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Respect, money and human tragedy in Ze! Diplomacy

After two and a half years of Volodymyr Zelensky’s presidency, we can cautiously state that his foreign policy is  mainly about three things. First, about the respect for Ukraine by other countries of the world and persistent attempts to gain this respect. Zelensky himself has recently been actively talking about this as an increase in the level of the subjectivity of Ukraine. Secondly – the search for financial resources for the development of the state, which is fully correlated with the domestic political priorities of the head of state. A bad ally who cannot be a good investor is how the new rule of building Ukraine’s international partnerships might sound. Third – and this is rather a pervasive principle of Zelensky’s foreign policy – human-centeredness: when specific human tragedies and life dramas resonate more in the country’s main cabinet than complex geopolitical schedules.

The combination of these three heterogeneous elements makes Zelensky’s foreign policy an interesting case in which values ​​and interests, ambitious regional initiatives with grounded consular assignments, and loud political declarations asking for practical assistance are closely intertwined. How does this work in practice, and what can such an explosive diplomatic mix mean for Ukraine’s foreign policy in the next two and a half, or even all seven years, provided Zelensky is re-elected for a second term?

Respect matters

When, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence, Zelensky was asked to name three of his main achievements in the presidency, he named the first in the field of foreign policy: increasing Ukraine’s subjectivity. And only on the second position was such a well-known presidential point as the construction of infrastructure. This answer is another confirmation of how important and sensitive the issue of respect for Ukraine is for Zelensky.

According to all available information, Zelensky became convinced that Ukraine was not respected enough in the world long before he came to Bankova. This belief was easy to trace in the creative products of the studio he headed “Kvartal 95”. However, during his tenure as president, the impression that Ukraine is not respected, according to our sources, only intensified for Zelensky. Obviously, there were both external and internal reasons for this. Based on our conversations with various representatives of his administration, we will try to outline them.

Regarding external reasons, such may be, in particular, the position of the West on the issue of internal transformations in Ukraine. And it’s not just about the high level of involvement of some Western countries in this process, established before the arrival of Zelensky to Bankova. It is rather that the West has the last word on the design of reforms, and in the context of who should bear the honorary title of “reformer” in Ukraine, and, finally, it is the West that has the right to certify these reforms – it is their or approves, or, in fact, vetoes, sends for “revision”. During the first two and a half years of his presidency, Zelensky continued Poroshenko’s “good” tradition, delaying the latter and trying to redraw the most painful and sensitive reforms according to his own – not to Western patterns. Frankly hinting: Ukrainians can see more,

Obviously, Zelensky does not see anything wrong with involving the West, which ends with the approval of a step in the reforms and their public approval of any statement by the G7 Support Group, but there is clearly a big problem with criticism of these reforms. It seems that the threshold of the president’s tolerance for criticism of the reform process is only getting lower every year. Zelensky may have already surpassed Poroshenko in wanting each joint declaration with important international partners to state how much a country or international organization approves of progress in Ukrainian reforms (the latest example being the updated Ukraine-US Strategic Partnership Charter, where such passages, from the submission of the Ukrainian side, there were several). Not getting what you want, it explodes with painful reactions in the style of whataboutism,

In addition, both Zelensky and some influential representatives of his entourage are convinced that criticism of reforms in Ukraine is not really about reforms, it is about “putting Ukraine in place,” knocking out of its head always untimely thoughts about EU and NATO membership. According to our information, during the talks with Joe Biden in the White House, during which there was a lot of talk about NATO and reforms in this context, Zelensky’s moment of glory was the moment when he de facto knocked out the American president, asking if he really believes that when Ukraine implements all possible reforms, well-known European countries will stop opposing Ukrainian membership in the Alliance?

Tough questioning about a clearer time frame for Ukraine’s integration into the EU and NATO is partly also out of the category of respect for Ukraine, as our partners demonstrate the attitude of how to say “no” to Ukraine, even in situations where it would have been possible to say ” yes “really raises questions. These sentiments are reinforced by Zelensky’s apparently strong impression that Ukraine is not inferior to individual member countries of these associations. From the series: we are just like them, why are they at the table and we are overboard?

