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