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On Zelensky’s performance and Euro-Atlantic perspectives of Ukraine



Jamie Shea is a Professor of Strategy and Security of the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter. Prior to joining the University of Exeter, Jamie Shea was an international public servant and a member of the International Staff of NATO for 38 years. His last NATO post was Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges. Other positions included Director of Policy Planning in the Private Office of the Secretary General, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for External Relations, Public Diplomacy Division, Director of Information and Press, Spokesman of NATO and Deputy Director of Information and Press, Deputy Head and Senior Planning Officer in the Policy Planning and Multilateral Affairs Section of the Political Directorate as well as Assistant to the Secretary General of NATO for Special Projects.


Outside NATO, Jamie Shea has been involved with several prominent academic institutions. For 20 years, he was Professor at the Collège d’Europe, Bruges. He was also Visiting Lecturer in the Practice of Diplomacy, University of Sussex, Associate Professor of International Relations at the American University, Washington DC, where he also held the position of Director of the Brussels Overseas Study Programme. He has also lectured at the Brussels School of International Studies at the University of Kent and at the Security and Strategy institute of the University of Exeter, where he was an Honorary Fellow for six years. Jamie Shea is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics, where he teaches a course on crisis management and political communication.


1. What is your opinion on the performance of Zelensky and his team? Do you think they can implement reforms effectively and transform the current oligarchic system impeding Ukraine’s development?


The large majority that Zelensky secured in the presidential election and for his party Servant of the People in the elections to the Rada certainly give him a better starting point than what was available to his immediate predecessors. He is a fresh face, has promised reforms and to fight corruption and to be ready to engage Russia on the Donbas. So he is obtaining Western support and interest, for instance, in reviving the Normandy format for talks on the Donbas, as well as commitments for financial support and defensive weapons sales.


The important thing for Zelensky is to quickly turn this honeymoon into some concrete achievements to show that he is not a new leader in image only but is willing and able to take on the vested interests: the oligarchs, the special interest groups in the Rada and the nationalists on the right who are attempting to impose a new kind of Ukrainian linguistic and cultural identity and a reinterpretation of Ukrainian history. He will make mistakes, and he is up against a degree of Ukraine fatigue in the West as years of financial and technical help did not produce the much-needed reforms. But Ukraine’s success is vital for Europe’s security, so politicians in both Ukraine and the West need to give Zelensky time rather than jump on the inevitable mistakes he will make.


2. Do you think Russia has in place some ongoing geopolitical neo-Eurasianism project to rebuild the Russian state within the boundaries of the Former Soviet Union? What is Russia’s ultimate plan in Ukraine?


Russia is not trying to rebuild the Soviet Union. That project was a monumental failure and resulted in complete collapse. So no matter how much Putin may express nostalgia for the Soviet Union, his model seems to be more the Tsarist empire, which lasted considerably longer. It produced a number of autocratic tsars who rebuilt the Russian state during times of troubles and rebellion, and these figures are Putin’s heroes, especially Peter the Great. Putin’s project is to increase Russian leverage over its neighbors and to keep them unstable through hybrid warfare tactics. The military occupation of portions of territory, such as the Donbas or Abkhazia and South Ossetia, makes Russia an unavoidable negotiating partner and makes it harder for countries like Ukraine or Georgia to join NATO. It is not clear if Putin has a long term vision for the former Soviet space as he looks to what existed in the past rather than to what could exist in the future. Certainly, Russian initiatives such as the Eurasian union have yet to take on any concrete substance or to become attractive alternatives to the EU or NATO. Their supposed multilateralism merely disguises an institutionalised firm of Russian domination


3. Recently, Ukraine agreed to the so-called Steinmeier formula to kick-start settlement of the conflict in the Donbas region. What are Ukraine’s risks, and isn’t it taking place according to the Kremlin scenario?


Zelensky has made it clear that Ukraine can only allow local elections to take place in the Donbas if certain conditions are met on the Russian side. In any deadlocked situation, someone has to move first, or the situation will remain frozen forever. But Russia has to demonstrate good faith as well - for instance, by withdrawing its forces and allowing Ukrainian forces to be positioned on the international border and imposing a lasting ceasefire and facilitating humanitarian access.


Zelensky has taken a risk, which makes it all the more important that the US, France, Germany, and the rest of the EU back him fully and keep up the pressure on Moscow to take steps as well. Meanwhile, the EU needs to plan for the economic reconstruction of the Donbas, which will require considerable resources but is vital for reintegration and reconciliation.


4. How do you see Ukraine’s relations with the EU and NATO developing in the next couple of years? Has Ukraine missed its chance to join these institutions in the past? Or do you think there is still a likelihood of gaining an official promise of future accession once Ukraine fulfills the respective conditions?


The offer of accession to NATO is there, and it is important to keep it on the table even if it cannot be realised immediately. Ukrainian membership of the EU is a more long term project as Ukraine’s candidate status has first to be recognised by Brussels. What is important is for Ukraine to consistently work towards these two objectives by adopting NATO and EU standards and acting diplomatically and internationally as if it is already a NATO or EU member state. Attention must be paid to remove the obstacles that opponents of Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration can easily point to: weak institutions and large scale corruption.


5. Do you think Ukraine is successfully combating Russia’s hybrid warfare in Ukraine?


Any open and democratic society is vulnerable to hybrid warfare because it is naturally open to foreign business and networks of influence. For good and bad. Russia also knows Ukraine well from Soviet times and focuses on penetrating Ukraine’s security services and critical infrastructure. Corruption can also be a factor here as hybrid warfare can best be countered through transparency and effective laws. This said, Ukraine is a quick learner and has greatly increased its resilience, particularly in the energy sector and in telecommunications. By diversifying its economy, it is less vulnerable to Russian interference and pressure. It is also sharing its experiences with NATO and the EU, which is helping the rest of us to be more resilient.


6. How can Ukraine boost its informational and cyber capabilities to counteract Russia’s efforts in the information sphere? What can it learn from other EU countries?


Ukraine has a well-developed information technology industry with a skilled workforce, so there is a lot it can do to help itself. Ukrainians are some of the best coders and software programmers in the world. The government needs to make full use of these skills in the private sector to help make the state networks and critical infrastructure more secure. The Estonian Cyber Defence League of part-time volunteers is a good model to follow. NATO and the EU are helping Ukraine through sharing information and early warning, organising exercises, and providing equipment and training as NATO did a few years back for the Ukrainian intelligence services.