As for the internal factors that prompted Zelensky to exacerbate the issue of respect and subjectivity, we dare to single out two. As president, Zelensky came under crossfire not only from two ideologically different opposition camps, but also from two foreign policy narratives that these camps actively promoted. The first narrative, actively fueled by representatives and supporters of European Solidarity, is that with the appearance of Zelensky on Bankova, the golden rule of foreign policy “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine” seems to have ceased to operate. In fact, the “rule” itself is quite mythologized: Ukraine without Ukraine has always been talked about, and sometimes even at the request of Ukraine itself. After all, it is important who says what about Ukraine, and not the very fact of such a conversation without the participation of the Ukrainian side. And if we talk about the appropriateness of such a formula, then it should actually be the formula of “no decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine.” One way or another, Zelensky and his team were forced to oppose this narrative with real evidence that Ukraine is considered to be a subject, not an object, that no one, in the end, agrees on anything behind its back.

The second narrative is about “external governance”, which in Ukraine is fueled by another opposition force – OPZZh. Thanks to the Russian propaganda machine, this narrative proved to be incredibly viable and with each change of Ukrainian power undergoes its meaningful reincarnations, although it invariably concerns primarily the “governance” of Ukraine by the IMF and the United States.

The answer that Zelensky, consciously or unconsciously, found for himself as a way to respond to these narratives and, consequently, to gain respect for Ukraine, was to raise rates in dialogue with foreign partners, harsh public rhetoric, and, in parallel, constant attempts to demonstrate initiative or even leadership. Ukraine is on a certain track. The Crimean platform is the clearest example of demonstrating such leadership and at the same time showing respect for Ukraine, at least for its territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Indeed, with the proper development of this initiative, the Crimean Platform can become a hallmark not only of the first two and a half years of Zelensky’s presidency, but also of his entire term in office. After all, if this idea is successfully developed outside the inaugural summit and transformed from a Euro-Atlantic Crimean platform into a truly global one in terms of member states, it will be the best evidence that the Crimean issue is not closed, as Russia has claimed for seven years. The issue of Crimea is very open, and it was Ukraine that managed to open it, and it was during Zelensky’s presidency.

Another example of leadership in the search for the restoration (or conquest) of international respect is the regional formats in which Ukraine has special opportunities to present itself: the Lublin Triangle with Poland and Lithuania, as well as the Associated Trio with Moldova and Georgia. As for these regional formats, it is worth talking about a certain evolution of Zelensky’s views: at the beginning of his presidency, he placed a much greater emphasis on building relations with global players, considering relations with neighbors a matter of less importance. In addition, according to some information, the idea of ​​the Lublin Triangle did not initially arouse much enthusiasm in it, given the name, which includes a Polish, not a Ukrainian city. Lack of proper results in the dialogue with global players, a certain frustration with this dialogue, as well as growing awareness that potential membership in the EU and NATO is not close, obviously forced the Ukrainian president to look a little differently at the formats of interaction with neighbors. As well as the fact that both formats are much more comfortable for him, because no one there criticizes Zelensky for insufficient fight against corruption or slow pace of judicial reform.

The third striking example of leadership for respect is the high-priority evacuation of people from Afghanistan during America’s chaotic exit from the country. The goal was achieved: Ukraine entered the top ten countries in Europe in the number of evacuated citizens from Kabul airport, received statements of approval from international partners and the positive world press.

Human-centeredness and its limitations

The case of the evacuation from Afghanistan perfectly combines both attempts to gain respect for Ukraine and Zelensky’s inherent human-centeredness as a cornerstone of his foreign policy (even if in the recently adopted Foreign Policy Strategy) human-centeredness is the last of the other.

