NEC Analysts Assessed the Events in Ukraine’s Relations with the U.S., EU and Russia (April-June, 2019).
PDF-version of the paper is available here.
UKRAINE – US RELATIONS
Report by Alyona Getmanchuk, Director of the NEC, on assessment of Ukraine’s progress in relations with the US for the quarterly magazine ТRUMAN Index. The full version of TRUMAN Index No. 7 (11) is available on the TRUMAN Agency website.
POSITIVE SCORE: +31
NEGATIVE SCORE: -5
TRUMAN INDEX: +1,04
Given that a new president was elected in the last three months, we might have expected this quarter to see a lull in Ukraine-US relations, but this was not the case. This included attention-grabbing statements from President Trump’s lawyer and ex-mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, aimed at newly-elected President Zelenskyy’s circle and the removal of US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch just a few months before her term ended, who was replaced by a former US ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, as chargé d’affaires.
Before the new Ukrainian president had even been inaugurated, several issues already faced him on the American front: 1) how to make sure that Ukraine did not become a domestic focus in the US during the 2020 presidential campaign and not spoil relations with Trump; 2) whether it was worth choosing the US the country for his first official visit; 3) who should replace the Ukrainian ambassador to the US; and 4) what channels would be most effective for establishing dialog with the White House.
The answers to some of these questions are still up in the air or in need of further work. The challenges that face Zelenskyy with regard to the US are far more serious than those that faced Petro Poroshenko at the beginning: both because of the end of the Mueller investigation without any consequences, because of growing sanctions fatigue, and because of what he has inherited from the previous administration, some of whose representatives openly want to move into the new one.
A NEW TRUMP?
Prior to the presidential election in Ukraine, the US tried its best to uphold the position that it was supporting not so much the person but the principles. Still, in practice, even before the first round, this transformed itself into the position, “We’re betting on the winner:” whoever wins, that’s who we’ll work with. This was approximately how SecState Mike Pompeo put it in one of his statements. Unlike Chancellor Merkel and European Council President Donald Tusk, the US leader did not congratulate Poroshenko on making it into the second round, let alone accept him in a visit between the two rounds of the presidential vote.
By contrast, Volodymyr Zelenskyy received plenty of attention from Ukraine’s US partners. Between the first and second round of voting, close partner and head of his election headquarters Ivan Bakanov, who is now acting director of the SBU, headed off to Washington right after Zelenskyy’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris. There, he held several important meetings. Just before he second round, a telephone conversation took place with SecState Pompeo, taking the Zelenskyy team by surprise. After his victory at the polls, President Trump phoned, apparently straight from his plane. Vice President Mike Pence was equally keen to congratulate Zelenskyy immediately and talk with the president- elect by phone. In order to do so, a call from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had to be rescheduled.
Zelenskyy appeared pleased with his chat with Trump, even though his invitation to the American president to come to his inauguration was immediately turned down. However, Trump promised to send the top officials possible to Kyiv for the event. At the time, Zelenskyy’s team was expecting the inauguration to take place on June 1 and this was apparently the date that the US vice president was oriented towards.
However, the Verkhovna Rada scheduled the inauguration for May 20 and, in the end, the US delegation was led by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who had been in Ukraine not that long before. The group included Special Representative Kurt Volker, US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, which was significant in and of itself, and US National Security Council representative Alexander Wintour, who had considerable positive feedback from his Ukrainian counterparts. When asked the real reason why Mike Pence did not come to the inauguration, in addition to the official reason, related to the date, there was an unofficial one as well: distancing from Ukraine, which had become toxic at that point, thanks to claims made by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Just before the second round of the election, claims that President Trump was waiting for Zelenskyy to win came from a number of sources because, firstly, in his eyes Poroshenko would always be trailed by rumors that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election on Hillary Clinton’s side. The US president never forgot about this, despite Kyiv’s efforts to give the opposite impression. Secondly, many in Washington saw a Zelenskyy victory as a chance to unblock dialog between the US and Russia, as we wrote in the previous TRUMAN Index. US diplomats and experts had predicted that, as soon as Zelenskyy won the first round, Putin would immediately release the Ukrainian sailors he was holding, which would free the White House to organize a visit with him. It turned out, in fact, that Putin went the other way, aggravating the situation, by launching a fast track to a Russian passport for Ukrainians living in the occupied territories. It turned out that the rule about “no meetings with Putin while the Ukrainian sailors are behind bars” obviously only applied to the meeting between the two that had been slated for Argentina, and not any subsequent ones in principle. What’s more, after meeting with Putin in Osaka, Trump openly admitted that the subject of the sailors did not even come up.
The political situation in the US also proved less accommodating at the start of the Zelenskyy presidency than it had been under Poroshenko. Poroshenko’s term was shadowed by the Mueller investigation into Trump’s apparent collusion with Russia. With all due respect to Ukrainian diplomats and their prioritizing American relations—Kyiv’s version of America First—, but what spurred the organization of high-level meetings between the Ukrainian and American president was not some kind of understanding of the importance of Ukraine but the political circumstances, connected with accusations that Russia had interfered in the US elections.
Moreover, American interlocutors have been more and more frequently mentioning “sanction-fatigue.” Maybe it’s not for nothing that both at the Senate hearings in June, US lawmakers actively sought evidence of the effectiveness of sanctions against Russia and whether they can even work, fundamentally.
However, it’s worth noting that whether some US institutions see Zelenskyy’s victory as a new window of opportunity, not just in relation to Russia, but also for speeding up anti-corruption reforms in Ukraine, we did not find any evidence that Donald Trump himself had bet on Zelenskyy. Ukraine interested Trump as a source of evidence against opponents in the presidential election and, if we can risk an assumption here, he’s less interested in the person of the Ukrainian president, than in that person’s preparedness to provide and legitimize compromising evidence. This will be especially true if Joe Biden wins the Democratic primaries.
As to other American stakeholders, there’s a noticeable willingness to give Zelenskyy the benefit of the doubt for now. But this will not last for long. Just how long was evident from Kurt Volker’s speech in the Senate hearings, in which he stated in no uncertain terms that the next three months will determine Ukraine’s future for the next five years. In other words, for Americans, the next three months will be the most indicative.
Right now, probably Zelenskyy’s biggest asset for the Americans and other foreign partners is the unbelievably high level of trust he enjoys at home, which was evident in the 73% of the votes he received in the election. It’s worth repeating and emphasizing that Americans love a winner, and Donald Trump in spades. Emmanuel Macron’s brilliant win in France made him an attractive partner for negotiations as well. In the Ukrainian case, there is a president who, like Trump, came to office as an anti-establishment candidate and a television personality. Although Trump himself has never spoken publicly about Zelenskyy as his Ukrainian counterpart, Giuliani, in one of his many interviews on the subject of Ukraine, referred to Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “new Trump.”
WHICH WASHINGTON IS IT?
Zelenskyy has already felt at the very start of his presidency the problem with Washington not being primarily represented by one or two “faces”—something that has been a real challenge for many of the US’s foreign partners since Trump was elected. In the case of Ukraine, it’s a question as to who represents the US position towards Ukraine and which channels should the new administration use in communicating with the United States.
