Stanytsia Luhanska, Zolote and Petrivske.
On December 9, 2019 the leaders of the Normandy Four (N4) countries – Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyi met in Paris. The parties agreed on the further disengagement of forces in Donbas, exchange of detained persons, and discussed the further implementation of the political component of the Minsk agreements.
On December 29, an exchange of detained persons took place between Ukraine and the SADLR. The Ukrainian side handed 127 persons to pro-Russian separatists, while 76 hostages returned to Ukraine.
Position of Volodymyr Zelenskyi on the implementation of the Minsk agreements
Volodymyr Zelenskyi believes that the Minsk Agreements are a flexible document that only sets the political framework for dialogue. In his opinion, parties to the conflict must reach a political compromise for peace in Donbas. Zelenskyi has repeatedly stated his desire to negotiate with the Kremlin around Donbas in order “to meet somewhere in the middle”. The main issues for the Ukrainian side are the establishment of border control before the elections, as well as the granting of special status for the SADLR, which should be permanently enshrined in the Constitution of Ukraine in accordance with the Minsk agreements. The so-called “Zelenskyi formula” contradicts the position of Vladimir Putin who reiterated at the Normandy Four meeting in Paris that no one could change the context of the Minsk agreements and the stages of their implementation, otherwise the logic of the political process would be changed.
In this regard, Zelenskyi promotes two messages in Ukrainian political discourse that change the modality of implementation of the Minsk agreements.
The first message is that elections in the SADLR are not possible until the Ukrainian government controls the uncontrolled Russian-Ukrainian border. The second message – Ukraine shall remain a unitary republic with no mention of the special political and economic status of the SADLR in the Constitution and separate permanent legislation on these areas, which in fact would stipulate the federal status of Ukraine. Thus, Zelenskyi and his team are trying to replace federalisation with a broad decentralization for the SADLR.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyi, Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko, and Assistant to the President Andriy Yermak repeatedly spoke in the media about an alternative to the Minsk agreements on settlement of the conflict in Donbas.
Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said about the possibility of deploying the UN peacekeeping mission across the occupied Donbas.
President Zelenskyi also introduced the “Wall” plan, according to which people were important, rather than territories. According to Zelenskyi, this is the last and least desirable option for Ukraine to resolve the conflict. According to the plan, people are important, rather than territories. The “Wall” plan provides for the actual estrangement of the SADLR from Ukraine and creation of financial conditions for the resettlement of the SADLR residents who consider themselves a part of Ukraine. In this context, Assistant to the President Andriy Yermak stated the risks of freezing the conflict indefinitely and the need for “strategic patience” in order to bring favourable geopolitical conditions around Ukraine. Under this scenario, the SADLR as a territory and a production complex would be lost for Kyiv and finally integrated into the Russian economy.
The positive point in the current discourse is that Volodymyr Zelenskyi and his team exclude conflict resolution by military means.
Positions of parliamentary factions
The “Servant of the People” Faction (248 MPs)
The “Servant of the People” presidential faction is very heterogeneous and consists of different groups of influence that push diametrically opposite messages to resolve the conflict. The “Servant of the People” faction includes MPs who favour the freezing of the conflict; those supporting the continuing confrontation in Donbas; ideologues of the “Wall” project specifying the alienation of the SADLR from Ukraine; and there are also supporters of a special status for Donbas. Many political analysts believe that a vote on constitutional changes around Donbas could cause the collapse of presidential factions and political instability.
In general, the “Servant of the People” faction supports the policy of Volodymyr Zelenskyi regarding the inability to hold elections before the resolution of security problems and the establishment of control over the Russian-Ukrainian border, as well as the inadmissibility of the amendments to the Constitution in terms of granting a special status to the SADLR.
