So far so good for Volodymyr Zelensky as actual, rather than fictional, president of Ukraine. Or so it seems.
Earlier this month, weeks after securing an unprecedented parliamentary majority to back his presidential mandate, Zelensky stood on the tarmac of Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport greeting freed prisoners returning home from Russia.
It was a dramatic scene with Zelensky playing a key supporting, if not starring, role. In addition to getting back film director Oleh Sentsov, who had become a renowned political prisoner, the Ukrainian sailors who were captured by Russian forces in the Kerch Strait also returned home. This made for a joyous occasion in Kyiv.
Zelensky’s approval rating is sky high, with a recent poll putting it above 70 percent. The prisoner swap certainly doesn’t hurt the president’s popularity.
But there is plenty of reason for skepticism as Zelensky proceeds in direct and indirect negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, particularly over occupied territory in Eastern Ukraine, where war rages on, and potentially over Crimea, which Moscow annexed. Compromise appears to have worked for now, but as Zelensky moves forward in negotiations, there may be a lot more to lose than gain from cooperation with Putin.
Potential Donbas deals
Zelensky sold the prisoner swap as the first step toward bringing the war in Donbas to an end and bringing back the occupied Ukrainian territories, as well as the dozens of other Ukrainian prisoners who remain in Russian or separatist jails.
On the surface, the prisoner swap seems like a deal everyone likes. Top European leaders approved of it. U.S. President Donald Trump also welcomed the news.
Criticism did arise from the Dutch government and others upset over the inclusion in the prisoner exchange of a suspect in the downing of MH-17, the passenger jet that was shot down over Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Volodymyr Tsemakh, whom Ukrainian forces captured in a dangerous and ultimately deadly operation behind separatist lines, was reportedly an air defense commander for the separatists and was a key witness in the MH-17 investigation. Tsemakh, a Ukrainian national, has since returned to the occupied Donbas region after being released by Kyiv and flown into Russia.
With regard to Tsemakh, Putin scored a victory in the deal. Putin insisted that Tsemakh be included in the swap, and despite being faced with objections, Zelensky agreed to the demand.
But there could be an underlying strategy to Putin’s deal with Zelensky that has much broader implications than the status of a suspect in the downing of MH-17.
Could Putin be courting Zelensky or rewarding him for, thus far, taking a tough stance on Russia in words only and not in actions? Putin refused to agree to the prisoner swap when Petro Poroshenko was serving as Ukraine’s president. Poroshenko took a hardline stance on confronting Russia. With that in consideration, Putin has bestowed a gift upon Zelensky.
Zelensky has given himself a difficult balancing act. He has continued to toe the line of the Poroshenko administration on the status of Donbas and Crimea, yet at the same time he is not taking such a confrontational stance against Moscow. Zelensky is in the unenviable position — by his own doing — of needing to both bring the war to an end and bring back the occupied territories, two promises he has made.
Putin may be getting ready to cut a deal in the coming months or years. If Zelensky is willing to compromise, the Russian president could seek a deal that would freeze the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. This could result in a scenario similar to Transnistria or other frozen conflict zones in the region, like Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh.
Negotiations are upcoming, and there is a framework in place under the Minsk agreement for Kyiv to regain control over Donbas. But there is no assurance Moscow will go along with this. And if the conflict were to freeze, rather than Ukraine regaining full control over the separatist territory, the possibility would remain that Moscow could reignite the war at any time it sees fit.
Meanwhile, European leaders are eager to do business with Russia and improve their ties with Moscow. For them, the interests of Ukraine may be expendable. This has been evident as Germany, in particular, has come to the aid of Russia in its attempts to bypass Ukraine in its gas deliveries to Europe via the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.
The European position is significant because Eastern Ukraine peace talks are taking place in the Normandy format. The Normandy format involves four countries: France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.
Now, former Ukrainian president and current envoy for peace talks Leonid Kuchma is warning about potential compromise that would not be in the interests of Kyiv. In particular, Kuchma warned last week that French President Emmanuel Macron wants to bring resolution to the conflict quickly, and Kyiv’s envoy said he does not think doing so would be in the interests of Ukraine.
Ahead in negotiations may be discussion of a deal on holding elections in occupied Donbas. There is concern among some Ukrainians that elections will take place before Moscow fully withdraws its troops and military equipment from the region, thus cementing de facto Russian control over the occupied territory.
Putin could also seek a deal in which Moscow would effectively relinquish control over Donbas in exchange for Kyiv effectively acknowledging Russia’s claim to Crimea.
Zelensky says he will get back the territories, or at least, Ukraine will at some point. But there is plenty of skepticism in Ukraine as to whether the president will deliver on this matter. There is also plenty of skepticism that the Ukrainian government even has a plan to get the territories back, beyond waiting and hoping the Russian economy caves in under the pressure of sanctions or Putin leaves office or Russia otherwise falls into a new state of turmoil.
Zelensky may have some leverage in that Putin needs sanctions relief and his political position is not as strong now as it once was. But that could also be cause for the Kremlin to instigate or reignite a conflict, as at times, Putin has been reliant upon militarism to maintain domestic support.
Reason for domestic optimism?
The domestic situation in Ukraine could work in Zelensky’s favor, or so a politician and member of his party says. Ukraine’s Zelensky-controlled government is embarking upon an agenda of political and economic reforms, aimed at reducing corruption and establishing more of a free market economy.
One such policy touted by Zelensky and Ukrainian lawmaker Maryan Zablotskyy, who spoke with Bulgaria Analytica, is eliminating Ukraine’s prohibition on the sale of agricultural land. Zablotskyy said free market reforms, and particularly the land reform measure, would give a boost to the Ukrainian economy.
Zablotskyy, who has also headed the Ukrainian Economic Freedoms Foundation, added that free market reforms could alter the way Russians see Ukraine.
“More freedom brings more prosperity. It brings a more sensible way of life, a more enjoyable way of life,” Zablotskyy said. “When Russians will see that in Ukraine it is actually much more fun than it is in Russia, this I think will change their attitudes toward Ukraine.”
However, allowing the sale of farmland could open the door for Russians to purchase Ukrainian land en masse and potentially exert more influence in Ukraine.
Still, if such reforms indeed occur and indeed boost the economy, they could also strengthen Kyiv’s long-term position. In its quest to defend its sovereignty, Ukraine needs a stronger economy, so it can fund a stronger military.
In the meanwhile, though, diplomacy may be at the forefront of Kyiv’s approach to relations with Moscow.
While he does not focus on foreign policy, Zablotskyy said he knows Zelensky personally and says the president is “very patriotic” and will not sell out any of Ukraine’s interests.
Nonetheless, Zelensky is faced with difficult upcoming choices. While domestically he has the backing of a parliamentary majority and no need to compromise, with Russian relations future victories likely will not come easily. Compromise worked with the initial prisoner swap, but dealmaking with Putin may not suit Zelensky so well in the future.