This issue grew much more urgent after the premature recall of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. One of the reasons for this move was a campaign launched against her in the conservative US media by Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, aided and abetted by Trump’s lawyer, Giuliani. Yovanovitch’s history is notable because she challenged the Ukraine agenda that had been the bible for official Washington, for years and possibly for decades, with only minor adjustments. It largely came down to fighting corruption, reforming the judiciary, and economic reforms. After the start of Russia’s aggression, when Ukraine’s leadership understandably made security its top priority in dialog with the US, its American partners shifted to a new focus in this agenda: Ukraine needs reforms, and not just its Armed Forces.
With many points where Washington’s position towards Ukraine is shaped, differences typically arise between the White House and the State Department or the Congress. But things are more nuanced than that. In the last three months, what seems to have emerged is the position of a “official” Washington—meaning State, the NSC, the Pentagon, and the Department of Energy—and that of an “unofficial” Washington—Rudy Giuliani and other individuals close to Trump who have no official position in the Government. It seems that the agenda of the “official” wing in Washington is based on an understanding of how important Ukraine and its eventual success story is to the region, under the logic “without Ukraine, Russia will never again be an empire.” For “unofficial” Washington, Ukraine is important at this point for a slew of lobbying efforts and the wish to take advantage of the country for America’s domestic policy agenda.
Whether deliberately or not, Volodymyr Zelenskyy placed his bets mainly with official channels of communication even before he won the second round. And the representatives of the US Government, especially the Embassy in Ukraine and State Department, chose a pro-active position in establishing cooperation with Zelenskyy, first as a candidate and then as president-elect. Zelenskyy personally or a member of his team, Ivan Bakanov, met with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent several times. Our sources in Washington consider Kent, who worked as Ambassador Yovanovitch’s second-in-command in Kyiv until summer of 2018, the main strategist on Ukraine at State. At the same time, according to sources in his team, Zelenskyy chose not to meet with Giuliani clients and Trump donors, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, both US citizens. Instead, they went to Israel and meet with Igor Kolomoyskiy.
As the team spokesperson admitted, the Ze team only found out about the planned and then cancelled Giuliani visit to Ukraine from the press. This kind of approach is very different from Petro Poroshenko’s. Poroshenko actively engaged with informal contacts, including Giuliani, in order to gain access to the US president. Indeed, according to our sources, Giuliani himself notified Poroshenko about the date of his first meeting at the White House on June 20, 2017.
One event that stood out was a dinner in Brussels where Jared Kushner was among the guests. Although he is one of Trump’s advisors, he is considered more part of unofficial Washington. According to our sources, in fact, when the president received an invitation to join this supper, the US announced that Mike Pompeo would attend, coming to Brussels from London where President Trump was visiting at that point. It became clear only on the last day that Kushner would participate and not Pompeo.
In the last month or two, the story with Giuliani became overgrown with several story lines, something that complicated the start of the relationship between Zelenskyy’s Ukraine and Trump’s America.
The first plot line was the issues with which Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko got Giuliani’s attention. This started with his investigations into the interference of some political players in Ukraine in the 2016 US election in favor of Hillary Clinton, including Serhiy Leshchenko and Artem Sytnyk, ex-Ambassador Yovanovitch’s playing up to this (admittedly, Yovanovitch had not yet come to Ukraine when Party of the Regions’ black book with Manafort’s name in it came to light), and the activities of Burisma, a drilling company whose board of directors included Joe Biden’s son Hunter. These accusations turned out to be especially significant in relation to the US election campaign, as they made it possible to launch a campaign against Biden, ostensibly for using his post to benefit a company involving his son by asking Ukraine to remove Viktor Shokin as Prosecutor General, ostensibly because he had started an investigation against Burisma.
In previous issues, we wrote about this and recommended strongly that such issues not be overblown because they would have a negative impact on Ukraine-US relations and the perception of Ukraine as a country in Washington. This is only likely to make Ukraine hostage to the 2020 US election campaign by linking relations to this history for a considerable time, and could, for many political players in the United States, make Ukraine almost as toxic as Russia.
Moreover, as we predicted, spreading the idea that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election with sights on Leshchenko and Sytnyk ricocheted all over Ukraine and its previous administration. After Poroshenko resigned as president, Giuliani at least on two occasions made public statements where he mentioned Ukraine’s previous president, not Sytnyk or Leshchenko, as the person who was pushing for Clinton to be elected—in other words linked him to “Ukrainian collusion.”
The next plot line was the direct impact of Giuliani’s client relations with Parnas and Fruman on the way Trump’s personal lawyer perceived oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy. The two visited Kolomoyskiy in Israel and obviously failed to find common ground with him. Kolomoyskiy turned around and accused them of being the reason why Giuliani was openly attacking Zelenskyy’s team, including the president-elect himself. The link between the two businessmen and Giuliani in relation to Kolomoyskiy was followed quite clearly: immediately after Kolomoyskiy’s threat that he would take Giuliani’s clients out into the open sea, Trump’s lawyer reacted aggressively in Twitter, saying that this was a threat against American citizens and de facto calling on Zelenskyy to arrest Kolomoyskiy. In fact, in the case of Kolomoyskiy, Giuliani’s demands that his influence be cut short, his pro-active position plays into Ukraine’s hands as a state, because it, in effect, encourages Zelenskyy to show just how serious his intentions to de-oligarchize Ukraine are.
DE-OLIGARCHIZE, BUT NOT SELECTIVELY
The issue of Kolomoyskiy’s toxicity in the opinion of Giuliani and “unofficial” Washington coincides, albeit for different reasons, with the position of “official” Washington. Not a single American politician, diplomat or expert we met called Kolomoyskiy a positive factor for the Zelenskyy presidency. Today, he is clearly a negative figure for the US. “How else can we look at a person who stole more than US $5bn from the Ukrainian people?” said one government official in an informal conversation.
The clearest manifestation of the US position regarding de- oligarchization was on the issue of appointing and keeping Zelenskyy’s Chief-of-staff, Andriy Bohdan, in his official position. According to our sources, head of the US delegation and Energy Secretary Rick Perry specifically mentioned during his meeting with Zelenskyy on the day of the inauguration that appointing Bohdan to this post was not desirable. According to US sources, Kurt Volker expressed the same message. At the Senate hearings on US policy towards Ukraine and Russia, influential Democratic Senator Robert Menendez specifically asked Volker about the links between Zelenskyy and Kolomoyskiy. According to our sources, the question of Andriy Bohdan continuing to be Zelenskyy’s Chief-of-Staff is still on the Americans’ mind. Most likely Ukraine’s overseas partners will act in the personalized way that is standard procedure in this kind of situation: when some individual, in their opinion, is not appropriate for a particular post, they will systematically undermine his position, working to get him fired, behind the scenes at first, and then, if necessary, in public.
It’s important that the demands for de-oligarchizing on the US side do not come across as selective. Ukraine’s partners can help considerably if they don’t do things to legitimize individual Ukrainian oligarchs by, say, taking part in their events—Viktor Pinchuk’s YES Forum comes to mind.
AN EX-AMBASSADOR AS A NEW CHARGE D’AFFAIRES
Some good news to offset the Giuliani situation was the appointment of William Taylor as the chargé d’affaires to replace Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. When Yovanovitch was recalled, many of those who favored developing Ukraine-US relations more were worried about
who might replace her, whether it would be another career diplomat who was prepared to follow a traditional approach to Ukraine-US relations, or someone focused on only one thing—helping Donald Trump win re-election for a second term of office by finding some compromising materials against the Democrats, especially Biden, in Ukraine. In April, before Giuliani’s reverberating claims, rumors that he might be one of the candidates came from three sources at once. However, American diplomats made it be known that this kind of candidate had few chances of being approved in the Senate and was highly unlikely. A few more names were mentioned that also belonged to the category of political appointees.