“Opposition platform – For Life” Faction (44 MPs)
The pro-Russian “Opposition platform – For Life” party openly stands in favour of normalizing relations with Russia and resolving the Donbas conflict on Russian terms. Representatives of this party systematically criticize Volodymyr Zelenskyi for insufficient political steps in peaceful settlement, as well as the lack of political will in the full and phased implementation of the Minsk agreements (amendments to the Constitution of Ukraine regarding the special status of the SADLR, holding elections and the beginning of establishment of control over the border). At the same time, the “Opposition platform – For Life” faction publicly calls itself Zelenskyi’s only political ally in terms of adopting constitutional amendments around the special status for the SADLR.
The “Opposition Platform – For Life” faction actively supports the autonomous status for the SADLR, providing for humanitarian, economic and political autonomy from Kyiv. They are convinced that the special status of Donbas should be permanently enshrined in the Constitution of Ukraine as a result of a constitutional dialogue with the SADLR representatives. The “Opposition platform – For Life” party supports a broad amnesty for all parties to the armed conflict and direct political dialogue with the leaders of the self-proclaimed “DPR” and “LPR” republics. Top Speakers of the faction Viktor Medvedchuk, Vadym Rabinovych, and Yuriy Boiko believe that control over an uncontrolled border should be established by Ukrainian government forces only after the elections, as stated in the Minsk agreements.
The “European Solidarity” Faction (27 MPs)
The “European Solidarity” faction continues to articulate the behaviour line “neither war nor peace”, led by the fifth President Petro Poroshenko in 2014-2019. During the fall of 2019, the party of Petro Poroshenko held a series of protests “Stop Capitulation”, during which Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s peaceful initiatives were criticized. In fact, Poroshenko has united around him a right-wing and nationalist electorate.
The “European Solidarity” faction has consistently opposed the granting of the special status for the SADLR, which should be separately written out and enshrined in the Constitution. Petro Poroshenko’s party representatives say that the SADLR should be integrated into Ukraine on the basis of decentralization. This party rejects any possible form of direct political dialogue with the self-proclaimed “DPR-LPR” republics, as well as a wide amnesty. In addition, the “European Solidarity” continues to actively articulate the idea of the impossibility of holding elections in the SADLR without establishing Ukrainian jurisdiction in these territories and establishing stable border control. Despite the acute criticism of actions of the new government, the “European Solidarity” faction voted in favour of the prolongation of the law “On Special Order of Local Self-Government in the SADLR”, which has been adopted as a basis during the presidency of Petro Poroshenko.
The “European Solidarity” party nominally supports the Minsk agreements, which are considered to be the product of Poroshenko’s presidency. According to the party, the main problem of the Minsk agreements is that Russia does not want to withdraw troops and weapons from Donbas.
The “Batkivshchyna” Faction (24 MPs)
The “Batkivshchyna” faction pays the least attention of the rest of the parliamentary factions to resolving the conflict in Donbas. The issues of land reform, high tariffs, low incomes and poverty of the population are more important in political competition for Yulia Tymoshenko’s party. At the same time, the “Batkivshchyna” party is quite strongly opposed to granting special status to the SADLR, against amendments to the Constitution and total amnesty. Yulia Tymoshenko supports the continuation of anti-Russian sanctions, and regularly raises issues of the occupied Crimea. Representatives of “Batkivshchyna” support the deployment of an international peacekeeping mission in Donbas, as well as the possibility of establishing an international interim administration in the SADLR.
“Batkivshchyna”, the “European Solidarity” and the “Holos” parties have signed a joint memorandum on the unacceptance of concessions to Russia. The red lines are that there can be no compromise on the part of Zelenskyi about the federalization of Ukraine and the immutability of the European and Euro-Atlantic courses. Elections in Donbas should take place only under the conditions of security, withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, disarmament of illegal armed groups and control over the Russian-Ukrainian border. Zelenskyi also received messages about the impossibility of compromises with the Kremlin over the return of Crimea to Ukraine, as well as no cessation of international lawsuits against Russia.
