Russia and Ukraine: Nothing good lies ahead?

Russia and Ukraine: Nothing good lies ahead?

Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky’s decision to sign the Steinmeier formula has allowed peace talks between Russia and Ukraine to resume. However, a few months after the Normandy Four summit, the chances of solving the protracted conflict in eastern Ukraine remains unlikely.

On 9 December, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for the first time in Paris for the Normandy Four Summit. The talks’ main objective was to negotiate a peaceful resolution for the protracted conflict between Russian-backed separatists and government forces in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. 

Prospect of progress in peace talks between Russia and Ukraine started to materialise last fall. In September, 70 prisoners were exchanged between both countries after months of rumours, intense negotiations and moments of stall. Later in October, the newly elected President Zelensky signed the Steinmeier Formula – Moscow ’s fundamental precondition to holding the summit. The move paved the way for the successful withdrawal of forces from the frontline in three areas in eastern Ukraine.

Despite the summit yielding some positive outcomes, it failed to bring significant progress. The talks concluded with more prisoners swaps, a renewed agreement to pullback forces and weapons from another three frontline areas, a commitment to the ceasefire and continued dialogue in 2020. However, key issues such as Ukraine’s control over its original borders, the country’s relations with the European Union and potential NATO membership remain unresolved. Almost three months since the summit, casualties at the frontline have not declined; suggesting Putin and Zelensky have decided to prioritise humanitarian issues over the security plan. 

Resting easy as the leaders tread a cautious line is mistaken. Kyiv and Moscow remain far apart over the fate and future of Ukraine. The cessation of hostilities on the line of contact and the exchange of war-prisoners are unlikely to bring the countries closer to a common ground. 

Zelensky faces significant challenges. So far, his response seems to be calibrated to mitigate the risk of public backlash, while continuing dialogue with Russia in pursuit of a solution for the conflict in Donbas. Yet, in the long-term, Zelensky will likely have to deal with multiple pressures as he seeks to balance Ukraine’s need for peace and the imperatives of national security. 

The Steinmeier Formula

 Proposed in 2016 by then Germany’s foreign minister, now its president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Steinmeier formula is a simplified version of the Minsk agreements and outlines a sequence of steps to end fighting in eastern Ukraine. 

More specifically, the formula calls for local elections to be held in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, the territories controlled by the Russian-backed separatists in the east. The elections would be organised under Ukrainian law and the supervision of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). If seen as free and fair, the process would then result in a reform of the Ukrainian constitution that would give the Donbas the status of a special autonomous region. It is hoped that the formula will eventually bring some clarity over the steps laid out in the Minsk agreements. 

Challenges over the elections 

While Kyiv and Moscow have agreed that elections are necessary, they mostly disagree on how these should be held.  

Fearing Russian interference in the polls, President Zelensky has agreed to hold the elections only after Ukraine regains full control of its borders. In other words, Kyiv wants Russia to pull back its forces and military equipment from its positions in the separatist-held territories. Moscow has allegedly been supporting an insurgency by pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014. Although authorities have repeatedly denied any involvement in the region, they have admitted that “Russian volunteers” are fighting there. 

On the other hand, President Putin not only insisted that elections need to take place as soon as possible before Ukraine regains full control over its international borders. He also called for changes in Ukraine’s constitution that would give permanent special status to Donbas before security issues are resolved. 

Most importantly, how elections will be held in parts of Donbas outside Kyiv’s control is not clear. This would mean the de-facto presence of two competing states while voters go to the poll – something that would jeopardise the fairness, security, openness and freedom of the election process. Elections seem to be beneficial to achieve peace. However, given Moscow’s vastness of influence in Donbas, Russia-backed separatist leaders will likely secure an easy victory. Since 2014, Russia has sought to undermine Ukraine’s democratic institutions through a full range of cyber operations and disinformation campaigns. With Moscow refusing to withdraw their “men,” on the ground it does not control them, more conventional electoral frauds, including ballot-stuffing and multiple voting tactics, should be anticipated if elections take place. 

Pushback at home for Zelensky

Further complicating matters, restoring peace in eastern Ukraine not only depends on Russia and Ukraine’s bilateral relations. Many in Ukraine have opposed Zelensky’s decision to embrace the formula. The plan has sparked immediate backlash at home, with thousands of people protesting in Kyiv against what is perceived as a “capitulation to Russia.” Some Ukrainians are concerned that a self-governing status for the occupied territories means giving up Ukraine’s interests. Veterans and nationalist groups think the formula threatens Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and the country’s hard-fought battle against Russian aggression.  

