Five years after the annexation of Crimea, European sanctions, and the war in Donbas, the presidents of Russia and Ukraine finally met to outline a peace agreement: the future of the region – and of the continent – hangs in the balance.
Last year, the ISPI Report on the world to come asked the following question about the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine: are we headed toward an escalation? This year, instead, we are asking whether there is room for détente. This change in outlook is already an initial answer to the first question.
This change has to do with the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy to the Ukrainian presidency. As new face in politics, he had nothing to do with the conflict. His past as an actor makes him very popular, and he is determined to find a solution to the Donbass question by negotiating directly with the Russians, so as to be able to then concentrate on Ukraine’s development.
Vladimir Putin must have figured that the opportunity was too good to pass up, all the more so since parliamentary elections this summer allowed Zelenskiy to double his triumph in last spring’s presidential elections. His party’s success now enables him to count on an absolute majority in Parliament, which will now do whatever the president wants. It had never happened before in the history of independent Ukraine. Apparently, this is what convinced the Kremlin: Zelenskiy is someone we can work with.
This made possible the first meeting between Zelenskiy and Putin, which was hosted by the French President on 9 December at the Élysée Palace. During the final press conference, the Russian President listed all of the progress achieved in the previous months as if it were a checklist: first prisoner exchange, check; retreat of armed forces from three points along the line of contact; check; temporary ceasefire; check. “Russia – Putin concluded in Paris – shall do everything in its power to make sure all issues are solved”.
Has a détente begun between Russia and Ukraine?, he was asked. I think so, answered the Russian President. Whether he really believes it or not, he did not show it in the Paris meeting, which lasted over eight hours. Not a single smile, not one public handshake. Most significantly, when Putin thanked Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for their work at the end of the press conference, he did not mention Zelenskiy, who was sitting at the other end of the table. “Détente, but not yet peace”, read Le Figaro’s headline the next day.
The challenge is two-pronged. The first issue concerns the stabilisation of Donbass, and the resolution of a conflict that is still splitting into two the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. It must be kept in mind that people are still dying there nearly every day, and those who live in the villages along the frontline suffer from the existence of this barrier, which makes it difficult to access health care, collect pensions, and live a normal life.
This is the less complicated of the two issues, so to speak, because in theory everyone is in agreement: the Kremlin, whose support for pro-Russian separatists is a financial burden compounded by the cost of sanctions and damaged relations with the West; and of course the Ukrainian president, who has the support of the majority of the population, who are in favour of negotiations with Moscow if they will help restore peace.
This is where the problems began. In Ukraine, opinion polls begin to shift as soon as the necessary compromises to reach an agreement are discussed. While Zelenskiy was in Paris, street protesters in Kiev kept a close eye on him, to make sure he would not concede anything to the Russians. And when a few weeks before the summit Zelenskiy accepted the so-called Steinmeier Formula (a revision of the Minsk Peace Agreements that lists the steps to be taken to stabilise Donbass), radical Ukrainian nationalists called him a traitor. Zelenskiy must walk a fine line indeed to maintain his popularity and his hold on power.
For this reason, in Paris Putin and Zelenskiy were only able to pick the low-hanging fruit, as one analyst put it. A permanent ceasefire, the completion of prisoner exchanges, the removal of mines, the opening of new civilian crossings along the frontlines, and the retreat of armed forces and their weaponry from three other areas. “I would have liked to obtain more”, exclaimed Zelenskiy. The thorniest issues – giving back the control of borders to Ukraine, local elections and the future status of separatist regions, the terms for a re-integration of Donbass in Ukraine – will be tackled during the next meeting, in Berlin four months from now. The process has been started.
All will depend on the seeds that have been sown so far: will they be enough to generate the trust and respect that are currently lacking? Putin and Zelenskiy will not go anywhere unless there is some mutual trust between them. This also applies to the energy sector and to contracts on the supply and transit of Russian gas through Ukraine, which are also the subject of negotiations that are gingerly moving forwards despite the diffidence that has built up over the years of the crisis. “You will have gas, perhaps at a good price”, said Putin during his press conference in Paris. Evidently, he still seemed to be caught up in the memory of concessions made to a subordinate country, as opposed to a normal commercial exchange between equal partners.
This takes us to the second issue, which concerns the long-term relationship between Moscow and Kiev. This relationship, and the matter of Crimea, will remain fraught if Russia – which among other things is aiming for closer integration with Belarus – will continue to feel threatened by a Ukraine that is free to choose its own allies and the way ahead. What is a stake here is overcoming the frame of mind of the past, the relationships between Moscow and NATO and between Moscow and Europe. This is a challenge for the long term, which ranges well beyond the issues to be tackled in the coming year, but it will undoubtedly have to go through Donbass.