When Russia orchestrated a separatist takeover of the Donbas region of Ukraine in 2014, few would have predicted five years later a former television star with no traditional political experience would be elected on a promise to end the conflict. Yet he was, and on April 21 President Volodymyr Zelenskiy celebrated a year since his landslide victory.

It was a win that symbolised both the Ukrainian public’s desire for peace and a wider disenfranchisement with the country’s political elite. In the 12 months since, Zelenskiy has had to deal with a host of challenges — some inherited, some self-inflicted, some out of his control. His efforts to end the war in the east have come up against a mix of all three. But despite the progress made, fighting continues to simmer and a lasting solution remains elusive. The fallout from COVID-19 could make finding one much harder.

After the election Zelenskiy was quick to set his sights on resetting the peace process and breathing new life into the 2014–15 Minsk accords. These now controversial agreements were signed in the wake of Moscow’s improvised, haphazard and violent campaign across the region. The resulting chaos allowed for the self-proclaimed quasi-republics of Donetsk and Luhansk to emerge. In comparison to Crimea, Moscow had little interest in the Donbas. Worried about a westward drift, it wanted leverage over Kyiv. What it got was a bloody war. Despite their many flaws the Minsk agreements have kept the 400km frontline mostly static since 2015. Flare-ups like the heavy shelling we saw in February are rare. But the politics has stalled and fighting has killed over 13,000, displaced more than 1.5mn, and left a wave of destruction across what was once one of Europe’s most industrial areas. While in response Ukraine has shown itself to be resilient, even empowered, the conflict has taken its toll on a war-weary population.

This was reflected in the election of Zelenskiy, who, even if somewhat vaguely, campaigned on a platform of peace and reform. To his credit he has wasted little time in trying to keep his promise. He has since overseen several high profile prisoner exchanges; signed up to the Steinmeier Formula to reintegrate the Donbas through local elections and self-governing status; agreed to confidence building measures such as troop disengagement, de-mining and the opening of crossing points at December’s Normandy summit; and most recently gave a tentative initial green light for the now on hold Trilateral Contact Group Advisory Board to bring community leaders together from both sides of the frontline.

It has been an experimental toolbox of ideas. Some have worked better than others (implementing Normandy has been slow). Some have been rushed and haphazard (the clumsy handling of the TCG group has done the government no favours). But they have all been well intentioned; that is, focused on the idea of building trust through small yet important acts of nuanced public diplomacy — something lacking under Zelenskiy’s predecessor — with the hope of eventually moving from de-escalation to a lasting resolution.

Diplomacy, compromise, reintegration

It shouldn’t need reminding that Ukraine is the victim here; its land invaded, annexed, occupied. Ukrainians want peace but not at any cost. Zelenskiy knows this. He has had to walk a perhaps unrealistic tightrope, balancing competing visions and managing expectations of what it means to compromise. It hasn’t been easy and at times Zelenskiy has struggled to pin down a coherent strategy. He remains popular but his numbers have, not unexpectedly, dropped since the highs of last year. Polling also shows those who believe Ukraine is heading in the right direction to be fluctuating.

There are many reasons for this but it is partially fuelled by the sense that Zelenskiy, in staking his presidency on making peace, has gone too far in accommodating Moscow. This perception has been whipped up by events like last years’ prisoner exchanges with Russia and Russia-backed separatists in the east. The returned Ukrainians were welcomed home, but Kyiv’s decision to hand over a suspect in the downing of flight MH17 as well as riot police accused of killing civilians during 2014’s uprising caused wide upset.

Perhaps most controversial has been the Steinmeier formula. The idea of local elections and special status for occupied areas has proven especially divisive, with small groups of protesters taking to the streets of the capital after its signing in October. This opposition movement has only grown since. Zelenskiy has drawn red lines to reassure his critics — an eclectic mix of veterans, civil society, old-guard politicians etc — that neither will happen until armed groups have left the region and Kyiv controls the border with Russia. He has also framed any special status for the east as part of a broader programme of country-wide decentralisation. But there remains confusion over the detail as this timeline contradicts Minsk — something Moscow shows no sign of deviating from -, which only gives powers back to Kyiv after elections. This is, understandably, unacceptable. As Freedom House reported recently,” the rule of law and civil liberties in general are not respected” in the occupied Donbas. Voting under these conditions would be a sham.

There may yet be a political work-around or diplomatic fudge that would keep Zelenskiy from diluting his red lines too much, but even then many sceptics will regard any plan as a backdoor for Moscow to legitimise its interference. This is emblematic of a broader intellectual debate within Ukraine over whether reintegration can be done without undermining the country’s security and statehood. Reintegration would no doubt bring about challenges. Never mind the reliance on good faith from Moscow that its meddling would come to an end; bringing the Donbas back into the fold would be complicated, costly, and could even upset the stability needed to allow domestic reform should old political wounds be reopened. A much baulked at (yet frankly warranted) dialogue on national identity would be unavoidable.

