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A consistent focus on domestic reforms is the most direct way to strengthen Ukraine

Gwendolyn Sasse is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. She has also been the Director of ZOiS (Centre for East European and International Studies) since 1 October 2016. Until 2020, she was Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Oxford. She continues to be a Senior Research Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford. Her academic career spans the study of history, Slavonic studies and political science at the University of Hamburg and an MSc and PhD in political science at the London School of Economics. After gaining her doctorate, she first took up a post as Assistant Professor at the Central European University, and then as Lecturer/Senior Lecturer at the London School of Economics before moving to Oxford in 2007 where she became a full professor in 2013.

1.What impact do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Ukraine so far? Has it been appropriately handled by Zelensky and his team?

The pandemic adds a whole range of additional challenges to an already crowded policy agenda, while also highlighting and reinforcing pre-existing institutional weaknesses. The pandemic's socio-economic consequences are not fully felt yet and are bound to put additional pressure on Ukrainian policy-makers and the Ukrainian budget. A closer look at approval ratings and responses to Zelenky's handling of the pandemic suggests that we are witnessing attitudes rallying against him rather than a "rally-around-the-flag" effect. His approval ratings had begun to fall before COVID-19 hit, but the rate of this loss of trust seems to be accelerating. Zelensky's policy response has become less coherent over time, resulting in a patchwork of decisions and local responses. In a year of local elections, a key challenge for Zelensky will be his loss of trust at the national level compared to a potential gain in political trust for political institutions and administrations at the local level.

2.What is your view on the latest situation in the Donbas region? Do you think there is a risk of Ukraine leaving the Minsk process?

Zelensky's two key electoral promises were to fight corruption and to end the war in Donbas. The record on anti-corruption measures is mixed - the anti-corruption institutions remain weak and have been further weakened by allegations against their own staff, judicial reforms is a slow process, and over time entrenched oligarchic interests have become more visible again. Therefore, the pressure on Zelensky rises to demonstrate "success" with regard to his second promise. This could make him less risk-averse in direct negotiations with Moscow. So far, he has demonstrated willingness to engage both through the Minsk process and the Normandy format, but also through direct contacts with Moscow, while also stating clear red lines. The option of leaving the Minsk process has been touted, but it is primarily an expression of the level of frustration with the negotiations rather than a realistic prospect. In the absence of an alternative framework for regular and internationalized negotiations, Ukraine will not leave the current set-up for negotiations, not least because it would further limit the international visibility of the war and endanger EU support for Ukraine more generally.

3. Is there a possibility of de-occupation of Crimea and its return to Ukraine in the near future?

A physical re-integration of Crimea into the Ukrainian state is, at best, a long-term prospect. Russia's political system would have to change significantly in both its domestic and international outlook for this scenario to become possible. In a post-Putin era, this possibility would become more likely if pushed for by the Crimeans themselves. In turn, for this to become a concrete wish of the regional population, an economically and politically attractive Ukraine would provide the most effective push in this direction. In the meantime, it remains important for Kyiv to continue signaling that Crimea and Crimeans remain part of the definition of the Ukrainian polity. Efforts should be made to provide the Crimean population with information about Ukrainian politics and society and to negotiate easier access between the region and the rest of Ukraine.

4. What steps should Ukraine take to strengthen its sovereignty and security?

The notion of Ukrainian sovereignty and identification with the Ukrainian state have further strengthened in recent years. A consistent focus on domestic reforms is the most direct way to strengthen Ukraine from within. The Verkhovna Rada remains too weak a political institution - both de jure and de facto, the judicial system requires substantial reform, and the socio-economic challenges remain significant. Ukraine's objective to join both the EU and NATO sets the overarching agenda, but concrete domestic reforms will make this claim more credible.

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