The new coronavirus pandemic has rocked the already tortuous relationship between Russia and Ukraine. Their borders remain closed. In-person contacts between negotiators are now impossible because of the pandemic. Their online talks continue, but without informal conversations on the sidelines they have become far less productive and useful. Any hopes for a breakthrough in resolving the conflict this year have been dashed, and the situation remains where it has been for years—at an impasse.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s election to the presidency of Ukraine in April 2019 on a platform that promised to do whatever it takes to end the war with Russia prompted expectations in Moscow that the new leader would be ready to make concessions and the Kremlin would be able to set the terms for dealing with him. However, these expectations were soon dashed by Zelensky’s unwillingness to back away from the demands made by his predecessor Petro Poroshenko. Zelensky was not invited to the parade marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the victory in World War II in June 2020, which was attended by several other leaders of former Soviet republics. Zelensky’s office announced that the Ukrainian leader would not have gone to the Moscow parade even if invited.
Moreover, Zelensky has discovered that a compromise with Russia on the terms acceptable to it is likely to be seen by the Ukrainian public as a surrender to Russia. His apparent concession in March to Russia and its proxies in the occupied territories to enter direct negotiations with the latter triggered a domestic backlash. The backlash was limited because of the pandemic-necessitated lockdown, but it must have sent a clear signal to all parties that Ukrainians were not ready for a compromise on the terms demanded by Russia.
In Kyiv, hopes are still strong that the coronavirus-provoked economic crisis in Russia and the collapse of energy prices might affect Russian policy toward Ukraine. In particular, there are expectations that the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics would become an overly expensive luxury for the Kremlin due to the mounting costs of supporting them, as well as international sanctions slapped on Russia over the conflict. The Ukrainian authorities eagerly interpret even minor developments in the settlement process as signs of Russia’s growing readiness to compromise, as was the case with a rather routine visit to Germany of the Kremlin’s point man on Donbas Dmitri Kozak and Moscow’s decision to revoke its own sanctions against the Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.
Apparently the Ukrainian leadership believes that the consequences of the coronavirus will make Russia more inclined to cut a deal with Kyiv. Oleksii Reznikov, the new minister for reintegration of the breakaway territories, speaks openly about Ukraine’s wait-and-see attitude to the prospect of conflict settlement. When questioned in an interview whether the Russian people would continue to accept the high cost of maintaining the defense and day-to-day functioning of the breakaway territories, he stated that “everything is going to change—and fast—and we might see a window of opportunity.”
The lamentable state of Ukraine’s own economy after the pandemic bodes ill for its ability to outwait the Kremlin. Indeed, Ukraine’s economic weakness could give Moscow more leverage vis-à-vis Kyiv. The Ukrainian economy was already slowing before the coronavirus outbreak, which is only adding to the mood of uncertainty and despair in Ukrainian society.
The nature of domestic politics in Ukraine and the public mood must be another source of disappointment for Zelensky and his team. A total of 68 percent of Ukrainians expect the situation in their country to get worse, and this is already impacting on Zelensky’s main asset, his personal popularity. The president’s rating fell from 74 percent in the fall of 2019 to 44 percent in April 2020, while support for his predecessor Petro Poroshenko’s party has almost doubled.
Zelensky’s reversal of fortune is hardly unprecedented in Ukrainian politics, but is still a blow to the young president who was elected on hopes for change, yet now has no choice but to engage in Kyiv politics as usual. He has been losing support even within his own party, and as a result has turned to the tactic used by his predecessors—striking deals with ad hoc allies. He reached out to the national-patriotic camp to secure its vote on land reform, and then to the pro-Russia opposition to gain its support for the appointment of a new prosecutor general and several ministers. Zelensky’s political maneuvering is getting increasingly complicated, which bodes ill for any prospect of a compromise with Russia.
Any hope Zelensky and his team may entertain that Ukraine’s outside backers—Europe and the United States—will shift the balance with Russia in its favor is highly unlikely to materialize in the foreseeable future. Both are preoccupied with their own affairs. Europe is reeling from the pandemic and its consequences, whereas the United States is in the midst of a heated presidential campaign—in addition to the pandemic—in which Ukraine has become a toxic, divisive issue.
A year into Zelensky’s presidency, his main goal—peace with Russia—appears to be no closer than when he took the oath of office. The coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout from it have weakened his hand in dealing with both principal obstacles he is facing—Russia’s refusal to make concessions and the usual factional politics in Kyiv. He has been forced into making compromises with the latter, which in turn has undercut his ability to deal with the former.
COVID-19 is exacting a cruel toll on Ukraine. Its economy, its presidency, its prospects for peace with Russia, and its ties with its key Western partners have all suffered as a result of the pandemic. The consequences of this affliction are likely to last well beyond the cycle of the disease itself.