Paul Ivan is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Europe in the World programme of the European Policy Centre (EPC), an independent EU affairs think-tank in Brussels. Before joining the EPC, Paul was a diplomat working on the South Caucasus countries in the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels and a researcher on EU external relations and security issues at the Romanian Center for European Policies. Working for a time in the European External Action Service, he was involved in the EU Association Agreement negotiations with the South Caucasus countries and the Republic of Moldova.
1. How would you evaluate Zelensky's presidency so far?
It's still relatively early to make a proper assessment of president Zelensky's presidency. With some exceptions, he has not made significant mistakes. Ukrainian voters had put a lot of hope in him, maybe even too much, and he has managed to maintain a reasonably high level of support.
He was elected as a unifying and more conciliatory president, one that tries to bring together the diversity of Ukraine, and he continues in that direction, including through his New Year's address.
Since their entry into office, Zelensky and the governing majority have pushed a series of reforms such as the abolition of parliamentary immunity, the reforms regarding the prosecutor general's office, or the law on illicit enrichment. These are welcomed, but a proper assessment will need some time as decisions and laws would need to be implemented and would need time to bear effects.
The fact that he is pursuing reform-oriented and pro-Western policies is of course welcomed. His attempts to advance in what concerns the settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine is a positive sign, even if there are some serious limitations to what he can achieve given the need to protect Ukraine's national interests and the constraints he is facing.
2. What is your opinion as to the recent developments regarding the Donbas region?
Although the latest exchange of prisoners was a positive development, it is unlikely that significant progress can be achieved in the immediate future. I do not see real interest from Russia to hand back control over the territory it occupies in the Donbas. While there have been some positive developments, including along the line of contact, the Kremlin does not seem to have enough reasons to hand over the control of the Ukrainian segment of the border back to Ukraine.
3. Do you think Ukraine and Russia can still reconcile?
Yes, of course, but that would be a long term goal and process. Not something easy to achieve when one country annexed and occupies the territory of another.
The two sides should firstly focus on ending the exchange of fire in the Donbas and on avoiding the spread of military confrontation to other areas (like we saw with the Kerch Strait incident). While there were a number of pullbacks of forces in some sectors, more needs to be done to de-escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
4. What can Ukraine do to counteract Russia's information warfare? Has it done successfully?
We have seen that since 2014 Russia has actively used hybrid measures in Ukraine, in other European countries, and the US. It is not an easy challenge to deal with, especially in Ukraine, given the language, cultural, religious, and other traditions and commonalities shared with Russia. After significant initial failures, Ukraine has improved and has even demonstrated a certain degree of resilience against such hybrid threats. Obviously, this challenge is there to stay, and dealing with it will continue to require awareness, determination, skills, and other resources.
5. Can Ukraine and the EU learn from each other how to counteract such information warfare techniques?
Indeed, there is space and need for dialogue and continuous exchanges on these issues. Given that Ukraine is often the training ground for some of these practices, the EU has things to learn regarding both the Russian playbook and the Ukrainian ways to counteract these activities. The EU member states' experience is certainly also relevant for Ukraine.
6. Do you think there is a chance for Ukraine to join the EU and NATO in the future?
The European and Euro-Atlantic integration is a goal worth pursuing all the changes, opportunities, and support that come with it. Ukraine has moved closer to the EU. It is an EU associated country, which is visible across different areas of cooperation. By signing the EU Association Agreement, Ukraine has committed itself to a series of principles to a certain way of functioning for which it has also incorporated EU legal provisions in its legal system.
In terms of actual membership, Ukraine is not part of the current EU enlargement agenda that focuses on the Western Balkans, an agenda that now has encountered its own internal-EU challenges. Thus, for the next years, I do not see any movement towards opening the membership perspective to new countries. At the same time, this does not mean that Ukraine should abandon its European aspirations. On the contrary, Ukraine is a European country, and there is nothing in the EU treaties banning Ukraine from ever becoming a member of the EU.
At the same time, one should have realistic expectations regarding the European integration process. It is not a process that by itself solves all of a country's problems. It is also not a one-off moment, it is the path, the reform process, and the changes in the society that matter. Thus, for the benefit of the citizens of Ukraine, I hope that their representatives will focus on seriously reforming the country and also on using the various opportunities offered by the close relations with the European Union.
7. What reforms should Ukraine focus on right now?
For me, what matters the most is the reform of the justice system. Building a proper rule of law regime and reducing corruption would have a major impact on Ukrainian society and the economy. It would create a more favorable investment climate and offer a solid base to develop a thriving society and economy.