The “Holos” (“Voice”) Faction (20 MPs).
Ideologically speaking, the “Holos” faction tends to the position of “European Solidarity”. Vakarchuk’s party is in favour of Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Minsk agreements and the freezing of the Donbas conflict until Ukraine’s negotiating position is strengthened. This political force believes that the Minsk agreements were intended only to stop the direct military aggression of Russia and the active phase of hostilities in Donbas, and therefore have already fulfilled their primary mission. The faction considers the “Minsk agreements” a dead and blurred document that does not have a clear legal framework and is interpreted as beneficial to a stronger opponent.
The “Holos” party believes that Russia’s position on the implementation of the Minsk agreements is supported by France and Germany, as they are interested in lifting sanctions and trade with Russia. “Holos” believes that sanctions against Russia are not tied to the implementation of the Minsk agreements, but provide for a voluntary political decision by Western countries, which can be changed at any time. The “Holos” party proposes to develop its own conflict resolution plan, which would unite Crimea and Donbas into one negotiation package. The Vakarchuk’s Party proposes to concentrate all resources on consolidating the state and implementing reforms aimed at strengthening Ukraine’s negotiating position and defence potential.
Deputies’ Groups “Za Maibutnie” (“For the Future”) (22 MPs) and “Dovira” (“Trust”) (17 MPs)
Deputies’ groups “Za Maibutnie” and “Dovira” are associations of majoritarian MPs who have their own business interests or are oriented towards big oligarchs – Rinat Akhmetov, Ihor Kolomoiskyi and other business persons. In critical votes for the “Servant of the People”, these deputy groups, as a rule, back the mono-coalition and give the necessary votes in return for loyal attitude of the authorities. These deputy groups neither have an official ideology nor express an official position on the conflict. It is highly probable that they are guided solely by pragmatic and business interests in resolving the conflict in Donbas.
Positions of key Ukrainian oligarchs
Viktor Medvedchuk is called the guide of Russian interests in Ukraine. He uses exclusive family relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin to resolve his own political and business issues. During Petro Poroshenko’s presidency in 2014-2019, Viktor Medvedchuk acted as the main negotiating channel with the Kremlin, through which political and economic negotiations over Donbas and other Russian-Ukrainian issues were conducted. Medvedchuk has at his disposal a pool of key news channels in Ukraine, including 112 Ukraine, ZIK, News One, through which his interests are promoted, as well as a political stance on resolving the conflict in Donbas. The oligarchic group “Yuriy Boiko-Serhiy Liovochkin” is also in the fairway of Viktor Medvedchuk. In turn, the group focuses on oligarch Dmytro Firtash and has a powerful media resource TV channel “Inter”.
Viktor Medvedchuk is one of the most active Ukrainian oligarchs who articulates the modalities of implementation of the Minsk agreements in a sequence voiced by the Kremlin:
- Wide amnesty for all the parties to the conflict.
- Direct constitutional and political dialogue with the SADLR representatives.
- A special permanent political status to the SADLR enshrined in the Constitution.
- Elections in Donbas under the OSCE monitoring.
- Beginning of establishing control over the uncontrolled border by the Ukrainian authorities.
- Joint economic reconstruction of Donbas.
The positions of Viktor Medvedchuk and his political party “Opposition Platform – For Life” are completely in line with Vladimir Putin’s positions voiced by the Russian president in the media. In addition, Medvedchuk and his party systematically criticize President Zelensky’s peaceful initiatives, deem them insufficient, half-hearted and insincere. In addition, Medvedchuk and his media assets criticize Zelenskyi for the fact that the President is flirting with the nationalist and patriotic electorate and the “war parties” in Ukraine.