The difficulty of getting the kind of candidate Trump preferred through the Senate was ultimately the main reason why William Taylor was brought back. His advantages included an understanding of Ukraine and an ability to discuss even the most aggravating issues in a pleasant, consensual manner.
US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, himself a political appointee, is becoming the most common contact person between Kyiv and Washington. In diplomatic circles, he’s referred to as a kind of “Europe handler” for Trump. Notably, Sondland was in the delegation at the inauguration of President Zelenskyy and, according to some information, invited Zelenskyy to the supper in Brussels where SecState Pompeo was supposed to be in attendance.
VISITING WASHINGTON: NOT THE FIRST TIME, BUT NO LESS IMPORTANT
The Zelenskyy team is taking his first visit to the United States surprisingly seriously. For a time, they even considered making the US capital the first international stop. Coming to Washington and meeting with President Trump would have been very useful in the run-up to the VR election, despite the fact that Zelenskyy’s party, Sluha Narodu, enjoys sky-high ratings at home. But it soon became apparent that this kind of visit needed serious preparations. Among others, such a visit could not be clouded by accusations from the US president’s personal lawyer.
Zelenskyy also needs time for a new Ukrainian ambassador to the US to be found, as Valeriy Chaly is seen as a close ally of Poroshenko. Naturally, the new president would like his first visit to be prepared when he has an ambassador in Washington to represent Zelenskyy’s Ukraine, not Poroshenko’s, and in whom he could trust. At the time of press, there were several professional heavyweight diplomats lined up as possible candidates, all of them with solid experience working with the US.
Moreover, the American side immediately made it clear that this visit needed to take place after the VR election in Ukraine. In order for there to be some effect on voters, however, the Ukrainian side sent a request for an official invitation to the White House. Some insiders noted that the necessary factors are in place for such a visit to happen, including ensuring that the parliamentary election will be free and independent, that corruption is being tackled, and so on. Ambassador Chaly noted that the invitation refers to a “strategic partnership” between Ukraine and the US. Although this term has long since been devalued for Ukrainian observers, the American side has reluctantly allowed itself similar formulations in official rhetoric regarding Ukraine, but prefers to use the unembellished term “partner”.
Unfortunately, thanks to the destructive efforts of Yuriy Lutsenko, prior to Zelenskyy’s first visit to Washington, Kyiv will have to answer what is happening with two investigations that, in principle, should not have figured at all in Ukrainian-American dialog at the highest level. As the US presidential race picks up pace, any imprecise communication from the Ukrainian side could easily be interpreted as interference in the upcoming election, only this time on Donald Trump’s behalf. To avoid this, President Zelenskyy will have to start with at least a few basic points
- absolutely no promises to speed up or influence the investigations. The US has demanded for years that Ukraine have an independent judiciary, so it’s time to demonstrate this in a specific case;
- dialog exclusively through official channels. Strict discipline regarding comments on Giuliani’s claims on the part of official representatives of President Zelenskyy;
- maximum publicity and transparency regarding any influence or pressure on Ukraine coming from Giuliani. Our allies in this are members of the US executive, congressional representatives and senators, as well as American opinion leaders;
- if at all possible, provide personal evidence to Trump that neither the subject of “Ukrainian collusion,” nor the question of investigating Biden’s affairs is important to the American voter and will not affect the result of the 2020 presidential campaign.
One way or another, in the run-up to the Ukrainian president’s visit to Washington, it’s clear that what is lacking in Ukrainian-American relations is—Ukrainian-American relations. There’s US domestic policy, where, at the highest level, Ukraine is seen as a source of compromising materials. There’s US-Russian dialog, where Ukraine continues to be seen as an obstacle. What is lacking is partnership between the two.
UKRAINE – EU RELATIONS
Report by Leonid Litra, Senior Research Fellow at the New Europe Center, on assessment of Ukraine’s progress in relations with the EU for the quarterly magazine ТRUMAN Index. The full version of TRUMAN Index No. 7 (11) is available on the TRUMAN Agency website.
POSITIVE SCORE: +37
NEGATIVE SCORE: -6
TRUMAN INDEX: +1,93
The election of Volodymyr Zelenskyy as president of Ukraine has given new impetus to Kyiv’s relations with Brussels. The commitment to continue EU integration and the first official visit to Brussels made it clear there would be no rollback of Ukraine’s ambitions regarding the EU. Zelenskyy also managed to establish good working relations with EU leaders and was well-received, despite minor misunderstandings. Particular attention was paid to Zelenskyy’s policy on occupied Donbas. The new president explained his ideas, which entail mainly a set of measures to improve the human dimension in eastern Ukraine. His proposals were received positively in Brussels and the EU is now looking forward to implementation.
The EU extended economic sanctions against Russia for another six months but was unable to come up with a set of measures against Russia’s “passportization” policy in occupied Donbas. Indeed, it’s unclear if there will be any response at all, demonstrating that the mood in the EU is not to confront Russia with additional sanctions but to look for ways to dialog. This was best illustrated by the scandalous return of Russia’s delegation to PACE without any sanctions and without any of the original conditions having been met.
Zelenskyy seems to be focused on the top EU priorities when it comes to reforms: he has acted to re-criminalize illicit enrichment, to re- launch the National Agency for Corruption Prevention and to get the High Anti-Corruption Court going. Despite his disappointment with the Verkhovna Rada, the legislature managed to pass the amended version of Annex XXVII to the Association Agreement, on energy, and to adopt several laws necessary to deepen the EU integration process.
POLITICAL DIALOG: MUSICAL CHAIRS
Ukraine-EU cooperation continued at an intense level, despite the political turbulence in both Kyiv and Brussels. Both capitals went through elections, making them concentrate more on their internal agendas. For Ukraine, of course, the EU has been part of the domestic agenda for years, so it was no surprise that European integration was one of most talked-about topics. Newly-elected President Volodymyr Zelenskyy committed himself to continuing Ukraine’s European path and stressed on multiple occasions that Ukraine’s strategic direction during his term would remain integration into the European Union.
Zelenskyy’s words were underscored by his first visit abroad, which was to Brussels and included meetings with EU and NATO officials. Although some top EU officials showed open support for Petro Poroshenko during the presidential campaign, they all seemed to adapt swiftly once Zelenskyy was elected. In Brussels, President Zelenskyy met with – European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker, EU Council President Donald Tusk, EC Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis, and HRVP Federica Mogherini. In general, feedback was quite good and Zelenskyy made a positive impression. Specially “good chemistry” was noticed between Zelenskyy and Juncker when the EC president told a journalist that he had a new friend, when asked whether he missed Poroshenko. Zelenskyy referred to Juncker as a “nice guy” during an interview.
