President Zelensky’s Parisian challenge

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

Finally, the members of the Normandy Four format will hold their first meeting since 2016 with the intention to create the necessary conditions for peace to return in the Donbass where rebels, backed by Moscow, are still confronting the Ukrainian army and hoping for a political solution.

In 2015, the “Four” (Germany, France, Ukraine, Russia) signed the so-called Minsk Agreements, that were never implemented. Their sincerely want to find a solution, but each participant has his own approach.

The Western hopes

The meeting will be held in Paris, a new opportunity for President Macron to further profile himself as the European man of the future, despite the fact that his country will be still in full conflict about pensions and other reforms. Angela Merkel is looking for relevance and is under the shadow of an opportunistic scandal about the killing of a former Chechen commander in Berlin in late August.

For the West, Ukraine is still an important issue but is has been overtaken by other security issues on the European continent and in the global world. There is also a growing push to normalise relations with Russia, which does not mean backing down but rather preventing systematic confrontational behaviour. They have been sensitive to the decision of president Putin to call the new president of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen on 3 December for exchanges on various matters including the importance of scrupulously implementing the Minsk agreements.

Then there are the main protagonists, president Putin and Zelensky, who will meet for the first time since Zelensky’s election and after 3 years of diplomatic hiatus.

Two main protagonists

Putin will be the most relaxed of the four because he can live with the status quo and, in case of dissension, can put pressure on Ukraine simply by repeating that Russia wants partners to stick to the letter of the existing agreements and laws.

Against all odds, he continues to pretend that Russia is not present in the Donbass, despite the fact that arms in the Donbass cannot all come from black markets. Which always made the question of “withdrawal of Russian forces” a political headache.

But he also wants to move towards a partial lift of EU sanctions, which means he cannot play the bully. He has also to keep figures in mind: all surveys, in Russia and Ukraine, continue to show that a vast majority of people want good relations between their countries.

The real challenge is for Zelensky, confronted with a major test in shaky internal position. The electoral promise that attracted most the voters was his undertaking to forge peace in Donbass and national reconciliation. He is sincerely attached to obtain what he called more than once “a real cease fire”.

In fact, his first challenge is to find a solution that will reconciliate a divided population – or at least not provide for further divisions.

Because any progress towards peace requires concessions, that will expose him to critics and even street demonstrations after years of brainwashing by President Poroshenko’s “party of war”, that include descriptions of Eastern Ukrainians as non- Ukrainians but traitors happy to live under the boots of occupying forces.

Divided population

This contradicts recent surveys in the rebel-controlled areas exposing very contradictory attitudes. A majority still consider themselves as Ukrainian by nationality or by citizenship, but after years of killings and shelling by Ukrainian armed forces a sizeable proportion of the population is unable to see their future with Ukraine. Their main concern is unemployment and reconstruction that for financial reason Kiev is unable to afford. A majority believe Kiev is to blame for the conflict and refuse to accept their share of responsibility for the current situation. This is why the wanted to be present in Paris, as they do not feel represented by any of the four participants.

Whatever Donbass inhabitants feel, the rest of Ukraine continues to see the region as a nest of antipatriots manipulated by Moscow. Already demonstrations in Kiev, fueled by nationalist groups sidelined after the defeat of president Poroshenko, have denounced any “surrendering” by accepting “Putin’s plan”; they threatened  destabilisation, even a “new Maidan”. Surely, they are out for a confrontation and feel backed by the same forces in the West who share their idea that Ukraine is the eastern front of NATO to protect western civilisation and peace in transatlantic space.

Divided elites

Contradictions in Kiev elites are obvious.

The announcement of the meeting in Paris has galvanised parliamentary three opposition factions that call themselves “pro-European”: European Solidarity, Fatherland and Voice. Their respective leaders MP Petro Poroshenko, Yulia Tymoshenko and Svyatoslav Vakarchuk have issued a joint statement urging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky not to cross “red lines” during his coming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Those red lines leave absolutely no space for concessions or even proper discussion since they reject all the points of the Minsk Agreement. Just in case the message would be lost, they  urge “all patriotic parties and public unions to join us in our struggle to defend Ukraine”.

Zelensky can hardly brush it aside as a political musculation by loosers of the elections. If only because the statement has been backed by 284 members of Ukrainian parliament (out of 412) and because his popularity is falling, as well as that of the government.

Moreover, all signs are that many at the head of the state, including ministers, will try to put themselves on the right side of the barricade if things go wrong in Paris. The list includes Foreign Minister Vadym Prystayko for whom Ukraine’s main expectation from the summit is a RUxit. Or Ukraine’s deputy minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Dmytro Kuleba for whom the Normandy summit communique will be a “political document” without any “legal commitments” undertaken by Kyiv.

Helping Zelensky

Up to now, Zelensky seems to have adopted the Kuchma’s method: to tell the West what it wants to hear, Russia what it wants to hear and Ukrainian people what they want to hear. It has allowed Kuchma to develop his concept of a multi-vector policy much copied later. But times and international conjuncture were different – and Kuchma was not under pressure to save his position.

For Zelensky, Paris will be a perilous exercise because of internal pressures. His rating has fallen over the few months (a little half of Ukrainians still support him). Negative attitude towards him and his team being linked to utility tariffs, land reform and the Donbass conflict.

This context explains why the attitude of his Western partners, not that of Putin, will be key in Paris. They can prevent any step agreed during the meeting to appear as the Ukrainian president accepting the “Russian plan” by endorsing it firmly and that results will be clearly stated in a final communique not open to contradictory interpretations.

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