Zelensky outlines basic positions ahead of Normandy summit

3 December 2019

Ukrainian President Zelensky identified a prisoner exchange and ceasefire as his top goals going into the Normandy Format summit on Dec. 9. “These first two points are related to the lives of people. That’s why, for me, those are the two most important points,” he said in an interview with Western journalists published on Dec. 2 on the time.com news site. The third point is a full withdrawal of Russian-backed forces ahead of elections in Donbas, he said. “We need a full withdrawal, a full disarming of all illegal formations, military formations, no matter the type, no matter the group, no matter the uniform, no matter what weapons. Resolving these three points will create an understanding that we want to end the war,” he said.


Elections in Donbas can be arranged only under Ukrainian legislation, Zelensky said. “Therefore, all Ukrainian parties should have access: observers, journalists, the OSCE and the Central Election Commission of Ukraine. If there are armed groups, no parties will go there,” he said. Control of the Russian-Ukrainian border in Donbas will be the most difficult issue in negotiating peace, he said. “If we ever get to discuss it, I will tell them honestly, ‘I don’t agree with how this issue was resolved in Minsk.’ The elections are held first, control of the borders afterwards, according to the Minsk Accords,” he said, stressing that has always been at odds with the Ukrainian government’s position. “Unfortunately, there are contradictions there, and they truly need to be resolved.” Zelensky added that he will not lead any military offensive in Donbas if the talks fail.


Zenon Zawada: We see three basic scenarios in the Normandy Format summit on Dec. 9. Despite any agreements reached in Paris on Dec. 9, Ukraine and Russia will still have a long road towards achieving peace. For example, forces can be withdrawn further along the separation line but the armed fighting can continue to some extent. Also, attempts to hold elections can be disrupted by either side, alleging violations by the other.


Capitulation Scenario: For his political survival, Zelensky needs to produce results for his Russian-oriented core electorate. So in order to secure peace, with vague wording with many qualifiers, he agrees to Russian positions that the Ukrainian side had previously rejected. For example, open military forces are removed and replaced by some kind of law enforcement presence (in the form of a local police force and a possible peacekeeping mission). Zelensky also agrees to Ukrainian control of the border being established only after the vote, arguing the UN or OSCE will oversee the process.


Soft Deal Scenario: Some agreements are reached on subjects that don’t affect the greater geopolitical scenario, such as a prisoner exchange. Tentative agreements are made on forces withdrawals and elections, which never come to implementation. The warfare extends itself as its current trajectory. This scenario is the most dangerous for Zelensky because he will certainly be attacked by the Kremlin – in an attempt to discredit his authority – for failing to uphold any tentative or vague agreements reached. This would also spell the beginning of the end of Zelensky’s presidency, but in a slower way.


No Deal Scenario: Zelensky upholds the firm positions held by his predecessor (former President Poroshenko), declares the demands made by Russian President Putin to be unacceptable, and walks away with next-to-nothing, largely out of concern that he will alienate the U.S. government and the Western creditors that Ukraine is dependent upon. We view this outcome as the beginning of the end of Zelensky’s presidency as he will be failing to deliver his key election promise of ending the war in Donbas, as well as alienating voters on other issues (failing to fight corruption seriously and launching the unpopular land market).

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