The Brussels visit was an overall successful since Zelenskyy has taken up Ukraine’s EU agenda from Poroshenko. The weak side of the visit was due to institutional realities: the EU will have new leaders in a few months and Zelenskyy will have to establish new relations after the current leaders leave. Zelenskyy also attended a dinner at the US Embassy in Brussels, where he met with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, who some sources said replaced Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. A diplomatic source in Brussels noted that Donald Tusk was unhappy that Zelenskyy had apparently agreed the details of the visit first with the US Embassy and only then with EU officials, which looked like he was prioritizing the US. That was not the only strain with Tusk. Sources say that Zelenskyy started in Ukrainian but kept switching to Russian while talking to the EU president, which made Tusk somewhat uncomfortable.
Discussions in Brussels centered on several issues, all of them important for Ukraine. The top topic was Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and sanctions, and Zelenskyy presented his views on occupied Donbas with a particular focus on the human dimension. The ideas he presented on occupied Donbas were received with sympathy in the EU and now Ukrainian president will have to show that his words were serious and deliver. Another issue was reforms and EU support, where the EU also liked Zelenskyy’s approach in giving priority first to reforms and then to other matters, such as membership. Once again, the new president will have to prove his intentions in practice. Finally, Zelenskyy also raised the issue of quotas for Ukraine and although there still no certainty on how these could evolve, for Ukraine this is a key issue that needs to stay on the agenda, especially as Kyiv is getting ready to propose revisions to the Association Agreement in 2020.
A separate and very important discussion focused on the EU- Ukraine summit, which was already scheduled for July 8 before the presidential election in Ukraine. During his visit, Zelenskyy wanted to confirm that the date was still firm, as one diplomatic source in Brussels said one of the EU leaders wanted to postpone the summit to fall 2019, as was done with the North Atlantic Council meeting in Ukraine. However, Zelenskyy confirmed that the summit would take place on July 8, before the July 21 snap parliamentary election in Ukraine, so that he could show voters that Ukraine’s course towards EU remained stable and well-managed, not worse than it was under his predecessor.
President Zelenskyy, who is no foreign policy wonk, nor does he see himself as one, began to prepare his foreign policy, including EU, agenda even before his inauguration. First, he appointed Ukraine’s well-respected Ambassador to NATO, Vadym Prystaiko, as his foreign policy advisor, promoting him to deputy Chief-of-Staff after the inauguration. Prystaiko is an experienced career diplomat
and dedicated supporter of European and Euroatlantic integration. Second, Zelenskyy met with Commissioner Hahn to discuss relations with the EU and reforms in Ukraine in detail. Notably, Hahn refused to meet President Poroshenko after the election, as there had been some friction between the two: Hahn had intimated many times that Poroshenko was not credible because he as systematically not delivering on his promises.
The next few months will be very important for relations between Ukraine and the EU. First, Ukraine has a new president and will soon have a new Verkhovna Rada and new Government. Second, EU leadership will be new as well and these individuals could be less familiar with Ukraine. After the May elections to the European Parliament, it was already evident that Ukraine had fewer reliable friends there and would have to build new relations, both because the number of MEPs that do not support Ukraine may have grown, while some fierce supporters of Ukraine, such as Rebecca Harms and Elmar Brok, did not run this time.
EU SANCTIONS: OK BUT NO MORE?
During the monitoring period, Kyiv and Brussels opened a new line of discussion over EU sanctions against Russia. Aside from sanctions related to the illegal annexation of Crimea, economic sanctions and sanctions over the Russian attack around the Kerch Strait, this discussion was triggered by a Russian decision to fast- track the issue of Russian passports, meaning citizenship, to Ukrainian citizens in occupied Donbas. Ukraine reacted swiftly to the Russian move, protesting vociferously and calling on the EU and other international partners to impose additional sanctions. FM Klimkin noted that the EU needed to come with a systemic response to Russian actions and put in motion measures that would discourage Russia from applying such policies. Klimkin stressed that, this time, symbolic personal sanctions were not what was called for, as a travel ban on 10, 20 or even 50 individuals would not be meaningful and would be seen as a betrayal in Ukraine. The Ukrainian diplomat argued for the application of new sanctions, drawing parallels with other EU countries like Estonia and Latvia, who face the same problem.
However, EU reaction did not meet Ukrainian expectations. First, the EU condemned Putin’s decision to issue passports in an occupied territory. Then, the EU considered personal sanctions against those responsible for the decision. It also began looking at the possibility of denying entry to EU territory to those Ukrainian citizens who also had fast-tracked RF passports and the EU Commission is assessing this option. Initially, it was expected that the EU would make a decision on how to respond to the Russian “passport attack” at the EU Summit on June 20-21. However, only 8 or 9 EU countries favor additional sanctions. Diplomatic sources noted that there was currently no appetite in the EU for further sanctions and increasing pressure on Russia. On the contrary, the EU appears to be determined to establish a dialog with Russia, although this will not affect existing sanctions. In fact, EU officials pointed out that the Russian decision violated the Minsk Accords in spirit and purpose, which should increase the likelihood that the current sanctions will continue.
Unwillingness to impose new sanctions is not a new phenomenon in the EU. After the Russian attack near the Kerch Strait, influenced by Germany, France, Italy and some other EU members, Brussels postponed any response at all for a long time and in the end the measures applied were fairly symbolic: few names added to the list of individual sanctions. The “Azov package” of sanctions, which was in response as well to Russia’s interference with international shipping to Ukraine’s ports on the Azov Sea, promoted by Ukraine’s leadership also seemed more symbolic than anything. In response, the EU promised to compensate the lack of sanctions through financial support aimed at developing the Azov region.
EU economic sanctions against Russia, which are considered key in Ukraine, were extended by another six months. This took place after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were informed about the progress of Minsk implementation. There was almost no debate, other than a suggestion by Poland that sanctions be extended for a full year, rather than six months. There are already examples of sanctions that are renewed once a year, such as those against Syria. However, the Polish proposal was not supported, although it was a good proposal from the Ukrainian perspective.
The poor appetite within the EU for continuing economic sanctions can be seen every time they have to be renewed. But so far, the fact that sanctions have been tied to the implementation of Minsk is making it unlikely that they will be lifted. It would be particularly dangerous to lift sanctions just as Ukraine’s new president tests ideas about improving the human dimension in occupied Donbas. Zelenskyy’s steps need to be supported by continuing sanctions on the part of the EU. Otherwise, his steps could be seen at home as capitulation.
Unlike the EU, the Council of Europe proved unable to resist the Russian “strategy” of returning to PACE without implementing a single condition on the list that led to its expulsion in the first place. Before the voting took place, Ukraine’s foreign minister tried to link the return of the Russian delegation to completing the Minsk process. While admitting that there is no direct link between Russia in PACE and the Minsk Accords, Klimkin stressed that if the CoE was prepared to reinstate Russia’s delegation without complying with any of PACE’s rules and meanwhile issuing passport in occupied territories, then the very logic of these steps became pointless.
Even though it was clear to all that Russia understood it could do anything without being punished, the Parliamentary Assembly, led by France, Germany and Italy, voted to return Russia, even if it did not fulfill any of the requirements. A Pandora’s box has been opened and it is clear that similar steps could well take place in the future.
