Conflict and Leadership
Exercise in Provocation: Why Does Zelensky Need an Aggravation in Donbass?

Zelensky has chosen the wrong timing for an escalation that is slowly dying out. No one in the United States thought to push Ukraine towards a military-political escalation. Ukraine, like Russia, is now not among the priority issues of the American administration, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

In Eastern Europe, there is a security frontier between Russia and the NATO countries. On this frontier there are states with fragile political systems that are especially vulnerable to any external influence. Ukraine is a prime example of such a country. However, vulnerability to external influences also has a downside. The elites of these countries are becoming sophisticated in their military and political provocations. They seek to force the West or Russia to defend their interests, thereby drawing external influence into their territory. 

During the escalation of tensions around the Donbass area in April, the key process was Kiev’s intention to pressure the United States and other Western countries into taking decisive steps. Currently, Ukraine’s agenda specifies the need for an accelerated entry into NATO, and this is exactly what President Vladimir Zelensky counted on. 

It was he who initiated the last stage of the escalation of the crisis. Probably, his administration misinterpreted the words that US President George Biden said about Vladimir Putin. Ukrainian elites decided that the moment had come when they could manipulate the situation in their favour. 

Regarding what happened in and around Donbass, Kiev tried to present the situation in such a way that it was Russia that was aggravating tensions, but in reality the Ukrainian armed forces were the first to begin deploying their equipment in prohibited areas against the background of public statements by politicians who sharply criticised the Minsk agreements and threatened to withdraw from them. 

Moscow, not having the full information about Kiev’s motives, interpreted these events as a provocation or even as a forceful attempt at revenge. Russia has strengthened the armed forces deployed on the Ukrainian borders, publicly and non-publicly sending all possible signals to Kiev that it wasn’t considering altering the status quo by force. 

If it was Russia that had initiated this escalation, as Kiev had, then all the necessary steps would be taken faster and without public signals. However, by contrast, the Russian response was merely a demonstration. Europe and the United States in this situation couldn’t publicly criticise Ukraine. This would destroy their narrative. Europeans have no agency in this matter at all, and look at the United States as a security provider, while the United States is preoccupied with itself. 

And yet, Zelensky has chosen the wrong timing for an escalation that is slowly dying out. No one in the United States thought to push Ukraine towards a military-political escalation. Ukraine, like Russia, is now not among the priority issues of the American administration. Biden is trying to detach himself from Donald Trump’s legacy and show that a different era has come in Washington. The American bureaucracy seriously believed that Trump was “handed the presidency by the Russians”. And now this bureaucracy is waiting for the steps of a real national leader, which should “be tough on Russia”. 

However, the announced sanctions against Russia were not as severe as those threatened several years ago, the so-called “sanctions from hell”. The Biden administration remains committed to resolving the issues at hand with Russia through cooperation, not confrontation. The White House itself began to use the terminology that Russian diplomacy constantly uses when describing the target state of Russian-American relations — a desire for their stability and predictability. By the end of Biden’s four-year rule, some stabilisation of bilateral relations is indeed possible. Although the beginning of President Biden’s tenure turned out to be crumpled, there is still some reason for optimism. 

Negotiation proposals in recent years have often resembled the “carrot and stick” metaphor. The United States invited Russia to dialogue exclusively on its own terms and often against the background of the next round of sanctions. This time, the Russian president will not be ready to accept such a pitch. If a summit does take place, it is important that it could be better prepared than the last meeting of the American and Russian presidents in 2018 in Finland, which failed to advance Russian-American relations, and also caused significant damage. 

Seeking support for his sudden veer towards escalation, Ukrainian President Zelensky sought Turkey’s support. The significance of the Turkish factor in the aggravation of the Donbass should not be exaggerated. Turkey is significant for reasons other than symbolic ones, in the wake of its support for Azerbaijan in its conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. There is also no need to exaggerate the importance of Turkish drones, which, according to the media, had decisive importance in Nagorno-Karabakh war. First, Azerbaijan had significantly more Israeli rather than Turkish drones, and secondly, drones provide beautiful pictures, but are not a key instrument of modern warfare. The outcome of the Second Karabakh war, as in all other modern wars, was determined by artillery. This explains the high losses of the parties to the conflict in Karabakh. In this context, Zelensky’s recent visit to Turkey is not a significant strategic variable. 

In his confrontation with Russia, Zelensky is trying to enlist the support of all his neighbours. Erdogan serves more as a supplier of investment in Ukraine rather than as a source of confrontation. He is primarily interested in Ukraine’s agricultural development.We have to admit that during the reign of the Zelensky administration in Ukraine, a solution to the problem of the conflict in Donbass has not been visible. Due to internal political weakness, Zelensky has begun to gradually become a second Petro Poroshenko. In the long term, this is a dead-end line that prevents a deep settlement of the situation in Donbass and pushes Russia to resolve the security issue in the region, bypassing Kiev, without cooperation with it.

Conflict and Leadership
Ukrainian Crisis Forever?
Andrey Sushentsov
The inability of the Ukrainian elite to articulate national interests and its willingness to welcome the intervention of external players in the country’s affairs was both one of the factors of the crisis and the reason why Ukrainian politics has historically been highly internationalised. The dominance of the United States in the international system after the collapse of the Soviet Union determines the importance of relations with Washington for Ukraine, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.
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