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Security and state-building are likely to remain as serious challenges for Zelensky's administration

Dr Huseyn Aliev is the Research Fellow/Lecturer (Central & East European Studies) at the University of Glasgow. Previously, he was a Research Fellow at the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies, University of Oxford. From 2015 to 2017, Dr Aliyev was based at the Research Center for Eastern European Studies (Forschungsstelle Osteuropa), University of Bremen, where he worked as Alexander von Humboldt Post-Doctoral researcher. 

Dr Aliyev's current research interests are civil war dynamics, non-state armed groups, violent mobilisation, radicalisation and demobilisation of armed groups. He also has expertise in security and law enforcement structures of the Russian Federation and Ukraine, ethno-nationalism and institution-building. 

Dr Aliyev's area experise is Ukraine and Russia (particularly the North Caucasus region). Since 2014, he has conducted extensive fieldwork in Ukraine, interviewing former and active members of pro-government paramilitary groups.

1. What could be the potential risks of the recent rise of pro-government paramilitary groups in Ukraine?

Although all volunteer battalions have now been legalized and incorporated into the Ministry of Interior, or National Guard, some particularly capable groups, such as the Azov movement, retain close links with political or financial actors. For instance, Azov is believed to be associated with the Minister of Interior, Arseny Avakov, and Dnipro-1 with Ihor Kolomoyski. Therefore, there is always a possibility that these groups will become involved in the power struggle.

There is also a big problem of war veterans, who receive limited benefits and small pensions and have few opportunities to find meaningful employment. These people are easily recruited by radical far-right groups, such as C-14, National Corps, and National Militia (Нац. Дружины). Some join criminal groups, and some work as hired gunmen deployed in corporate raiding.

During Zelensky's presidency, many far-right groups became stronger. The impunity also emboldens them, and their actions become more violent. The real threat is that Zelensky's government is either unwilling or incapable of dealing with the country's rise of ultranationalist forces.

2. Do you think Zelensky has moved Ukraine in a positive direction? What do you think are the critical challenges to his presidency right now?

It is hard to observe significant changes in Ukraine since the start of Zelensky's presidency. There was not much progress on the anti-corruption campaign. The government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is chaotic and indicates that Zelensky's administration lacks a clearly defined policy to deal with the crisis. At the moment, it is hard to see whether Zelensky fulfilled any of his presidential campaign promises.

The Donbas conflict's peaceful resolution is clearly the most critical challenge of his presidency, particularly considering his promises to bring peace to Donbas.

3. What is your view on the current situation in the Donbas region? Is peaceful settlement in the near future a remote possibility or reality?

The armed conflict in Donbas currently resembles a typical post-Soviet frozen conflict. The ceasefire is presently holding, but it is fragile. There was no progress at the Minsk Group and Normandy talks, and everything seems to be in a stalemate. The government is keen to shift public attention to the coronavirus pandemic, which provides a comfortable excuse for not working on conflict resolution.

As things stand at the moment, peaceful settlement of the Donbas conflict does not seem feasible. Zelensky's administration is unable and unwilling to offer special status to Donbas, which will most likely create an uproar among pro-EU and far-right parties. Zelensky's policy on the Donbas conflict is unclear as his administration continuously releases mixed messages.

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

Although building up army and security forces seems like an obvious answer, it is unlikely to offer a long-term solution to the current problems. Strengthening Ukraine's economy, creating more jobs, and tackling corruption and oligarchs, are likely to provide more incentives for people in the separatist-controlled Donbas to seek rapprochement with Ukraine.

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