March 26, 2020

The End of Zelenskiy’s Dream

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy gestures as he addresses the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March, 4, 2020. Ukraine's parliament has endorsed the resignation of Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy gestures as he addresses the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March, 4, 2020. Ukraine's parliament has endorsed the resignation of Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s dream ended on 4 March. On that date he dismissed ten of the most reformist ministers of his still newly formed government.

The sacking of Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, barely six months after his appointment in August 2019 is not unprecedented.  President Viktor Yushchenko had dismissed his own Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko eight months after she was appointed in January 2005. But it is more shocking.  Personal tensions and policy differences between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko had been mounting, and they were hardly unconcealed. But by repudiating an entire cabinet, doing so with meagre justification and replacing them with people of limited stature and tarnished reputations, Zelenskiy has effectively repudiated himself, if not in his own eyes, then in the eyes of many who believed in him.

On 11 March, he broke faith with others.  On that date, his new Chief of Staff, Andriy Yermak, along with former President Leonid Kuchma and Russia’s well-seasoned, but newly appointed plenipotentiary for the Donbas conflict, Dmitriy Kozak, signed a ‘protocol’ that in violation of all ‘red lines’ and precedents, envisages establishing a Consultative Council, granting co-equal status to Ukraine’s state representatives and Russia’s proxies in the unrecognised Donetsk and Luhansk ‘peoples republics’. The relationship between these two events is not merely circumstantial, and it could well evolve in ways detrimental not only to the standing of President Zelenskiy but the fundamental national interests of Ukraine.

On the face of it, these unsettling events not only vindicate those who from the start regarded Zelenskiy as all show and no substance; they add credibility to those who always regarded him as a ‘Russian project’. But in reality, they have exposed shortcomings of character rather than conspiracy and connivance, along with external pressures that have been poorly assessed and incompetently managed.

What is more, the reformist course set by the outgoing cabinet was in need of correction. Honcharuk not only promised what could not be delivered (e.g. 40 percent economic growth in five years), he employed a Western template to overcome a system that will not be broken without a more complex algorithm. Moreover, reform is not always  the most urgent task. The recently appointed and now dismissed Minister of Defence, Andriy Zahorodniuk, widely esteemed in Washington and NATO HQ, studied law in Kyiv, graduated from Warwick and Oxford universities and was a successful entrepreneur before capably leading the MOD’s Reform Project Office between 2015-2017. He had all the makings of a brilliant peacetime defence minister, but Ukraine is a country at war. Zahorodniuk’s successor, Lt Gen (retd) Andriy Taran, is a graduate of the Military Academy of Air Defence of the Ground Forces, served in the MOD Main Intelligence Directorate and was eventually appointed Ukraine’s representative to the Joint Coordination and Control Centre in Donbas. On top of this, he received a degree in National Resource Strategy at the National Defence University in Washington.

All of this said, there is a world of difference between correcting the course of a government and dismissing it when its work has hardly begun. It accomplished a considerable amount on its brief watch:  in the macro-economy, the regulatory framework and in state enterprise management. Such reforms are not enough to boost ratings when politicians need them (Zelenskiy’s trust rating dropped from 80 to 50 per cent between September and February). Yet they were becoming more than enough for Ukraine’s oligarchs, not only the proverbial Kolomoyskiy but Rinat Akhmetov, whom no one has successfully crossed. As these waves converged, Zelenskiy tossed the crew off the ship.

The fact that he did not anticipate this moment and panicked when it arose already resolves one enigma of his presidency.  As a campaign slogan, ‘breaking the system’ is a winner.  As a programme of government, it is a protracted, hazardous and thankless task. In pursuit of this task, popularity is irrelevant, for it surely will be lost. On the morrow of his election, we asked, ‘does Zelenskiy possess the mettle and will to take on this challenge?’  [] So far, the answer appears to be no.