ECONOMY: ADJUSTING FOR CHANGE
In 2020, Ukraine will be able to propose changes to its EU Association Agreement. The proposed changes are expected to better reflect Ukrainian interests. For that, Ukraine will have to consult the various ministries and formulate specific changes. The need for such adjustments lies also in the fact that much has changed since the agreement was negotiated over 2007–2011. Not only has Ukraine changed, but the EU has also changed, and these processes are not entirely reflected in the current agreement. Some in Ukraine familiar with the course of implementation of the Association Agreement claim that Ukraine needs to change its commitments before the EU since these are higher than what Ukraine is capable of. Ukraine could implement the provisions of the AA as they stand, but only on condition that much more fund is forthcoming. The discrepancy between commitments and funding is huge and if the funds that were made available to countries in Central Europe before they joined the EU, to what Ukraine has been offered, it’s clear how underfunded Ukraine is for the purpose of a swift shift to EU standards and steady growth.
The Zelenskyy Administration has already submitted some requests for changes in the economic section of the Agreements. These requests touch on quotas, where, in principle, the EU is ready to make steps in favor of Ukraine, as well as on the basic Agreement. For now, says one EU diplomatic source, it’s not clear how Brussels will react and whether it will accept the proposal to amend the AA. That suggests that the EU is not prepared for such a step. Nevertheless, where interests coincide, Brussels and Kyiv have no trouble cooperating. The most recent example is changes in the DCFTA, in which the EU wanted to restrict the import of poultry to the EU. For a long time, businessman and Poroshenko ally Yuriy Kosiuk’s company, MHP, has been exporting chickens with the bone in, which is not subject to taxation according to the current Agreement. The bone was extracted at a facility in the EU, and then sold. The EU had raised the issue in 2018 and agreed with Ukraine in 2019 to increase quotas on poultry exports in exchange for amending the Agreement to close the tax loophole.
Another successful example in the last trimester was amending Annex XXVII or “energy annex” of the Association Agreement. The Association Council agreed upon the changes and Ukraine’s Government and Rada adopted and ratified them. The changes will offer Ukraine greater legal and infrastructural energy integration with the EU. The document provides for Ukraine to consult the European Commission on the compliance of any legislative energy proposal with the EU acquis. In turn, Ukraine shall refrain from enacting any laws before the European Commission assesses the bill and verifies its compliance with the acquis. Significantly, there are obligations on both sides, not only on the Ukrainian one. If, in the long term, the energy market integrates, this will help Ukraine considerably in negotiations with Russia’s Gazprom.
In terms of improving the legal environment to access more EU instruments, several developments have taken place, of which one is particularly significant. Ukraine’s legislature passed a bill amending certain legislative acts on implementing EU technical regulation legislation, which was a requirement to start the formal procedure of assessing Ukraine’s readiness to conclude the Agreement on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products (ACAA). Ukraine wants to conclude this process, as it will lead to increased exports of industrial products to the EU.
While the ACAA is being sorted out, Ukraine’s exports of agricultural products to the EU are moving along nicely. In QI 2019, exports of agricultural products to the EU jumped 24.4%, compared to the same period in 2018. The largest volumes go to the Netherlands worth US $379mn, with Spain at US $342mn, Italy at US $215mn, Poland at US $178mn, and Germany at US $157mn. The top 5 EU countries exporting to Ukraine are Poland at US $150mn, Germany at US $120mn, France at US $85mn, Italy at US $67mn, and Hungary at US $49mn. Half of the agricultural products exported to the EU are cereals, with oils a distant 17.8%.
REFORMS: BUMPING ALONG
The EU continued to focus on key reforms in Ukraine, mostly related to fighting corruption. Although many issues are related to the fight against corruption, three issues dominated: launching the High Anti-Corruption Court, renewing criminal liability for illicit enrichment, and re-launching the National Agency for Corruption Prevention. President Zelenskyy apparently also considered these his priorities. An important factor in giving the fight against corruption such a high profile in Zelenskyy’s team is the fact that Ruslan Ryaboshapka, previously a deputy minister of justice and a member of the National Agency for Corruption Prevention was appointed deputy Chief-of-Staff of the Zelenskyy Administration and is responsible for justice. So far, Zelenskyy has had a good start in tackling the infectiveness of the fight against corruption, but it is too early to draw conclusions, even preliminary ones.
To restore legislation criminalizing illicit enrichment, the president already sent his bill to the Verkhovna Rada. According to the Zelenskyy team, it was drafted with the assistance of international partners and the best legal experts in the field. In addition, the bill introduces a new instrument aimed at “neutralizing” the effects of
Constitutional Court rulings that, in fact, offers a one-time amnesty for illegally-acquired capital. The bill is long-awaited and represents one of the key elements for successful cooperation with the IMF and the EU. Ex-President Poroshenko also tried to restore the criminalization of illicit enrichment, but the Rada made no move while he was still in office. Meanwhile, there are about 10 bills on the same issue from various political groups. At this point, it looks like the new legislature will have to pass one of them.
The launch of the High Anti-Corruption Court has been postponed somewhat because of technical issues related to the buildings where the court and the appeals court will work, as well as the equipment that has to be installed. So far, the process of establishing this Court has been positively received, especially the selection of judges— although some are still critical of certain choices. Zelenskyy met with the chief justice of the HACC and promised to support a timely launch, which is now set for September 5.
The National Agency for Corruption Prevention (NACP) has also been on the new president’s agenda. His team is critical of the current work of the Agency and suggested that the institution needs a reboot. The presidential bill will mainly touch upon three issues: changing the management structure from the current collegial decision-making by a council of five to a single person making the decision; resolving NACP’s access to state registers; and eliminating the possibility for third parties, such as the Ministry of Justice, to block the Agency’s work.
Improving the NACP and establishing an effective automated system for verifying e-declarations are two of the key conditions for the second installment of EU macro-financial assistance, worth €500mn. Other conditions include adopting a law countering money-laundering, establishing authorized economic operators, adopting a mid-term plan for reforming customs and fiscal administration, and starting implementation of the law on the electricity market. Needless to say, cooperation with the IMF remains a condition for the disbursement of EU funds. Some EU officials publicly have stated that they expect Ukraine to deliver on all conditions and that Kyiv could receive this tranche by the end of the year. In private, however, EU diplomats are less optimistic and expect it to come in only next year.
ENERGY: CLIPPING NORD STREAM’S WINGS
With the amendment of the EU Gas Directive, plans for the Nord Stream II project have been slightly changed. The amendments applying to pipelines from non-EU countries, including NSII, are forcing Gazprom to play by EU rules, which could delay the project and make it less profitable, as they oblige NSII to grant access to third parties, to share property rights, to apply non-discriminatory rates, and to make the entire operation transparent.
The company managing NSII has threatened to sue EU if the new amendments are applied to NSII: the owners claim that the new gas directive jeopardizes billions of euros invested in the project. In a letter addressed to the European Commission president, NSII Executive Director Matthias Warnig has warned the EU that, if NSII does not get an exemption from the gas directive the EU will basically be discriminating against the pipeline and could be in breach of international agreements. Warnig’s letter was meant to make the EU consider exempting NSII from the directive, which is legally possible but has to be decided by the European Commission. The conditions for an exemption are simple: NSII has to be ready for commercial use before the new amendments enter into force—which is unlikely to happen, since they enter into force this summer, while the NSII is planned to come on line at the earliest in 2020.
