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On Russia's strategy and how Ukraine can preserve its sovereignty

Mathieu Boulegue is a Research Fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House – The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

In his research, Mathieu focuses particularly on Eurasian security and defence issues as well as on Russia’s domestic and foreign policy.

Having trained as a policy and security analyst in the field of post-Soviet affairs, Mathieu regularly publishes articles and papers on Eurasian security & foreign policy questions.

1. What is your opinion on the newly elected President Zelensky and his team? Do you think they can implement reforms effectively and change the system? Do you think they offer something drastically different from Poroshenko’s team?

Zelensky is definitely defining his presidency in complete opposition to the Poroshenko years, both in action and in spirit. This is encouraging, but the new president needs now to deliver, and transform campaign promises into genuine policy. This has started of course with recent laws passed in the Rada, but the road will be tough.

2. What do you think about the recent developments as to the Donbas conflict? What is your view as to Steinmeier formula and risks for Ukraine, and isn’t it taking place according to the Kremlin scenario?

The conspicuously timely ‘reintroduction’ of the Steinmeier Formula on the table is a Russian ploy. It seeks to corner Ukraine and force Kyiv to make more compromises and concessions than needed. Now I believe the Zelesnky’s team is aware of that and is trying to navigate around the opportunity of sitting down with the Kremlin and give Moscow the benefice of the doubt that Russia is genuinely willing to sit down and talk.

If reckon Zelensky is only using the momentum created around Steinmeier Formula discussions to show that Ukraine is willing to implement something that was signed 5 years ago but that Poroshenko systematically refused to consider. This is self-serving of course politically for Zelensky, but it also demonstrates a willingness to move on. By placing clear redlines to future Minsk discussions (such as the new law on special status in Ukrainian law or disengagement areas), Zelensky is showing Ukraine is not ready to make compromises just for the sake of it. It has to work both ways, and Russia needs to reciprocate. Let’s only hope that Western pressure on Ukraine won’t be intolerable, and force Ukraine to concede too much.

3. Do you think Russia has in place an ongoing geopolitical neo-Eurasianism project to rebuild the Russian State within the boundaries of the Former Soviet Union? What’s Russia’s ultimate plan as to Ukraine?

I don’t believe Russia is trying to ‘rebuild the FSU’, and Greater Eurasia now is about China and how Russia will find a place in this ecosystem. Ukraine is but a circumstantial problem for the Kremlin, especially since Crimea is considered a ‘done deal’ for Moscow.

Russia’s strategy vis a vis Ukraine are simple, consistent, and unyielding: it seeks to keep Ukraine weak, subjugated, and away from Euro-Atlantic structures. Period.

4. Did Russia change something in its strategic approach towards Ukraine since 2014?

No. Russian strategic goals are consistent, as explained above. The Crimean invasion plan was sitting somewhere in the cardboards of the Kremlin and was swiftly activated to make the most of the situation, while Kyiv’s attention was mobilized on Maidan. Donbas as a warfront was created as a smokescreen to divert everybody’s attention away from Crimea – and it seems to have worked out for Moscow. What changed however are the tactical aspects of Russia’s policy towards Ukraine, notably through full-spectrum warfare.

5. Is it possible to say there is some kind of agreement between Kremlin and Washington that Ukraine goes into the sphere of influence of Russia?

Between Trump and Putin, this might be the case: ‘let’s make our countries great again and stay away from each other’s backyard’. It might even be the case for the current administration. However, I don’t believe the US foreign policy establishment is quite there yet. If Washington really believes that the world can be divided (again) between ‘spheres of influence’, then the Kremlin is vindicated when it proclaims the Western-led liberal international order is dead and buried.

6. How can Ukraine preserve and strengthen its sovereignty? What would you recommend Zelensky and his team to do?

Increasing the level of resilience against Russia’s negative influence as well as increasing social cohesion is the place to start. There is much that can be achieved at the level of civil society, through international assistance and internal reform. It’s a long and rocky road, but it’s the only way to strengthen the Ukrainian nation. A good place to start would be to achieve unity and coherence across political parties and forces in Ukraine over conflict settlement. The problem today is that conflict resolution is politically highjacked for internal, patriotic, purposes and political placement: while Zelenksy wants peace, the political opposition is instrumentalizing parts of population to carry forward the idea that Ukraine needs a victory. This is creating two parallel realities that are seemingly irreconcilable. Emotional politics have taken over when it comes to conflict management, and it will be hard for the Zelensky government to win the information battle now.

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