Gustav Gressel is a senior policy fellow with the Wider Europe Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations' Berlin office.
1. What is your assessment of 1 year of Zelensky’s presidency? Has he moved Ukraine in a positive direction?
Actually no. I was quite hesitant to join the “Zelensky is a disaster club” at the beginning. Given the intense political polarisation during the election campaign, I thought some Ukrainian intellectuals are just overdoing it. I could understand why Poroshenko was unpopular, and I wanted to see what Zelensky would do first. I am also a bit more cautious about pure liberal reform parties and their popularity. In the West, many analysts embrace parties like Samopomycz, Holos, etc. because they arguably have the best programme. But to be honest, such liberal parties get 5 to 10 percent in elections in Europe (look at the FDP in Germany, Neos in Austria, etc.). Why should they score more in Ukraine? Big tent political parties are all populist to some extent. So let’s give the clown a chance. It would be a blend of populism, reform, progress, and regress, like politics used to be.
But now, after one year, little to nothing positive can be said. The reformers that were in the government are ousted. Rybaczapka and Kasko, who did a really good job in the prosecutor service, are out. Judicial reform has failed. Intelligence reform has failed catastrophically. Defence reform stopped. Administrative reform failed. Healthcare reform stopped. Police reform failed. And now they are destroying the few achievements of the Poroshenko era: NABU, Prozorro, and decentralization reform. Oligarchic influence is on the increase, the first corruption-scandals appear. I hope Ukraine can survive this nonsense without significant damage and get a better president by 2024.
2. What political impact do you think COVID-19 pandemic has had on Ukraine so far?
Well, we are not over the peak yet, so it is hard to say. It is also a bit tricky for me because, for obvious reasons, I haven’t been to Ukraine since the virus erupted.
3. What is your view on the latest developments in the Donbas region?
I am very skeptical. Direct talks between Ukraine and the DNR/LNR are what Putin wants. He wants to delegate responsibility away from him. Maybe Ukraine will get a ceasefire after the first rounds of talks. Then Putin will say: “look, it is a local conflict. I told you so all along. I have nothing to do with this.” And push for sanctions relief and strategic partnership with countries like France, Italy, etc. But it might even come worse. There are some inclinations by Jermak to accept elections in the DNR/LNR under conditions as they are, which would allow Putin to push these entities back into Ukraine while keeping total control over them. Unsurprisingly, Russians are optimistic they can get further: federalization of Ukraine, “permanent neutrality,” for them, this is a matter of time.
4. Do you think COVID-19 will not be used as an excuse for lifting sanctions on Russia? Are there any risks for Ukraine?
Moscow does well-targeted PR with Covid, particularly in Italy. For now, it works for them. But I am cautious about calling results as of now. Because the pandemic is spreading in Russia, and it will look much worse in two to three weeks. Then, for the next 2 to 3 months, people will be in isolation, stay home, try not to get infected. Only in autumn, people will start to wrap up, count the toll, and start to ask questions on whose fault all this is. And we’ll see then if Russia can quell the unrest by repression, propaganda, and a lockdown on the information. We’ll see.
I am more afraid actually about Belarus. The government is not taking the spread seriously. They have a high infection rate, and grey numbers might even be higher. If Belarus gets out of this crisis significantly weakened, this will strengthen Moscow’s hand in reviving a tighter Union State. If Lukashenko is deposed in public anger, Russia will react militarily to secure the “right” outcome. And Europe again is hardly better prepared for all this than 2014.