Playing with fire in the Donbass

By Nina Bachkatov

Since the end of July 2020, belligerents in Eastern Ukraine had respected the cease-fire, the longest period of seeming peace since the conflict started in 2014. Then, by early 2021, violence erupted again, with dozens killed or injured. By April, the situation had gone worst. Both Russia and Ukraine were accusing each other of provocations and preparing a military offensive. Ukraine has been sending soldiers and new equipment to the front line; Russia massing thousands of troops and heavy material along its 250 km border with Ukraine.

It was looking as if, after Nagorno-Karabakh, another frozen conflict on European soil was turning hot. But, as often, comparisons are misleading. Turkey was trying to assert its regional influence, but was not basically driven by anti-Russian motives. More importantly, the position of president Aliev was much more sound than that of president Zelensky. In those conditions, Turkey and Russia were able to sign a ceasefire treaty with between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The situation of President Zelensky is completely different, after two years of inequal success in his attempts to get a solid grip on Ukrainian state structures and to fulfill his electoral promises (fight against corruption, reforms of the institutions and of the economy, fairer distribution of means, peace in the East).

New rivals

Volorymyr Zelensky was elected with 74% of the votes, beating the incumbent Petro Poroshenko. He was the perfect outsider, a comedian and satirist, not an oligarch. But he has no political experience, no party to support him, and was known as a television comedian and satirist.

Obviously, his capital of public sympathy was not enough to lead a country saddled with so many problems. For two years, Zelensky tried to use classical means to assert one’s grip on power, deprived of a persistent lack of structural basis and parliamentary coalition, hampered by a poor control of the armed militia and nationalists with links with the intelligence and security services. The government was handicapped by a high level of top officials’ turnover, and a succession of three prime ministers in less than two years.

Not surprisingly, he soon began to feel on his neck the breath of political rivals, notably for the next, perhaps anticipated, presidential elections. Even if he promised during the 2019 campaign to limit his presidency to one mandate.

One serious contender is Petro Poroshenko, his predecessor, who never accepted his defeat, and lately declared intentions to come back to the presidency. The second is another politician-cum-oligarch, Viktor Medvedchuk. His OPZI (Opposition Platform for Life) is the most cohesive force in parliament, with 44 deputies in the 450-seats assembly (minus representative from Donbass regions). He is popular, well connected – and an easier target than Poroshenko because his party is “pro-Russian”, meaning it supports good relations with Russia. Himself has a personal connection with Vladimir Putin, reason why he has been seen at a time as an asset in the negotiations concerning the Donbass.

Striking first

Zelensky went to the offensive, signing successive decrees due to sink Medvedchuk political hopes. One, signed on 2 February, imposed sanctions on Taras Kozak’s (OPZI deputy head) three television stations. Ukrainian media say the media assets, which aired “pro-Kremlin propaganda”, really belong to Medvedchuk.

On 20 February, the president endorsed the decision of Ukraine’s National Security Council to freeze for 3 years the assets of Medvedchuk and his wife, preventing them from doing business in Ukraine. An oil pipeline that transports Russian oil products to Europe and is reportedly controlled by Medvedchuk will be nationalised. He is also investigated for financing terrorism.

He immediately reacted, saying the measures will not change his decisions to stay in the country. In other words, he had no intention to follow steps of former president Viktor Yanukovich, who flew Ukraine during Maidan. Yanukovich’s name is mentioned in another decree, published on the presidential website on 9 April 2021. It was enacting sanctions against former top officials, including Yanukovych and former prime minister Mykola Azarov, who both fled the country in 2014.

The commander in chief

Zelensky could hardly put in question the resolution of Poroshenko in defending national causes. But he might try to steal part of his role, as a national leader and commander-in-chief, albeit visiting the front and military installation in civilian clothes. He could hardly do the other way as, during the presidential campaign, he mocked so often “warmonger” Poroshenko parading in camouflage outfits.

The question is that the experience of the last 2 years tends to demonstrate that Zelensky lacks sound conseils, from a large spectrum, perhaps being too much of an artist. But in this case, he breaks with a key electoral promise about national reconciliation and risk to alienate further the Ukrainians who feels totally Ukrainian, but Russian speakers. Even the heads of the army are concerned that the president can be taken away by his rhetoric, especially when officials in Moscow are so vindicative.

At this moment, only two things are clear: the Minsk agreements are dead; one does not need to be on the payroll of the Kremlin to fear a balkanization of Ukraine.

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