The first impressions are sometimes the most correct ones. In the case of Volodymyr Zelensky, it was the impression that, unlike Petro Poroshenko, he was not going to make a cult of his international activity and he needed foreign policy solely to serve domestic priorities, not for the sake of pompous summits and photos in the Oval Office.
Among its accomplishments for this year, the most obvious is perhaps the beginning of normalization of relations with Western neighbors, in particular with Poland. During the year of Zelensky’s presidency, there was neither the lifting of sanctions against Russia, actively announced by his opponents, nor the derailment from the course toward the EU and NATO integration. Prioritizing the search for investors instead of new allies in the war with Russia still raises more questions than answers. The impression is that we have not got any new powerful allies or new powerful investors. Abandoning the international role of the petitioner also was not so easy. Zelensky reminds of his predecessors in his reluctance to understand that diplomats represent the Ukraine that politicians build with the consent of society. And now let’s talk about that in more detail.
From the beginning of Zelensky’s presidency, the impression was that he tried, consciously (following the advice of professional diplomats) or unknowingly (based on intuition), to put into practice a fairly simple and understandable foreign policy model, tested in several other countries at different times. This is an approach where the world is divided into three categories: global actors, neighbors, and the rest. With each category, Zelensky clearly sought to use the same technique: personal relations management with other international leaders, charming them with sincerity, openness and sometimes with naivety, sympathetic in the cynical political world, whether it is real or fake.
Insiders in the President’s entourage claim that the top priority for Ukraine’s foreign policy under the Ze!President is the United States. However, even if such a priority was fixed, it came into conflict with the number one internal priority (except for the fight against corruption), the promise to end the war in Eastern Ukraine. And in order to fulfill this rather internal priority, the President’s Office obviously decided to engage closely in the management of relations not with Trump, engulfed in endless internal policy saga, but with Putin, in whose case any management is questionable in principle, and in the case of Ukraine, even threatening. It is the only foreign leader of the only country in the world, for which Ukraine is consistently the number one foreign policy priority and an integral part of the domestic one. It is also about a person who, for some reason, decided that Ukraine, if it even has the right to exist, has to exist according solely to his vision, distorted by “alternative facts.”
Moreover, towards the end of the first year of Zelensky’s presidency, we can state that what would have been considered an accomplishment under Poroshenko, might be seen as a dubious result under the current President. Zelensky faced a situation where quick wins are actually delayed defeats. And it’s not just about Donbas. There are other examples.
For instance, while under Poroshenko, an achievement was to visit the White House at any cost and meet there with Trump in front of the cameras, under Zelensky, an achievement would rather be delaying such a visit in order not to make Ukraine a bargaining chip in the US elections and not to lose the most valuable thing what we have managed to gain in the American direction: a bipartisan consensus on support for Ukraine. The problem is that traditional American bipartisanism has ceased to be bipartisan under the influence of numerous factors. It is hard to talk about the support of the Republican or the Democratic Party while the top government positions are occupied by Trump and his loyal followers who have no trouble publicly reminding Ukraine its place in the ranks of the top corrupt officials of the world and accusing Kyiv, not Russia, of meddling in the 2016 elections. And on the other side, there are such characters as Bernie Sanders, who (apparently, since his honeymoon spent in Soviet Russia) do not see any threats coming from the Kremlin. Now that Biden officially becomes a Democratic candidate, I hope Zelensky will still have the wisdom to keep the correct distance from the US election race, having guaranteed 100% his own Attorney General, not just “his own person.”