The delay in finalizing NSII has meant that Gazprom will have to agree with Ukraine on the transit of Russian gas using Ukraine’s GTS. For Ukraine, the funds from transit fees are important, as they can represent as much as 4% of the country’s GDP. This means that losing the transit could be a serious problem. But as NSII is delayed, Ukraine has the chance to take action in order to ensure the transit through its GTS, as Germany insists, and to mitigate possible risks in case Gazprom stops transit altogether after NSII is launched. A delay is more likely now, as Denmark did not issue a permit to build the pipeline through its territorial waters, so NSII withdrew its request and is planning to bypass Danish waters. In the meantime, Naftogaz filed a complaint with the European Commission against Gazprom’s anti-competitive actions. If accepted, Ukraine will likely be able to keep its gas transit revenues.
Report by Sergiy Solodkyy, First Deputy Director of the NEC, on assessment of Ukraine’s progress in relations with Russia for the quarterly magazine ТRUMAN Index. The full version of TRUMAN Index No. 7 (11) is available on the TRUMAN Agency website.
POSITIVE SCORE: +6
NEGATIVE SCORE: -51
TRUMAN INDEX: -2,05
Russia used the maximum of resources and effort to change the president of Ukraine. Did this mean that there would inevitably be a change in Moscow’s approach to Kyiv? Not at all. Russia chose a wait-and-see position: all the public statements by its officials came down to the notion that Ukraine had to provide the conditions for further dialog. To a certain extent, Russia succeeded in reversing perceptions. After all, as the one violating international law, Moscow would have to demonstrate political will for a reconciliation with Kyiv to be possible. Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s presidency started with some nasty “presents” from Vladimir Putin, including a decree to fast-track Russian passports for Ukrainians living in occupied Donbas. Nor did Moscow make a single concession, both in the matter of releasing its more than 100 Ukrainian hostages, especially the 24 seamen it took captive in late November.
The new Ukrainian administration has made it very clear that it was prepared to compromise, but not to give in on the fundamental principles that the previous administration established. Thus, on one hand, Zelenskyy agreed to the withdrawal of troops in Stanytsia Luhanska; on the other hand, he rejected the idea of negotiating directly with Russia’s proxies. Nor is his administration prepared to discuss special status for ORDiLO. Predictions on both sides come down to the same: the main action will come after the Verkhovna Rada elections on July 21. So far, Zelenskyy has not been able to fulfill a single foreign policy promise without the support of the Rada.
Overly high expectations, plus the occasional positive statement and steps have slightly influenced the Russian foreign policy index. This quarter, it’s 2.05, which continues to be a very low level, but not quite the record low of the previous quarter. Certain events, such as the “passportization” of Ukrainians living in occupied Donbas and the failure of the latest ceasefire, have been rated extremely low, -7 points. A serious number of
less significant events rated at -2 or -1 somewhat balanced the typically regressive TRUMAN Index for the Russian Federation. Still, it’s worth noting that, for the first time in a long while, a number of events have appeared that were given a positive rating. Still, they are mostly predictive rather than decisive: Leonid Kuchma’s optimistic assessment after the latest Minsk talks is the modest emergence of a “micro-positive” dynamic against a background of total lack of trust and non-compliance. Here, the decision to withdraw forces and artillery from Stanytsia Luhanska merits particular attention and Ukraine’s international partners welcomed it with considerable enthusiasm.
NEW PRESIDENT, OLD CHALLENGES
Many observers predicted that with the coming of a new president in Ukraine, Russia’s approach might also change. There were even assumptions that Moscow might reduce the intensity of its aggression towards Kyiv in order to confirm, once more, that “everything was Poroshenko’s fault.” The logic of these predictions was based on the fact that Russia was hoping to shift all the responsibility and financial burden of supporting occupied Donbas to the Ukrainian Government. But this view proved too simplistic: however much of a burden ORDiLO is, Moscow will only give it up when its main goal vis-à-vis Ukraine is met—or extraordinary circumstances develop that get Russians themselves up in arms.
As we predicted in the previous issue of the TRUMAN Index, the change of president did nothing to alter Russia’s policy towards Ukraine. Moscow might even want to restore peaceful coexistence with Kyiv, but only if the conditions it has set are met, the main purpose of which is to preserve Russian influence over Ukraine.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy barely finished his victory speech, when Russia sent a very clear signal: negotiations aren’t going to be any easier. Moscow is waiting for concessions that symbolize Ukraine’s readiness to enter a new phase in bilateral relations. Initially, the Russian Government did was to ban the export of petroleum and petroleum products to Ukraine, three days before the second round of the election, in which the winner was already very clear. Three days after the vote, Putin gave Ukraine yet another “present,” signing a decree to fast-track the issuing of Russian citizenship to Ukrainians living in ORDiLO, the occupied counties of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.
These two decisions were the first serious test for the newly- elected president. Moscow made it very clear that the negotiation process would not be easy: if the new leadership in Ukraine wanted to see progress in relations, it would have to prove this not just in words. Zelenskyy was being watched for the speed of his response and the clarity of his message. It’s unlikely that the new president’s sharp public statement pleased Moscow.
Still, Russia has generally avoided negative public statements addressed directly to Zelenskyy. It could be that the Kremlin’s assumption is that the new president has to use patriotic rhetoric in order to hang on to that part of the electorate that unambiguously sees Russia as the enemy. Any vagueness in his formulation would have given his opponents the opportunity to accuse Zelenskyy of betraying the national interest, which would likely have affected his popularity among a significant portion of Ukrainian voters. According to this logic, Zelenskyy would not be able to risk any strong moves to reconcile with Russia at least until after the VR elections on July 21. Whatever the case may be, any such steps would require ratification and the approval of the Rada—in the old Rada he would have had no chance at all of pushing through any idea that involved concessions to Russia.
And so Moscow has been making a show of force, not easing the pressure, but sometimes sending signals that it was ready to talk—of course on its own terms. This waiting mode is the best way to characterize Russia’s policy towards Ukraine in the last three months. Moscow either did not respond or treated like a joke any strong statements from President Zelenskyy. For instance, when the Ukrainian leader sharply criticized Putin’s decree on fast- tracking Russian citizenship and offered Ukrainian citizenship as an option to Russian citizens, the Russian president joked: “Now we can talk about joint citizenship for Russians and Ukrainians.”
About a week after the inauguration, the Russian press published an interview with Valentyna Matvienko, chair of the Federation Council of Russia, in which quite a few questions focused on Ukraine. The Russian politician expressed the wish to start everything from a clean slate. Matvienko is a fairly symbolic figure, having been born in the Ukrainian SSR. Most likely, Moscow wanted her, a Ukrainian on her father’s side, to try to gain some understanding among those Ukrainians who would also like to start from scratch as well. If Moscow really was operating on this kind of logic, it was clearly flawed: Matvienko is not ambassador of peace, because she is associated entirely with Moscow’s aggressive policies. On March 1, 2014, it was Matvienko herself who called the Federation Council for an emergency meeting that allowed Russia to use its troops on Ukrainian territory. She was on the first sanctions list in both the US and the European Union and continues to be under sanctions from Kyiv.
