The election of Volodymyr Zelenskyy as president of Ukraine has spurred hopes that an end to the war in the east of the country – pitting the Russian-backed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (DNR) and the ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ (LNR) against the authorities in Kyiv – is possible. A Russian-speaker from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kriviy Rih and an outsider untainted with the failures of his predecessors, Zelenskyy has, according to some, a chance to reset the bilateral relationship.
Such optimism is unfounded. The principal driver of the crisis – the refusal of Russia’s leaders to accept the sovereignty of Ukraine – is unchanged.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia often says that Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one people’ with a common destiny. In his opinion, Ukraine is ‘not even a country’. It is, moreover, the heart of Russia’s sphere of influence. This view underpins Russia’s interpretation of the 2014 and 2015 Minsk Agreements, which were intended to end the war.
Minsk: Irreconcilable interpretations
The Kremlin sees these agreements as tools with which to break Ukraine’s sovereignty. It demands that Kyiv amend its constitution and devolve power to the DNR and the LNR. Equipped with ‘special status’, these regimes would be notionally reintegrated into Ukraine. In reality, they would remain largely outside Kyiv’s control and able to veto the direction of Ukrainian foreign policy.
By contrast, Ukraine sees the Agreements as a means to re-establish its sovereignty. This would entail a more limited devolution of power to the occupied regions, which would be clearly resubordinated to the central authorities in Kyiv following reintegration. Ukraine would be able to shape its internal and foreign policies as it chose.
These interpretations of the Minsk Agreements rest on incompatible versions of sovereignty. They cannot be reconciled. Ukraine is either sovereign (Ukraine’s version) or it is not (Russia’s version). Implementation of the Minsk Agreements means that either Ukraine’s version of sovereignty prevails, or Russia’s prevails.
Some like to think that there is a middle way to ‘Minsk implementation’. Revealingly, however, they avoid explaining what it would look like, particularly in regard to devolution. By implication, it would involve a transfer of power to the DNR and the LNR more extensive than what Ukraine wants and less extensive than what Russia wants.
Yet even if it could be made to happen, such a compromise could easily destabilize Ukraine, where opposition to anything like federalism is strong. Nor would a half-way fix satisfy Russia, which seeks far-reaching constitutional change to lock Ukraine in its sphere of influence.
Russia: New tactics, same objective
Given pause by Ukraine’s refusal to swallow this modern-day version of the Brezhnev Doctrine of ‘limited sovereignty’, Russian policymakers have changed tack. They no longer expect Ukraine to surrender soon, unlike in the spring of 2014, when parts of the Ukrainian state seemed to be disintegrating. Forcing Ukraine to capitulate, they have concluded, will take longer than they thought.
Yet their view of Ukraine is fundamentally unchanged. For them, it is still not a sovereign country. It has not collapsed because the West, led by the US, is propping it up. Breaking this link is therefore key.
Hence unceasing Russian pressure – low-intensity war, economic sanctions, information warfare, meddling in Ukraine’s domestic politics. By keeping Ukraine divided and off-balance, these blows are intended to convince Western capitals that it is hopelessly dysfunctional. Eventually, the Kremlin calculates, Western leaders will throw in the towel. Ukraine will at last come to its senses and give Russia what it wants.
This is delusional. No Ukrainian leader could give Russia what it wants. Merely seeming to countenance the extreme variant of devolution envisaged by the Kremlin would probably be political suicide. Yet Russia’s leaders still seem to believe that they can grind Ukraine down and compel it to accept their interpretation of Minsk.
Western governments should draw two conclusions. First, they should understand ‘Minsk implementation’ as the unequivocal defence of Ukraine’s sovereignty – meaning implementation of Ukraine’s interpretation of the Minsk Agreements. Western governments should avoid pressing Ukraine to make concessions to Russia over ‘special status’ for the occupied regions. Doing so would risk salami-slicing Ukraine’s sovereignty, destabilizing the authorities in Kyiv and encouraging Russia to demand even more.
Second, such a stance would entail a long-term stand-off with Russia over Ukraine. This would last until Russia’s leaders accepted Ukraine as a sovereign country. That is unlikely to happen for years if not decades. Until then, Western governments should focus on helping Ukraine to build a resilient, modern country – capable, among other things, of withstanding the Kremlin’s efforts to bludgeon Ukrainians into acknowledging that they and Russians are, as Putin maintains, ‘one people’.