During the election campaign, Volodymyr Zelensky and his team had no concept of actions toward the occupied Donbas and Crimea. At that time, Zelensky very technologically evaded any issues related both to geopolitics and the country's life in general.
It is obvious that only now is the president becoming more aware of the pressing challenges, under the influence of both the immediate entourage and other likely allies standing farther away.
At the first stage, Zelensky made a move that became a continuation of the efforts of his predecessor regarding the occupied Donbas
At the first stage, Zelensky made a move that became a continuation of the efforts of his predecessor regarding the occupied Donbas. In particular, Leonid Kuchma was re-appointed chairman of the Ukrainian delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group on Donbas settlement. At that moment, many things testified to the possibility of Zelensky following in Poroshenko's footsteps.
It should be reminded that the Minsk agreements were a result of a personal accord between Poroshenko and Putin on positions regarding the occupied territories. We can suggest that Zelensky decided to return Kuchma to the Minsk process under the influence of Viktor Pinchuk, whom he met the day before, rather than under the influence of Poroshenko. Therefore, in this regard, there was a threat of repeating Petro Poroshenko's losing behavior.
Further steps, one might suspect, were taken not so much under the pressure of internal factors, but under the influence of external ones. After all, reports of the likelihood of a personal meeting between Volodymyr Zelensky and Donald Trump became more frequent. Recently, the two leaders spoke over the phone, which is also important for Ukraine.
At the same time, Zelensky personally voiced stronger initiatives on changing the negotiating formats – both Minsk and Normandy. What had previously been suggested by pundits on the need to involve in talks the United States and the United Kingdom has finally been heard
At the same time, Zelensky personally voiced stronger initiatives on changing the negotiating formats – both Minsk and Normandy. What had previously been suggested by pundits on the need to involve in talks the United States and the United Kingdom has finally been heard. It is clear that such an expansion of the range of negotiators cannot happen immediately – Washington and London are yet to give their consent. And as we have seen, these proposals have so far seen in a rather cold reception.
But what's important here is that Ukraine's position was clearly stated. And this position was different from that of Petro Poroshenko, who, I recall, had not appointed an ambassador to the UK for 18 months and did not dare speak up about the Budapest format of negotiations (i.e. with the involvement of the U.S. and the UK).
Thus, at least in rhetoric, Ukraine's geopolitical drift is becoming notable from the orientation towards the European Union to that towards the United States. These might be only hints, but perhaps this is exactly why Zelensky seems to start radiating confidence. And this is not just about his statements, but also about the moves. In particular, a recent example is the recent seizure of a Russian NEYMA tanker, which had been blocking Ukrainian naval boats from passing through the Kerch Strait in November last year. This action was immediately praised, including by the Americans. That is, now we can see signals coming from the United States, in particular, from the diplomatic corps and the State Department.
This may be the cause of harsher rhetoric and position of both Zelensky and his entourage. One of the president's team members, Roman Bezsmertnyi, said that Zelensky pulled Medvedchuk out of Minsk negotiations. Meanwhile, it was Petro Poroshenko who involved Vladimir Putin's crony in the Minsk process. Medvedchuk remains an important figure for Putin in Ukraine, channeling the Russian president's interests and views.
Thus, the strengthening of Zelensky's position became noticeable in the geopolitical plane. What led to this? I have no other versions but the latest intensification of Ukraine's relations with the U.S.
Analyzing individual policy statements on the occupied territories already voiced by the new authorities, it should be recalled that Leonid Kuchma, right after Zelensky put him back in the Minsk negotiation team, said that Ukraine should consider lifting the blockade off of the occupied Donbas. However, the other day, the president's envoy for Crimea, Anton Korinevich, said that the water blockade of Crimea was the right measure and would be maintained.
My position on the blockade of the occupied territories remains unchanged: I support the blockade of the invaders and their minions.
There is no real opportunity, neither military nor diplomatic, to return occupied territories to Ukraine while Putin's regime remains in power in Russia
However, at the same time, I believe that we need to remove from the occupied territories as many Ukrainian citizens as possible. And that means not just getting them out of there and immediately forgetting about them, but also providing them with housing. EU and U.S. funds should finally be used to build compact housing blocks and create jobs for IDPs. This kind of practice exists in other countries, including Israel and Germany.
There is no real opportunity, neither military nor diplomatic, to return occupied territories to Ukraine while Putin's regime remains in power in Russia.