I’m not sure to which category Zelensky places Russia (global actors or neighbors), but I am still convinced that relations with neighboring states is the area where the Ukrainian President could demonstrate the biggest difference in approaches with his predecessor. On the example of Poland and partially Hungary, he could create his own diplomatic “success story” without waiting for another “donation” from Putin on the Donbas direction. Something still worked out: the atmosphere in relations with Poland became dramatically different. If it were not for the local and then the presidential elections in Poland in May this year, I am sure that considerable progress could already be achieved in addressing the most pressing issues. There has also been a change of tone with Hungary, although Prime Minister Orban is still waiting to meet with the Ukrainian President. However, there are still questions as to how seriously does Zelensky consider the importance of the neighboring countries and to which extent does he understand their added value for the security of Ukraine. It would be wrong to refer to his policy as “Russia only,” but the “Russia first” policy is clearly observed, with all the same ironclad argument, the desire to end the war.
If we try to conceptually define what differentiates Zelensky’s foreign policy from Poroshenko’s one, it would be a clear attempt to refocus from the search for allies to the search for investors.
Under Poroshenko, everything was more or less clear: Ukraine is a victim of Russia’s aggression, it needs assistance, support, and allies. The world was divided into two camps: the aggressor and its (mostly) marginal associates, and Ukraine as a victim of aggression and its (mostly) respectable allies. Under Zelensky, Ukraine has not ceased to be a victim of aggression both de facto and de jure, but the simple and clear division of the world into two camps has significantly lost its clarity. In particular, due to the President’s policies. Obviously, not everyone in the team of the current head of state has understood or accepted that Russia’s aggression is not about Poroshenko’s political positioning, it’s about Putin’s real politics, thoughtful and consistent.
In their classification of threats posed by Putin’s policies, actors from around the world could be broadly divided into four categories. The first, the “Stockholm Syndrome victims” or the “political sadomasochists,” believe that Putin is generally doing the right thing, and if he does something “ambiguous,” it is only because he has been blatantly deceived or provoked (e.g. by the US or the NATO). The second is the “threat comparators” who believe that Putin sometimes crosses borders, but against other internal and external threats, this threat is not that significant, and may not be a threat at all, but another challenge, a risk at best. The third, the “connoisseurs of the proper dialogue,” understands that Putin is a threat, but they believe that if the dialogue is properly built and motivated, he could be motivated for negotiation. The fourth category is “there’s nothing to talk about”: Putin’s Russia is a challenge and a threat to the entire democratic world, and it is impossible to negotiate with Russia, as long as VVP remains in the Kremlin, only deterrence and defense. Judging from public and non-public positions, Zelensky is personally a representative of the third with different variations of “Putin is a threat, but…” However, certain figures in his environment probably balance between the second and third categories, believing that compared to other challenges, Putin’s policies are not that threatening. It’s like Trump, who thinks that Crimea was annexed because of Obama. And in this case, as we remember, “the war in Donbas continues because of Poroshenko.”
There is another obvious detail. For some reason, certain closest associates of the President have forgotten the simple fact: both Ukrainian Maidans were pro-European and neither stood for the rapprochement with Russia. No matter how strong the sentiments towards “peace, love and harmony” with Russia are, they are unable, especially after 2014, to voluntarily bring hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians on the streets in support of this idea, which can’t be said about the opponents of another rapprochement with Russia. And there is no need to look for the hand or Poroshenko any of Zelensky’s political opponents. We need to look for a different thing, the realization that the bigger Russia’s presence becomes in Ukraine, the less Ukraine remains there. And the Minsk Agreements with all their new tentacles in the form of the “Steinmeier formula” or the Advisory Board, etc. is about this: a way for Russia not only to stay in Ukraine, but also to increase its presence.
Zelensky has reacted quite peculiarly to the demand of a significant part of Ukrainian society to destroy the aggressor: he destroyed it verbally. It wasn’t his own initiative, obviously, but the initiative of perhaps the world’s leading producer of protracted conflicts. And not just for the sake of it, but for a good reason: to end the war. And if the aggressor does not exist for the victim (Ukraine), there is no reason for it to exist in the minds of the victim’s allies. Especially if the representative of the victim country makes it clear for its most loyal allies through diplomatic channels: please stop making statements against Putin, as we are negotiating peace with him, and you could break it. It is unknown whether Zelensky will ever be able to stop Russia’s war against Ukraine, but he already manages to reconcile the West and Russia at enviable pace.