But the alternative — deliberately hardening the border within Ukraine at the expense of reintegration — risks alienating those remaining in the Donbas while allowing quality of life to further deteriorate and Russia to tighten its grip. It is hard to get reliable information from the occupied areas but we know enough to say living conditions for civilians are miserable. Toxic narratives of complicity and resentment towards these residents are already on the rise within small pockets of social media elsewhere in the country. The longer this isolation continues, the harder future reconciliation becomes as social and economic bonds erode and a generation or more grow up in a (literally) divided Ukraine. And while some commentators see hardening the border as a chance for Kyiv to focus on its westward trajectory, recent government reshuffling and dismissals suggests that despite the strides taken since 2014, cutting the Donbas loose would not necessarily guarantee a competent, reform focused administration. It is a dilemma — on what terms to reintegrate, if at all — that Ukrainian society will continue to wrestle with and one, which the current government will have to help facilitate. But it must be done with transparency and humility, taking into account genuine public concerns while engaging with, but not catering to, those more hardline minority voices. Kyiv shouldn’t waste the opportunity.

Of course, there is no peace without Moscow’s consent, whatever Kyiv’s intentions. While the Kremlin’s control over the quasi-republics in the east is not absolute, it can end the war should it want to. Moscow would have much to gain from doing so. It never wanted responsibility for the region but is now shackled to it along with the significant economic, social and environmental damage the war has wreaked. The project has been a disruptive burden, harming Russia’s relations with the west and alienating much of Ukraine’s pro-Russian political class; gone is the chance of any subtler influence over the country’s domestic politics. And while not as expensive as maintaining the annexation of Crimea, the self-proclaimed republics are financially dependent on Moscow, swallowing up resources that could be better spent at home. It has been a strategic failure.

Despite all this Moscow has kept the necessary compromises at arms length, preferring to let the fighting simmer just enough to avoid it becoming frozen. This is partly about what it views as credibility; it doesn’t want to be seen retreating from a conflict it denies involvement in. This will continue to frustrate finding a genuine settlement. But Moscow’s stubbornness is also borne out of a belief that war in Ukraine is an extension of war with the West. This has bred a desire to have any resolution to the conflict allow it to maintain a degree of control over Kyiv’s political future — something incompatible with upholding Ukrainian sovereignty.

COVID could change everything (or nothing)

Where does this leave us? Any efforts to de-escalate the conflict should be welcomed. Summits, meetings, and exchanges — even the more controversial ones so long as they’re done with care and planning — can help build a useful diplomatic framework to ease the more difficult trade-offs. But all this remains of limited value so long as Moscow fails to tame its inflexibility. The dismissal of Vladislav Surkov and appointment of the more practical Dmitry Kozak as Ukraine negotiator in February was seen by some Kremlin-watchers as hinting toward a potential thaw. But it is just as likely that this technocratic, once architect of the Moldova ‘federalisation’ strategy, and long term ally of President Vladimir Putin will play a managerial role in maintaining the status quo. Nobody really knows.

The elephant in the room here is COVID-19. We are still mapping out the geopolitical repercussions of a global pandemic that cares little for the convictions of countries and their leaders, let alone armed conflicts. It is too early to know the breadth of impact on Russia and Ukraine, but the public health and economic challenges could be long lasting and ultimately bleed into the political at a time of increased volatility. The virus has tested governments’ ability to juggle several crises at once, pushing even the most organised to prioritise and make difficult choices. It couldn’t come at a worse time for Kyiv as it deals with a rushed cabinet reshuffle, controversial IMF bailout, and concern over reform and corruption.

The pandemic will continue to impact the peace process, perhaps even shape the future of the conflict itself. It has moved meetings online and closed vital crossing points in the east, while protests against the advisory board were restricted because of Ukraine’s quarantine. Some level of disruption will persist for a while. Channels of diplomatic communication and negotiation will be slow to resume. Kyiv will need to be prepared for those countries needed to help put pressure on Moscow — the United States, France, Germany — to be preoccupied with tackling the consequences of COVID-19 at home.

The virus has also fast-forwarded the decline of conditions in the occupied Donbas for a vulnerable population, which relies on an already inadequate health system and fragile economy. For Ukraine, this instability will put questions about the feasibility of reintegration (particularly economic) into sharper focus as Kyiv weighs up how best to cope with the crisis. As for Russia, despite increasingly isolated from shocks its economy remains vulnerable — an imbalanced health system and promise of national project investment may make Moscow wonder whether continuing to subsidise the occupied east is the best use of its money. All the while, social distancing and strict hygiene amongst soldiers will be hard if not impossible to enforce on both sides of the frontline.

Before COVID-19 it was clear the quasi-republics were becoming unsustainable in the long term. Financially precarious, politically mismanaged, and in demographic decline — the pandemic will only reinforce these trends. If there were to be the faintest of silver linings from the outbreak it might be a new sense of urgency to push for compromise. While a lasting solution will always entail more than the military sphere, an effective, durable ceasefire would be a start. A further agreement to ‘update’ Minsk would be better. It is also tempting to hope the crisis may offer up opportunities; whether it be for Kyiv to build trust through humanitarian aid to those in the occupied east, or persuade Moscow to take a long, slow off-ramp out of the conflict all together.

Much of this is wishful thinking of course. There may be no change to the Kremlin’s calculations. Zelenskiy may continue to struggle with competing interests at home. A distracted Europe and US may neglect deploying more creative carrots and sticks. Fighting in the Donbas may even intensify over the summer. What we can be more sure about is that the virus has added another layer of uncertainty to a conflict with no military solution. Unfortunately — at least for now — a political one remains distant.

Published May 2020

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