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Ukraine's new leadership between patriotic outbidders, Russian aggressiveness and Western fatigue

Updated: Nov 5, 2019

Andreas Umland, CertTransl (Leipzig), AM (Stanford), MPhil (Oxford), DipPolSci, DrPhil (FU Berlin), PhD (Cambridge) held fellow- or lectureships at the Hoover Institution, Harvard University, St. Antony’s College Oxford, Urals State University, Shevchenko University of Kyiv, Catholic University of Eichstaett, and Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Since 2014, he has been a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and, since 2019, at the Center for European Security of the Institute of International Relations in Prague.

He is the general editor of the book series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society ( and Ukrainian Voices ( He is a member of the boards of directors/trustees/editors of the web journal Forum noveishei vostochnoevropeiskoi istorii i kul’tury (, International Association for Comparative Fascist Studies (, Boris Nemtsov Academic Center for the Study of Russia at Charles University of Prague, Berlin NGO “Kyiv Dialogue” (, book series Explorations of the Far Right (, Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies (, Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society (, and The Ideology and Politics Journal (

Do you think the situation will get more dramatic in Ukraine or not?

The negotiations that Zelensky conducts with Russia about the Steinmeier Formula have triggered a stiff reaction in Ukraine among the parts of the political elite and civil society which reject the implementation of Minsk agreements. Many influential journalists and politicians interpret Zelensky’s concessions as a covert capitulation of Ukraine vis-a-vis Russia. The anniversary of the foundation of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army celebrated on14 October was used by both, liberal and conservative politicians on the one side and far-right and ultranationalists on the other side to protest these negotiations. There is a real danger of an escalation of this domestic confrontation in Ukraine. Russia will try to fuel this internal Ukrainian conflict.

What is your opinion of the Steinmeier Formula? Do you see this formula as a capitulation of Ukraine?

I do not see it is a capitulation. The opposition’s rhetoric is far too strident regarding these attempts by Zelensky to negotiate with Russia. The problem is that there is little else what Ukraine can do right now. The alternatives brought up by critics of Steinmeier formula are that either Russia or the West should change, and then things will get better in eastern Ukraine. But these critics of Zelensky do not explain how Russia’s and the West’s behavior could be changed by Ukraine. Hence, the real alternative to Zelensky’s negotiations is to leave the status quo as it is. Yet, Zelensky is bounded by his pre-electoral promises to secure peace in Ukraine. He tries to satisfy Russian demands partially and to reach a stable ceasefire in eastern Ukraine in exchange.

The Steinmeier Formula is a plan that can be interpreted in different ways. If one takes it at face value, it means that Russia would have to concede Ukrainian control over currently occupied territories prior to local elections in Donbas. Only the full presence of the Ukraine state would make it possible to conduct elections on these territories according to Ukrainian law. Among others, the Ukrainian Electoral Commission, Ministry of Interior, and Ukrainian mass media would have to be fully present in the currently occupied territories. That would de-facto mean that these territories would become parts of the government-controlled Ukrainian space again. That is one interpretation.

The other interpretation is that the current pseudo-states (LPR and DPR) that Russia has created are taken to be Ukrainian entities and can be entrusted to conduct these local elections. This interpretation means that the DPR and LPR would still exist when local elections are conducted, and de-facto Russian troops would be there. However, it remains an open question as to how the Ukrainian state can hold democratic elections on territories that it does not control.

What is Russia's ultimate plan as to Ukraine? Does it want to de-fragment/ absorb it in the future?

I suspect there is no concrete plan with clearly defined goals in Moscow. The general vector of the Russian policy is to prevent Ukraine from being successful and from reaching EU and NATO membership, by whatever means possible.

That can mean threats and pressure against the Ukrainian political leadership and destabilization via Eastern Ukrainian territories. It could also mean steps to drive Ukraine into a state collapse by various economic and military means.

The Kremlin’s main aim is to prevent Ukraine from being successful and to secure the current model of Putinist political and economic development in the post-Soviet space.

Do you see any change in Russia's strategic approach to Ukraine since 2014?

The Kremlin is probably not hopeful as in 2013 until when it sought to make Ukraine’s political leadership to pursue integration into the Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization. Also, there was the illusion held by many in the Kremlin back in 2014 that it could create a new state covering the territories of eastern and southern Ukraine called "Novorossiya." The Kremlin believed that people in these regions would support this cause and would willingly separate from Ukraine in order to create a pro-Russian state.

These illusions are gone now, and the key objectives of Russia are to legitimize the annexation of Crimea and to use the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine to either influence Ukraine's international behavior and domestic growth or undermine its political and economic development by triggering internal skirmishes.

Is it possible that there is an agreement between the Kremlin and Washington that Ukraine goes under the sphere of Russia?

I wouldn't exclude that yet can only imagine such an agreement between Trump and his entourage and the Kremlin. The larger part of the American political elite is pro-Ukrainian and wouldn't agree to such a deal, although there are voices in Washington, DC promoting such a strategy. In general, such accommodative tendencies are more prevalent in Germany, France, and Italy where geostrategic thinking is not as developed as in the US.

What's next for Ukraine? How to preserve its sovereignty?

Conduct of negotiations is a risky and open-ended experiment. Yet, I would still support the efforts that Zelensky undertakes. Obviously, he should be careful when it comes to implementing such a plan and to not let Russia trap him. His risk is that these negotiations might not bring positive results for Ukraine. Still, a lack of action would be worse for Ukraine. Kyiv's visible commitment to negotiations with Moscow shows to the West that Ukraine wants to solve the conflict, and that is an important facet, for many in the West.

Do you think transcripts damaged Zelensky?

I do not think that much damage has been done to Ukraine by the release of these transcripts. Many will understand that Zelensky has tried to follow Trump's lead in order to secure American support for Ukraine. In a strange sense, this whole affair might even be good for Ukraine as the scandal has put the country on the mental map of millions of people.

Do you think Ukraine has successfully combatted Russian information warfare?

This is a difficult question as it involves rather complicated issues about identity, language, culture, and history. For instance, Ukraine has entered a project of national identity building that involved glorification of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), accused of anti-Semitic and other crimes like the ethnic cleansing of Poles in Volyn in 1943-44. Such a Ukrainian government policy has alienated Poland and pro-Ukrainian politicians in the US, Western Europe and Israel. In my view, that was a self-defeating behavior because, during the conflict with Russia, it was unhelpful to simultaneously engage into memory conflicts with Ukraine’s Western partners.

The Kremlin continues to influence, among others, a large Russian-controlled church in Ukraine, the so-called Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP). The Russian-speaking regions in eastern and southern Ukraine also continue to be subject to Russia's influence. This creates difficulties for Ukraine’s attempts to create a national church and spread the use of the state language. Kyiv needs to be sensitive regarding the religious feelings of UOC MP followers and in its treatment of Russian speakers in eastern and southern Ukraine.

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