Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, greets Ukrainian prisoner upon his arrival home. Photo Source: Efrem Lukatsky/AP.
On September 7, 2019, 70 prisoners were successfully exchanged between Russia and Ukraine. The transfer has been welcomed by members of the international community as a sign of positive momentum toward a peaceful solution that could end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.[i] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky even went so far as to say that “It is the first step to the end of war.”[ii] Zelensky, an actor turned politician elected in April, has made a new diplomatic approach to Russia a cornerstone of his political platform. The exchange, a prominent example of his new tactic, has created momentum for peace negotiations tentatively scheduled for the end of this month.[iii] The negotiations will take place in the “Normandy format,” which includes Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany. Their previous meeting in 2016 focused on the delayed implementation of the Minsk Protocol ceasefire agreements. While the prospect of peace is a serious possibility, the Ukrainian government must be vigilant as domestic politics, Western pressure, and Russia’s negotiating advantage all have the potential to force Ukraine into a compromised position as they seek an end to hostilities.
Whereas President Zelensky regards the prisoner exchange as a success, it may be early evidence Russia has already gained the upper hand in this new phase of diplomacy. The prisoners received by Ukraine were predominantly individuals Russia captured during the Kerch Strait incident of November 2018, when Russian naval vessels captured three Ukrainian vessels and 24 sailors. The move received widespread condemnation from international leaders and organizations, including an International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ruling that required the return of the prisoners to Ukraine. The prisoners exchanged to Russia most notably include Volodymyr Tsemakh, a key witness in the 2014 downing of Malaysian Air 17 by Russian-supplied air defense systems deployed in Eastern Ukraine.[iv] Now safe behind Russian borders, it is unlikely Tsemakh will be extradited to comply in international investigations seeking to assign blame to Russia for the incident. Furthermore, Russia enjoys the added benefit of appearing more sensible in the eyes of the West. Russia has effectively exchanged a group of prisoners obtained through aggressive military action for an international criminal. The swap is an example of Zelensky pursuing a diplomatic policy popular with his people at the cost of ceding ground to the Russians, and this is occurring before serious negotiations of peace even begin.
As the war enters its fifth year, the conflict continues to take a heavy toll on Ukraine, placing pressure on Zelensky to swiftly negotiate an end to the war. The conflict has meant foregone economic growth equivalent to 15% of per capita GDP.[v] The human cost has totaled over 13,000 fatalities, the internal displacement of over 1.3 million people, and daily military engagements.[vi] Additionally, the territorial integrity of the country remains in question. The war is a dominant political issue that Zelensky faces, and there is significant incentive for him to pursue diplomatic action that will lead to its conclusion.
Domestic political concerns will likely serve as a constraint on Zelensky in the upcoming negotiations. Since his election, Zelensky has enjoyed a high degree of public approval.[vii] He has been vocal about his desire to improve dialogue with Russia and reach a peaceful solution to the war and its subsequent territorial disputes. In July he stated, “I want to hope that in a year we will no longer have this war.” Zelensky’s upset victory over incumbent Petro Poroshenko was followed by a snap parliamentary election in June, in which his Servant of the People Party—named after his starring television role—won majority control in the Ukrainian Parliament, indicating a strong mandate for his prioritization of ending the conflict. So, Zelensky will have to walk a fine line between satisfying the desire for peace among his constituency without sacrificing Ukraine’s strategic goals.
Ukraine will also face pressure from one of the Western European members of the Normandy Format, France. French President Emmanuel Macron recently initiated a campaign of rapprochement toward Russia. In August, Macron hosted Putin prior to a meeting of the G-7, a group that Russia was notably removed from following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Following the G-7 summit, Macron stated, “pushing Russia from Europe is a profound strategic error.”[viii] Macron also outlined his vision for France as a “balancing power,” functioning as an intermediary between the West and Russia.[ix] He has expressed a fear of Russia’s increasing alignment toward China and the need for cooperation on geopolitical issues, such as Iran’s nuclear aspirations, as justification for improved relations.[x] Macron has taken the lead on arranging the upcoming Normandy Format negotiations. If he hopes to continue his push for détente with Russia and bring peace to the continent, it will be essential that he walks away from the negotiations with concrete policies aimed at ending the war. Ukraine must be wary of Macron’s desire to shift French foreign policy regarding Russia, knowing the extent of that shift will be limited as long as the war continues.
Unlike the government in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is not as constrained going into the negotiations. As such, Putin holds a stronger, more flexible position to make demands with greater favorability toward Russia. While Russia has strong incentives to gets sanctions lifted, the overall impact of sanctions on the economy has been relatively minimal, reducing growth by 0.2 percentage points per year.[xi] Fluctuations in oil prices bear a much greater responsibility for the slowing of the Russian economy in recent years.[xii] The minimal impact of sanctions extends into domestic politics. A 2018 poll conducted by the independent Russian polling agency Levada-Center found that 78% of Russians claim that sanctions have created no serious problems for them or their families.[xiii] In addition, recent decreases in Putin’s approval ratings and an uptick in domestic unrest have been credited to unpopular pension reforms, not sanctions.[xiv] Russia would prefer that international sanctions be removed, but it does not constitute a pressing economic or political crisis. The government can afford to allow the war to continue. This position translates into greater bargaining power in negotiations with Ukraine.
