Moscow Makes an Overture to Ukraine’s Novice President

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 78

The interregnum in Kyiv invites probing from Moscow. “Let us start from a clean slate. We are open to dialogue,” the Russian Federation Council’s (upper chamber of the Russian parliament) chair, Valentina Matvienko, signaled to Ukraine via state-owned news agency TASS, on May 29. “We are ready to work on normalizing and restoring Russia-Ukraine relations. But without dictation or artificial conditions from their side.”

If not quite an overture, it is a hint at one, inspired by recent developments in Ukraine’s domestic politics as seen from Moscow. Matvienko singles out “the new president’s powerful support from a population that wants peace in the Donbas… The president will either grasp the mandate that the people gave him, or else he will lose support. He cannot fail to respond to society’s demands. This is the kind of signals we await from Ukraine’s president. Hopefully, the position of the newly elected Ukrainian parliament [in July] will also reflect those demands of society.” Matvienko also cited a recent Ukrainian opinion survey that caught Moscow’s attention for suggesting that most Ukrainians favor “peace and normalization” with Russia (TASS, May 29).

Matvienko would not have spoken up without the Kremlin’s advance clearance. She may have been chosen as messenger due to her own roots in Ukraine. Her position as chair of the Russian legislature’s upper chamber would guarantee attention to this overture in Ukraine, without committing Russia’s executive branch to any particular course of action. The Kremlin might persist with the overture or retract it, depending on Ukrainian reactions.

Behind Matvienko’s overture it is possible to discern the Kremlin’s analysis of Ukraine’s vulnerabilities during the ongoing transition of power. With the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) technically dissolved, and the government reduced to caretaker status (as well as bereft of a full-time working prime minister and full-time foreign minister), Ukraine’s checks-and-balances system (sui generis though it was) can no longer affect the actions of the presidential institution. Even the informal but valuable source of mentoring, which is the United States’ embassy in Kyiv, is currently bereft of an ambassador.

Meanwhile, Kyiv’s presidential administration seems, by default, to take over Ukraine’s policy and messaging regarding Russia. It is a generally recognized fact that President Volodymyr Zelensky and the team he has brought into his administration lack the qualifications to conduct foreign and security policies and do not display a sense of urgency to remedy that vulnerability (see EDM, May 22). Zelensky’s inaugural address to the country (indirectly also addressing Moscow— see EDM, May 22) suggested that Kyiv would take upon itself the burden of stopping the hostilities and making peace with Russia. The newly elected president pleaded for a “dialogue” with Russia, linked that mainly with humanitarian considerations rather than military and political ones, failed to assign responsibility for the war, omitted any mention of Russia’s economic and political warfare against Ukraine (thus, no conditionalities to “dialogue” there), and communicated anxiousness instead of resilience (see EDM, May 23).

On May 29, Zelensky congratulated Ukraine’s veterans of international peacekeeping missions on the occasion of International Peacekeeper’s Day, an annual event of the United Nations Organization. The president’s message recalls that “Ukrainian soldiers have participated in all major peacekeeping missions. The experience of many of these soldiers showed its value when it came to protecting peace in our country.” Evoking the memory of soldiers who fell while “rescuing the peaceful population in our country and abroad,” Zelensky declares that “Ukraine has always striven for peace and security of its people and of all the people on the planet” (Ukraiynska Pravda, May 29).

The president’s message mischaracterizes the war in Ukraine’s east beyond recognition. Again, Russia is exempted from any responsibility, Ukraine’s high moral ground being thus forfeited. The Ukrainian military is said to defend not the country, but an abstract notion of peace, cast as a goal per se. No threat to that “peace” (or indeed to Ukraine) is identified. Ukraine’s defense and security is conflated with (or dissolved into) that of humanity in general. Even Ukraine’s quest for a UN peacekeeping mission in its own country is omitted.

On May 21, presidential administration head Andriy Bohdan went on television to propose that an eventual peace settlement in Ukraine’s east be submitted to a referendum. According to Bohdan, Ukraine would have to make compromises that would divide society, thus necessitating a referendum. He did not clarify whether the referendum’s object would be a set of proposals or the final settlement itself (112 Ukraiyna TV, May 21). President Zelensky defended Bohdan’s idea: the referendum would not be legally binding, but consultative, “to ascertain society’s view of the matter. We must ask every citizen: what do you think?” Zelensky would “not make decisions behind closed doors, as was previously the case” (Ukrinform, May 23).

The television channel 112 Ukraiyna, which Bohdan chose for delivering this message, is an outlet associated with the pro-Russia party led by Viktor Medvedchuk and Yurii Boyko. Apparently, the presidential administration is reaching out to those voters, at the start of the parliamentary elections campaign. It is well understood that a large part of Ukraine’s populace might, under the manifold pressures of Russian “hybrid” (New Generation) war, consent to a settlement unfavorable to Ukraine. This is why decisions on war, peace and diplomacy must remain in professional hands. The seasoned political operator Bohdan must be aware of the implications of this proposal, which he has apparently sold to the politically inexperienced president.

Similarly, during the presidential election campaign, Zelensky (or, more likely, his political technologists via him) proposed holding a referendum on Ukraine’s aspirations to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). On that occasion, too, it was unclear whether they meant a referendum on Ukraine’s quest for membership, or on the membership itself, if and when it materializes. The only certainty is that a referendum on a peace settlement with Russia or on NATO membership would be dangerously divisive in Ukraine. The country no longer has a law on the conduct of referendums, but Zelensky’s team is likely to propose such a law to the new parliament.