Last May, President Volodymyr Zelensky took office promising to end the then-five-year old war with Russia – to “just stop the shooting”. As his administration approaches its one-year anniversary, however, Zelensky’s peacebuilding efforts face backlash in Kiev, skepticism in Moscow, and hostility in the Russian-backed breakaways in Donbass. Violence at the 400-km frontline, which cuts through the southeastern industrial region, has subsided only marginally. Hobbled from the beginning by poor communication, especially with his domestic audience, his team has yet to offer their Russian adversaries or the Ukrainian public a coherent vision for peace – namely for how to make the controversial 2014-2015 Minsk agreements, which entail return of Donbass’s Russian-backed enclaves to Kiev’s control, acceptable to all sides. Now, amid the COVID-19 crisis and resulting economic struggles, other pressing matters threaten to derail his key goal.
Upon taking office, Zelensky set about re-booting the stagnant peace process, and the backlash was immediate. In June, the sides revived a failed 2016 agreement to disengage forces along small sections of the frontline. Critics accused Kiev of undoing years of incremental advances by Ukrainian troops. Presidentialpress secretary Iuliia Mendel, in line with Zelensky’s campaign pledge to treat residents of Russia-backed enclaves more like full-fledged Ukrainians, drew attention to the prevalence of civilian casualties in these areas, which she blamed on government forces’ injudicious use of return fire. This earned her a prosecutorial summons. The sides negotiated a wide-ranging ceasefire in July 2020, leading to an unprecedented drop in violations and civilian casualties, but Ukrainian pro-military activists insisted only their side was complying. After Russian-backed fighters reportedly killed four Ukrainian soldiers in an unprovoked August attack, violations climbed up to pre-ceasefire levels, where they have hovered since, with a few spikes and falls.
Kiev tended to convey conflict-related moves to the public haphazardly, compounding widespread opposition. The outrage, however, failed to improve communication. This cycle repeated itself on 1 October 2019, when Zelensky surprised his constituents with the announcement that Ukraine had accepted the so-called Steinmeier Formula. This formula, proposed by German Foreign Minister (now President) Frank-Walter Steinmeier in fall of 2016, was intended to jump-start Minsk implementation. It re-affirms Ukraine’s commitment to reintegrate the enclaves under “special status”, while calling on Kiev to apply the status provisionally starting on the day local elections are held under Ukrainian law. Steinmeier’s proposal does not address the most contentious aspect of the Minsk agreements, which calls for Kiev to resume control of its eastern border with Russia only after elections. Zelensky indicated in his October announcement that elections would only proceed when Kiev has resumed control of the border – implying he may try to alter Minsk. This point was lost in the ensuing controversy over whether Zelensky had given up too much ground.
Protests ensued under the slogan “No to Capitulation”, uniting far-right activists, frustrated combat veterans, seasoned statesmen and much of the Kiev intelligentsia. Far-right activists – cheered on by many liberals – then set up an armed checkpoint to prevent disengagement in a frontline town. It took the interior ministry two weeks to сompel them to remove their weapons, after which disengagement proceeded. In December, Zelensky and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met in Paris for their Normandy Summit with the French and German leaders, the first such meeting since 2016. Moscow, as well as many international security experts, expected an agreement to mutuallywithdraw troops along most of the frontline, potentially resulting in major reductions in ceasefire violations. When the day came, the interior minister was at Zelensky’s side, and helped ensure that the disengagement would only occur in three additional4 square kilometer zones by the end of March. Zelensky also reiterated his desire to re-negotiate the timing of the border’s return to Kiev’s control. By mid-March, the sides had not progressed on the border issue, or agreed on a single new disengagement zone.
Meanwhile, a diplomatic backchannel begun in the fall between Zelensky’s aide Andryi Yermak and Putin’s aide Dmitry Kozak had produced another wave of outrage in Ukraine – fed, as usual, by shoddy communication by Zelensky’s team and knee-jerk opposition from domestic critics. The two aides agreed to form a consultative body within the Minsk negotiations, in which as-yet-undetermined residents of the separatist-held areas could develop non-binding recommendations. Despite the body’s limited prospective mandate, Zelensky’s opponents, and some allies, said it amounted to recognition of the Russia-backed regimes. More street protests erupted before the COVID-19 quarantine took hold, coupled with accusations of corruption directed at Yermak.
To Zelensky’s critics, who include a cross section of Kiev’s political milieu, his failures have all been predictable, the result of proceeding from a false premise: “We didn’t start this war, but it’s up to us to end it”, he sometimes says. His opponents counter that taking the first steps to end a war Russia began is neither possible, nor morally permissible. Former President Petro Poroshenko, whom he defeated, also came in promising peace in 2014 as Russian-backed fighters were taking over parts of the southeast. These groups rebuffed his offers of amnesty, after which Russian regular forces made at least two large incursions in August 2014 and January-February 2015. They inflicted staggering losses on Ukraine’s military, eventually forcing Poroshenko’s signing of the February 2015 agreement.
Many Ukrainians describe Minsk as a deal signed at gunpoint, whose implementation would grant Moscow continued leverage over the country’s internal and foreign policy. To them, keeping the conflict simmering is preferable. With just over 100 government troops dead in 2018 and 2019 each, a sharp contrast to the thousands of casualties of 2014-15, many of Zelensky’s critics consider the war’s ongoing costs bearable. Peace according to Minsk, on the other hand, could bury hopes of integration with the West. The loss of this prospect is something these constituencies would equate with betrayal of the thousands of troops who have died. And while Zelensky’s team has pledged to alter Minsk’s most controversial elements, few skeptics in Kiev are reassured.
Moscow and its separatist proxies, meanwhile, paint Zelensky’s peaceful rhetoric as hot air. Some Kremlin watchers say Putin was more comfortable with Poroshenko, whose refusal to pursue reintegration took the pressure off of them to appear constructive. Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov warned in June that Kiev should not expect goodwill gestures simply because the new president spoke of peace: these would only come when he began implementing Minsk through direct negotiations with the heads of the enclaves – which Kiev refuses to do, insisting that Moscow is the accountable party. The de facto heads of the statelets, for whom reintegration could mean jail, are more hostile. “Zelensky, as if following a script, keeps grandly announcing his peace initiatives to the international community, but in practice he is mercilessly destroying the Republic’s residents”, the head of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic said last February.
Both sides are wrong. Zelensky is neither naïve and treasonous, nor inhumane. His views on the war – namely his opposition to a military solution and his openness to various avenues of negotiations – largely align with those of many Ukrainians, particularly in central and southeastern regions. He neither wants to capitulate to Moscow, nor pursue integration with the Westat the cost of unity. He frames the key difference between Russia and Ukraine not in terms of language or culture – calling Russians and Ukrainians “truly fraternal peoples” – but in terms of the humanity with which they are governed. These views leave little room for what many in Kiev currently define as patriotism: the belief that the war is a nation-building exercise and the frontlines a filter dividing authentic Ukrainians from their ostensibly backward, Soviet-style counterparts living in the separatist-held areas. Nor are these views convenient for politicians in Moscow or Donbass who say they are defending eastern Ukrainians from an ultra-nationalist regime.
Having come to power promising peace, Zelensky has yet to build the domestic alliances he needs to work towards it. He has been hindered by the backlash he has faced, which has been exacerbated by his own erratic communication. Until he finds a way to rectify this, the losers here will include many of those who voted for him – Ukrainians whose aim is not to see their grand narratives prevail, but merely to live in a single country.