A new approach to Russia 

 Zelensky’s move to embrace the Steinmeier formula represents a significant departure from former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

 Poroshenko’s legitimacy was framed around resistance towards Russia. Over his mandate, he had become over-reliant on nationalist rhetoric to build a support base. His campaign billboards during the past presidential election showed Poroshenko facing-off not with his domestic rivals, but with Vladimir Putin. His populist demagoguery, casting Russia as the enemy of Ukraine, was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it kept him afloat in the face of stagnating reforms and corruption. On the other hand, as Poroshenko had established himself as the country’s protector, he was less keen to be seen as open to compromise with the Kremlin – arguably a crucial step towards ending violence and restoring peace in eastern Ukraine. 

 To be sure, it was Poroshenko to sign the Minsk protocols, whose Steinmeier formula represents a simplified sequence. Nevertheless, signing an agreement is different from implementing it.

 The major prisoner swap in September showed that Zelensky is more willing to compromise with Russia than Poroshenko – even in the face of pressure from his partners in the West. Volodymyr Tsemakh, a key witness in the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, was among the prisoners handed over to Russia in September. He may be involved in the shooting down of the plane that killed 298 people. Tsemakh was released under intense pressure from Moscow. His release came after 40 members of the European Parliament urged Ukraine not to include him in the swap, as his transfer to Russia would make it impossible to question him about the case. 

While Zelensky’s approach has allowed dialogue with Russia to resume, the ability to bridge differences between  Moscow and Kyiv remains questionable. 

The modest results achieved in the talks show that Zelensky’s positions on the Minsk agreement are now closer to that of his predecessor Poroshenko. Many ahead of the Summit feared that – eager to deliver on his promises to end the war – the young President would make significant concessions to Putin, particularly over the elections. But Zelensky did not cross any ‘red lines’. 

Ukrainian President heavily campaigned on resolving the conflict, but concerns of domestic opinion have largely shifted his stance towards Russia. Zelensky understands that Ukrainian people do not want peace “at any cost,” nor do they intend to break with the Western values of the Euromaidan revolution; a series of pro-European protests that resulted in the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Zelensky’s popularity ratings decreased by 21 percent from September to November 2019 – down from 73 percent in September. The approval ratings fell following Zelensky’s endorsement for the Steinmeier formula. 

Supporting a post-conflict settlement that seemingly threatens Ukraine’s national sovereignty will inevitably clash with the expectations of the country’s active civil society. Regardless of who serves as the President of Ukraine, complying with Russia’s interpretation of Minsk II would lead to domestic chaos. 

Incompatible strategic views

Beyond Minsk, the principal driver of the crisis is sovereignty – a long-standing issue that still looms large in the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. Russia has never accepted Ukraine as a sovereign nation. While Kyiv wants peace as a means to re-establish the country’s territorial integrity, build a modern society and pursue Euro-Atlantic integration, Moscow sees the peace plan as a means to return Ukraine closer to its orbit

Whether for historical ties, security considerations, prestige on the international arena – or all of these reasons together – Russia feels it enjoys a privileged sphere of influence over the post-Soviet countries, and systematically rejects their aspiration to pursue an independent course. In many ways, Russia’s act of aggression against Ukraine in the aftermath of the Euromaidan protests is neither extraordinary or surprising. For Moscow, the idea of Ukraine joining the European Union or NATO, which are viewed as trying to undermine Russia, is unacceptable.

Frozen-conflict playbook

Preventing Ukraine from moving West means Russia must keep it unstable. This is why the Kremlin wants the DNR and the LNR to be independent political entities. By implementing the Minsk accords – which, mostly favours  Russia – Ukraine would reintegrate the Donetsk and Luhansk into its borders, but they would de-facto be granted substantial autonomy or special status – largely remaining outside Kyiv’s central authority. This will provide Russia with an opportunity to use the Donbas to meddle into Ukraine’s politics, likely destabilising the country’s ability to reform, fight corruption and in general, to become a more functional democracy. Ultimately, a de facto federalisation of Ukraine would effectively make it impossible for Kyiv to even apply for NATO membership

Russia could potentially annex the Donbas, but it would not serve its geopolitical objectives. Furthermore, it does not want the responsibilities that annexing the region would bring. The situation in Donetsk and Luhansk is volatile and sporadic fighting continues. The territories are torn by unemployment, lack of essential services, infrastructure and law enforcement. It is cheaper and more useful to keep the conflict permanent, or, to ‘freeze it’ – a mechanism that Russia has already employed for Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria; the breakaway regions of Georgia and Moldova supported by Moscow. It is the unresolved nature of these wars that gives Moscow the opportunity to shape the political, economic and social policies of its post-Soviet neighbours. 

