It became clear that regardless of whether the new Ukrainian president’s party wins majority of seats in Ukrainian parliament or not, its key priority will be the war on the east of Ukraine. The issue of war also tops the list of expectations for Zelenskiy’s voters. According to a public survey conducted by the Sociological Group “Rating”, 65% of Ukrainian voters claimed that ending the war must be made new president’s priority number one. Only a third of those, who answered the questionary, are concerned about economic situation or levels of corruption in Ukraine. Problems on the job market and low salaries only worried 15 to 20% of respondents. At the same time, 70% of the Servant of the People’s voters expects the new president to end the war, while only 18-22% are worried about various social issues such as low salaries and lack of jobs.
However, the problem is that, according to the signals given recently by the government circles, in its race to fulfil impossible promises it has given to its voters, the new government may fall into the classical Russian trap and place Ukraine into a very dangerous situation. Furthermore – they may even push Ukraine on the edge that would threaten its very existence. Every dangerous step made by the government is always excused by the “best intentions”, and responsibility for such devastating steps may easily be placed into the citizens’ shoulders via the so called “consultative referendums”. It is not a secret that nowadays it is easy to receive the right results by manipulating the public opinion, as well as taking advantage of Ukrainians’ inability to see the long-term consequences of their decisions.
For instance, in one of his interviews, Oleksandr Danylyuk, a newly-appointed secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine (NSDC) stated that “We want to fully implement the Minsk [Minsk agreements] – it certainly suits our interests. We want to reintegrate temporarily occupied territories and I consider us fully ready for such a process. If we did this in 2014 that would be suicidal – as a country we would not be able to handle it.” Danylyuk criticised Poroshenko’s government, who have continuously insisted that the political element of the Minsk agreements is impossible to implement until the war in Donbas is in its active phase. Surprisingly, Danylyuk has demonstrated a strange readiness to unilaterally compromise in this issue, claiming that “Ukraine cannot just stubbornly stand there and resist a dialogue”. However, it is clear that compromising at times when enemy is actively advancing into Ukrainian territory simply means surrendering Ukrainian territories. Such stance is explained, inevitably, by the “best intentions” – to finish the war and get things moving. Andriy Bohdan, the Head of the Presidential Administration (which, by the way was renamed into “Office” in order to bypass Ukrainian lustration laws) also cited these “best intentions” in one of his interviews and claimed that “we may even consider allowing Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to speak in Russian, providing such step will help to bring us a peace.” There is no alternative to unilateral compromise, as he sarcastically asks “or shall we just kill another 15,000 of Ukrainian soldiers? […]We have to go there and see what soldiers are saying on the frontline an then we will make a decision.”
Shifts in the definition
Attempts to equal the “peace” and the “reintegration of the occupied territories” (which is also close to the Medvedchuk’s formula of “return Donbas to Ukraine and Ukraine to Donbas”) either brings any discussion regarding the end of Russian aggression in Ukraine to a stalemate, or dangerously leans towards the Kremlin’s scenario. In the current geopolitical environment and the balance of power between Kyiv and Moscow, there is no alternative way out. Reintegration of the occupied territories and especially return of Crimea and Sevastopol are only hypothetically possible provided the geopolitical situation in the world, as well as the balance of power between Kyiv, its Western allies and Moscow will change. Last but not least, one should remember that potential dramatic changes in Russia, such as sudden turbulent events or change of Russia’s current borders or its political structure will also play an important role.
At the same time, political elites become more and more dependent on the public opinion in Ukraine – and many Ukrainians demand to end the war. Should the current government fail to deliver its promises and end the war, the public will inevitably lean towards potential new, dangerously populist political parties, which will give lucrative promises to end the war. It is not impossible that the so called fifth column in Ukraine will be speculating on this topic in order to enhance its influence. This will create tensions and will put additional pressure on Ukrainian political elites.
Kremlin understands this logic way too well – thus Viktor Medvedchuk and other members of the fifth column in Ukraine have been pushing this scenario through since 2014. Intentional blend and confusion of “peace process” and “reintegration” allowed Russians and their political proxies in Ukraine to brilliantly manipulate the natural desire of many Ukrainians for the war to be over. Russians, and their proxies presented the need to negotiate with the separatists or Russia’s militia commanders in Donbas as the precondition to end the war. However, there is absolutely no logical connection between those two issues.
