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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has staked his presidency on ending the war against Moscow-backed insurgents in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine in a manner that will not break his country apart or invite further Russian interference. This will be a tall order. Under the terms of the Minsk agreement, the internationally accepted framework for resolving the conflict, a settlement that both preserves Ukraine’s sovereignty and restores its territorial integrity is near impossible.
In the last six years, the conflict in the Donbas has taken more than 13,000 lives and displaced some 1.5 million people. The Ukrainian government agreed to the Minsk framework during the peak of hostilities in late 2014 and early 2015, while under tremendous pressure to stem the fighting. The agreement grants the two self-declared separatist republics in the Donbas a constitutionally guaranteed “special status”—one that entails local autonomy inside Ukraine—cementing these areas’ position as separate from the rest of the country. What’s more, the agreement stipulates that the breakaway regions will hold local elections before the central government regains control of Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia.
To hold elections without first securing the border and removing Russian forces would allow the militants in power to intimidate voters or tamper with the results. What’s more, it would entail a continued Russian military presence in the region, overseeing elections in which Russia has a clear stake. And devolving unique powers to the separatist regions would exacerbate divisions within the country and risk fracturing further its already fragile political cohesion. Malign forces within Ukraine, beholden to a belligerent neighbor, would remain capable of exploiting its divisions to undermine the country’s sovereignty and subvert its efforts to build a modern liberal state.
Zelensky has tried to head off this eventuality by introducing legislation of his own on decentralization. His plan could eventually grant the Donbas greater control over local affairs—such as language policy, education, and policing—but only as part of a broader devolution of authority throughout the country. The region would thus receive certain rights to local autonomy, but no more than any other province. And to ensure the integrity of local elections in the Donbas, Zelensky has demanded that they be conducted only after Kyiv regains control of its border and Russian forces have withdrawn. Unfortunately, Zelensky’s effort to change the existing terms of the Minsk framework to reflect those positions has been thwarted by Russian intransigence and Western fecklessness.
In December 2019, Zelensky joined Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris for a meeting of the so-called Normandy Format—a structure created in 2014 to negotiate an end to the Donbas conflict. Zelensky left the meeting with a joint declaration outlining steps to de-escalate hostilities, including the disengagement of forces at the line of contact and a comprehensive prisoner exchange. But he made no progress on the postconflict political settlement. Putin still clung to the terms of the Minsk agreement, while Macron and Merkel offered Zelensky no support in his effort to amend the deal. Indeed, the joint declaration reaffirmed Russia’s position that the Minsk agreement, as currently written, remains “the basis of the work of the Normandy format [sic], whose member states are committed to its full implementation.”
Kyiv cannot count on help from western European mediators, who would prefer a quick resolution and are frustrated by the slow pace of progress. What’s more, some Western leaders—notably Macron—are eager to repair relations with Russia. They are not going to step up pressure on Moscow to compromise; rather, they are more likely to see Ukrainian intransigence as the greatest obstacle to peace and put pressure on Kyiv to yield.
European mediators are frustrated by the slow pace of progress.
Without an improbable and dramatic shift in global politics that changes either Putin’s posture or the West’s reluctance to increase pressure on Moscow, Zelensky can hope to achieve little more at the next meeting of the Normandy Format, tentatively scheduled for April. Kyiv simply lacks the leverage and the external support to extract concessions from Moscow. Under these circumstances, Zelensky will have to consider alternatives.
Ukraine’s president has two broad options. The first is a grand bargain: a comprehensive settlement with Russia that extends beyond the Donbas to include other elements of the larger Ukraine crisis, such as Crimea. Another approach would be to disengage altogether from efforts to reestablish sovereignty over the Donbas. Each of these strategies has its own advantages and drawbacks.
Kyiv could abandon its pursuit of NATO membership in exchange for closer security ties with the United States.
A grand bargain would look beyond the immediate conflict in the Donbas. The larger Ukraine crisis touches on a wide range of interrelated issues—the status of Crimea, NATO’s future role in eastern Europe, and Russia’s broader relationship with the West—that could be included in a deal. If Zelensky chose this approach, he could propose an agreement in which Kyiv abandoned its pursuit of NATO membership, perhaps in exchange for closer security ties with the United States. Such a step would help ease Moscow’s concerns about Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation. In this case, Kyiv would also offer to formally recognize Russia’s incorporation of Crimea in exchange for Moscow’s full withdrawal from the Donbas, the reinstatement of Ukraine’s control over its eastern border, and the reincorporation of the Donbas without a special status. The West would incrementally lift sanctions imposed on Russia, and it would offer Ukraine greater assistance in domestic reconstruction, including critical political and economic reform. Such a grand bargain would supersede the Minsk agreement.
Alternatively, Kyiv could acknowledge that—for the foreseeable future—efforts to end the war on favorable terms are futile. By fortifying the line of contact that divides government- and separatist-controlled territories and taking steps to reduce the intensity of the fighting, Kyiv would in essence unilaterally freeze the conflict. The government could then redirect its resources toward the areas it actually controls, where it could focus on growing Ukraine’s economy, strengthening institutions, and building a robust liberal state. Such an approach would avoid or postpone the difficulty of reincorporating a region that has been estranged and radicalized under six years of pro-Russian rule. And the arrangement would not necessarily be permanent: Kyiv could reevaluate its options down the line as conditions evolve both in the separatist territories and across Ukraine.
Both of these options have drawbacks. A grand bargain would require Moscow’s assent, which is not assured. Kyiv would also need the support of its European partners and the United States. The Europeans are likely to agree to most, if not all, elements of such a deal, but powerful anti-Russian forces in the United States would likely warn Kyiv against cutting a deal with Moscow that abandoned its claim to Crimea or swore off NATO membership.
For the second option—disengaging from the Donbas—Moscow’s position is not as important. Theoretically, Kyiv could abandon the Donbas without Russia’s consent. Moscow might still press Kyiv to bear the responsibility for the population in the separatist region—by paying pensions, for example—and it would likely castigate Kyiv for deserting its citizens, but that is little different from Moscow’s current stance.
Powerful anti-Russian forces would likely warn Kyiv against abandoning Crimea or swearing off NATO membership.
Both strategies would face stiff opposition, however, from the nationalist wing of Ukrainian civil society. This small but vocal minority refuses to sacrifice any degree of control over Ukraine’s territory or sovereignty, and it has a proven ability to mobilize against parties or policies that cross its redlines. As president of a country whose disaffected civil society has instigated two revolutions in the past fifteen years, Zelensky cannot ignore the prospect that his choices in the Donbas could stir popular outrage. By engaging the country’s civil society—both to persuade it and to seek its input—he can build popular legitimacy for whatever approach he ultimately chooses, thus mitigating the inevitable nationalist backlash.
Given Russia’s inflexibility and the West’s unwillingness to intervene, Ukraine will likely remain unable to forge acceptable peace terms that fully preserve both its sovereignty and its territorial integrity. Indeed, the pursuit of both is likely to erode the prospects for each, leaving Kyiv ever more beholden to Moscow and less in control of its eastern provinces, not to mention Crimea.
This state of affairs might not be just, but it is the reality. Zelensky must make a choice; given the range of forces arrayed against him and the lack of support from abroad, he should pursue whichever strategy he believes can best secure sovereignty, even at the expense of territorial integrity. While both of the options described above sacrifice some degree of Ukrainian control over the country’s internationally recognized territory, they would also leave Kyiv with greater sovereignty over the territory it does control. Ensuring and strengthening that sovereignty will allow the Ukrainian government to continue building a modern, prosperous, and liberal state. As for individuals, so for nations: living well is the best revenge.
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