However, this principle has its nuances and limitations. It concerns first of all citizens of Ukraine. Whether it is about political hostages, the focus of whose release was made by Zelensky in the first year of his presidency. Or are we talking about Ukrainians who cannot reach Ukraine because of the borders closed by the pandemic. Is it about the delivery of medicines and vaccines by Ukrainian planes. Or, in the end, it is a question of proper compensation to the Ukrainian relatives of those killed in the plane shot down near Tehran. In all these cases, one important attitude worked: first we resolve issues with Ukrainian citizens, then – if possible – we help others.

Moreover, the attitude is quite serious: for a long time, one of Zelensky’s foreign policy priorities was to restore justice in the case of the Ukrainian plane shot down over Iran – from a proper investigation to providing appropriate compensation to the families of the victims.

Meanwhile, Zelensky’s anthropocentrism should not be confused with his commitment to human rights policy. Although such an impression could be formed if we analyze the situation in Belarus. According to available information, one of the reasons for the change in the Ukrainian president’s attitude to the Lukashenko regime and his future recognition (apart from personal attacks by Lukashenko himself, of course) was not that Belarusians began to take to the streets in Minsk to protest against rigged elections that these people was beaten. The categorical rejection of such behavior allowed the Ukrainian position on Belarus not only to move in the middle line of the European Union, but also to move with a sense of the right choice, not a forced or externally imposed choice. Despite the traditionally high level of trade between the two countries. Much higher than, say, with our key strategic partner – the USA. In the case of Belarus, the pragmatic nature of Zelensky’s policy came into conflict with the human-centered emphasis, and the human-centered approach prevailed at some point.

However, such a human-centered reversal did not occur in another illustrative case – China, when Ukraine withdrew its signature under a joint statement on the situation of human rights violations in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The pragmatic interest – namely the unhindered supply of Chinese vaccines and the export of certain agricultural items to the Chinese market – in this situation prevailed over human rights, although perhaps not human-centered because vaccines are also about specific human lives and exports are about specific jobs for specific Ukrainians.

Despite Zelensky’s human-centered principle, the current ruling team is dominated by the view that Ukraine cannot afford human-based diplomacy. He cannot afford, conditionally speaking, to be Sweden – neither for political nor economic reasons. However, it is interesting that Ukrainian society, according to a poll commissioned by the New Europe Center, is now more inclined to values ​​than to interests as the main reference point for Ukrainian foreign policy: 25% of Ukrainians believe that Ukraine has in its foreign policy guided solely by their own pragmatic interests, while almost 70% of respondents are inclined to believe that Kyiv should either rely solely on values ​​or find the right balance between values ​​and interests.

Money for state development 

Volodymyr Zelensky began his presidency with rather pragmatic notes. Once again, the idea of ​​economizing foreign policy as its main driver was extracted from the Foreign Ministry’s drawers. However, in a more elegant wrapper – in the form of economic diplomacy. Economic diplomacy in the form of finding new markets for Ukrainian goods was also called the number one priority of foreign policy by Ukrainian society (confirmed by relevant opinion polls).

The active phase of negotiations with Russia and the obvious hopes of achieving quick results in resolving the conflict around Donbass fueled this approach. Looking for promising markets and new foreign investors was safer for potential engagement with Putin than looking for new allies to deter Russia or new sanctions to punish Russian rulers.

However, even after negotiations with Russia stalled again, Zelensky’s approach that the international community should first and foremost seek ways to reward Ukraine, not punish Putin, had crystallized. That is, if earlier the emphasis was often on steps to punish the Russian leadership for aggression in Ukraine – in particular, the sacralization of the preservation and strengthening of sanctions, then Zelensky’s emphasis shifted solely to expectations that will receive as a result of a decision Ukraine, and not how Russia will suffer. The fact that the Ukrainian capital understood that the level of Western sanctions had reached its “ceiling” also contributed to the formation of such an approach. Instead of trying in vain to break it, it is better to focus on helping Ukraine.

One way or another, despite the use of all possible tools through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – the Council of Exporters and Investors, the creation of a department of economic diplomacy in the foreign ministry, and the appointment of a deputy minister with a relevant dossier, defining the criteria of embassies in economic diplomacy. From the rejection by many in the diplomatic service of the idea of ​​transforming Ukrainian diplomatic missions into service structures of Ukrainian business and to the consequences of the pandemic in international markets. As for the arrival of new foreign investors in Ukraine, many cabinets have not understood the connection between the active influx of investors and the improvement of the rule of law.