Nothing good lies ahead

Unfortunately for Zelensky, there is nothing good that lies ahead in the relations with Russia, at least not until the Kremlin’s foreign policy trajectories remain unchanged – which looks likely given Putin’s constitutional shakeup.  

On 15 January, during his annual state of the nation speech, Putin abruptly announced constitutional reforms that will allow him to remain in power after 2024 when his fourth presidential term expires. Although he will step down as Russian President, he will likely take on an entirely new position within the State Council, allowing him to maintain his grip on power, while decreasing his involvement in day-to-day governance. As Putin will continue to shape Russia’s foreign policy, it is hard to see how Moscow and Kyiv can find a solution for the conflict that does not damage Ukraine’s aspiration to achieve Western standards of governance and get closer to the European Union. 

 The Kremlin will seek to improve relations with Kyiv to negotiate the autonomy of Donetsk and Luhansk. Moscow has recently replaced Vladislav Surkov, Russia’s chief negotiator in relations with Kyiv, with Dmitry Kozak. Besides being perceived as more pragmatic, Kozak served as the Kremlin’s principal curator for ties with Moldova and was the architect of the country’s federalisation strategy. His appointment indicates Moscow’s efforts to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine, while pushing for changes in the country’s constitution. This means more prisoners’ swaps, talks and renewed commitments for a ceasefire as Russia calls for its proxies to reduce hostilities on the ground. Nevertheless, the conflict will continue, with short-lived ceasefires unable to halt fighting. 

While Zelensky faces great scrutiny from his electorate to end the war in Ukraine, Putin is in a position to wait. Ideally, what the Russian President would like to see as a result of the peace talks is the federalisation of Ukraine and, therefore, the formal recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk as special autonomous regions. Fully implementing Minsk II and reaching a political settlement for eastern Ukraine means the sanctions imposed on Russia after Moscow’s 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea can potentially be lifted. Sanctions have damaged the Russian economy, for example, by blocking foreign investment in manufacturing and banking. However, Moscow has taken initiatives to adjust to it. Even though Zelensky refuses to offer significant concessions due to strong domestic opposition to Russian influence, Putin is likely not in a hurry to find a solution for the war. Unlike Zelensky, Putin can survive another unsolved conflict with the limited domestic challenge. 

Lack of international support

International support for Ukraine has been limited, given the national requirements of countries such as France, Germany, and the US when it comes to Russia.

European countries have already shown their desire to normalise relationships with Moscow, and they will attempt to use the talks to pursue their agendas. French President Emmanuel Macron has been a strong proponent of pushing for a dialogue with Russia. His meeting with Putin ahead of the G7 in August 2019 and his remarks during the summit, where he announced the EU and Russia should be brought back together, suggests that he might even push Kyiv into a bad deal with Moscow if that means improving the relationship with Putin.  

Germany will likely do the same. Russia is about to complete Nord Stream II, a pipeline that travels from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea. This will only increase the EU dependence on Russia at the cost of Kyiv’s ability to convince Germany to put pressure on Moscow.

Meanwhile, the United States is no longer a reliable partner. The US President Donald Trump has been found not guilty in his impeachment trial for abuse of office linked to interactions with Zelensky over an investigation into his political opponent in the 2020 election Joe Biden. Ukraine needs US political backing and military aid to counter Russia-backed separatists in the east. Still, the whole affair has raised questions about the extent of the US support to the country. 

Limited options for Kyiv 

With considerable Russian pressure on Ukraine and the West becoming more dependent on Moscow, there are not many options on the table for Kyiv. It is evident that there is not much common ground between Russia and Ukraine over the interpretations of the Minsk agreement. The dialogue will continue in 2020 but, there is no indicator of any change of a successful peace accord. In the long-term, Ukraine is therefore likely to pursue two options: give up the Donbas in order to decrease its dependence on Russia; or, drag out negotiations, while continuing its Western pathway. 