During informal conversations with members of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission, which is watching the situation in the Donbas, word was that the situation on the front had somewhat stabilize as the presidential election took place. Based on the public reports of the OSCE SMM, the New Europe Center, a Kyiv-based think- tank, calculated that, during the week before the inauguration, the number of violations of the ceasefire in the Donbas averaged around 300 a day. There were quieter days, such as May 18, where there were “only” 55 violations, but there were also very tense ones. On May 17, there were nearly 800 violations of the ceasefire. OSCE observers report on the overall number of violations on both sides. In private conversations, however, they admit that a large portion is the fault of the militant groups on the occupied territories. The week after the inauguration, the intensity of violations went down by more than half, to an average of 130 a day. In June, daily violations increased again, to nearly 180 on average in the first week, to 375 a day in the second week, and 255 on average in the third week. During the fourth week, when the withdrawal of forces from around Stanytsia Luhanska began July 26, the average number of violations of the ceasefire was over 200 a day. Foreign diplomats thing that the clearer Zelenskyy’s position on Russia’s aggression became, the more often violations took place at the front. Indeed, Zelenskyy made it very clear in June that he wanted the pressure of western sanctions against Russia to continue. He was also not willing to have direct talks with Russia’s proxies in the occupied territories, which is a basic demand of Moscow’s.
And so peace has not come to the Donbas. Pressure on Zelenskyy after stating in his inaugural speech that he was “prepared for anything” for the sake of peace only grew stronger. Russia, of course, has its own explanations for all the violations of the ceasefire on the line of contact. Sources close to the negotiations process admit that growing violations are connected to the fact that the new Commander-in-Chief doesn’t have complete control over his own Armed Forces. This issue was supposedly unofficially raised by the representatives of the OSCE during talks with the president’s team. Word is that the Zelenskyy Administration took this seriously.
ZELENSKYY’S MIXED SIGNALS
So far, Moscow has refrained from issuing a clear list of requests to the new leadership in Kyiv. However, from time to time public statements are made that certain “grounds” need to be in place for dialog to start. Moscow is still interested in the Normandy format, which involves Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany, but at the same time, talks about the need for the right conditions for these negotiations to start up again. Moreover, everything is framed in such a way that official Kyiv is supposed to take steps towards Russia, and not the other way around.
Under President Poroshenko, a formula had been worked up that did not change over the last few years, based on the principle that Russia was to demonstrate willingness to move towards peace. The essence of this formula was first the security phase and then the political package. So, Kyiv expects firstly that the shooting stops and a stable ceasefire is in place, then the political steps: amnesty, local elections on the liberated territories, special status, and restoring control all along the state border. In fact, this sequence was written into the Minsk accords, as well. But in all the years, not a stable ceasefire has ever been achieved: only in the fall of 2015 did the shooting stop for about six weeks, during the back-to-school ceasefire.
Today, Zelenskyy’s team is also talking about the importance of a steady ceasefire of at least 60 days in order for the political phase to kick in, as anticipated in the Minsk agreement. His people note that in five years, Russia and Ukraine have announced ceasefires 18 times, but without success. Most were violated within 24 hours. And so Ukraine’s leadership has decided, in effect, to open a “parallel track” to resolve the conflict in the Donbas. It includes a series of measures to restore trust in the occupied territories:
- withdrawing forces to the area outside Stanytsia Luhanska, which, will make it possible to rebuild the bridge across the Siverskiy Donets River. The International Committee of the Red Cross has allocated €60 million for this purpose;
- taking measures to improve the capacity to let traffic through checkpoints on the line of contact;
- simplifying the procedures for Ukrainians living in the occupied territories to get their pensions;
- supporting infrastructure projects in the Donbas with the help of international donors;
- terminating a March 2017 decision of the National Security Council to temporarily completely stop transport links with the occupied territory. The Zelenskyy team says that this will happen only in exchange for the return of assets belonging to companies that were “nationalized” by the occupying regime;
- restoring a media presence in the Donbas.
In the past, Kyiv avoided any deviation from the formula “first security, then policy” in every way possible, aware of Russia’s untrustworthiness. Every time, Ukraine’s diplomats would note that the first version of the Minsk accords was abandoned at the end of 2014 because Russia organized elections on the occupied territories despite an agreement with Ukraine that this would not happen. The Minsk II was similarly abandoned when Russia continued to invade, despite having signed a document that was supposed to mean the start of peace.
Judging by everything, the new Administration has not rejected this principle, which is clearly annoying to Moscow. Russian officials have publicly criticized the new leadership as being “unready” to talk and ensure special status for the occupied territories. Meanwhile, Kyiv is prepared for the umpteenth time to try taking baby steps to show it wants to see a peaceful resolution.
The first practical step was supposed to be the withdrawal of forces outside Stanytsia Luhanska. Back in fall of 2016, an agreement was reached within the framework of the Minsk process to the effect that Ukraine’s forces and Russia’s proxy forces would withdraw artillery from the line of contact at three points: near the towns of Stanytsia Luhanska, Zolote and Petrivske. This was successful in the latter two cases, but in Stanytsia Luhanska, the process was stopped. As a result, the process of withdrawal stopped along the entire front. The main problem was lack of trust. Each side suspected the other of planning a possible attack the minute they withdrew from a position they held. Interestingly, even last year, Petro Poroshenko made public and private promises to Chancellor Angela Merkel to withdraw Ukraine’s forces in this town, but this never happened. The German leader’s office felt somewhat offended by this and put part of the blame for the abandoned negotiations with Russia on Ukraine itself. This shows just how complicated the issue is. Poroshenko obviously was afraid to take this step and face withering criticism at home. Against a background of accusations that he was supposedly colluding with Putin, a decision to withdraw forces would not have improved his rating in the election. Zelenskyy decided to take the risk, despite much public pressure and criticism from the Ukrainian press, experts and politicians.
These steps send mixed signals abroad. On one hand, placing the accent on the humanitarian block of issues in the occupied territories demonstrates a clear commitment by the government to resolve the conflict and Kyiv’s desire to find the smallest hook for some progress. On the other, such measures on Ukraine’s part can create the illusion that Kyiv is prepared to make any concessions whatsoever to Moscow. Many political opponents have criticized Zelenskyy that creating this kind of illusion has caused a certain retreat in their approach to Ukraine among the country’s western partners. Supposedly this is one reason that US and EU officials are no longer informing their Ukrainian colleagues about contacts with Russia, which they were doing to uphold the principle, “Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine,” insisted upon by the Poroshenko Administration. The start of Zelenskyy’s term also coincided with the return of the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which also appears to signal a shift among western politicians in response to what they see as a shift on the part of the new Ukrainian leadership. Of course, Zelenskyy’s team categorically rejects this kind of interpretation.
ZELENSKYY VS KLIMKIN: A FINE TRUMP FOR RUSSIA
Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s decisions are explained in the light of concern for the citizens of Ukraine who have found themselves in the occupied territory and a desire to give various agreements new impetus. The new administration does not consider the Minsk agreements “written in stone” and think their provisions could be revised. The Office of President is supposedly preparing something along the lines of a “Zelenskyy Plan,” analogous to the 2015 Morel Plan and the 2018 Steinmeier formula, both of which focused on the parallel implementation of all stages, including possibly prioritizing the political plan over security.
During this quarter, no real sense of Zelenskyy’s view of international relations has emerged, including the entire gamut of challenges connected to Moscow’s policies. Obviously, this vision is in the process of crystallizing and it will be possible to talk about its parameters only after the VR election. If the new president was accused of being ignorant and his team of lacking professional diplomats at first, criticism has now shifted to his inability to control the entire chain of command in making foreign policy. It’s no secret that Ukraine’s diplomatic corps largely supported Petro Poroshenko’s approach. The new president’s policies are bringing out at a minimum hidden opposition among many diplomats. The arrival of an experienced and highly competent career diplomat in Vadym Prystaiko on the presidential team has only somewhat eased the level of doubts about Zelenskyy’s capacity to respond effectively to external challenges.
