Russian official reactions to the election of Volodymyr Zelenskyy as President of Ukraine were subdued. Russia’s MFA alleged various irregularities, including disenfranchisement of large numbers of southeast Ukrainian (Donbas) citizens, but acknowledged that the result was genuinely decisive. 

The President-elect’s campaign pronouncements did not hold out much hope of a resolution to the Russia-Ukraine impasse. He rejected the idea of a “special status” for Donbas and of an amnesty for the militants who had participated in the uprising against the Ukrainian government in March 2014. Both these are elements of the “Minsk agreements”, brokered by France and Germany in 2015.  Another aspect of Russian concern is his close links with Igor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch, who had raised militias to fight Donbas militants in 2014 and 2015. Kolomoisky-owned media outlets in Ukraine had strongly supported Candidate Zelenskyy’s campaign.

On April 24, President Putin signed an executive order establishing a fast-track procedure for Russian citizenship applications from Donbas residents (who are predominantly Russian-speaking). This provoked strong condemnation from the Ukrainian government, US Presidential Envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, and the US State Department, all of whom declared that this decision violated the Minsk agreements.  

The Russian decision seemed to be a direct response to a Ukrainian law, in its final stages of enactment, making Ukrainian the sole language for many official functions – imposing restrictions on, or even prohibition of, use of Russian in various spheres of civic life. Russia criticized this action as violative of the Minsk agreements (which affirm the right to “linguistic self-determination”), besides infringing human rights of a significant minority population of Ukraine (about 30%, or 14 million). Russia has also been drawing attention to the denial of rights, freedoms and civic amenities to large parts of the Donbas region over the past five years (since the uprising started). 

There has been some talk of fresh European initiatives to revive the four-nation Normandy talks (France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia) to find some way out of the Russia-Ukraine impasse. This process was effectively driven into the ground after the US appointed a Special Envoy for Ukraine in July 2017. Periodical attempts by France and Germany to revive it have not led anywhere. It therefore seems likely that Russia-Ukraine will remain a frozen conflict, with periodical eruptions (as in the Kerch strait in November 2018; see Review, 11/18), as long as the larger standoff between the US and Russia continues. The next challenge would be negotiations for a new agreement for Russian gas supplies to Ukraine and for transit (through Ukraine) of gas from Russia to western Europe. The current agreement lapses in end-2019.

 April 30, 2019

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About the Author

Ambassador PS Raghavan

Former Ambassador of India to Russia; Convener, National Security Advisory Board

Born in 1955, Ambassador Raghavan holds a B.Sc. (Honours) degree in Physics and a B.E. in Electronics & Communications Engineering. He joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1979. From 1979 to 2000, he had diplomatic assignments in USSR, Poland, United Kingdom, Vietnam and South Africa, interspersed with assignments in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in New Delhi. From 2000 to 2004, he was Joint Secretary in the Indian Prime Minister's Office dealing with Foreign Affairs, Nuclear Energy, Space, Defence and National Security. Thereafter, he was Ambassador of India to Czech Republic (2004 - 2007) and to Ireland (2007 - 2011).

He was Chief Coordinator of the BRICS Summit in New Delhi (March 2012) and Special Envoy of the Government of India to Sudan and South Sudan (2012-13). Ambassador Raghavan conceptualized and piloted the creation of the Development Partnership Administration (DPA) in MEA, which implements and monitors India’s economic partnership programs in developing countries, with an annual budget of $1-1.5 billion. He headed DPA in 2012-13. From March 2013 to January 2014, he oversaw the functioning of the Administration, Security, Information Technology and other related Divisions of MEA. Since October 2013, he was also Secretary [Economic Relations] in MEA, steering India’s bilateral and multilateral external economic engagement. Ambassador Raghavan retired from the Indian Foreign Service in January 2016, after serving from 2014 as Ambassador of India to Russia. Since September 2016, he is Convenor of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India.

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