Immediately prior to his inauguration as president of Ukraine yesterday, Volodymyr Zelensky said that bringing about a ceasefire in Donbass would be his first task in office. President Zelensky also dissolved the Ukrainian government, and called snap parliamentary elections. The Verkhovna Rada’s current parliamentary session was scheduled to end in October.
He also requested the resignation of the defence minister Stepan Poltorak, the head of the SBU (Ukrainian state-security service) Vasyl Gritsak, and the Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko. In fact, Poltorak and Gritsak (along with all his deputies) had already resigned.
So far, the Prosecutor General Lutsenko has not done so, but his position now seems untenable. The prime minister, Vologymyr Groysman, also said that he would resign. President Zelensky also urged Ukrainian deputies to annul their own parliamentary immunity. It’s been a busy first day at the new office.
All of these measures are directly connected to the task of bringing about an effective ceasefire in Donbass. In order to achieve that goal, a root-and-branch clear-out of Ukraine’s entire security-apparatus is necessary, for multiple reasons.
Regarding the defence minister, Stepan Poltorak, the first issue was rudimentary competence. Over the past 5 years, the Ukrainian Defence Ministry has stated on more than one occasion that it did not exercise full operational control over the politically extremist Azov Battalion and other nationalist paramilitary groups fighting in Donbass. This was in spite of the fact that these groups had officially been brought under the command-structure of the Ukrainian Ministry for Internal Affairs.
However, the interior ministry didn’t seem to exercise practical operational control over the Azov Battallion either. This led to a lethal situation wherein groups of heavily armed extremists had in effect been allowed to exercise the force of the state, having been officially incorporated into the command-structure of a ministry, and yet still operated outside of the state’s legal authority.
This has had appalling consequences for the civilian population of Donbass. At least twenty thousand Donbass civilians have been killed since 2014, mostly by Ukrainian artillery targeted at residential areas. Previous to his appointment as Defence Minister, Poltorak had headed the National Guard, the branch of the interior ministry into which groups such as Azov had been incorporated in 2014.
He seemed more interested in showing institutional loyalty for his old colleagues than asserting his ministerial authority, which allowed the war in Donbass to run out of control. In the vacuum of political authority created by a cowed president and a passive defence minister, in effect the Donbass policy has since 2014 been determined by the political extremists who sit on the Verkhovna Rada’s parliamentary committee on law-enforcement, many of whom are themselves among the leaders of extremist paramilitary groups.
This leads us to the main reason why, in terms of President Zelensky’s stated central goal of bringing about a ceasefire in Donbass, it was also necessary to call snap-elections. He has to dissolve the current membership of that parliamentary committee.
Regarding Zelensky’s urging the Verkhovna Rada to annul its own parliamentary immunity, we might see that as a general anti-corruption measure, but it also has significance specifically with regard to the conflict in Donbass, as war-profiteering has been one of the motivational drivers on the Ukrainian side for continuing the war-effort.
However, President Zelensky reiterated the Ukrainian government’s official position regarding its territorial claim to both Crimea and Donbass. In context, he can hardly say anything else. The issue, then, is not formal recognition of the independence of the DPR or the LPR, or of Crimea’s status as part of Russia. Zelensky simply does not have the political scope to even remotely approach any such position. The issue is simply a de facto ceasefire.
The spokesman for President Putin, Dmitri Peskov, has said that President Putin will only congratulate Zelensky “on the first successes,” and re-stated that the question of Crimea’s status as part of Russia is not up for discussion. The Kremlin’s caution seems highly justified, as it seems extremely questionable as to whether or not President Zelensky will succeed in bringing about the de facto ceasefire he is hoping for.
In every conflict-zone on Earth, maintaining ceasefires is a difficult task at the best of times, but this is especially the case in Donbass, because so many Ukrainian extremist paramilitary groups (while officially operating as part of the interior ministry’s command-structure) have in effect been operating as free agents for such a long time. Previous ceasefires in Donbass have repeatedly been violated by (both regular and irregular) Ukrainian security-forces’ use of artillery and mortars.
However, Zelensky does seem resolute in his desire for an effective ceasefire. Yesterday he stated “I can assure you: in order that our heroes no longer die, I am ready for anything. I’m definitely not afraid to make difficult decisions. I am ready to lose my popularity, my ratings, and, if necessary, I am ready to lose my position without hesitation, so that only peace will come.”
In saying this, however, President Zelensky stated that he believed the first step toward beginning a dialogue concerning a ceasefire in Donbass was that all Ukrainian prisoners should be returned. If this hardens into a precondition, then it may very well prove to be a stumbling-block for the DPR and LPR leadership – they have been forced for 5 years to fight a war of independence against the resources of a much larger nation-state, which is supplied with free lethal weaponry by the United States. They may therefore see their Ukrainian prisoners as one of the factors preventing Ukraine from launching a new offensive.
Zelensky is aware of how most Ukrainians understand the practical implications of war and peace. The dreadful economic hardship which most Ukrainians now face cannot possibly be ameliorated until the country stops pouring badly needed resources into a futile war.
With that in mind, combined with Zelensky’s overwhelming democratic mandate, it may be necessary for him to mobilize mass-support by appealing directly to the Ukrainian people, in order to bypass the agendas of those among the Ukrainian elites who have a political (and financial) interest in continuing the war.