The lack of a new geopolitical narrative of Ukraine as a state has become and continues to be a challenge for it in the dialogue with a number of our partners. Before, everything was clear to them, as well as to Ukrainians: we should support Ukraine because it is a victim of aggression. Now this coordinate system has broken down, and no one seems to be in a hurry to bring in a new one.
That’s it about the allies. Now, let’s turn to the investors. There is a certain reason in the fact that Zelensky has decided to focus on the updated version of economization of the foreign policy. And from a security point of view too, because, as experience shows, sometimes nothing stimulates fulfilling the ally’s obligations like having a number of strategic investors from your country in the territory of an allied state. Moreover, there is a specific demand for that in the Ukrainian society. According to a relevant opinion poll conducted several years ago by our analytical team, the economization of foreign policy has been named the top priority of Ukraine’s foreign policy by Ukrainians. However, the emphasis was rather on finding new markets for Ukrainian products.
Nevertheless, the results of the first year of Zelensky’s presidency force us to state that the strongest news in this area has been, to put it mildly, an ambiguous initiative to introduce an “investment nanny” institute. I would like to be wrong in this case, and perhaps, there are really respectable investors somewhere actively packing their suitcases, and they do not know anything about the audio records, where allegedly Andriy Yermak’s brother is actively developing plans to create problems in Ukraine for such a serious actor as the Danish company Maersk.
It is unlikely that investors will start entering the Ukrainian market on a massive scale before the awareness of the strong link between investments and independent justice system reaches the top levels of the government. And in this context, Zelensky really has a unique chance to become the Ukrainian President who, after decades of the “telephone law,” will be the first to secure an independent justice system in Ukraine. Whether he will take this chance and whether he will have the political will to do it, is a different question.
Thus, there can be only one conclusion here: until Zelensky provides the conditions under which strategic investors will begin to actively enter the Ukrainian market, his foreign policy with verbal prioritization of investors and investments will keep looking like an attempt to divert attention from other important processes in Ukraine. However, the trap here is that the more you raise the question of investments and investors during the negotiations with international partners, the more often the issues of the rule of law and the fight against corruption will haunt you like ghosts.
Zelensky became President at the time of a lively debate between Western politicians and diplomats from different countries that has been ongoing for the fifth consecutive year: what is more important for Ukraine to survive as a state, is it to halt Russia’s aggression or to modernize Ukraine through concrete reforms (first of all, anti-corruption and justice reforms). In the end, no clear answer has been found, although Western partners were more inclined to the latter, while Ukraine and several of its allies leaned toward the former.
Despite being able to be an “active listener” (as Zelensky was called by foreign partners, tired of the previous Ukrainian leaders’ monologues), the current President, unlike his predecessor, clearly prefers listening to the positions and reactions of actors within the country rather than the advice of international partners. It is logical, as Ukrainians made him the President, not foreign figures. And it is a simple rule on which many Ukrainian politicians have burnt themselves for some reason, preferring voyages either to Moscow, or to Washington, Berlin, and Brussels, and not to Mykolaiv, Kharkiv, Cherkasy, or Uzhhorod.
Thus, unlike his predecessor, Zelensky appears to be less vulnerable to the desires of Western partners. This was especially clear in the situation with the dismissal of Ruslan Ryaboshapka. Ambassadors of the G7, apparently not taking into account the specificities of Zelensky, only did a disservice to the dismissed Attorney General when they decided to petition the President for Ryaboshapka’s further stay in this position. As a result, there was a risk of G7 toxicity at ambassadorial level for the current President, although previously, they were among the most effective Western reform drivers at the local level.
Zelensky’s presidency also came at a time when certain Western partners were finally beginning to feel their co-ownership over some of the reforms. Under previous Presidents, such involvement of Western partners was seen as a serious asset, but under Zelensky, there are some particular nuances.
