_ Alexey Tokarev, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of International Research, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University). Moscow, 19 January 2020. First published by the Vienna Institute for Security Policy.
There are numerous uncertainties for the coming year. Will the local elections be held on time? Will the Minsk agreements still be relevant? Will the resolution of the conflict in the South-East Ukraine within the framework of the so called “Steinmeier formula” be given a start? Will President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former showman, remain popular? Will Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov be capable of keeping his leverage over loyal radical groups? Will there be a New Maidan? One can hardly tell.
To predict the development of a totalitarian state like the North Korea is quite a grateful thing. Domestic and foreign policy depends on the leader’s health and his relations with external donors to the regime. It is not too much of a riddle to predict the developments in democratic states as well. Thanks to strong institutions and well-established procedures, we know that on November 3rd, 2020, new president of the USA will be elected, or the world will be following Donald Trump’s Twitter for another four years.
But making predictions about those states that are in a common basket called „hybrid regimes“ is far more complicated. There are too many actors, including politicians, oligarchs, masses, external players, radical groups etc. The law is subject to change in order to fit interests of one group or another, justice is inconsistent, parliamentary immunity frequently serves criminals, and corruption is endemic. In addition one should consider difficulties of post-Soviet nation building, military conflicts, the fabric of administrative division encompassing territories inhabited by peoples of different historical and linguistic traditions as well as the revolutionary potential of the masses. Because of that forecasts about Ukraine’s near future (as well as the future of some other states of the post-Soviet area) should be read with scepticism. But nevertheless let’s give it a try.
The Future of War in Donbas. A View from Kyiv.
Will we see an end to the Donbas conflict in 2020? In this context the key question remains: Does the Ukrainian political class want to resolve the conflict in Donbas? There is a controversy on this matter.
First, the „party of war“: For the last five years these people have been telling the country that the South-East is populated by terrorists and Russian spies. They have Russia as their only enemy and hope for its disintegration under the oppression of internal problems. From their quite radical and ideological viewpoint, territories of Donbas are far more important than its inhabitants. Some of the radicals belong to certain Neo-Nazi groups (these groups use Neo-Nazi symbols, particularly Wolfsangel) which, through the Azov National Guard regiment, are controlled by Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov.
Secondly, the “party of pragmatism“: This is a group of quite respectable politicians who, on the sidelines of international conferences unequivocally say that they need the territories, but no pro-Russian sentiment there, for Ukrainian electorate has become more loyal since the war started and there is no reason to repatriate those who would vote differently. Such politicians do not stick to ideology, only pragmatic interest. It is quite certain that the exotic alliance between the first and the second group will in every way possible oppose the peace initiatives of Volodymyr Zelensky.
Finally, the “party of peace”: They also use the narrative of „Russian occupation“ as Ukraine has formed a discursive canon similar to the case of Japan (to call the „Northern Territories“ the Russian Kuril Islands is a political death for every Japanese politician). But still the „party of peace“ perceives the combatants in Donbas as their fellow citizens, with whom it is necessary to negotiate and to reach compromise. This part of the Ukrainian elite reacts to the war fatigue of the population. Serhiy Syvokho, a former showman and currently member of Security Council, left an encouraging note to his selfie with a security checkpoint in the background: “I want to apologize to Ukrainians on both sides for the temporary inconvenience”.
The Future of War in Donbas. A View from People’s Republics and Russia.
Formally speaking, Russia is not a party to the Minsk Agreements, as was often stated by Russian officials. Although Russian influence in the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk is in fact great, it is still far from being absolute, as many in Kyiv believe. Therefore the Donbas elites should not be viewed solely as puppets of the Kremlin. These people have been given a taste of power and money, they won mandate to rule over the population via elections, though non-competitive, and crafted their skills in handling domestic affairs. The occasional threats from Kyiv to cleanse the ruling elites of the People’s Republics also do not encourage the Donbas elites to raise the white flag.
Russia has not yet officially recognized the self-proclaimed republics. And if there is no further escalation of the conflict, Moscow will hardly ever recognize them. Russian foreign policy is quite predictable on that point. Russian official approach to the Donbas conflict is quite adequately expressed in the Minsk Agreements: People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk remain part of Ukraine, but they acquire the right to influence the decisions made in Kyiv, for example, on the integrational vector of Ukrainian foreign policy. “Please do not expand NATO to the East, it’s a direct threat to our national security”, this is what scholars and politicians in Russia have been saying for decades. The Russian language should be freely used in these territories. Since Russia cannot afford a full-scale refugee crisis, ethnic cleansings must be prevented by all means. Russia will not allow a scenario similar to the Croatian operations in Serbian Krajina in 1995 (at that time the peacekeepers could not stop the Croats who took the de facto state of Serbian Krajina in three days, which led to the exodus of about 250 thousand refugees).
