The ongoing interest in Ukraine can be easily understood. The armed conflict in Donbass has become the most serious and dangerous challenge to European security since the collapse of Yugoslavia and the subsequent series of ethno-political clashes in the Balkans in the 1990s and early 2000s. The developments in and around Ukraine have indeed combined the most extensive confrontation between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
Last year, VolodymyrZelensky, an actor who had not been involved in his country’s political life before, became the new president of Ukraine. He obtained the majority of votes due to his rhetoric addressed to Ukrainian society tired of the nationalist and militaristic mobilization promoted by former president Petro Poroshenko. The main request of his voters was to establish peace and eliminate the extremes of the cultural and language policies of Zelensky’s predecessor.
This is why the presidency of the newly-elected Ukrainian leader was considered to be a great chance to normalize (or at least pragmatize) relations with Russia and to find an option for reaching peace in south-eastern Ukraine. However, the current situation does not look like a serious breakthrough in either afore-mentioned direction. In fact, acceptance of the so-called Schteinmeier formula as well as one full-scale Normandy Four meeting (the first time after the three-year break) can be treated as modest steps toward a reconciliation process.
The armed conflict in Donbass is still going on although its intensity is incomparable with 2014 and 2015 events. All the key issues, such as the particular status of the areas in south-eastern Ukraine, a ceasefire, the separation of confronting parties and finally implementation of the Minsk Agreement have not been resolved and there are not even any clear signs of making progress. How can we explain this “frozen” conflict resolution after the splash of hopes for peace?
Today, even if Poroshenko and Zelensky are fiercely opposed to each other, we should not overestimate their differences in approaches to Russia as well as to the unrecognized "people's republics" of Donbass. Poroshenko now is usually mentioned as a leader committed to the hard line while his successor is considered a peace-oriented politician. However, it may be recalled that on the eleventh day of his tenure in power, on June 18, 2014, President Poroshenko came up with a 14-point peace plan that involved not only a ceasefire, but also the decentralization of power by amending the Constitution.
The provisions of that plan, together with some initiatives by Russian President Vladimir Putin, shaped the basis of the first draft of the Minsk Agreement signed in September, 2014. However, this line was not subsequently maintained.
There are many reasons for Poroshenko and Zelensky’s similar attitudes. These include the traumas of the Ukrainian political class initiated by the loss of Crimea, the escalation of the confrontation in the Donbass, and the desire to end the "separatist threat" as soon as possible. Therefore, it is no coincidence that after Poroschenko’s first peaceful steps we saw the activation of the Ukrainian military in the southeast of the country in July 2014, when Slavyansk and Kramatorsk were taken under Kiev’s control. It was then that the leaders of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” moved to Donetsk, which became the military and political center of one of the unrecognized entities. And these dynamics help understand why the Minsk Agreement has not yet been implemented, although Putin, Poroshenko, Zelensky and Western politicians have repeatedly stressed the need for its realization.
Kiev and Moscow view the Donbass conflict differently and these differences in approaches are fundamental. They do not depend on the names of those who occupy the office of president of both Ukraine and Russia. Since its early days, the armed conflict has been depicted in Ukrainian political discourse as nothing more than a deterrence of external aggression. This idea has been cemented in the socio-political elites of post-Maidan Ukraine, including Poroshenko and Zelensky, military commanders and civil activists. Even Viktor Medvedchuk or Yuriy Boyko, two Ukrainian politicians traditionally critical of their country’s mainstream, do not exaggerate their opposition on this issue too much. They are labeled "pro-Russian figures" and almost considered agents of the Kremlin. However, such conclusions are clearly simplistic. These politicians do not see the West as a reliable partner, believing that Ukraine's problems should be resolved in direct dialogue with Moscow. Nevertheless, they insist on Kiev’s control over Donbass. In these conditions, Zelensky has had narrow space for maneuver. Even some modest steps towards reconciliation provoke accusations of “betrayal” of Ukraine’s national interests and a giveaway game with Putin.
In Russia, the events in the southeast of Ukraine since April 2014 have been interpreted as mainly an internal conflict. After all, Ukrainian citizens dominate among those who became the heads of the "people's republics". Some of them (for example, the Luhansk leader Leonid Pasechnik) had experience in the Ukraine special services. As professor of Baylor University Sergiy Kudelia rightly notes, “without domestic conditions favoring an armed secessionist movement, external prodding would have failed to produce a sustained and large-scale insurgency. Those who came to lead it merely capitalized on public apprehension about the growing anarchy in Kiev [in 2014] and resorted to long-established narratives to keep it in motion”.
Thus Russia and Ukraine have fundamental differences in interpretation of the Donbass conflict. While Kiev considers it in the wider context of so-called “hybrid warfare” with Moscow, the latter sees it as a mainly domestic one, negatively influencing its positions in the international arena in general and its neighborhood in particular. Moreover, the two sides have different domestic political environments and in Ukraine, society, mass media and public activists have a greater say when it comes to the decision-making process and any commitments to normalize relations with its neighbor. In this area, the Ukrainian presidents – no matter whether Poroshenko or Zelensky – are more vulnerable than their Russian counterpart. Therefore, personal factors in Russia-Ukraine relations cannot be too overestimated.