Over the course of his presidency, Zelensky demonstrates more and more clearly that the era of co-ownership over Ukrainian reforms is coming to an end. Ukrainian reforms are a domestic matter for Ukraine. This obviously causes certain disorientation among our partners, and apparently, not every supporter of reforms in Ukraine has already adapted to the new reality, acting by inertia in some situations. This is especially evident from the example of individual officials from the EU institutions, who have already invested a great deal of time and energy in certain reforms and are still trying to see progress in them and at the same time, maintain their access to the decision-making process.
This approach of Kyiv coincides with the sentiments of Ukrainians. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and the Razumkov Center, the share of Ukrainians who consider Western countries as drivers of reforms in Ukraine has decreased from 25 to 12%, even despite the fact that a few years ago, the main expectation of the Ukrainian society from the European Union was “to put pressure on the Ukrainian authorities to make them implement reforms” (according to the poll commissioned by the New Europe Center).
That was about the content, now let’s talk about the form. As many could have noted, one of the major “know-hows” of Zelensky’s foreign policy is the declared intention to develop relations with other countries of the world not in the status of petitioners, but in the status of full-fledged partners, to move away from the practice when the world is measured for who is providing us with support and assistance. This approach, in my opinion, is the right one, and it should be welcomed. However, given the war and difficult economic situation, Ukraine was not quite ready to move to such a model. Certain partners, who at times, frankly speaking, have been simply buying Ukraine off with money to prevent it from asking them for political support in the war with Russia, were also not ready. In practice, this model came down to the fact that we just started buying support rather than getting it for free.
There are two other elements that I think are important to note in the context of building relations with the outside world under the current President. The first is Zelensky’s notable belief that no one can be trusted, because no one really needs us, and we are not really welcome anywhere. Interlocutors in diplomatic circles claim that this belief was only reinforced by conversations with certain Western leaders. The head of an EU Member State, for example, directly called on Zelensky not to believe the European Union; as they said, they will promise you something, and then they will deceive you. This logic can be partially understood: no matter what our international partners say, and no matter how fixed in the Constitution is the irreversibility of the course towards the EU and NATO, we will remain doomed to geopolitical loneliness for a long time, not “married” with either the EU or NATO. The question is, is it really possible to build a trusting relationship with at least the closest allies with the belief that “everyone is trying to fool us?” On the other hand, who are our allies today? The closest ones or the less close?
At the same time, the right step made under Zelensky’s presidency was the decision to pragmatize Ukraine’s integration into the EU and NATO, to renounce the constant and sometimes only harmful (because the Ukrainian authorities are deceiving their own citizens) membership applications and instead, focus on the practical dimension: in the case of the EU, the implementation and revision of the Association Agreement, and in the case of NATO, the adaptation of NATO standards and implementation of the Annual National Program.
The second element where, by the way, Zelensky resembles Trump once again, is the preference given to bilateral relations on the one hand, and a kind of mix of misunderstanding and a certain lack of trust in multilateral diplomacy. According to the available information, he has a better understanding of how to work with France, Germany, Poland, or the United States than with such international entities as the EU and NATO.
In the case of the European Union, there is another serious challenge: the idea that European integration is harmful for the Ukrainian economy is becoming increasingly popular within the President’s entourage. Arakhamia’s statement in Davos in this sense was rather a careless public signal than his personal thought. This is a worrying trend that needs to be worked on. Reviewing the Association Agreement is one thing and discrediting European integration as harmful to the Ukrainian economy (which reminds of 2013 and the Kremlin’s and Medvedchuk’s campaign) is quite another.
Both elements, the distrust in Western partners and notable skepticism of multilateral diplomacy, manifested in a rather restrained attitude towards the Normandy Format of negotiations on Donbas, which has been “given a chance” by Zelensky to prove its effectiveness by the end of this year.
