Zelensky and the War: Is His System Fit for Purpose?

October 02, 2019

James Sherr, Senior Fellow of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, ICDS and Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme of Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs), Visiting Senior Fellow, Razumkov Centre*

In his inaugural address on 20 May, Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, stated, ‘we are not the ones who started the war, but we will have to finish it’. Two months after his inauguration, it is clear that he means it. One notes in passing that on 26 May 2014, one day after his own election, Petro Poroshenko stated that the then Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) should end ‘within hours, not months’.[1] Yet he meant that it would end with the defeat of the aggressor. The current president appears to mean something else.

More Ukrainian soldiers have died in the four and a half years since the Minsk-II accord ‘froze’ the conflict than in the months before it. Moreover, helped by the exclusion of the maritime dimension from the accord, Russia has expanded the war to the Black Sea. Its actions in this theatre, and its deployments in Crimea specifically, serve a number of geopolitical purposes. By they also inflict further economic costs on Ukraine apart from those already imposed by the Donbas conflict. The harm brought to livelihoods as well as lives explains why, after more than five years of conflict, a clear majority of Ukrainians favour making peace a key state priority. This sentiment places psychological pressure upon a new president fearful that his unprecedented political support could prove all too evanescent.

But today the greatest source of pressure comes from Ukraine’s partners in the Minsk ‘Normandy’ format, Germany and France. To any halfway discerning observer the June decision to return of Russia to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and do so before any of its conditions had been met, signalled that a watershed has been reached and crossed. Macron’s statements of 20 and 27 August should dispel any doubt of the wish to ‘pacify’ relations and ‘tie Russia and Europe back together’.[2] These are not only French sentiments. They are shared, with misgivings by some and with conviction by others in much of Europe.

What stands in the way is the conflict in Ukraine. Easily forgotten is the realisation, very sharp in 2014, that by igniting war in Donbas and annexing Crimea, Russia had attacked not only Ukraine but the interstate order of Europe and, in the words of France’s representative at the UN, had ‘vetoed’ the UN Charter itself.[3] Equally forgotten is the fact that but for Ukraine’s resistance and the robustness of much of the West, the Novorossiya project would have come to fruition. Instead, with Western backing, Ukraine succeeded in localising a conflict that could have had pan-European dimensions. Ironically, it is this success that accounts for today’s moral exhaustion and dulling of minds. Angela Merkel, who in 2014 pledged to uphold international law ‘however inconvenient it is and however long it takes’ might no longer have the visceral energy to oppose these trends. It is no secret that she, as well as the Federal Chancellery are unsettled by the extravagant visions and ambitions of their French partner. But their authority is much diminished, in Germany as well as Europe, and thus far, they are keeping their reservations to themselves. Thus, Berlin as well as well as Paris now expect Kyiv to ‘take steps’ towards peace. In sum, the problem is not simply that Europe’s wine has turned to vinegar, but that Ukraine is expected to drink it.

These expectations fall upon a president who is not only new to his job but, through no fault of his own, utterly unprepared for many of the challenges he faces. In contrast to his predecessor, Zelensky has a sixth sense for the non-political aspects of this conflict and the soft power it potentially affords Ukraine, particularly one that is vigorously reforming and, once again, comfortable with the Russian language, at least at the presidential level. But soft power provides no solutions to immediate political problems. The Normandy negotiations are an immediate political problem. For the first time since the Minsk negotiations of 2015, there is a finite risk that Ukraine will be induced to accept revisions and ‘compromises’ that damage its cardinal national interests. If Ukraine itself lacks an unvarnished understanding of the other players, a coherent policy and a strategy for realising it, that outcome becomes far more likely. This prospect would be troubling enough even if Zelensky’s only concern were domestic support. Although a majority of Ukrainians demand ‘peace’, a majority also oppose the ‘special status’ that Russia has made its pre-requisite, and 54 percent believe that the constitutional status of the occupied regions should not change at all.[4] ‘The people’ are inconsistent. The state cannot be.

Against this background, the remarkable thing is not that Zelensky is inexperienced in matters of national security, but that he seems to be relatively unperturbed by the fact. He almost flaunts his lack of state culture, his contempt for institutions and his determination to govern as a ‘servant of the people’. His appointments in the higher political and national security realms include some individuals of outstanding quality and substance, others whose personal qualifications are ill-suited to their official ones, and still others who are rank amateurs. But the greater liability is that in Zelensky’s schéma, the Cabinet of Ministers, the official policy-makers, do not make policy. They are ‘technicians’ and implementers of policy made ‘by the people’, in other words by Zelensky and his ‘team’. In today’s set-up, this team is now the baseline of decision and discussion. It comprises a mixed collection of talent, both raw and experienced. Its principals are still largely unknown, but of greater concern is their proclivity to operate in an untransparent manner.

The European, liberal-democratic model that Zelensky and his team presumably aspire to is what the German sociologist, Max Weber, called ‘legal-rational’. It rests on the codification of responsibilities and rights, the probity and continuity of institutions, the stability of procedures and norms and the integrity of law. If this were Zelensky’s chosen direction, then Team Zelensky would have moved to the margins the moment that candidate Zelensky became President Zelensky. Yet so far the President appears to be moving in the opposite direction — to what Weber called the charismatic model. If Ukraine is to contend with Putin, Macron and Donald Trump on this basis, then its leader had better be remarkably well informed and wise. But Zelensky cannot possibly be wise enough at this stage, and he isn’t. What is vital, therefore, is that professionals are treated as more than implementers, that the thinking of Zelensky’s magic circle develop in contact with professionals and that the former’s decisions be taken on the basis of the latter’s advice.

Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko, a solid professional, has been at pains to demonstrate that this is already happening. Unlike many others who work in departments of state, he also is a committed Zelensky supporter. But as a professional he has demonstrated his merits by outlining a set of conditions and safeguards that Ukraine must preserve in any discussion based on the ‘Steinmeier formula’. That sketchy, unwritten 2016 formula was only codified at the meeting of Normandy political advisers in March 2019. It is outwardly simple — elections followed by ‘special status’ — based on the political provisions of Minsk. Rather than deferring the security provisions to a later date, as many suppose, it doesn’t mention them at all. To Prystaiko and his opposite number in the Presidential Office, Andrey Yermak, this is a blessing in disguise. As a diplomat and lawyer respectively (Prystaiko is both), both are trained to look for the salvation as well as the devil in the details, and that is what they have done. By doing so, they have managed to insert Ukraine’s safeguards into the Steinmeier formula via the back door.[5] These safeguards are virtually indistinguishable from the security provisions of Minsk that then Foreign Minister Steinmeier chose not to address.

That Russia will respond with fury to this latest example of Ukrainian ‘cunning’ [хитрость] only stands to reason. Faced with this reaction, it is equally likely that France and Germany will seek to split the difference between Russia’s demands for capitulation and Ukraine’s defiance. A series of small capitulations for the sake of ‘movement’ will suit major powers in their quest for a more ‘normal’ relationship with Russia. But rather than dull Russian appetites for greater capitulations by Ukrainians, it will only whet them.

From the outset of Zelensky’s stunning election victory, the author and others have warned that he and his administration would be tested. The first test is now upon him. There will be others. To meet them, the President needs to give attention to four challenges. First, not only must he bring coherence within his own system, he must enlist all state-minded forces to support concessions that are safe, oppose those that are not and ensure that Europe, Canada and the United States understand the difference between the two. Complete unity in foreign policy (let alone domestic policy) is rarely achievable. But a head of state must foster the maximum amount of unity possible. Zelensky will not do this simply by maintaining his popularity with those who already are enthralled by him. He must engage worthy and indispensable people who are not.

Second, he must learn to distrust any improvement in atmospherics, no matter how photogenic, that comes at the expense of concrete interests or is not underpinned by substance.

Third, he must understand that war against corruption and war against an external adversary are two different things. The author has long argued that corruption is a national security issue. But an anti-corruption policy cannot substitute for a national security policy. The author (and an impressive corps of experts) have also argued that Ukraine’s defences will not be fit for purpose until the system is overhauled and reformed. Nevertheless, there is a difference between defence reform and defence policy. Ukraine needs both.

Finally the President must begin, indeed preside over, the long-term enterprise of establishing what the British historian, Marice Pearton called a ‘knowledgeable state’.[6] Charismatic governance can be beneficent or despotic. But it is always quixotic and invariably unstable. If Zelensky does not succeed in institutionalising his authority, he is likely to lose it.

To the task at hand, Zelensky brings fresh and inspiring talents. But he needs to convert his gifts and Ukraine’s innate strengths into workable policies and useable power. He is beginning to understand this, but is he doing so quickly enough? We might have answers to this question sooner than we would like.

[1] UNIAN, ‘Poroshenko apologizes for vow made in 2014 to complete ATO within hours’, 23 August 2018 https://www.unian.info/politics/10234770-poroshenko-apologizes-for-vow-made-in-2014-to-complete-ato-within-hours.html

[2] ‘Keeping Russia out of Western fold a ‘strategic error’, Macron says in key speech’, France-24 27 August 2019 https://www.france24.com/en/20190827-france-macron-ambassadors-speech-new-economic-order-diplomacy-foreign-policy

[3] Permanent Mission of France to the United Nations in New York (2014), ‘15 March 2014 — Security Council — Ukraine — Statement by Mr. Gérard Araud, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations’, http://www.franceonu.org/15-March-2014-Security-Council.

[4] National Security & Defence 2019., №1­2, p.p.137-164 http://razumkov.org.ua/uploads/journal/eng/NSD177-178_2019_eng.pdf

[5] ‘Ukraine's FM Vadym Prystaiko on Trump, Zelenskyy, and Donbas’, Hromadske 23 September https://en.hromadske.ua/posts/ukraines-fm-vadym-prystaiko-on-trump-zelenskyy-and-donbas

‘Ukraine's federalization, "special status" for Donbas off table, Zelensky's aide says’, UNIAN 23 September, https://www.unian.info/politics/10694850-ukraine-s-federalization-special-status-for-donbas-off-table-zelensky-s-aide-says.html

[6] Pearton, Maurice. 1982. The knowledgeable state: diplomacy, war and technology since 1830. Burnett Books: London

James Sherr

Visiting Senior Fellow

2010–date: Senior Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House

2008–2010: Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House

1995–2008: Fellow, Advanced Research & Assessment Group, UK Defence Academy

1986–2008: Lecturer in International Relations, Lincoln College Oxford

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