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Despite the fact that generally sociologists do not really distinguish between the issue of ending the war and reintegration of the occupied territories, some interim research studies show that the ordinary citizens are interested primarily in the war to be finished as soon as possible. For example, according to the afore-mentioned survey conducted by the Sociological Group “Rating”, in the list of key priorities for Ukraine for the next 10 years the issue of Ukraine’s territorial integrity has been only named third. It came after the economic prosperity and the fight against corruption. Only 10% of those who answered the questionnaire expect the president to return Crimea. At the same time, Ukrainians’ wish for a peace comes together with rather limited intentions to compromise. In fact, according to the June’s survey, conducted by Democratic Initiatives Fund and Razumkov Centre, Ukrainians are not willing to agree on most of the Kremlin’s and terrorists’ demands in order to compromise.
According to the survey, for Ukrainians the most unacceptable is the demand to hold elections on Russia’s terms (66% were strongly against it, while 13% noted they thought it was acceptable); 61% firmly dismissed full amnesty for terrorists (against 15% who deemed it acceptable); 58% also dismissed the possibility to form future municipal authorities out of militants – 18% thought it was possible. Additionally, 54% disagreed with Russian language being granted a state status in the occupied territory (30% stated they thought it was acceptable); 53% claimed they were against special political and economic relations between Russia and the occupied territories (while 23% noted they would not mind that); 43% were against a legislations, that would affirm Ukraine’s neutral political status (34% would support such law). Only 32% supported an idea to end the blockade of occupied territories and renew the trade between Ukraine and the so-called “DPR” and “LPR” – 43% noted they were against it. Majority of Ukrainians support return of the occupied territories on pre-war terms (54%). Needless to say, now it is impossible. But is it really necessary?
Results of various sociological surveys prove that Ukrainians do not want reintegration of the occupied territories at any cost. They want to end the war. Ukrainians are tired of war and they see it as the main obstacle on the way to prosperity of their nation and economic development. Thus the idea to station UN Peacekeeping forces in Ukraine received a 55.5% of support, while only 25% were against it. Majority of those who supported this idea lived in the western or central regions of Ukraine (74% and 62%).
How much longer do we have to wait for Ukraine’s political elite and the government to understand that the frozen conflict in Donbas in the current geopolitical circumstances is actually more beneficial for Ukraine, rather than Russia? Such development would most probably receive a firm support among Ukrainians, as opposed to absolute dismissal of Putin-Medvedchuk scenario of “peace”. The very discussion of the combined “end the war + reintegrate the territories” package only harms and destabilises Ukraine. Moreover, if the war is not over without the reintegration of the occupied territories on the enemy’s conditions, many Ukrainians may be manipulated into believing that this is the only possible scenario.
That is why Kremlin is being so stubborn against any peace process, which does not include Russia’s reintegration scenario. Moreover, not without Kremlin’s help, various initiatives began to emerge on the occupied Donbas calling for the return of the region into Ukraine as an autonomous region. One of the evidences of such strategy is a recent sudden flash mob organised in Donbas. Residents of the occupied territories (frequently public sector workers and students) were forced into recording and sharing videos on social media, where they ask Volodymyr Zelenskiy to integrate “DPR” and “LPR” into Ukraine and grant them autonomy. They also ask not only grant amnesty to terrorists, but to absorb militants as local police regiments. Unsurprisingly, they also demand that Ukrainian government restores its financial support to various social programs in the Russian-destroyed Donbas.
The problem is that Moscow is aided by Ukrainians’ reluctance to officially acknowledge that “war end” and reintegration must been seen as two completely separate issues. Recent signals on international arena proved that Ukraine’s western allies will not increase pressure on Russia within the current “end of the war + reintegration” project. Most probably, we will witness further attempts to ease pressure on Russia, and instead to increase pressure on Ukraine. West is also tired and just wants to get rid of a troubled country on its eastern borders. Those tendencies will most likely intensify, and so will the calls for “peace at any price” in Ukraine. At the same time, if Ukraine pushed hard to stop the war without any pre-conditions, and, as a result, exercised more pressure on Russia to freeze the conflict and provide an international control over the border, this would gain it more support among the international community – especially considering the West’s desire to finally “get rid of the problem”.