That is why next year, if the conflict settlement will make timid steps at hand with Zelensky’s rating keeps pace, there will be a question of a peacekeeping contingent monitoring the „grey zone“ that will appear after the withdrawal of combatants from both conflicting parties. As it is for now the conflicting sides are occupying this territory according to their own view on strategic advantages. Afterwards the peacekeepers or mixed police forces will have to ensure secure voting during the elections under the Minsk Agreements as well as the return of refugees. But of course, a renewed escalation of the conflict over the influence of radicals cannot be ruled out. The inhabitants of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk especially fear Ukrainian Neo-Nazis who are publishing distributing videos on the Internet dedicated to mop-ups.
What happens to the Ukrainian oligarchs? The Ukrainian oligarchs are likely to remain the ruling force. Under the current political system, a political party, alongside with an yacht, private air-plane and a mansion office, is an indispensable attribute of a well-respected businessman.
Ihor Kolomoyskyi will continue to fight for PrivatBank, where up to a third of all Ukrainian deposits were accumulated before nationalization. President Zelensky’s ties with the oligarch are constantly exaggerated by opponents of both, but their cooperation is a fact from the time when the current president was a showman. Kolomoisky’s comeback from Israel where he resided during the last years of his conflict with Poroshenko directly after Zelensky won the elections is a fact. The presence in the current government of at least three ministers directly related to PrivatBank and its former head is another fact. Finally, former Kolomoyskyi’s lawyer becoming the Head of the President’ Office is the favourite argument of Zelensky’s critics.
Any positive decisions of the Ukrainian courts (as well as courts in the state of Delaware, where they also deal with PrivatBank) concerning the oligarch will be interpreted as a conspiracy between Kolomoyskyi and the authorities. Given the history of Ukrainian businessmen’s influence on Ukrainian politicians, this is not surprising. There are also the following figures, “7-9” and “35-40”, with the former given by David Arakhmia, “Servant of the People”-party faction leader in the Verkhovna Rada, and the second – by Sonya Koshkina, editor-in-chief of “Levy Bereg”, a popular periodical. They both counted the number of MPs controlled by Kolomoisky.
In fact, accusations of collusion with the largest Ukrainian businessman will accompany the party of Zelensky „Servant of the People“ permanently.
What will be the place of Ukraine on the global agenda? If Joseph Biden’s rating rises, we will certainly hear of a gas company “Burisma”. It remains to be seen whether President Zelensky will be willing to coerce the Office of the Prosecutor General into investigating the business of Biden’s son, but the probability cannot be ruled out, since it is clear from the recently leaked correspondence that the American officials unequivocally link the US-Ukraine summit with Ukrainian Siloviki stance on Hunter Biden’s case.
Ukrainian domestic policy will remain subject to adjustable justice. In early October 2019 Kyiv’s court took into custody Serhiy Pashinsky, a former MP, who is known, among other things, for transporting a sniper rifle in his car when driving from Maidan square. He is a perfect figure for prosecutors, for one can hardly find Pashinsky’s supporters in Ukraine. Due to the close temporal connection Volodymyr Zelensky’s opponents were trying to accuse him of doing so in an attempt to make a birthday present to Vladimir Putin, whose birthday is on October 7th. In this sense, Ukraine is repeating the Georgian case where „Kremlin agent“ is a favourite accusation of opponents. At the same time this technology is broadly used by the Georgian authorities to distract people from internal problems. Nevertheless a greater media success could only be secured if Andriy Paruby, former parliamentary speaker, or even the Ukrainian former President Petro Poroshenko would be sentenced to imprisonment.
New Maidan not likely to happen
The likelihood of a New Maidan that would sweep away the government is low, though claiming it is entirely impossible means neglecting the huge mobilizational potential of Ukrainian people. Still, there are no immediate prerequisites for a revolution. The population is tired of war and conflicts. But there is also another issue, Ukrainian Siloviki after 2014 have a special type of consciousness that only few people in Russia understand. Ukrainian Siloviki remember what happened to the special police forces „Berkut“ after the victory of Maidan. In any case, the Ukrainian Siloviki are now limited not only by the law, but also by their own memory: they have seen their colleagues, who were only following orders, getting humiliated. In this context it is very difficult to imagine a situation in which the authorities will send special forces to disperse another Maidan like situation.
Local elections will be held in Kyiv later in the year, with two front-runners hoping to win. Either the current mayor Vitaly Klitschko will keep his chair or journalist Olexander Tkachenko will win the elections. As the matter of fact Klitschko’s relations with the president and his team are far from smooth – both Zelensky and Andriy Bohdan publicly criticized the mayor.
Best case scenario not very likely
Finally, how could a best case, although extremely unlikely, scenario look like? There will be no New Maidan in 2020 and local elections will be held in time, ideally, including local elections in the self-proclaimed republics. This will be the result of a tough breakthrough in the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. A peacekeeping contingent on the basis of OSCE will be formed. After the elections, which the OSCE recognizes as free and competitive, Ukraine will regain control over the border, and representatives of the Donbas elite, who are unacceptable to Kyiv, will leave to Russia, for good.
At the very least, hopefully, small steps in the implementation of the Minsk agreements will be made and no further conflict escalation will occur. But little can be said for sure.
* The views expressed in the article are solely that of the author and may not represent that of MGIMO-University, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Russian government.