Panic, like drunkenness, produces a nasty hangover. The moment that a government of respected figures was replaced by a government of unknowns, investor confidence collapsed. No sooner did this reality emerge than another one arose: the corona virus, whose impact on Ukraine’s economy will be significant if it is well managed, and devastating if it is not. The combination of these factors makes release of the $5.5 bn IMF package vital and urgent. Yet the IMF will not budge from its core conditions: establishment of a private land market and a copper plated banking system, immune from predators like Kolomoyskiy. But these conditions will be more difficult to meet than before because the interests that oppose them are now stronger and the ministers committed to meeting them have been replaced by new ministers who show far less understanding of the IMF’s importance.

What is more, Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People faction is no longer united. To secure a vote of no confidence in his highly respected Prosecutor General, Ruslan Riaboshapka, Zelenskiy had to rely upon the Opposition Platform – For Life, led by Moscow’s inveterate  de facto plenipotentiary in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk.  That possibly explains why Zelenskiy did nothing to impede Medvedchuk when he brought a delegation of six Opposition Platform MPs to Moscow in order to stitch  together with Putin a framework for a new interparliamentary body on the conflict. [] That legislative dimension would complement the new inter-governmental format agreed between Yermak and Kozak  that originally had been scheduled for final approval on 25 March.

But Zelenskiy’s concessions to Moscow were hardly pre-ordained.  He has ample reason to oppose Russia’s goals in Ukraine, and up until now, he has done so. The December Paris meeting of the four-party Normandy format was a personal triumph. Not only did Zelenskiy reiterate Ukraine’s long-standing red lines, he rightly insisted that the Ukrainian people would accept nothing less. Moreover, he added new conditions more stringent than those set out in the February 2015 Minsk-II accords: the border will need to revert to Ukraine’s control before elections take place in the occupied zones, and representatives of 1.6 million displaced Ukrainians will need to agree the modalities of those elections and secure the rights of their former inhabitants to take part in them. If Zelenskiy’s performance then was nothing but show, one must also suppose that Putin’s moroseness was also for show, as well the temper tantrum of his then Donbas kurator, Vyacheslav Surkov, witnessed  by Zelenskiy’s advisers. Yet that was then, and this is now.

To attribute today’s change of policy to unfavourable parliamentary arithmetic would be too superficial by far.  Zelenskiy has no fondness for Russia.  But unlike most of his predecessors, he has never grasped the existential nature of the threat that it poses.  Like his counterpart in Paris, Emmanuel Macron, he believes that Putin would like to find a way out of the conflict and that disengagement zones, prisoner exchanges and other conciliatory measures will provide that way out. Already Zelenskiy has been given two sharp warnings that this is not so.  Following the Normandy summit, Putin suddenly demanded the inclusion of five members of Yanukovych’s dreaded Berkut in an already agreed prisoner exchange. These personnel, charged with the murder of protestors in the Euromaidan, have no relationship to the present conflict, and Kyiv is not an occupied zone. Oblivious of creating a possible precedent for Russia to intervene directly in matters of domestic Ukrainian jurisdiction, Zelenskiy concurred. Then on 18 February, Russia and proxy forces launched a massive bombardment of Ukrainian forces deployed on the perimeter of a newly established disengagement zone. Yet instead of responding to this display of contempt towards his conciliation strategy, Zelenskiy vowed that this ‘provocation’ would not deflect him from it.

In these matters, Zelenskiy is now being guided by his new chief of staff, Head of the Presidential Office, Andriy Yermak, a man of the utmost flexibility of principle, with connections in Russia and back channels to its decision-makers. Through these channels, Zelenskiy is being advised about what would be helpful and what would not (‘don’t mention Crimea’). Ukraine’s Normandy partners, Germany and France, have neither imposed unsound concessions upon Zelenskiy nor counselled against them. By not doing the latter, they have ignored their own red lines and not only Ukraine’s. In the assessment of Ukraine’s former Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin, they have effectively reduced the level of their support to Ukraine.

In sum, the fundamental shortcomings of Zelenskiy’s presidential team – an absence of state administrative culture, a dearth of economic knowledge, a shallow understanding of Russia and an over-reliance upon their own inbred circle – have produced their first baleful deserts. There is endless room for the learning curve to advance, and already there are signs that it is doing so.  On 24 March, Zelenskiy submitted the necessary banking legislation to Ukraine’s parliament. But what Zelenskiy requires even more than such steps is steadfastness and courage.  So far, these qualities have not been visible.