Volodymyr Zelenskiy needs to invest resources and display openess towards the Donbas region's residents.
Less than a month into his first term, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has already made clear that he will primarily focus on domestic issues, leaving his country’s foreign policy objectives unchanged. Kyiv will continue to hold the line on its Minsk Agreements with Moscow and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine: it understands that, unless the Kremlin changes tack, the Ukrainian authorities can do little to end the war there.
Yet the president can reframe Kyiv’s political approach to Donbas, by shifting away from a militarised and defensive approach, and towards outreach and reconstruction. While defending Ukraine’s territory, Zelenskiy can now prioritise the defence of the country’s people. Through outreach to residents of Donbas, he can change the deadly status quo. This is hardly a risk-free strategy, but it could eventually help Ukraine shift the balance of power in the conflict and force Moscow to reconsider its approach.
The need for a fresh start
Since 2014, Kyiv’s strategy for Donbas has rested on two pillars: preventing Moscow from conquering more territory, and mobilising international diplomatic, political, and military support for Ukraine. Accordingly, Ukrainians have fought the war, while the West has pressured Russia diplomatically and economically. This was a logical strategy in the first 12-18 months of the conflict, as it became clear that Ukraine could not defeat the regular Russian army. As such, Kyiv focused on preserving an unstable ceasefire and pushing for Moscow’s international isolation.
Yet the strategy has left the population in Donbas and their needs low on the list of priorities. Minelaying has often taken precedence over reconstruction in the east. “We have lost their minds”, Zelenskiy said during his inauguration. This defensive and militarised approach transformed much of the region – and not just the line of contact – into a new frontier. The 2017 ban on trade with non-government controlled areas (NGCA) has probably been Kyiv’s most visible signal towards the locals on both sides of the dividing line. Although it initially resisted the measure, the administration of Zelenskiy’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, relented due to pressure to do so from nationalist groups.
Since 2014, when the conflict broke out, Ukraine has addressed some of the most severe problems on the ground. It has improved facilities at crossing points on the Ukrainian side of the line of contact and helped NGCA residents obtain official documents in a relatively easy – though hardly smooth – way. In 2017 government-controlled parts of Donbas experienced the second-largest salary increases of any region in Ukraine, after Kyiv. Ukraine has finally simplified its legal framework for demining, allowing it to step up its efforts in this area. Still, these partial successes have not transformed the largely grim outlook for residents of eastern Ukraine.
Zelenskiy’s political capital in the east
In his campaign for the presidency, Zelenskiy, who hails from the south-east of the country, avoided polarising topics such as language policy and church relations. This approach surely helped him secure electoral support in Donbas. His well-known sense of humour, and his popularity among Ukraine’s Russian-speakers, has given some hope to those in the south-east who feel trapped between the Maidan revolution and Russian aggression.
All this provides the new president with the political capital to reach out to Donbas in a way his predecessor could not. And, if there is one thing Zelenskiy knows better than any other Ukrainian politician, it is how to communicate – especially in Russian, which is still widely spoken in the region.
Refocus, reconstruct, and reconnect
Besides changing government rhetoric on Donbas, Zelenskiy can provide Ukraine with a fresh start by adopting a strategy focused on reconstruction, initially in the areas Kyiv controls. In this, he should aim to reconnect the region – physically and mentally – with the rest of Ukraine.
The president could announce an audit of Donbas’s reconstruction and revitalisation needs to set priorities. Currently, various local and international organisations address these needs almost at random. He could also create a framework funding programme that local partners and international donors could contribute to, aiming to promote infrastructural and economic revival in the east. A separate Agency for Donbas Reconstruction, co-led by Ukrainian and international partners, could eventually take over these efforts.
Moreover, Kyiv can take practical steps, and adopt confidence-building measures, designed to ease the burden of life on the frontline. These could include the establishment of one-stop shops for public services near crossing points (most Ukrainian cities already have such facilities, but there are few of them in Donbas). And the government could provide shuttle buses or ambulances to connect Ukrainian-controlled areas with crossing points. It is important for Kyiv to reconstruct the bridge in Stanitsa Luhanska, the subject of a long-standing dispute between the warring sides.
Simultaneously, Zelenskiy could set up a task force to examine how to phase out restrictions on trade with NGCA. Firstly, the government should allow people to take as many goods as they can carry across the line of contact. Next, it should consider lifting the trade ban on enterprises in non-controlled areas in phases: while this is a politically sensitive issue, the status quo is economically harmful and imprudent. The government should gradually address legal, political, and security implications before fully lifting the ban. Eventually, lifting the restrictions would significantly curtail smuggling and create opportunities for shuttle trade along the line of contact, improving interpersonal contact between Ukrainians.
Another task force should work with international partners, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (which could serve as a neutral actor on the ground), to devise technical solutions for making pension payments to residents of NGCA. This, which would fulfil one of Zelenskiy’s campaign promises, is a requirement under the Minsk Agreements.
Kyiv should also speed up the implementation of the 2018 Donbas Reintegration Bill and provide an official interpretation of some of its elements, including its definition of all “officials” in NGCA as criminals. This would help isolate the actors such as local leaders and warlords, and would help facilitate Kyiv’s outreach to the population in these areas.
In the medium term, Kyiv could explore the possibility of establishing more crossing points on the line of contact (especially in the Luhansk region, which has only one). While separatists might continue to oppose them, such moves would signal Kyiv’s openness towards the population. Importantly, the Ukrainian presidential administration needs to oversee all these steps to ensure that they carry a coordinated and unified political, diplomatic, and security message.
Kyiv should remain aware of the risks of the strategy. As Ukrainian society is open to a compromise to achieve peace in Donbas, Moscow might try to use this to pressure Kyiv diplomatically and manipulate Ukrainian public opinion. And separatists might sabotage some of the confidence-building measures. Crucially, some Ukrainian political forces will see Zelenskiy’s overtures as appeasement and capitulation to the Russian invasion.
Yet, through close cooperation with its Western partners, Kyiv can mitigate these risks. After five years of war, there is an opportunity to refocus Ukraine’s attention on defending its people. These measures will not end the war nor persuade Moscow to withdraw by themselves. But, if Kyiv invests more resources in Donbas and displays greater openness towards the region’s residents, Moscow may eventually discover that, while it still controls territory in eastern Ukraine, it no longer controls the people living there. And that could well mark the beginning of the end of Russia's Donbas adventure.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.