On Monday and Tuesday, President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky visited two capitals of the Normandy Four countries, Berlin and Paris. How can these visits help in resolving the Donbass issue?
It is not easy matter to answer this question. Negotiators pronounced quite a number of boilerplate phrases used under Petro Poroshenko. But we must understand that the level of Ukrainian democracy won't let Zelensky move to a peaceful settlement while completely abandoning elements of the old rhetoric. However, in the optimistic context one can assume that this rhetoric is used to cover up the true objectives, just as Gorbachev and Yakovlev used the communist phraseology to dismantle the communist system.
It is therefore necessary to evaluate Zelensky's approach to the Donbass conflict not as regards preserving the old rhetorical clichés, but as regards creating something as compared with Poroshenko. Of course remembering at the same time that the old rhetoric may not be a cover for the peaceful actions, but a slowdown factor. For instance, when through his press secretary Zelensky offers the Prosecutor General's office to deal not with Kuchma's statements about waiving retaliatory fire, but with Victor Medvedchuk's trips to Russia, such finger-pointing reasonably activates the witch hunt, amid which a settlement is hardly possible.
Zelensky's new thing is as follows. His speech reveals the desire to revive (in some cases he uses the word "reset") the Minsk process in order to achieve a ceasefire and prisoner exchange. And this was endorsed by both Macron and Merkel. At the same time, unlike the old team of negotiators, he does not link the exchange of prisoners with the DPR and LPR within the contact group to the release of Ukrainian sailors, whose fate Kiev has persistently but unsuccessfully tried to expose to the contact group.
Zelensky and Macron have also said that a new Normandy format summit is only possible following certain progress in the work of the contact group. Neither Poroshenko nor the Western leaders spoke about this earlier, while Russia's stance was clear: first Ukraine should fulfill the agreement of the last Normandy Four summit (2016) on the completion of the parties' separation in the three pilot areas (let me remind you that this has never happened in Stanytsia Luhanska) and on the contact group's agreement to implement the so-called "Steinmeier formula" on the endowment of special status to Donbass.
However, neither Macron no Zelensky stressed the necessity of making this very kind of arrangements. Macron talked about some abstract progress he had made, Zelensky – about the ceasefire, the exchange of prisoners, the separation of the parties and the construction of a bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska. No one touched upon the settlement's political aspects.
At the same time one needs to see what Zelensky fails to mention as compared to his predecessor. What is meant here are the UN peacekeepers, the international administration and instituting control over the border. This is apparently supported by Berlin and Paris. Thus, answering a blunt question about peacekeepers in a recent interview with RBK Ukraine, French Ambassador to Kiev Isabelle Dumont said she considered the issue irrelevant.
As for the notorious sanctions against Moscow, Zelensky naturally backs them. But he does not usually raise this topic himself, only in response to some relevant questions. At the same time, the Ukrainian President's website does not at all cite him as regards the sanctions. And the published information did not include either Zelensky's words about his resolve to tough compromises, or the list of steps he announced as an opportunity for holding a Normandy format summit.
We can assume that in case of a ceasefire, exchanging prisoners and separating troops in Stanytsia Luhanska, both Paris and Berlin will seek to persuade Russia to hold the summit, despite the persisting deadlock with the Steinmeier formula - enough has been done already. It can also be assumed that the successful solution of the described problems will let the President of Ukraine talk about the Minsk agreements' political component. After all, by then – and there is a month left before the parliamentary elections – Ukraine may already get a parliament with backers of the President having the majority, so Zelensky will get more real power.
But this scenario is too optimistic. There is another one quite possible as well.
Within the contact group they agree both on a cease-fire and on the separation of troops in Stanytsia Luhanska, but the shooting begins – as it has happened many times – making the separation fail, and the truce breaks down without getting a chance to be consolidated. In public Zelensky certainly accuses Russia of all manner of offenses. However, out of public view he may well comprehend the involvement of the Ukrainian party of war, but he isn't able either to accuse it aloud or to influence it behind the scenes, despite his powers and authority as the supreme commander. In this case the situation will remain the same as it was in 2015. And even a change in the parliamentary landscape will have no impact here.
However, the communication with Western leaders could give Zelensky some momentum to ensure that a pessimistic scenario of this kind doesn't take place at all. The coming days will make it clear whether he did acquire this momentum or not. If the contact group meeting this Wednesday yields results not only on paper but also in practice, it will be possible to give an affirmative answer, even though with due circumspection.
However, the situation does not look optimistic so far. What raises flags is that everything more or less interesting about the Donbass settlement was said by Zelensky at a press conference in Paris, not Berlin. Merkel used the word "Minsk" four times when speaking to the journalists, while Zelensky didn't do this at all. In Berlin, the Ukrainian President simply reflected of how he wished for an early Normandy format meeting, without mentioning the premises he announced the day before. At the same time, he urged German politicians opposed to the sanctions to visit the Crimea, so as to make sure that the peninsula has been turned into a military camp. This is very much in the spirit of Poroshenko, although I still think that the previous President would not dare to say this: after all, if the invitation is accepted, no one will get to see a military camp. And the fact that during the second visit Zelensky voiced much fewer encouraging things as compared to the first one, seems to indicate that the Ukrainian President failed to receive the impetus necessary for peace.