In order to be able to return these territories peacefully and through diplomatic means, there is a need for an increased pressure on Moscow on the part of the West. Then there will be a chance. This is exactly what happened after the collapse of the USSR when Germany reunited. When a powerful neighbor is standing behind a separatist structure, there can be no reunification, unfortunately.
Recall Cyprus. Northern Cyprus has been occupied by Turkey since 1974. It is economically weaker than the ethnic Greek Cyprus, but this doesn't lead to unification. Despite the European Union's attempts to help (it was the allegedly unified Cyprus that has joined the EU), part of the country remains occupied.
Similar examples are seen in the part of Moldova, i.e. Transnistria, and parts of Georgia, i.e. South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Their reintegration back to their home countries isn't happening. Until the flywheel of real weakening is launched in Russia, until the country's self-destruction, nothing will change, unfortunately, because there are no other effective mechanisms for the return of all these territories.
Ideas of huge trade turnover or a single humanitarian space with the occupied territories seem to be a dead-end
Ideas of huge trade turnover or a single humanitarian space with the occupied territories seem to be a dead-end. They are not unrealistic, but they won't ultimately lead to the reintegration of the occupied territories. Neither the occupied Crimea nor the occupied parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, while Russia stands behind them, will return to Ukraine as a result of resetting humanitarian relations.
At the same time, this could deliver a destructive blow on Ukraine. For example, a corrupt component in some secret (informal) economic relations, that is, smuggling. Such relations are widely spread in the occupied territories, presenting a threat to the economic climate in Ukraine, because they will spill across the contact line like malign tumors. Therefore, I stand for severing all ties with the occupied territories.
As for Medvedchuk removal from the Minsk negotiations by Volodymyr Zelensky... The point is not even about Medvedchuk, it's that the very Minsk process is unconstitutional. It has been developing under the supervision of a rather honorable figure, ex-president Leonid Kuchma, who was commissioned first by Poroshenko and then by Zelensky to hold talks. However, any signatures put by any presidential envoy on behalf of the President of Ukraine are illegitimate and void. The Constitution clearly states that the President has no right to delegate his powers. That is, any signature put under an agreement on holding local elections in any territory or to amend the Constitution is illegitimate and unconstitutional.
Therefore, it is imperative to return the negotiations to the constitutional plane. This means that the Rada must set up a commission, because it is the Parliament that has the prerogative to pursue such a policy and approve the results. As long as this hasn't been don, everything is happening on an unconstitutional basis, and, like any violation of the law, it will affect the overall political climate in the country in the future, because this is a model of non-compliance with Ukraine's legislative field.
The Minsk process was wrong from the very start
That is, the Minsk process was wrong from the very start. It is unfortunate that Ukraine has never dared to say this out loud. The previous Verkhovna Rada was absolutely impotent in terms of lack of its own position, being fully subordinated to Poroshenko. There is also no reason to claim that the new Verkhovna Rada will be self-sufficient. Therefore, with all the criticism of this process, we just have to watch it develop from aside. Starting the Minsk process was the decision made by two presidents – of Russia and Ukraine.
Summing up, we can recall expectations voiced by Volodymyr Zelensky during a joint press conference with Donald Tusk in early July. The president said he hoped that there would no longer be a war in Ukraine in 12 months. Optimism is okay for politicians. At the same time, all suggestions made by the previous government (I would remind that some deputies of Petro Poroshenko's party claimed that the occupied "LPR" and "DPR" would be returned in 2018) were never realized in practice.
Having the occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea back within 12 months is an unrealistic task
In addition, it's also about what we perceive as the end of war. If it is a conditional truce with a ceasefire along the line of contact, it is theoretically possible. But it would be more important if it was not Ukrainian troops but some kind of UN or NATO auxiliary forces who would stand at that demarcation line. In theory, this option is possible.
If we consider the return of the occupied territories as a completion of war (it seems to me that this would be more correct), then it's either about Ukraine consent to all occupied territories being declared Russian, which would be unacceptable (fortunately, no political force in Ukraine pouts forward such a suggestion and neither anyone is set for defeat), or it's actually about returning said territories. However, having the occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea back within 12 months is an unrealistic task. There is no reason to expect this, so no illusions should be harbored.
Oleksandr Doniy is a Ukrainian political analyst, former MP, now chairing the Last Barricade Art Association