Zelensky and the Donbas Conflict: no Progress in Sight

What can Ukraine's new president Volodymyr Zelensky do to help solving the Donbas conflict? Russian speaking Zelensky is less confrontational to Russia than his predecessor Poroshenko. Nevertheless Moscow is not softening its tone. With its policy of 'passportization' the Kremlin is even escalating, Andreas Umland argues. More sanctions are needed to force Russia to change its policy. Or Europe will pay dearly. 

zelensky inauguratieInauguration of Volodymyr Zelensky in the Rada in Kyiv

by Andreas Umland

When it became clear, in spring 2019, that Ukraine’s leadership would soon fundamentally change, this gave reason for hope that the Donbas conflict may get closer to a solution. Not only has Ukraine since gotten a new and less demonstratively nationalist President than Petro Poroshenko who – much like former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko had done ten years earlier – by the end of his term turned to the right. It also became clear that parliament and government would change radically. As it looks now, Ukraine will soon reconstitute itself with a largely rejuvenated, less ardently anti-Moscow, and more cosmopolitan political elite.

The expectation, to be sure, was not so much that Ukraine will principally change its position and course vis-à-vis Russia. Given the clear fronts and iron logic of the Donbas conflict, there is little what Volodymyr Zelensky can, in substance, do differently from Petro Poroshenko. In spite of the Kremlin’s wishes, Zelensky can neither give away Ukrainian territory nor sacrifice Ukrainian sovereignty in the Donbas and Crimea, as a means to achieve peace with Russia.

The issue of decentralization raised in the February 2015 Minsk Agreement, as a possible solution to the Donbas problem, appeared also to be a non-starter. Since April 2014, Kyiv has been conducting a far-reaching all-Ukrainian decentralization independently from the conflict of the Donbas, and unrelated to the negotiations with Moscow. This ongoing devolution of power from the center to municipalities, however, has not helped Poroshenko to solve the Donbas conflict, nor will it help Zelenskyy in his attempts to do so.

In general, there is little that Zelensky can come up with to help solving the Donbas conflict. Hope was rather that Putin may take advantage of the more Russia-friendly image of post-electoral Ukraine in order to justify, to his various domestic audiences, a less confrontational approach vis-à-vis Kyiv. This expectation was built on the assumption that the EU’s sanctions may have done their job. Moscow, as the reasoning went, less out of sympathy for Ukrainian sovereignty or concern for European stability, would be seeking a reset of Russian-Western relations through a solution of the Donbas conflict.

There was hope that the Kremlin would become more accommodative, out of long-term self-interest – in view of its need for the EU as a foreign investor, partner in modernization and trading partner for Russia. With a Russian-speaking new President in Ukraine, such was the supposition, this would be easier to accomplish than with the loudly anti-Putinist Poroshenko. The former Ukrainian President’s rhetoric had ever more hardened over the five years of his presidency. Poroshenko’s reputation among Russians has been thoroughly damaged by relentless defamation in the Kremlin-controlled mass media. Zelensky, in contrast, is a well-known and sympathetic person not only in Ukraine, but also in Russia where the former showman and actor has performed in numerous Russian popular television programs and cinema movies.  

No progress in sight

However, notwithstanding the encouraging new circumstances, so far there is no substantive progress in sight. On the contrary, shortly after Zelensky won with a spectacular margin, Moscow announced a significant easing of rules for the Ukrainian population of the Donbas to obtain Russian citizenship. This implicitly irredentist strategy had already, with regard to Moscow’s approach to the Russia-controlled territories of Georgia, become known under the label of 'passportization'. The Kremlin’s sharp and demonstrative policy change, during the election period, is not only an affront to Ukraine and its new president, it also undermines the logic of the agreed upon plan of returning the currently occupied territories under Kyiv control, as outlined in the Minsk Agreements of 2014 and 2015.

