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No reason to believe that Russian strategic calculus as to Ukraine has undergone substantial change

Maryna Vorotnyuk is a Researcher at the Center for European Neighborhood Studies of the Central European University (CEU) and member of the board of the Foreign policy council "Ukrainian Prism".

1. What is your view on the performance of Zelensky and his team so far?

The presidential and governmental record in the last year proved that there are no fast remedies to the problems and shortcuts in solving them. In a complicated political situation that Ukraine battles with what counts are hard work and professionalism, rather than mere enthusiasm. Thus, the record is mixed, i.e., adoption of the law on the land market reform, three exchanges of prisoners, and the reinvigoration of the Normandy format listed among the achievements, other crucial reforms lagging behind. In the foreign policy realm, the apprehensions that there will be a U-turn in the country’s gravitation towards the EU and NATO did not materialize. On the other hand, the idea of Ukraine mentally and strategically belonging to the West is often instrumentalized as a mere figure of speech. The European integration from the narrative of the transformation of the whole state apparatus is somewhat reduced to a realm of foreign policy, and relations with NATO are simplistically shallowed to the idea that Ukraine should implement NATO standards in its armed forces. While President was successful in voicing the ‘red lines’ that Ukraine would never cross in its policies towards Donbas, the feeling has been that he drew and upheld them under pressure and thanks to the unwavering public attention to the issue, rather than due to the crystal clear vision of what Ukrainian interests are.

2. Does COVID-19 pose a threat to Ukrainian domestic security? Do you think it has been handled by the Ukrainian government properly so far? What else should be done to minimize its adverse impact?

The COVID-19 crisis in Ukraine has exposed the deep-seated inefficiencies and dysfunctionality of governance and coordination between the key public bodies. Being far from an exclusively public healthcare problem, the crisis will have wide-ranging consequences for all realms of life of Ukrainians. With the individual local officials challenging the quarantine measures adopted by the government (notorious case of Cherkasy mayor), this is yet another indication that the governability of the state is at stake. The crisis can both provide new opportunities for the civil society and grassroots activism that Ukrainians have readily displayed after Maidan, galvanize the much-needed reforms, but also drain resources and have a debilitating effect on state resilience towards all kinds of threats, malign Russian influences included. It is worrisome to see numerous indications of vested interests, certain businesses profiting on the epidemics, or exempting themselves from the quarantine measures seemingly enjoying the impunity. Together with war-weariness, society’s fatigue with the government’s bad performance and the deepened distrust of the state institutions can lead to undesirable political turbulences and centrifugal forces. The lack of effective leadership can contribute to this scenario.

3. Is there a perspective of the resolution of the Russia-Ukraine war in Donbas?

There is no reason to believe that Russian strategic calculus vis-a-vis Ukraine and the West has undergone any profound change. It is obvious that the situation in Russian-Ukrainian relations is nowhere close to détente as wrongly assumed by some experts after the series of exchanges of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia. Neither the return of the ships by Russia it had detained during the Azov sea incident in November 2018 or change of curators of the Donbas portfolio in Russian presidential administration is a sign of Russia becoming more benevolent and willing to reduce the tensions. Thus, it will remain a war of attrition, and Ukraine needs to prepare for this.

4. Will current mechanisms like Minsk agreements be transformed, or can there be new alternatives put in place instead?

While the Minsk mechanism is very far from meeting Ukrainian expectations and encapsulates some serious asymmetries, namely by not recognizing the fact that Russia is an instigator of the Donbas conflict, there is no better mechanism in place. With a universal recognition of Western partners that the Minsk process is indispensable and should remain a roadmap for the settlement of the Donbas conflict, there is no much place for maneuver to offer a completely new setting.

Yet it can and should be ‘upgraded.’ The most important task for Ukrainian diplomacy at the moment is to have a principle “security first, elections in the occupied territories second” accepted as a new modus operandi, as seen from the Normandy talks. This sort of flexible reading of the original Minsk agreements could already be a meaningful advancement for Ukraine. It is also crucial not to make preventable mistakes, like in March 2020, when Ukrainian side succumbed to (though later abandoned after negative public reaction) the Russian proposal to create consultative council within the Minsk contact group including Ukrainian representatives and those from the DPR/LPR entities as equal parties.

5. How can Ukraine boost its security and strengthen its sovereignty?

Ukraine’s security is inherently linked with the functionality of its institutions and, thus, transcends purely military dimension. I would put the main emphasis now on the strengthening of the institutions and attributes of a democratic state. While post-Maidan governments were successful in addressing the immediate military threat, they lagged in the democratic transformation that would shed off the image of Ukraine as a ‘captured’ state. In current conditions, half-hearted and inconsistent reforms equal no reforms whatsoever. The state should finally become capable of filling in the niches where so far, often bottom-up public activism substituted the coordinated governmental policies. In sum, the government must use the remaining credit of public trust to push forward the reforms.

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