Due to problems with law enforcement and anti-corruption bodies in the Western countries, oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi changed nationalist rhetoric and began openly promoting pro-Russian narratives about Ukraine’s integration into the EU and NATO, as well as peaceful settlement in Donbas. More pro-Russian rhetoric by Kolomoiskyi is fuelled by political aggravation with President Zelenskyi around asset return, non-payment of debts and compensation for “Privatbank”. In an interview with the media, Kolomoiskyi called the Donbas conflict a “civil war” and called for the lifting of the SADLR blockade. He also spoke about the full implementation of the Minsk agreements in the order as stated in the final document signed by Petro Poroshenko.
Ihor Kolomoiskyi uses his informal channels to try normalizing relations with the Russian leadership and offers his services in solving political and economic problems in Donbas. Kolomoiskyi has repeatedly expressed interest in establishing control over enterprises formerly owned by other Ukrainian oligarchs in the SADLR. In addition, Kolomoiskyi has personal mercantile interests related to access to low-cost Russian energy, such as crude oil, gas and electricity, as well as markets for his products. A separate track of relations between the Kremlin and Kolomoiskyi unfolds around the return or compensation for the lost assets in Crimea. As relations with Zelenskyi and the collective West become more aggravated, Kolomoiskyi may become a pragmatic partner of Russia in Ukraine and promote the Russian agenda in Ukraine. The information policy of 1+1 may also change. However, it still targets a patriotic and nationalist audience.
Rinat Akhmetov is interested in the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements and the resumption of pragmatic relations with Russia. The fact is that Akhmetov suffered the most economically from the Donbas war. Due to the blockade of the Kerch Strait by Russian, the main sea gate, the Mariupol port, through which raw materials and products of “Metinvest” had been sold, was closed for Akhmetov. According to economists, Akhmetov lost about 30% of his assets in the SADLR, which were either nationalized or destroyed.
Rinat Akhmetov’s main goal is to enter the SADLR, return lost assets in Donbas, receive compensation from the Ukrainian government for the destroyed enterprises, restore and modernize production facilities in Donbas (metallurgy, coal industry, energy complexes etc.) at the expense of Western partners and creditors. However, Akhmetov has very limited political power to influence and lobby his interests in the current authority structures, since his political projects (Opposition Bloc and Radical Party of Liashko) did not enter the Parliament. Akhmetov’s political position is weak, and he is forced to defend his business from the opponents, especially Ihor Kolomoiskyi. At the moment, Akhmetov has good opportunities to regain political influence in these territories due to his production capacities, “Ukraine” media holding and personal recognition in the SADLR. However, another oligarch, Viktor Medvedchuk, remains the main competitor in the fight for influence in the SADLR.
The leader of the “European Solidarity” party continues holding to the general political line since his presidency. Petro Poroshenko unites ring-wing electorate, and positions himself as the only opposition centre to the capitulation before the Kremlin and federalization of Ukraine.
Poroshenko speaks about the impossibility of holding elections in the SADLR before establishing control over the border, and constitutional amendments regarding a special status for the SADLR. Petro Poroshenko supports the idea of peacekeepers in the SADLR territory, aimed at providing security for the participants of the election process, overseeing of the process of restoring Ukrainian sovereignty in the SADLR, as well as monitoring of the withdrawal of illegal armed formations from the SADLR. The controlled information channels “Priamyi” and “Channel 5” actively cover the party activities and personal statements by Petro Poroshenko.
During the 2014-2019 presidential cadence, Petro Poroshenko’s enterprises and factories received enormous government orders for the repair and manufacture of military equipment, food supplies and fulfilment of other defence needs.
Viktor Pinchuk’s businesses are tied to the post-Soviet market, where Russia holds a key share. Therefore, after the beginning of the war in Donbas in 2014-2015 and the sanctioning confrontation with the Russian Federation, Viktor Pinchuk suffered severe economic losses. Pinchuk has repeatedly stated that he supported the idea of a state policy that would take into account a balance between European integration and pragmatic relations with Russia. Three years ago, Viktor Pinchuk wrote in his resonant Wall Street Journal column that Ukraine needed to make painful compromises with Russia, namely, to fully implement the Minsk agreements and postpone the issue of Crimea’s return in dialogue with Russia for 15-20 years. In addition, in the medium term, Ukraine should have removed the EU and NATO membership from the agenda. In general, Viktor Pinchuk conducts a balanced media policy regarding the conflict in Donbas through his media group Star Light Media. Viktor Pinchuk is very well represented in the structures of the new authorities, as he delegated his people to various parliamentary factions and government.
