Since the outbreak of violence in 2014, Ukraine might be closer to achieving lasting peace in its eastern provinces. Recent pushes by President Volodymyr Zelensky to find a permanent solution with separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk offers significant potential but has faced stiff opposition in the country’s western regions.
Zelensky announced that he supported an agreement that would result in the eastern territories being electorally reincorporated with the rest of Ukraine while simultaneously being offered a special status with significant autonomy. If implemented, it could result in the end of the conflict, which has already cost 13,000 lives with another 40,000 wounded in addition to the roughly 1.5 million internally displaced. However, Ukrainian nationalists have taken to the streets alleging that the president has capitulated to Moscow, which has been accused of supporting the separatists.
This is the most recent effort by the Ukrainian leader, who won the election with a landslide result, to reach out to both the separatists and to Russia. In September, the two countries engaged in a prisoner swap, which saw the largest exchange since the outbreak of the conflict. This marks a significant shift from Zelensky’s predecessor, billionaire-turned-president Petro Poroshenko. Poroshenko had engaged in a policy of confrontation and maintained a tough line which had spilled over into other facets of domestic life. His rule was marked by his support for the establishment of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which led to a schism between not only Kiev and Moscow but also impacted other patriarchates and interchurch relations. Legislation was also passed which suppressed the Russian language in public life despite it being the native language to millions of Ukrainian citizens. Tensions had culminated with the Kerch Strait incident on November 2018, in which Russian coast guard captured Ukrainian sailors by Crimea, which resulted in Ukraine banning entry to all Russian men between the ages of 16 and 60.
Zelensky’s recent efforts have far-reaching implications if successful. The most obvious is the improvement of Russo-Ukrainian relations. In addition to the historic ties between the two countries, the large numbers of citizens in each other’s country (with hundreds of thousands having moved from Ukraine to Russia since 2014) will have improved access to one another as well as reinvigorate the economies in both states, which have been lagging. Additionally, their relations with external actors, namely the EU and its member states, is likely to vastly improve. Though Russia is still under sanctions for the dispute over Crimea, which is not included in the current talks between the two countries, the Kremlin is likely to be in an improved position with multiple EU countries already calling for the lifting of sanctions and for closer relations. The announcement for the introduction of visa-free travel to Russia for EU nationals might signal further rapprochement between the Russian Federation and the European Union. On the other hand, US interest in Ukraine may diminish if it no longer serves as a frontier for its anti-Russian policies such as through the shipment of American weaponry to the country.
The new agreement calls for new elections in eastern Ukraine under Ukrainian law with verification and observation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This recent development could lead to a summit between Zelensky and President Vladimir Putin later this year.
Naman Habtom-Desta is the Senior Vice President of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum and a writer with a focus on international affairs and security policy. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at the University of Cambridge where he is researching Swedish nuclear weapons policy during the Cold War.