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To reach a durable settlement in Donbas, Ukraine and Russia need to offer mutually acceptable terms

Rajan Menon holds the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Chair in International Relations at the City College of New York/City University of New York, a Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Menon has served as Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Fellow at the New America Foundation, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, Visiting Fellow at the Harriman Institute (Columbia University), Senior Advisor and Academic Fellow at the Carnegie Corporation of New York.. He has received fellowships and grants from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Carnegie Corporation, the National Council for Soviet and East European Research, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

His books include The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, (Oxford University Press 2016); The End of Alliances (Oxford University Press, 2007); Ukraine in Conflict: The Unwinding of the Cold War Order (MIT Press, 2015), co-authored with Eugene B. Rumer; and Soviet Power and the Third World (Yale University Press, 1986). He is currently starting work on a book that examines alternative pathways for Russia.

1. What do you think about the recent transcript scandal and its implications for Ukraine?

It seems apparent that President Trump wanted to withhold military aid to Ukraine until President Volodymyr Zelensky would agree to announce an investigation into Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden. The evidence that has come to light about this matter includes the transcript of a conversation between Trump and Zelensky in which the latter makes some unflattering comments about European leaders. I doubt that this transcript will have much effect on Europe’s attitude toward Ukraine; it’s already yesterday’s news. The real concern for Ukraine should be the prospect of Trump’s being elected for the second term and the policy that he would then pursue toward Ukraine.

I should add that the recently propagated narrative that it is not Russia but Ukraine that tried to influence the last US elections is absurd on its face. There are no substantive reasons for Ukraine to have done that, and its government had too much to lose if its (supposed) efforts came to light.

2. What is your assessment as to the situation in eastern Ukraine? Do you see any positive dynamics?

There is a long way to go until any truly durable peace settlement takes hold. It depends upon what kind of peace agreement Kyiv can accept and whether the Russian government would be willing to agree to the applicable terms. What the Ukrainian government won’t be able to accept is any formal deal in which LNR and DNR have veto power over aspects of Ukrainian foreign or national security policy. That would be strategically unacceptable to Kyiv as well as to most Ukrainian citizens.

Then there is the question of sanctions imposed by the West on Russia in 2014. The Kremlin has, in my view, been surprised by the degree to which the West has remained unified in maintaining these sanctions against it over the years. However, there now are undeniable signs that some important EU states, notably France and Germany, believe that the time has come to stop isolating Russia, in part to avoid driving it further into closer cooperation with China. Hence, there may be changes in the offing on sanctions; but for them to gain momentum, there would have signs of substantial progress in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. So the crucial question is what Putin would be willing to do to create that momentum and how badly does he want sanctions to be eased, if not ended altogether.

3. What is Russia’s ultimate plan in Ukraine? Is there a possibility of a military scenario?

I do not think the Kremlin’s plan is to initiate additional military action, a certain one that amounts to an invasion of Ukraine. Multiple hurdles would preclude a Russian takeover of Ukraine, and Putin is not foolish enough to be unaware of its implications. In particular, a renewed offensive would dash the possibility of the sanctions against Russia being eased or lifted. I think what the Kremlin hopes to achieve by keeping the Donbas war going is to increase the economic pressure on Ukraine, to weaken it economically and politically, and to create Ukraine fatigue in Europe. In fact, however, the Ukrainian economy has shown a gradual recovery since 2015. There are problems, but alongside them, important achievements as well.

On the military-strategic front, true, the Russians annexed Crimea and helped establish the LNR and DNR. However, by doing so, Russia also alienated Ukraine, the country with which it shares deep historical, cultural, linguistic, and religious ties, and to which it, therefore, attributes far more importance than it does to any other ex-Soviet state. I would not regard that as an unambiguous strategic victory.

Then there’s the question of whether Zelensky can sign an agreement that concedes, even implicitly, the Russian annexation of Crimea. Currently, it is improbable, to say the least, that Crimea will return to Ukraine. Hence, making its return to Ukraine a pre-condition for political settlement wouldn’t work for Ukraine. Yet conceding that Russian control of Crimea is a fait accompli is also not something that Zelensky, or any Ukrainian leader, can do without provoking strong opposition from Ukrainian society.

4. Do you think that it would be possible to end the Donbas conflict soon?

I think that Putin believes that the advent of Zelensky’s presidency opens an opportunity for possible discussion towards resolving the conflict. But the mere fact that Zelensky is president doesn’t remove the main obstacles to a shared formula for settling the conflict. The Minsk framework offers general parameters, but many details have to be worked out, and as the cliché has it, the devil is always in the details. The critical question is whether the sanctions have pinched Russians to the point that Putin now truly wants a settlement. Some tangible evidence of progress toward a settlement will be required even to persuaded Europe to lift them gradually. There’s no question that the sanctions have hurt Russia. What remains unclear is whether the pain has been significant to move Putin toward a deal on Ukraine—one that he can live with and that Kyiv can accept as well.

5. What does the future hold for Ukraine?

Ukraine has enormous economic potential, given its abundant and rich agricultural land, an educated population, and significant defense industry, for example. Moreover, as its economic ties with the EU grow, Ukraine will further distance itself from Russia. I expect that in, say, in 10-15 years, Ukrainian, English, and other European languages will become even more critical than the Russian language in both educational and professional spheres in Ukraine. This trend is already clear--and it is not to Russia’s advantage.

In the long run, I think Ukraine has what it takes to succeed economically and politically. To be sure, it faces obstacles, such as corruption, but I do not believe they are insurmountable, providing democracy becomes consolidated, and the country is able to elect honest and effective leaders There is also a fair amount of consensus among Ukrainians as to what they want Ukraine to look like in the foreseeable future, and that is no small matter. Most Ukrainians want to see a strong market economy, a democratic polity, and closer connections with the EU on multiple fronts. That said, the harsh reality is that these goals will have to be pursued with the constraints imposed by geography and power in mind: Russia is nearer to Ukraine than of Ukraine’s well-wishers in the West are, Russia has multiple ways to inflict pain on Ukraine, and there are limits beyond which no Western state will go in order to safeguard Ukraine if Russia decides to turn up the heat.

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