Moreover, a new situation in which a large part of the Ukrainian Donbas’s population will have become Russian citizens needs to be seen within the context of Moscow’s immoderate public foreign policy doctrine. Various official Russian documents explicitly allow and even prescribe Moscow’s active 'protection' of its citizens abroad. Russia’s unapologetic approach to furthering the supposed interest of its foreign 'compatriots' will also apply, in full, to the newly minted Russian citizens in Ukraine. It would thus – even in the best-case scenario of a successful implementation of the Minsk Agreements – remain unclear whether the Kremlin will actually let the currently occupied East Ukrainian territories go, if many of their inhabitants are Russian citizens. That such a far-reaching modification of the status quo occurred when it was already clear that Poroshenko and his government will soon be gone does not bode well for the future of conflict-solution in Eastern Ukraine.

In the most positive interpretation, it means that the Kremlin merely wanted to raise the stakes and improve its position, before going into negotiations with Ukraine’s new president. In the worst case, it means that Moscow has decided to either unofficially or even officially annex the territories around Donetsk and Luhansk. It may, in doing so, be following one of the various models supplied by its earlier, largely unsanctioned occupations of Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Crimea. Whatever the Kremlin’s exact intentions behind the consequential move, the lessons for the West should be clear: the currently functioning sanctions linked to the Minsk Agreements have obviously had little effect.

The various minor limitations for Russia introduced by the EU in summer 2014 did not prevent the bloody escalations during the battles of Ilovaysk in September 2014 and Debaltseve in February 2015. They also did not end the following low-intensity conflict during the last four years. In November 2018, the sanctions did not avert a dangerous escalation in the Azov Sea, and Russia’s arrest of 28 Ukrainian sailors. Finally, the sanctions did not prevent Moscow’s recent start of 'passportization' of the Donbas.


What – instead of EU sanctions – seems to be preventing more resolute destruction of the post-Cold War order by the Kremlin in Eastern Ukraine is the lukewarm attitude of ordinary Russians to Moscow’s Donbas adventure, as well as the hesitant reaction of East Ukrainians to Putin’s generous offer of Russian passports. According to opinion polls, many Russians do not support the idea of annexing the Donbas, and even do not endorse giving out Russian Federation passports to supposedly pro-Russian Ukrainians. That is because Russian citizenship leads to claims for social support like pensions from the Russian state budget. Many Russians seem to suspect that such additional obligations for the Russian government could lower their own transfers from the Russian pension fund and their access to other state subsidies.

Moreover, only about 8,000 Ukrainians have by now responded to Putin’s public proposition. Perhaps, Donbas inhabitants fear to lose their – in terms of travel freedom much more valuable – Ukrainian passports, if the Ukrainian state finds out that they have obtained Russian citizenship. Currently, Ukrainian legislation forbids double citizenship for holders of a passport of Ukraine. As long as the EU does not provide visa-freedom in the Schengen zone for Russian citizens, as it has been doing for Ukrainians since 2017, many Donbas citizens may fear to lose more than they win by obtaining a Russian passport.

The continuation of Russia’s low-intensity warfare against Ukraine, and the decision to grant Ukrainians Russian citizenship indicate that the EU’s current sanctions regime is ineffective. The Kremlin-supported frozen conflicts in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain unsolved, in the absence of any Western sanctions regarding them. There is thus little reason to assume that Moscow would become more accommodative, if the EU’s measures against Russia would be reduced or abolished.

If the West wants to solve the Donbas conflict (not to mention the Crimea issue), the current sanctions regime needs to be intensified – perhaps, significantly so. While this will imply certain expenses for the sanctioning states, in the end no action probably will cost Europe a lot more. Most Europeans currently perceive the Donbas conflict as an exclusively Ukrainian problem. Yet, its continuation and escalation could easily turn it into an all-European headache with potentially devastating consequences not only for Ukrainians, but many other Europeans too.

Andreas Umland is Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, Principal Researcher with the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, as well as General Editor of the ibidem­-Verlag book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” and “Ukrainian Voices” distributed by Columbia University Press.

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