With Moscow massing its troops on Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea, Kyiv has little chance of standing its ground if the standoff deteriorates into a military confrontation. Yet there are reasons to believe that neither side intends to unleash a war.
Donbas should brace itself for a long time in the role of a Russian military protectorate like Transnistria or South Ossetia. Local elites will have to deal with Moscow’s efforts to optimize the region’s administration, while the people there will see the creeping integration of the republics with Russia.
For Russia, renewal of the war—let alone the annexation of the self-proclaimed republics—would be a costly undertaking with unclear benefits. It is bound to be highly unpopular with Russian society, which is fatigued by foreign policy adventurism, and would further complicate Russia’s relations with European countries.
For Zelensky’s team, used to winning landslide victories, the outcome of the upcoming local elections will be dispiriting and will fan the flames of internal strife.
A further fall in President Zelensky’s ratings could become a serious demotivating factor for the former TV star. His transformation from the “people’s president” into yet another Ukrainian politician with broken promises, a state dacha, and a dodgy entourage will primarily weigh on the president himself.
The coronavirus pandemic has turned the mounting tension between the center and the regions into an open conflict. Now threats loom of revenge by the old elites and a new wave of populism exploiting the idea of regional independence.
Struggling to hold on to his party’s majority, President Zelensky is increasingly forced to take heed of the influential national-patriotic minority in parliament. Zelensky finds himself held hostage by the old elite, from whom he is buying the last chances for reform at the cost of his own political future.
In Ukraine, the chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic combined with the country’s existing political problems could sharpen the appetite for authoritarianism in Ukrainian society.
Having dismissed his young government, President Zelensky risks joining the ranks of Ukraine’s failed reformers. The reshuffle is being seen as a victory for business as usual and oligarchic interests.
Arsen Avakov has survived Ukraine’s change of regime. President Zelensky needs him because of his links to the dark side of the Ukrainian deep state, against which the president’s young reformers are often powerless. The omnipotent minister is prepared to put aside his personal ambition to become the regime’s informal mainstay.