What has remained unchanged since Poroshenko’s times, is a manifestation of what Western diplomats call an element of military psychology in the behavior of Ukrainian politicians: if you are a friend, you must be a friend in everything, and if you criticize something, you are no longer a friend. Although it may actually be just about a political “culture” that does not imply any criticism, neither from internal actors, nor from external ones.
As soon as Zelensky became President, many efforts were made by various people to put foreign policy in the hands of professional career diplomats. The appointment of Vadym Prystaiko as Foreign Minister and Dmytro Kuleba as Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration brought a certain relief. The Bankova also retained an institutional memory owner, Ihor Zhovkva, who obtained the position previously called by many diplomats “the alternative Minister of Foreign Affairs.” The pieces of the puzzle seemed to fall into place quite encouragingly, and it looked even more encouraging after the long-awaited in the Foreign Ministry system reversal of the bizarre decision made under Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency, according to which even advisers to the embassies were appointed with the Bankova’s approval.
However, at the time, no one took into account the factor of Andriy Yermak. With his penchant for back channel diplomacy and the urge to “work it out” as fast as possible. Like with Giuliani, for example. With his criteria for the effectiveness or inefficiency of the MFA system in general and individual ambassadors in particular. Or, for example, with the importance of demonstrating Ukrainian films at festivals in different countries. If Yermak’s factor was dosed, it might well have worked in a positive way somewhere, as a sort of a view from outside the MFA system. However, he does not seem able to work in doses.
In particular, Yermak had his own proposals on appointments in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the form of “young and promising” persons, who, if they became ambassadors in key countries, would raise many questions for both Ukraine and its President. Fortunately, this situation has been overturned, and ambassadors have been appointed to key areas, who have added a lot of value to Zelensky’s diplomacy: it is Volodymyr Yelchenko in the United States, Serhiy Kyslytsia in the United Nations, and Borys Tarasyuk in the Council of Europe. Professional diplomats in other countries, such as Andriy Deshchytsya in Poland, Yevhen Perelyhin in Italy, Andriy Melnyk in Germany, and Alexander Shcherba in Austria, have also remained in their posts. We hope that their experience will continue to be in demand. Unfortunately, Kostiantyn Yeliseyev and Pavlo Klimkin did not stay in the Foreign Ministry system. Ukraine is not in the position to squander valuable diplomatic personnel.
It is also important to keep those diplomats who are no longer in the Foreign Ministry but who could serve Ukraine’s interests in fulfilling short- or medium-term tasks. Why not, for example, develop a special envoys format using international best practices?
It is unknown at present how active Bankova and Andriy Yermak will be in their attempts to further marginalize the MFA in the decision-making process. Evidently, the question may arise for the Foreign Ministry as to which extent are the representatives of the diplomatic service (perhaps the most ideological department) capable of working in unison with Yermak, for instance, in the Russian direction? Perhaps, in terms of national interests, is would be even better for the foreign policy office to be somewhat “removed” or to move away from certain initiatives trying to maintain an important balance? At certain stage, the “Donbasization” of foreign policy might be a needed and right thing, but it is not good when other important foreign policy directions stutter for years due to the continuous focus on Donbas (or sometimes its appearance). New Minister Dmytro Kuleba, according to recent reports, is seeking to launch the Ukrainian version of Asia Pivot that marked the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency. It is commendable. However, they say that Yermak also once expressed a desire to take more active care of China. Hopefully, this kind of care, when it does happen (today the leader of the OPU obviously has different challenges), will not harm our relations with Japan.
Both the new Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, as well as the Head of the President’s Office, indifferent to foreign policy, are united by the fact that they are all result-oriented. However, career diplomats with relevant negotiation experience are well aware that in diplomacy, unlike other fields, the process is sometimes the best outcome. The newcomers in this area do not seem to understand this and risk constantly dragging Ukraine into the situation we have already mentioned: when the fast wins will only be delayed defeats.