In light of these
constraints, Zelensky has viable options he can pursue to strengthen Ukraine’s
position in the resolution of the conflict. Zelensky’s top priorities should be
negotiating the complete removal of Russian and Russian-backed separatist
forces from Eastern Ukraine, regaining control of the border with Russia, and ensuring
the continued presence of international organizations, such as the UN or the
Organization for Security and Cooperation of Europe, in contested areas. These objectives
are all components of a proposed peace agreement known as the “Steinmeier
Formula,” which is likely to be a major point of discussion in the
negotiations. Speaking to the details of the formula, Peter Dickinson, a
research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, explains, “In
its most Moscow-friendly interpretation, the formula holds elections that would
take place (in eastern Ukraine) with the current security environment still in
The degree to which Russia is able to maintain this security environment will
affect its ability to exert influence on elections in the disputed regions. In
order to guarantee the legitimacy of any local elections, the Ukrainian
government must first be able to assert control over its territory.
This month’s prisoner
exchange has sparked a new period of action in resolving the Ukrainian conflict.
However, differing priorities and constraints are at play for all parties
involved. President Zelensky must be extremely conscious of domestic political
considerations, pressures from a war-weary West, and Russia’s advantageous
negotiating position if he hopes to end the war on terms favorable to Ukraine.
If not, Russia may very possibly end up profiting from their campaign of subversive
warfare in Ukraine by potentially maintaining their territorial holdings in
Crimea and political influence in Eastern Ukraine.
[i] Jim Heintz, “Russia and Ukraine trade prisoners, each fly 35 to freedom,” Washington Post, September 7, 2019, accessed September 17, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/lawyer-ukraine-russia-prisoner-exchange-underway/2019/09/07/7cc1bf30-d147-11e9-a620-0a91656d7db6_story.html.
[ii] Natalia Zinets and Matthias Williams, “Ukraine’s Zelenskiy: Prisoner swap first step in ending ‘horrible war’,” Reuters, September 7, 2019, accessed September 17, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-russia-prisoners-zelenskiy/ukraines-zelenskiy-prisoner-swap-first-step-in-ending-horrible-war-idUSKCN1VS0E5.
[iii] Vladimir Soldatkin, “Russia ready for Ukraine peace talks but sets preconditions,” Reuters, September 13, 2019, accessed September 17, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-ukraine-talks/russia-ready-for-ukraine-peace-talks-but-sets-preconditions-idUSKCN1VY1KH.
[iv] Heintz, “Russia and Ukraine trade prisoners, each fly 35 to freedom.”
[v] Julia Bluszcz and Marica Valente, “The War in Europe: Economic Costs of the Ukrainian Conflict,” DIW Berlin, 2019, https://www.diw.de/documents/publikationen/73/diw_01.c.622006.de/dp1804.pdf.
[vi] “Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine: 16 November 2018 to 15 February 2019,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, March 12, 2019, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/UA/ReportUkraine16Nov2018-15Feb2019.pdf; “Daily and spot reports from the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine,” Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, accessed September 17, 2019, https://www.osce.org/ukraine-smm/reports/.
[vii] Illia Ponomarenko, “Zelensky’s public support at 71 percent, poll shows,” Kyiv Post, September 12, 2019, accessed September 17, 2019, https://www.kyivpost.com/ukraine-politics/zelenskys-public-support-skyrockets-poll-shows.html.
[viii] “Keeping Russia out of Western fold a ‘strategic error’, Macron says in key speech,” France 24, August, 27, 2019, accessed September 7, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190827-france-macron-ambassadors-speech-new-economic-order-diplomacy-foreign-policy.
[x] Victor Mallet, James Shotter, and Michael Peel, “Emmanuel Macron’s pivot to Russia sparks EU unease,” Financial Times, September 11, 2019, accessed September 17, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/00ac54f4-d30f-11e9-8367-807ebd53ab77.
[xi] “Russian Federation : 2019 Article IV Consultation-Press Release; Staff Report,” International Monetary Fund, Europe Division, August 2, 2019, https://www.imf.org/~/media/Files/Publications/CR/2019/1RUSEA2019001.ashx
[xiii] “RUSSIA-WEST,” Levada-Center, May 14, 2018, accessed September 17, 2019, https://www.levada.ru/2018/05/14/rossiya-zapad-2/
[xiv] Elizaveta Fokht, “Russia and Putin: Is president’s popularity in decline?” BBC, June 20, 2019, accessed September 17, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-48674705.
[xv] Emma Beswick, “What is the ‘Steinmeier Formula’ and will it lead to peace in eastern Ukraine?” Euronews, September 19, 2019, accessed September 19, 2019, https://www.euronews.com/2019/09/19/what-is-the-steinmeier-formula-and-will-it-lead-to-peace-in-eastern-ukraine