oDR: Opinion

Ukraine and the West: an insider’s view

Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy finds himself between Moscow on the one side, and US and Europe on the other

16 September 2021, 12.57pm
Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Joe Biden at the White House, September 2021
(c) MediaPunch Inc / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

openDemocracy has published this article on Ukraine-West relations by a European diplomat on condition of anonymity.

Disappointment is lingering in Kyiv. Despite President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s meetings with Angela Merkel and Joe Biden this past month, Ukraine is finding itself increasingly alone when it comes to a clear path for Euro-Atlantic integration – and opposition to Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline. That said, neither of these meetings contained public criticism of corruption, sanctions or the Minsk peace agreements with Russia, so Kyiv has some reasons to be satisfied.

The hope that Biden taking office in the White House would help return Washington’s attention to Ukraine after the country’s 2014 revolution has proved to be a vain one. The flip side is that in the context of frank admissions about how far Ukraine has to go in its journey to EU membership, Western demands for greater anti-corruption (or anti-oligarch) efforts are being seen in Kyiv as going hand-in-hand with the advancement of the West’s own interests in the country.

On top of this comes Afghanistan. Ukrainian commentators did not hold back their frustration in seeing billions of dollars worth of military equipment falling into Taliban hands. This amount has put the “unprecedented levels of support” that Kyiv has received from the West since 2014 into a different perspective, especially as most of the aid disbursed in Ukraine comes in the form of loans.

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A more pragmatic relationship?

These developments have opened up questions about the relationship between Ukraine and the West, including the post-2014 revolution consensus on the country’s reform course and its commitment to reintegrate Donbas, the eastern region now in its seventh year of war.

This consensus is shaken, but not shattered. The return to the US-Ukraine strategic partnership has allowed a reboot in relations, and Ukrainian elites and society remain committed to European-Atlantic integration. Yet with disappointment comes sobriety, and Kyiv’s relations with the West are likely to become more pragmatic on a number of issues, including Donbas.

In 2019, Zelenskyy campaigned on a promise to bring peace to Donbas, just as his predecessor Petro Poroshenko did in 2014. But Zelenskyy has failed to make his promise a reality – Moscow has not been willing to amend the Minsk Agreements, which attempted to bring an end to the fighting. Direct engagement with Russia, and compromise on Donbas, has also been resisted by a vocal minority in Ukraine, including far-Right activists. Zelenskyy has not been able to overcome this opposition without greater support from the West, which has not been forthcoming due to a lack of trust in Ukraine’s greenhorn president. He also promised to raise the standard of living of Ukraine’s citizens – a promise impossible to deliver as long as Ukraine’s Western partners continue to push for austerity and debt repayment (which takes up a sizeable portion of the state budget) as priority.

Anti-tariff protest in Kyiv, early 2021
(c) Raj Valley / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The president’s polling numbers have tanked as a result, and Zelenskyy may have understood that none of these major promises can be fulfilled. To boost his popularity and reinforce legitimacy, he has embarked on an authoritarian-leaning power consolidation. Critics say his policy of sanctions, which relies on the National Security and Defense Council and circumvents law enforcement agencies and courts, is illegal and unconstitutional.  Zelenskyy’s declared ‘war on the oligarchs’ has proved to be popular, but in reality it is closer to bargaining with Ukraine’s tycoons to ensure they stay away from the politics rather than a real fight. 

For Zelenskyy, this month’s meeting with Biden at the White House was important for shoring up his internal legitimacy. The Russian threat is essential for mobilisation of the West and the internal legitimisation of Ukraine’s comprador elites. Importantly for Zelenskyy, the West is staying silent as he pushes through the strongman policies mentioned above – a sign Kyiv reads as a tacit agreement that geopolitical interests are above the rule of law. This silence undermines the West’s support of Ukraine’s much-needed reform drive.

The future of Donbas

Within this framework, the Minsk Agreements, which are meant to lay a path for peace between Ukraine and Russia over the Donbas region, seem dead.  Kyiv has, in practice, resisted their implementation. After seven years of war, reintegrating Donbas would cost billions and undermine Ukraine’s nation-building efforts. Moreover, Belarus, the platform for Minsk Agreement negotiations, is mired in its own internal conflict. Chancellor Merkel, the agreements’ main architect, is exiting the political scene and the Biden administration prefers to keep a strategic distance from Kyiv.  

Kyiv understands that the Donbas conflict cannot be entirely frozen for geographical, military and political reasons. But over the years, the sides have learned how to manage it, keeping casualties and costs at a minimum. A clear sign of the latter is that agriculture features as the main focus of Ukraine’s new economic development strategy for Donbas, a far cry from its days as the industrial powerbase of the Soviet Union. While Moscow remains formally keen to push ahead with implementing Minsk, it has also lost trust in Zelenskyy, and has shifted towards a slow, de-facto annexation of the statelets in Donetsk and Luhansk. 

Kyiv and Moscow

One key question is: how will the sober mood in Kyiv affect relations with Moscow? The return to ‘balancing’ Moscow and the West is over, but Kyiv may try to build more pragmatic relations given that confrontation with Russia will not convince the West on integration. If this happens, the path to reconciliation will not be through the Minsk Agreements, but through smaller scale, mutually beneficial, bilateral business agreements. In a similar way to Belarus or Serbia, Kyiv already plays the China card to increase its ‘attractiveness’ to the West, but is also reacting to the rapidly growing trade with China.

For the EU and the US, these developments should spark some reflection. The West’s demand for Donbas reintegration would only be credible if it were matched by serious economic incentives, which remain unlikely. However, a resilient Ukraine would require a paradigm change from the West when it comes to economic policy. Reforms require resources, and the West should consider offering debt relief, allowing debt monetisation, stimulating the economy and delaying carbon taxes in order to avoid further social dislocation

This would be in line with the policy shift in the West itself. Instead of waiting for foreign direct investment, the Ukrainian state should be able to provide stimulus, with strict anti-corruption dimensions attached. Kyiv’s Donbas strategy, which would also envisage more infrastructure investment into the country’s much-neglected southeast, should be supported.

Ukraine is trying to re-define itself within new constraints. This internal process is expected to be turbulent – society and its elites have not tolerated authoritarian experimentation in the past.

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