Another important player around Viktor Pinchuk is his father-in-law, former President Leonid Kuchma, being Ukraine’s representative in the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk. Political stance of Leonid Kuchma differs from Pinchuk’s one. Kuchma insists on the implementation of the security component of the Minsk agreements and the impossibility of holding elections in the SADLR without establishing Ukrainian or international control over the border.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov is one of the strongest informal players in Ukrainian politics. In many respects (political influence in authority structures, influence on political decision making, availability of business and media resources), he meets the oligarchic criteria. Arsen Avakov has no significant business interests in the SADLR. However, he seeks to use the topic of peaceful settlement to strengthen his political position and fight for the post of Prime Minister.
Avakov has served as Minister of Internal Affairs for almost 6 years, which is a record. He has always played an important role in forming an agenda around the topic of Donbas. In the days of Petro Poroshenko, Arsen Avakov promoted the idea of reintegration of the SADLR, better known as the “Small Step Mechanism”. This idea meant the gradual reintegration and transfer of settlements in the SADLR to the Ukrainian sovereignty. After Zelenskyi’s victory, Avakov maintained influence over a number of radical forces used in political competition. Avakov strongly opposes holding elections in the SADLR until control of the uncontrolled Russian-Ukrainian border is established. Secondly, Avakov opposed the deployment of forces throughout the frontline, as well as the mass amnesty in the SADLR. In media statements, Avakov sharply opposed to granting of a special status for the SADLR and its enshrining in the Constitution of Ukraine. Avakov himself is also a supporter of preservation of the unitary structure of Ukraine and establishment an international interim administration in Donbas.
Positions of other players
Positions of nationalist forces
Among the non-parliamentary nationalist forces, the most active participants are “Svoboda”, the “National Corps”, the “National Guard” and the “Right Sector”. These players were actively involved in protests against Zelenskyi, where the President was urged not to cross the red lines around Donbas. Many times, these political forces coordinated their actions with protests organized by Petro Poroshenko. These radical organizations have the most disciplined supporters and ideological activists who are ready to go out and even take up arms. Demands of the radical forces are unchanged – impossibility of engaging in dialogue with pro-Russian “terrorists”, impossibility of conferring special status to the SADLR and specifying it in the Constitution, as well as holding elections in the SADLR without the border control. Particularly sensitive to radical forces is the issue of amnesty for militants from the SADLR.
Given that President Zelenskyi does not control the streets, these radical forces and unsystematic nationalists are an important political actor influencing the political agenda in the authority structures regarding Donbas. In addition, Ukrainian oligarchs may use radicals to compete politically and achieve their own business interests. Thus, as Zelenskyi’s political relations with the oligarchs intensify, big business may use nationalists to destabilize Ukraine’s political situation and undermine Zelenskyi. In this case, the issue of Donbas or land reform may serve as a reason for street protests.
Positions of volunteer, veteran and human rights organizations
Volunteer, veteran and human rights organizations are very important actors in the peaceful settlement process in Donbas, influencing public opinion and political decision-making. Unlike the radical and nationalist forces who are active on the street, civil society members outreach and deliver messages to various stakeholders.
These civil society actors in Ukraine quite sharply oppose granting special status to Donbas and its enshrining in the Constitution. Secondly, none of these players support the idea of holding elections in the SADLR until the border control is established. Moreover, human rights organizations even made harsh statements about the exchange of prisoners, which were accompanied by violations of the Ukrainian legislation.