Therefore, the idea of peace, or, perhaps the ceasefire, similar to the 1953 Korean scenario, and the issue of reintegration should be immediately separated in Ukraine’s political discourse. The ceasefire may be achieved relatively soon, reintegration, however, will remain a sensitive issue, easily becoming a source of another internal political tension. Alternatively, this issue of reintegration will turn into concealed capitulation scenario, which will not only destabilise Ukraine, but may also provoke a civil war.
The bigger threats
Reintegration intentions of the new government, nevertheless, come together with a certain partial understanding of the hidden dangers of this process. Oleksandr Danylyuk, the NSDC secretary, acknowledged that “this [the occupied territories] is a business territory, that has been militarised by Russia. But is it our territory, our citizens. We have a moral duty to them. Reintegration will not be easy, but if you manage to go through this path and solve this problem, we will come out much stronger.” However, he fails to answer one important question – what if we fail and we cannot go through? What if “solving the problem” will endanger the very existence of Ukraine as a state, as well bring down its national security and stability?
One needs to acknowledge, that the best intentions to “stop the war or return the occupied territories” may pave the path to devastative misfortunes for the whole country. The war, death and devastation, which until now have been contained within the borders of occupied territories, will spread into the rest of Ukraine. There are more than few reasons to be worried about such scenario, should the reintegration happen on Russian terms. Despite the fact, the Kyiv-controlled Ukraine is ten times bigger than the occupied territories of Donbas, there is no certainty in what is going to happen – will the occupied territories join Ukraine or Ukraine will join the occupied territories? Ukraine itself is not entirely consistent in its political preferences. It is not unlikely that Russia will try to infiltrate its proxies into Ukrainian society in order to destabilise the situation, especially trying to spread the instability from the occupied territories to the south and east. Additionally, it is not impossible that Russia would try to create a civil war in Ukraine following to the Syrian scenario.
In 2014 Russians hoped for their so-called “Novorossiya” project, to announce secession from Ukraine. However, such strategy of annexing the Russian-speaking regions has proven to be an evident failure. Russia was forced to keep the occupied territories as an irritating factor to Ukraine. Moreover, after Crimea further annexations would have almost certainly provoked an immediate reaction from the West. Therefore, the replication of the Syrian scenario in Ukraine looks currently more beneficial for Russia. Civil war in Ukraine will doubtlessly aid Russia if not to fully invade Ukraine, then at least neutralise its successful development as an “Anti-Russia” and the subsequent integration int the EU and NATO. Furthermore, potential Russian support to “one of the sides in the civil conflict” is not equal to supporting separatist secessionist militants, who are trying to annex Ukrainian territories with the clear aim of adding it to Russia. One way or another, but the Syrian case happened to be more successful for Russian, than Ukrainian. In Syria the key to Russian success was its ability to fuel the civil conflict, rather than annex territories.
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Therefore, there is certain rationality behind the need to reintegrate the territories; it is, however, possibly only providing it happens on Ukrainian terms. Additionally, reintegration will require a long and painful process of clearing the territories off the many anti-Ukrainian elements, and removing numerous consequences of pre-war and recent ideological and psychological information wars staged by Russians against the local population. Russians have successfully conducted their imperial and soviet propaganda in the occupied territories. Ukraine will have to not only de-Sovietise these territories, but to take a step further and de-Russify and subsequently Ukrainise them. Those residents, who will not agree with such policies, must be given an opportunity to freely leave the country and be able to settle in Russia – as was the case with Polish Germans after the Second World War.
This seems to be the only scenario, when reintegration will be beneficial or at least have neutral impact on Ukrainian state. All the other options will inevitably bring nothing, but harm and will threaten the very existence of Ukraine as an independent state. Should Ukraine fail to fulfil this integration on its terms right now, it must be postponed – as long as necessary. Similar scenarios have earlier worked out in Germany after the Second World War or in (still) divided Korea. However, under no circumstances should Ukraine give up its territorial integrity as well as its control over the occupied territories and Crimea. Things should be done later, but throughly, rather than sooner but carelessly.