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WE WISH UKRAINIANS A UKRAINE | Vitaliy Portnykov

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Will Kyiv and Moscow be able to reach an understanding that will stop the war in the Donbas and begin to move on the path of restoring Ukraine's territorial integrity? This issue remained not only the main question of December, it remained the main issue throughout 2019. In fact, the election campaign – both presidential and parliamentary – was held under the banner of the need to end the war. The winner of this campaign, Volodymyr Zelensky, accused his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, that he not only could not, but did not want to negotiate with Vladimir Putin. That is why the expectations of the "Normandy meeting" in December 2019 were perhaps the most important expectations from the first period of Volodymyr Zelensky's presidency. And given that such meetings have not been held since 2016 – this was the main foreign policy event of the year.


And that is why we can say what have really changed in the relations between Kyiv and Moscow, and between the presidents of the two countries.


Volodymyr Zelensky is indeed seeking a compromise with Vladimir Putin – but such a compromise that would not lead to a sharp destabilization of the political situation in Ukraine. And this is a well-founded fear, because the active part of society – despite the fact that no major changes at the "Normandy summit" have happened – continues to suspect the collaborative mood of the president and his immediate surrounding. The creation of the Resistance to Capitulation Movement can also be attributed to the most important political event of the year. And if we talk about the political future, not the momentary sympathies of the Ukrainian electorate, the real prospects await this movement, and not the presidential "party of random people" – "Servant of the People", which as it came out of nowhere, it may disappear into nowhere.


Even after the Paris Summit, many questions were raised with the president, often on topics that were not directly related to the Donbas. For example, the detention of a group of volunteers and veterans of the Donbas war, who were indirectly accused of involvement in the notorious murder of Russian journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv, was perceived with disbelief. The fact that Zelensky personally attended the briefing of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov on the detention of suspects was simply perceived as the president himself being so dissatisfied with the results of the Normandy summit that he was in a hurry to seek any new victories that could satisfy his electorate. And that is why it was decided to report on the investigation, which has no concrete results yet.


But even more newsworthy was the Russian-Ukrainian gas transit arrangement, which was made public in the last days before the New Year holidays. Especially because during the Paris summit, the presidents of Russia and Ukraine held bilateral talks on the settlement of gas disputes.


At first glance, the deal looks like a compromise: Russia agrees to pay the fine issued by the Stockholm Arbitration and agrees to long-term transit through the Ukrainian gas transportation system. In response, Ukraine rejects all counter-arbitration claims. But given that Ukraine has sought arbitration to compensate for the under-delivery of contractual transit volumes, and Russia in the coming years – both because of US sanctions on companies that build "Nord Stream-2" and because of Europeans restricting transit volumes, and on this, and on other Russian alternative pipelines – it is still impossible without Ukrainian transit pipes. So, the question is where exactly was the compromise?


Of course, the answer to this question may be simple and not related to politics, but to the economy. Already in December, it became clear that the activities of the new government led to the formation of a real budget "hole", and even an abyss. And if this trend continues next year, serious social upheavals will not be possible to avoid. At the same time, the final agreements with the IMF by the Ukrainian leadership have not been reached, and the debts will have to be paid – and they are large. So Zelensky does not have to think about the country's long-term strategic interests, but simply about survival. About the "live" money (monetization of subsidies) promised by Ukraine by Gazprom. But this simple explanation also fits well into suspicions of capitulation and heightens distrust between the president and the active part of society. It is a very risky game on the border – trying to avoid social unrest can get political upheaval. And political upheavals are always more serious in Ukraine than social unrest.


This is about Zelensky's position. And now about Putin's position. It did not undergo any changes. Putin intends to put pressure on Ukraine and continues to question its very right to exist. At his final press conference, the Russian president reiterated that Ukrainian identity was the fruit of the imagination of Polish nobleman Jan Potocky, and that of the Ukrainian Prychornomorya (Black Sea region) were originally Russian lands, their transfer to Ukraine was a political mistake of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. At the Paris talks, Putin again called for direct negotiations between the Ukrainian leadership and the puppet administrations of the Donetsk and Lugansk "people's republics." On the eve of the talks in the French capital, the "DPR Parliament" passed a law on the border of the "republic", in which its territorial integrity was confirmed within the limits of the Donetsk region of Ukraine. Then, after the Paris talks, a similar decision was made in Lugansk – “LPR” also continues to claim the entire Lugansk region. And it is clear that these laws are not just an imitation of the activities of fake parliaments, but a direction for further Russian expansion.


During the Paris meeting and after, Moscow categorically rejected the possibility of changing the Minsk agreements, and Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded to this initiative by Volodymyr Zelensky with a proposal to reach new agreements in "direct negotiations" with the "people of Donbas". And Putin's aide Vladislav Surkov, who is considered "the curator of Donbas" in the presidential administration and was an active participant in the Paris talks, assured the militants that the Kremlin would never agree to dismantle the "people's republics" and called Zelensky's position similar to Poroshenko's.


And that has a very simple logic. For the Kremlin, anyone who is interested in maintaining the sovereignty of their country, even if limited, is no different from Poroshenko. That is why Putin in December had difficult negotiations not only with Zelensky. He also had difficult talks with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whom he has been pushing hard to integrate with Russia, but could not make and achieve a concrete result.


And that means that it is not worth counting on ending the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in the next 2020 year – this is probably the main summary of the Ukrainian December. It can be said that for Ukraine this conflict is the main test of the 20-ies of this century and whether she can emerge from this conflict with minimal losses or capitulate to an aggressive neighbor will impact Ukraine’s existence as an independent state.


So, let's just wish the Ukrainians a Ukraine. The independent and undefeated Ukraine – would exist.