Option 1 for Ukraine: Give up the Donbas

One option for Ukraine is to give up the Donbas. Some have argued that Ukraine is better off without it, on the grounds that reintegrating the region would compromise the country’s “steady march toward Europe.” Rebuilding houses and infrastructure and revitalising the struggling local economy has an enormous cost. More importantly, reintegrating a deeply pro-Russia territory torn by corruption, crime, the proliferation of guns and collapse of essential services will most likely slow-down if not entirely reverse, Ukraine’s positive reform track since Maidan.

Yet, this is a dangerous road and could ultimately be costlier for Kyiv. While bringing the Donbas back into Ukraine’s fold is likely to increase Putin’s leverage over Kyiv’s central authority, giving up the region could trigger a full-scale military conflict between government forces and Russia-backed separatists.

Russia does not wish to annex the Donbas. What the Kremlin wants is safeguarding its national interests by preventing Ukraine from continuing its pro-Western path. So far, Russian-backed separatist seems particularly poised to advance anywhere. However, any attempts from Kyiv to give up the Donbas may prompt a hostile response from Russia, with Ukraine likely witnessing a new offensive targeting key strategic and logistic assets.

This would be a catastrophe for Kyiv. In 2014, Western powers refrained from military involvement in eastern Ukraine as they feared to escalate the conflict with Russia. Today, they are even more likely to do so as they wish to improve relations with Moscow. A resumption of a full-scale offensive that took place in May-June 2014 could leave Ukraine in a one-on-one face-off with Russia, with violence and chaos sweeping across the country again. 

Option 2 for Ukraine: Waiting until the situation changes

A better option on the table for Ukraine is to not take any action at all. Whatever he decides to do, Zelensky is in a corner. If he makes concessions to Moscow, his popularity will drop quickly, and he will face political opposition and further protests across the country. If he stands against it, he will likely jeopardise Ukraine’s diplomatic position in the face of France and Germany’s effort to find a settlement to the conflict. Waiting until circumstances change might be the only good option for Kyiv.  

 This approach requires patience and persistence. Kyiv needs to understand that its domestic struggle is now more important than getting back its eastern regions. Despite being engaged in a low-intensity war with Russia, Ukraine has made some positive changes in a number of areas over the past five years. These include progress in fighting corruption, improving  public-sector transparency, implementing stability to the energy sector and reforming tax and pension systems. More recently, the Rada has also adopted a draft law to lift a ban on the sale of farmland. Nevertheless, more has to be done for Ukraine to become truly ‘European.’ Crucially, Kyiv must not let the Donbas drawn attention away from more structural reforms. 

 On the one hand, pushing for reforms is in Ukraine’s interest. Unless Ukraine becomes a more trusted, functional and accountable state, moving further West seems unlikely. Furthermore, reforms will also serve the purpose to strengthen law enforcement and the security and defence sectors, which are crucial to prevent Russia’s information-warfare and attempts to destabilise the country.

On the other hand, while Moscow has been able to adjust to sanctions, the extent to which it can continue to bear economic pressure is yet to be seen. Russia’s economy is stagnating. Many Russians are frustrated with low wages, scaled-back pensions and higher taxes. This will likely increase internal instability. Faced with its own domestic struggle and the increasing frustration of Russian citizens, the Kremlin will have to rethink the costs of war in Donbas. 

Meanwhile, although Moscow appears to be in control of Ukraine eastern regions, keeping the Donetsk and Luhansk under its influence will become increasingly difficult in the long-term. Without a proper administration, rule of law and a stable economy, these territories will become further insufficient – increasing their dependence on Moscow. Over the past few years, Russia’s financial aids have decreased in Abkhazia, Georgia’s breakaway region whose independence is recognised by Moscow. The stalled economy has deepened a political crisis and recently led to the resignation of Russian-backed leader Raul Khajimba. If anything, this shows how sanctions have the potential to push-back against Russia’s international ventures.

In conclusion, should Zelensky succeed to implement structural changes, this will pave the way for a stronger Ukraine. Hopefully, that will lead to a rebalance of forces between Kyiv and Moscow, thereby allowing Ukraine to reach a political settlement for the Donbas that does not threaten the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and self-determination. Kyiv will face multiple challenges, both domestically and internationally. However, time is on Ukraine’s side in the conflict with Russia. After all, Putin’s Russia is not forever. 

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Federica Reccia

Federica graduated with a first-class honours in Eastern European Studies from the University of Naples l’Orientale and holds an MA in International Relations from King's College London. Federica specialises in Russia and the independent states of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the South Caucasus. Her previous experience includes Intelligence, Security and Counter-terrorism. Formerly a researcher for the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, Federica is currently a security assessment officer at PwC.