And the idea of ​​investment proposed by the president, according to some representatives of European business, scared some investors rather than convinced them to work in Ukraine: they say, is everything so bad that you need a whole investment? As a result, in 2019, Ukraine attracted $ 3.1 billion of foreign direct investment, while Poland, despite the banality of the comparison, in the same year attracted 13 billion dollars. Foreign investment (according to UNSTAD’s World Investment Report 2020).

Despite the multifaceted nature of economic diplomacy, it is clear that different Ukrainian stakeholders attach different meanings to this concept. If in Ukrainian diplomatic circles, as well as in society, the emphasis is primarily on creating new opportunities for Ukrainian exports, then for Zelensky personally, it is more about “money for the development of the state.”

There are many indications that the priority of many countries for Zelensky is measured by their willingness to invest in very specific projects or facilities in Ukraine. And, according to our information, it is about visible objects, not reforms: for example, if country X makes a serious investment in judicial reform, it “loses” to the country that will invest in the construction of a new bridge or, for example, a military base.

The issue of investment in the development of the state is becoming increasingly important also because for Zelensky, at this point in economic diplomacy ideally converge his internal (electoral) and external (diplomatic) interests: any investment in the same program “Big Construction” is an investment in his re-election for a second term.

It is possible that with the approach of the presidential election, the search for money for the development of the state will dominate its foreign policy. Ukraine’s Transformation Plan in Zelensky’s Priorities Became the NATO Membership Action Plan. By the way, when I asked why Zelensky supports Ukraine’s European integration, the various cabinets often heard the answer: because he sees what funds the European Union has allocated and continues to allocate from its funds to Poland or the Baltic countries, and would like to have such funds for the development of Ukraine.

The “money for the development of the state” approach, of course, has a full right to exist, but it is important to prioritize investments from those countries that are ready to strengthen the European and Euro-Atlantic vector of Ukraine and not to undermine it. Ideally, we would achieve a situation where the main investors in Ukraine will be our main allies in deterring Russian aggression: it is for such countries that priority conditions and opportunities for investment and trade should be created.

You should also learn to avoid the temptation to measure the level of a strategic partnership with a country solely on the basis of the level of trade with it. More comprehensive criteria for strategic partnership should be developed, which will make it impossible for the same country not to be named a strategic partner in the National Security Strategy but to appear as a strategic partner in the Foreign Policy Strategy. This is what happened to China, which only provoked mixed messages about the coherence of Ukraine’s foreign policy.


Volodymyr Zelensky has known since his TV-show times how important it is to offer a unique format for high ratings, not forgetting the request of a wide audience. His foreign policy in two and a half years is an attempt to combine these two things. The unique format of his presidency can be considered the Crimean Platform and small alliances (Lublin Triangle, Associated Trio, Quadriga with Turkey). In response to a wide demand – European and Euro-Atlantic integration, the level of support for which remains quite high among its real and potential voters.

Meanwhile, the main challenge for the next two and a half years will be to strike a different balance – between the most ambitious foreign policy agenda and how not to overestimate society’s expectations on any of its important tracks – whether relations with the United States or membership in the United States. The EU and NATO, or, finally, the end of Russia’s war against Ukraine on terms acceptable to Ukraine.

In addition, if respect for Ukraine is really important for President Zelensky, it is also important to understand that in order to ensure a lasting result, one needs not one-time manifestations of leadership, but constant internal transformations in Ukraine. As long as the world thinks of Ukraine as a country that has failed to overcome corruption and reform the judiciary in 30 years, and to bring order to the oligarchs in 20 years, the level of respect will fluctuate at about the same level. If Zelensky managed to carry out a real judicial reform, to show obvious results in the fight against corruption, to improve the economic situation, it would be much more respectable than any international initiatives initiated by him or the best planned evacuation, which in no way undermines the latter.

Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center, for ZN.UA