One example of this, which roused criticism in both the pro-Western and pro-Russian camps, was the idea promoted by Zelenskyy’s appointees of a referendum as part of the peace process. The pro-Russian camp pointed out that the only way to get any results with Moscow was face-to-face at the negotiations table: “trumpet” diplomacy or “listening to the people” will not be effective. The pro-
Western camp was concerned that the Zelenskyy team could use the results of a referendum to justify its own concessions towards Moscow. Such fears were confirmed by a poll showing that 75.0% of Ukrainians favored direct talks with Russia. What’s more, over half, 55.4%, thought that the president of Ukraine should agree to direct dialog with the leadership of the proxy republics known as LDNR, for the sake of peace.1 However, the questions were evaluative in nature, as they include a positive goal, “direct talks ‘for the sake of establishing peace,’” which was clearly aimed at results that favor a high level of support. Results would have been diametrically opposed if the respondents had been offered a different evaluative hypothesis: “Should the president of Ukraine go for direct talks with Russia’s leadership if this will encourage Moscow to continue its aggressive policies?” The formulation of questions is key in polling. For instance, the New Europe Center commissioned a survey at the end of 2018 to present the following question to Ukrainians: “How should the future president resolve the conflict with Russia in order to stop armed aggression in the Donbas?” The results showed that Ukrainian opinion was undecided and scattered. The most popular response at 19.0% was “talks in the Budapest format.” Who might explain to this fifth of Ukrainians why this format is unrealistic right now? Incidentally, only 10.8% of Ukrainians supported “resolving the conflict personally with Putin without the involvement of foreign intermediaries.”2
In addition, a serious public conflict emerged between President Zelenskyy and Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin towards the end of this quarter. The president accused the country’s top diplomat of inaction and of failing to communicate with the Office of the President on the most important issues. This public squabble arose because the MFA did not inform the president about an exchange of notes with the Russian MFA about the release of the 24 Ukrainian sailors. There was considerable concern in the West about the consistency of the new president’s foreign policy. It was clear that key German politicians favored Poroshenko precisely because they feared that dramatic changes with a new leader could shake up the already-fragile security balance in the region.
Zelenskyy’s first foreign visits demonstrated complete understanding of this unease: the new president showed consistency in his commitment to the issue of reforms. At the same time, he showed greater openness on the issue of resolving the conflict with Russia, proposing a series of steps in order to restore trust among residents of occupied Donbas. Politicians in Brussels, Paris and Berlin breathed more lightly and even complimented
Ukraine’s new leader. What they could not have foreseen in the West was institutional problems within Ukraine in ensuring the continuity of the foreign policy agency. Conflict between the Foreign Minister and the Presidential Administration is nothing new in Ukraine’s history. There were periods when everyone understood that there was one MFA de jure on paper, and another one de facto at the Presidential Administration.
This was particularly evident during Leonid Kuchma’s second term, 1999-2004, when foreign policy was determined, not on Mykhailivska Ploshcha but on Bankova, in the office of Deputy Chief-of-Staff Anatoliy Orel, who never hid his pro-Russia orientation. Back then, the norm was that the foreign minister had no idea what steps the president was going to take. One example was when Kuchma decided to join the Single Economic Space (SES) with Russia in February 2002. Nor was the Poroshenko Administration an exception: the president was jokingly referred to as the “only and best Minister of Foreign Affairs,” and the role of the ministry was reduced to a minimum. Foreign guests understood that decisions were ultimately made on Bankova, and so it was extremely important to meet with the then-Deputy Chief-of-Staff Kostiantyn Yeliseyev.
However, the other extreme, when the FM does something behind the president’s back, is a clear innovation in the history of Ukraine’s foreign politics. What’s more, the conflicts between Kuchma-Orel and diplomats was known only by those closest to Ukraine’s diplomatic corps: the confrontation was not flaunted. Between Klimkin and Poroshenko, there was no confrontation at all, as Bankova was happy with the FM’s fairly modest foreign policy ambitions. The Zelenskyy-Klimkin clash is unprecedented and is consequences could be quite dramatic. The seriousness of the situation becomes all the more significant as it is connected to Ukraine’s main foreign policy challenge—Russia. Not only does this area require the maximum of competence and discipline, but also occasional behind-the-doors efforts, especially among Ukraine’s branches of power. Russia has now been handed a solid trump that it can later use to suggest that Ukraine lacks the institutional capacity to follow through any agreements within the Minsk process.
Where in the past the Verkhovna Rada often allied itself with Petro Poroshenko in many cases, arranging “cold showers” for those foreign partners who were overly keen to play up Russia’s view of a resolution. While there were those in Ukraine who wanted to avoid serious pressure from western partners over the implementation of the political block of the Minsk accords, Bankova was always able to point to the inconsistency of national deputies on this issue. If the new president does gain a serious number of seats on the legislature, he could find it harder to persuade western partners of the need to uphold the formula, “first security, then politics.” This means that there’s a growing risk that the Russian idea of regulating the conflict in the Donbas will take the day.
Moscow is waiting for the results of the VR election, which should indicate just how realistically it will be able to push through an agenda that is convenient to it. So far, Russia has not seen Zelenskyy’s statements about being ready to assist the residents of occupied Donbas as the start of a new phase as there is no guarantee that the president’s words will translate into actions. What’s more, Moscow is saying that Zelenskyy’s plans for the so- called humanitarian block can be called what anyone wants but they are not implementing the Minsk accords—“the president of Ukraine should be doing this for his own citizens anyway” Moscow continues to push the narrative that Ukraine is at fault and it’s up to Kyiv to first demonstrate political will for a resolution. Overall, Russia is not interested in small steps as part of a resolution and so its leadership did not see the withdrawal of troops from Stanytsia Luhanska as a major breakthrough. It wants, instead, to see Ukraine immediately accept the principle of special status for the occupied territories. Granting autonomy to the uncontrolled territories is a major goal for Russia, as it is intended to embed a mechanism for preventing any further progress towards the EU or NATO in Ukraine.
A number of political figures in Ukraine continue efforts to establish an “alternative” foreign policy in relation to Russia. The most noticeable of these was Putin’s koum Viktor Medvedchuk, who kept making the standard speeches about resolving the conflict with Russia. Although he is no longer involved in the Trilateral Contact Group, Medvedchuk continued to promote initiatives related to Russia without any coordination with government agencies. Moreover, he kept repeating that there was a peace plan that had been approved in Moscow, occupied Luhansk and occupied Donetsk. According to this plan or concept, which was published at the beginning of the year, Ukraine is supposed to declare an Autonomous Region of Donbas, which Medvedchuk insists will not affect Ukraine’s own unitarity in any way. President Zelenskyy has already publicly criticized Medvedchuk’s private initiatives, especially related to the release of hostages, suggesting that Putin’s koum is more interested in boosting his election campaign ratings than in real progress in releasing captive Ukrainians.
The first weeks of President Zelenskyy’s term saw a paradoxical phenomenon: while distrust in the new Ukrainian leadership grows in Russia because of its intractability and its prolongation of the “Poroshenko line,” Zelenskyy’s opponents at home are accusing him more and more of taking steps that are convenient for Moscow.