Actors have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts. Volodymyr Zelensky, a professional actor, was propelled into the Ukrainian presidency winning 73% of the votes.
During his campaign, he said almost nothing about his politics, but he is now expected to step in his new role and formulate them. Both the domestic and international issues that he will have to tackle are real and serious. The country remains under-reformed, its economy is archaic, and its population is poor. The war with Russia is still simmering in the country’s east.
Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 with determination, speed, and the use of hybrid tactics. It is hard to reform the economy of a poor country – especially so when it is at war. As Ukraine is outside of NATO, the country lacks the benefits of the bloc’s mutual defence arrangement. It has to counter Russia’s national strategy of moving its border as far west as possible as, in the Russian psyche, Ukraine provides depth from which Russia can protect itself and bring economic opportunities for Russian businesses.
Moscow’s strategic goals in Ukraine have not been achieved so far. Much of Russia is effectively landlocked; Europe controls Russia’s access to the world’s oceans; most of the Russian population lives along the country’s western border and the bulk of Russian agriculture is in the southwest on the border with Ukraine. Russia’s transportation infrastructure reflects these realities.
Ukraine’s 2,000-kilometre border goes through Russia’s agricultural heartland, as well as several large population centres and transportation networks. Moscow does not believe that the West’s interest in Ukraine comes from good intentions towards Russia. From the Russian point of view, Ukraine represents a critical buffer zone and a playground for Russian businesses. On the sentimental level, many Russians consider the Ukrainians to be the same folk as they are – and feel entitled to deny Ukraine’s right for self-determination. However much the Russian economy suffers under Western sanctions, the Kremlin will not give up but will instead be raising the stakes on Zelensky’s watch.
The West’s determination in Ukraine does not match that of the Russians. Strategically, Ukraine is not as important to the West as it is to Russia, but the West cannot assume that the Kremlin, if it reclaims Ukraine, will stop there. While Russia does not have the ability to project significant military or economic force, it is in a strong position to destabilise Ukraine. The West and Russia have to assume the worst about each other, and Ukraine is locked between them.
This is the map of multiple international issues through which Zelensky will need to navigate when formulating and articulating his international policies. It is doubtful that he can effectively tackle many domestic issues without managing the even more complex challenges that he faces internationally. He will find this as challenging as anyone would.
On the key issue of Donbass, Zelensky lacks good options. He will need to pursue a policy that will always be unpopular to some. His highest electoral support came from Donbass. The local voter’s expectation is that he will finish the war.
His presidency offers an opportunity for a shift in popular sentiments on Ukraine among the residents of the Donbass who are tired of hostilities and hoping for peace. But his election, unfortunately, has never become a national referendum on the issue. While the opinion on any settlement from the inhabitants of the region is important, it is an issue of national and international importance – Zelensky will need more than just local support.
Instead, he will soon face fierce opposition from several corners within Ukraine’s entire political spectrum – and his approach to the war and the Minsk Agreement implementation will be one of the thorniest issues. There are some specific geopolitical issues to consider in that respect. The Minsk Agreement calls for the “special status” of the Donbass as a precondition to peace, but neither Zelensky nor the West has articulated the parameters of what the special status will look like.
It is becoming increasingly clear what the Russians have in mind – a federal-like land that remains within Ukraine, but operates as a Russian political, and possibly military, protectorate with the ability to block major national and geopolitical moves and with significant independence to manage their own internal affairs, plus full amnesty for the insurgents. What Ukraine and the West mean by the “special status” of Donbass within Ukraine is less clear and there may be a need for Zelensky to articulate the Ukrainian and Western positions as they may not necessarily be aligned.
The Russian plan seems to resemble the Südtirol arrangement presented in a different geopolitical context. Very recently a diplomatic row threatened to disrupt Italy’s Alpine province over the question of national identity and whether its German-speaking inhabitants should have the right to Austrian citizenship. They already enjoy certain rights in Austria that are granted only to Austrian citizens, which has led to tension between the countries.
The Russians may adopt this approach as well, which outside of the same security and political structures enjoyed by Italy and Austria, the situation with Ukraine will play out differently than it has in the border regions of two core EU countries.
While some consider Südtirol as one of the best territorial settlements in Europe, in the Ukrainian context it would effectively mean that Ukraine will have to remain neutral, with Russia holding a veto right to the country’s moves towards EU and NATO membership.
While at the moment it appears inconceivable that Ukraine will be joining either the EU or NATO, this eventuality is currently not calculated into the Ukrainian position. The political mainstream in Kyiv anticipates that the country will be joining the West’s institutions in the near future. The West will need to pursue a policy of bringing Ukraine closer at the expense of furthering the confrontation with Moscow. The alternative will mean rebuilding Ukraine into a neutral country between the EU and Russia with increased Russian influence.
It will be hard for Zelensky to formulate his foreign policy without the West better defining the road-map for Ukraine. The West not throwing its full support behind Kyiv – conditioned on whether Ukraine actually undertakes deep and effective reforms – would amount to abandonment and Ukraine would have no choice but to either remain bleeding in its standstill with Russia, which appears unsustainable; or drift towards neutrality and increased Russian influence.
Zelensky will vocally oppose every aspect of the Kremlin’s plan because of strong anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine. Immediately after winning, he and his team made several statements that are likely to infuriate the Russians. Even though most of the statements were directed at the domestic audience, one may anticipate that Moscow will start applying pressure to send a message. Unless he gets major support from the West, Zelensky does not have the leverage to support the tough talk he has directed at the Kremlin.
If he starts considering the Russian plan or anything that resembles it, he will encounter tremendous internal pressure and will face a defining moment in his presidency.
The Ukrainian mainstream rejects the special status for Donbass and the population generally believes that its reintegration should be under pre-war terms. Yet, given the situation on the ground, it appears impossible. Pursuing any policy will be complicated for Zelensky because he has not received a clear mandate on any domestic or foreign policy.
One may anticipate that his broad public support will start crumbling as he tackles these thorny issues on which Ukraine is divided. Thus, any arrangement will require smart balancing from Zelensky, intense shuttle diplomacy both nationally and internationally, as well as consensus-building in Ukraine.
This will be one challenging act for the novice actor playing his new part on the bigger stage.