Could Zelenskyy’s Strategy for Donbas Lead Ukraine Into a Kremlin Trap?

In pursuit of peace in the war-torn region, the Ukrainian president’s short-term, tactical approach is vulnerable in the face of Russia’s long-term strategy.

Expert comment Published 14 February 2020 Updated 6 September 2022 3 minute READ

Hanna Shelest

Security Studies Program Director, Foreign Policy Council ‘Ukrainian Prism’

Volodymyr Zelenskyy attends a ceremony welcoming Ukrainians who were freed by pro-Russian rebels during a prisoner exchange. Photo: Getty Images.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy attends a ceremony welcoming Ukrainians who were freed by pro-Russian rebels during a prisoner exchange. Photo: Getty Images.

One of the key messages at the heart of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s presidential campaign in 2019 was a very simple one: peace in Donbas, the war-torn region of Ukraine where Russian-supported separatists continue to fight a war against the Kyiv government. Zelenskyy’s message was based on the assumption that if a ceasefire could be respected, and all Ukrainian prisoners-of-war could return home, then peace would have been achieved.

Nine months after Zelenskyy’s inauguration and two months after his first Normandy Four summit (which brings together Germany and France with Ukraine and Russia to discuss Donbas), it appears more likely that this approach will lead Ukraine into a Russian trap.

Zelenskyy’s very immediate objectives and the tactics used to achieve them contrast with those of the previous president, Petro Poroshenko. Zelenskyy has pointedly avoided naming Russia as an aggressor and has focused on humanitarian issues and seeking compromise wherever possible, including in legal cases that Russia has already lost in international courts.

In contrast, President Poroshenko prioritised the security agenda as a precondition for any political settlement, encapsulated in the notion of ‘no elections without security guarantees’. This focused on regaining control of the border and the demilitarization of the separatist-controlled territories. At the same time, Poroshenko sought remedial action for Russian aggression through international courts.

Kyiv is testing the Kremlin’s real intentions with a series of small steps without clearly communicating its overarching objectives. This has triggered considerable social disquiet, manifested by demonstrations in Kyiv and other cities as part of the ’No capitulation’ campaign. This wave of criticism forced Zelenskyy’s team to name certain red lines, which he promised he would not cross (‘we don’t trade territories and people’) in pursuit of conflict resolution.

Other key issues, such as Ukraine’s relations with the EU, future NATO membership, language issues and any possible ‘special status’ for Donbas, have been left undefined.

Two months since the Normandy summit, the number of casualties has not declined. It is increasingly difficult for Zelenskyy to argue that disengagement by Ukraine’s army from the contact line in three locations, which was a precondition for the December Normandy Four meeting, is a way to achieve peace.

The separatists continue to significantly impede the OSCE’s special monitoring mission, a full ceasefire is not being observed and there are numerous reports of heavy weapons movements closer to the contact line in the areas outside Kyiv’s control. These issues are particularly problematic as control over the border with Russia is essential for the demilitarization of the ‘people’s republics’, which is a prerequisite for the safe reintegration of these areas.

Conducting local elections in autumn 2020 is a top priority for the new team, but it is clear that even if Ukraine regains control of its border, the presence of Russian military personnel and weaponry in Donbas threatens the prospect of free and fair elections (which themselves raise the further issue of how to ensure the integrity of the votes).

Russia’s strategy

So despite Zelenskyy’s pacifist rhetoric, hopes and ambitions, his plans are far from being realized or, in fact, realizable. This is because these plans are at odds with Russia’s strategic objective, which is for Donbas to be conferred a status whereby it is de jure within Ukraine but de facto under Russian control and influence.

Zelenskyy’s media-friendly appearance in Paris in December 2019 could not mask the fact that the Normandy Four talks exposed the weakness of Ukraine’s position and the growing influence of Russia’s approach, particularly in the context of a disengaged UK and US, a Germany increasingly tired of this conflict, and a French president who is looking to accommodate Russian preferences.

Indeed, Vladimir Putin was able to exploit the opportunity to apply his favoured formula for conducting foreign policy: highly personalized informal interactions, which seek specific political concessions from a cornered partner and which are short on transparent, stable and law-based solutions. The Paris meeting of the Normandy Four in December 2019 clearly demonstrated that simply sitting down and talking to Putin is not a magic pill to end the conflict, an idea frequently expressed by Zelenskyy.

In 2020, the strongest clue as to what Putin’s plans for Ukraine might be is the appointment of Dmitry Kozak as the main curator of the ‘Ukraine file’ (meaning Donbas and Crimea), replacing Vladislav Surkov, his long-time competitor for the role. The next Normandy meeting is expected in April 2020, and Kyiv should be aware of the possible pitfalls.

While Kozak is perceived by some as a more pragmatic and less aggressive counterpart, his past tells a different story. In fact, he was the architect of the long-term strategy for Moldova, which centred on the federalization of Moldova and the reincorporation of the separatist region of Transnistria into Moldova.

The presence of Russian military forces stationed on the ground there amounts to ‘armed suasion’ – using a military presence to demand political concessions from Moldova. The so-called ‘Kozak memorandum’ – which de facto re-writes the constitution of Moldova – contains a detailed explanation of that strategy.

Kozak could try to deliver a similar situation for Ukraine. Less emphasis is being put on specific terms (federalization vs. special status) but the overarching aims are unchanged since 2014, in the same way they have been in Moldova since 2003. Kozak is a man who can play the long game, while the team of the Ukrainian president chases quick successes without calculating long-term risks. This could be a dangerous combination.

The ‘human-centric approach’ to resolving the conflict followed by President Zelenskyy is a double-edged sword. The focuses on humanitarian issues and readiness for big compromises are clear positive signals to Western partners and supporters of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party. But prioritizing humanitarian issues over national security considerations could easily lead Ukraine into a Russian trap, which does not so much rely on a massive military assault but envisages creeping control over Ukraine’s future as its ultimate goal.