Russia-Ukraine relations take leap of faith

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky (L) to have first face-to-face encounter in Paris on December 9, 2019 

The relationship of the famous Ukrainian oligarch and billionaire Ihor Valeriyovych Kolomoyskyi with President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky lends itself to various interpretations. Both Kolomoyskyi and Zelensky (rather, his spokesperson Iuliia Mendel) are in denial mode about their past business association but the impression lingers that the oligarch has been the kingmaker. 

When asked by New York Times last week, Kolomoyskyi responded in a light vein, “If I put on glasses and look at myself like the whole rest of the world, I see myself as a monster, as a puppet master, as the master of Zelensky, someone making apocalyptic plans. I can start making this real.” 

Surely, Kolomoyskyi wields the clout to make ‘apocalyptic plans’ come to life, since his extensive say with the administration of Zelensky is not in doubt. And that alone makes his interview with Times highly significant — where he discarded his record of anti-Russian views and swung to the other extreme of advocating Ukraine’s alliance with Russia to resuscitate a Warsaw Pact-type alliance. 

The interview appeared at a juncture when there was growing talk about a ‘one-on-one’ meeting between Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin. All signs are that Zelensky is moving forward with the ‘Steinmeier Formula’ (quintessentially speaking, a sequencing of the Minsk agreement of 2014-2015 for constitutional reform granting provincial autonomy to separatist regions followed by early election leading to a comprehensive peace settlement in Donbas.) 

Clearly, Moscow encourages Zelensky’s approach, as evident from the robust support extended to the Ukrainian president to move in this direction, expressed by Viktor Medvedchuk, the pro-Russian leader of the Opposition Platform — For Life, which commands 43 seats in the 450-member Ukrainian parliament, having polled over 13% votes in the 2019 election.

Kolomoyskyi is most certainly in sync with the broad trends of Zelensky’s recent actions (here , here and here.) In fact, the AFP reported on November 15 quoting Elysee Palace that the first face-to-face encounter between Putin and Zelensky is due to take place in Paris on December 9. 

This does not come entirely as surprise, since Moscow has increasingly viewed Zelensky in a positive light, and the present moment, arguably, provides an extraordinary opportunity to break the deadlock over Donbas and improve relations between the two countries. 

The clincher, from Moscow’s perspective, would be that Zelensky was a ‘peace candidate’ and is acutely conscious of his political obligation to fulfil his electoral pledge regarding a settlement in Donbas for which of course an improvement in the relations with Russia becomes a pre-requisite. 

If there is ever a possibility that the extreme nationalist forces in Ukraine can be marginalised and neutralised, it is today. Three external factors strengthen these trends. 

Firstly, the Ukrainian public realises by now that the much sought-after membership of the European Union is a chimera and that an improvement of relations with Russia is therefore an imperative need for Ukraine, especially for salvaging its economy and preserving its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The fact of the matter is that the chill in the political relations notwithstanding, Russia still remains by far Ukraine’s number one trade and economic partner. 

Secondly, the European Union too feels the fatigue of bankrolling Ukraine where rule of law is absent, democracy is deficient, economy is bankrupt, governance is abysmally poor and venality and corruption is rampant and, perhaps, part of political culture itself. 

The EU has no impetus today to claim Ukraine as a geopolitical trophy. Alongside, there is serious rethink in the major European capitals — Paris and Rome, in particular — regarding relations with Russia and there is a groundswell of opinion that constructive engagement with Moscow is necessary and feasible. 

The French President Emmanuel Macron has taken a lead role in espousing strategic partnership with Russia. Unsurprisingly  there is some unease about Russia ties among some European countries bordering on open criticism — and within the EU, entrenched resistance is visible from the countries of ‘New Europe’ belonging to the erstwhile Warsaw Pact, Evidently, such historic processes will take time to fructify. 

On the other hand, the EU’s approach to Ukraine and Russia is no longer driven by the US’ transatlantic leadership and it is all too obvious that President Trump does not regard Ukraine as vital to the US interests. Indeed, the EU is exploring new thinking in regard of its independent foreign and defence policies. 

Meanwhile, France under Macron shows Gaullist aspirations . And the shift in the alchemy of the Franco-German axis within the EU and Brexit, amongst other factors such as economy and migration policies, etc. would mean that the EU is in profound transition. 

Finally, the Ukrainian leadership senses that the stage is being set in the Washington Beltway for an impeachment vote on Trump that could be among the most pivotal political moments in recent American history. The ‘known unknown’ concerns any further revelations about Trump that could impact US policy toward Ukraine. 

Succinctly put, as Kiev would perceive it, question marks appear on the reliability of the US as a reliable partner on the whole range of existential issues facing Ukraine in its efforts to dislodge Russian-backed separatists from eastern Ukraine, while steering a course toward the EU and the unfulfilled promise of the ‘Maidan Spirit’. 

Without doubt, the transcript of Trump’s infamous July call with Zelensky paints the latter in a fawning, awkward light who had actually agreed to publicly announce the opening of an investigation into Joe Biden. This in turn risks the bipartisan support Ukraine has hitherto enjoyed in the US. 

Thus, despite the fact that the Trump administration has illustrated a greater willingness than the Obama administration to supply Ukraine with the type of military equipment Ukraine has requested — such as advanced Javelin anti-tank missiles — Trump’s willingness to use Ukraine as a pawn in domestic politics unnerves Kyiv, which estimates that it no longer enjoys Washington’s full backing. 

Put differently, US support for Ukraine is now contingent on Ukraine’s willingness to cater to Trump’s personal ambitions and political future, which also, by the way, has its origin in Kiev’s (former president Petro Poroshenko’s) meddling in the 2016 US election, patently seeking Trump’s defeat. 

Suffice to say, the US-Ukraine relations will remain under the weather at least until the 2020 election gets over — and, depending on the revelations that the upcoming impeachment of POTUS are bound to throw up as well as the election’s outcome itself, even get degraded in the conceivable future.