Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy chose Brussels as the destination for his first trip abroad as head of state and reaffirmed Ukraine’s commitment to Europe, its desire to join Nato and his determination to end the de facto war with Russia.
Zelenskiy met with top European Union and Nato officials in Brussels as part of his first foreign trip as president on June 4.
The new president’s strategy for ending the de facto war with Russia in the east of the country is taking shape. Last week he reappointed former president Leonid Kuchma as the Ukrainian representative in the Trilateral Contact Group talks in Minsk to resolve the war in Donbas.
Kuchma is a controversial figure but an experienced statesman and tough negotiator. Kuchma said he agreed to return to the talks in order “to make decisions,” and not to play a symbolic role. “In my life, I have gotten used to making decisions, implementing them and being responsible for them,” Kuchma told the press briefing.
Zenon Zawada of Concorde Capital said in a note: “Zelenskiy has two main motives in returning Kuchma to the Minsk peace talks. Besides bringing much diplomatic experience and political gravitas to the helm (which the neophyte Zelenskiy team needs), Zelenskiy is building bridges with [Ukrainian oligarch and Kuchma’s son in law Viktor] Pinchuk, who controls many industrial enterprises, including Interpipe, and numerous mass media. In having some form of partnership with the billionaire Pinchuk, Zelenskiy will be able to counterbalance the influence of billionaire, Ihor Kolomoisky, who sponsored his campaign.”
Cease-fire deals announced as part of the Minsk accords in September 2014 and February 2015 have contributed to a decrease in fighting in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk but have failed to hold.
"We are ready to hold negotiations with Russia [and] to implement the Minsk agreements. But first we must be capable to protect ourselves and get stronger economically, politically, and militarily," Zelenskiy said at a joint press conference with Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg at the alliance's headquarters.
Zelenskiy also said that Ukraine's "strategic course to achieve full-fledged membership in the EU and Nato" remained unchanged.
Calling Ukraine a "highly valued partner," Stoltenberg expressed Nato's support for the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, saying: "Allies do not, and will not, recognise Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea."
While observers worry that Kolomoisky will have undue influence over Zelenskiy, the reappearance of Kuchma suggests that Pinchuk will also have some sway. In December 2017 Pinchuk caused a scandal with an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal calling for “painful compromises” with the Russian government in order to end the warfare in Donbas. Among his proposals were (1) pursuing the status of EU preferred partner instead of EU membership; (2) continuing to refuse to recognise the Crimean annexation, but not allowing it to be an obstacle to peace in Donbas; and (3) holding elections in occupied Donbas as part of the process to return the territory to Ukrainian control.
However, analysts were buoyed by both Zelenskiy’s trip to Brussels and Kuchma’s appointment as they say it suggests that the president is serious about bring about peace in the east of the country and that all solutions are on the table.
“Of course, a significant part of the Ukrainian public will view such measures as capitulation. But Zelenskiy’s core electorate in the Russophile southeastern regions will fully support Zelenskiy if he finds compromise with Russia. A separate question is to what extent Russia will compromise with Ukraine and whether it will uphold the compromise,” Zawada adds.