Finally, as Kyiv and its international supporters look to the future, all should keep in the centre of their attention that Ukraine is a profoundly damaged country. This damage goes far beyond separatism and is the fruit of the poor governance and massive corruption that, over the past two decades, has all but destroyed it.
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Five years into a war in its east, Ukraine has elected an unlikely new president: professional comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Since then, the mood has become more guarded. Putin has refused to congratulate the new president in Kyiv. Instead, Moscow appears to be taking steps to consolidate the status quo in eastern Ukraine even as it tries to figure out the new Ukrainian leader.
He has proposed both a referendum on peace talks with Moscow and tougher U. In short, the Kremlin is waiting for Zelenskyy to make the first move. Its vision of the implementation of the Minsk agreements, signed during talks involving Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France in and , in which Kyiv would be forced to grant these statelets autonomy on their terms, would have given Russia substantial and lasting influence in Ukrainian politics. Since last year, however, Moscow has changed tack.
While it continues to pay lip service to Minsk, its priority has shifted from the military conflict itself to helping the statelets mitigate their financial dependence on Russian support.
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It keeps Minsk alive, but unimplemented, such that Russia can continue to accuse Ukraine of failing to abide by its terms. It also lets Moscow off the hook financially, as better developed client economies would have less need for Russian subsidies.
For example, according to media reports and Ukrainian specialists interviewed by Crisis Group, anthracite coal and other minerals travelled freely across the line of contact into Ukraine from the start of the conflict in until the blockade. Now, those sources say, a complicated scheme sends these minerals first east to Russia, then west to Belarus, and from there to other markets — including Ukraine itself.
But for over a year now, Kremlin-connected observers have noted the growing influence of the deputy prime minister, Dmitry Kozak. In November , the self-proclaimed statelets held elections, which were not recognised outside of Russia and which Moscow allegedly choreographed. Denis Pushilin, who became DPR leader, is widely believed to be less ideologically passionate, less popular and thus easier to control from Moscow than his assassinated predecessor Aleksandr Zakharchenko.
Ukraine: Running out of Time
One Kremlin adviser said the measure had been in the works for some time. Domestic political pressures in Russia might also have played a role. On the air, the president ordered the Interior Ministry to make it easier for them to obtain citizenship. If more residents go to work in Russia, they may well send remittances home, another boost to the local economy, even as they provide cheap labour to Russia.
Kyiv should also decide on what terms it wants to deal with Moscow in order to move toward real peace, including how it wants to move forward on Minsk. Moscow sounded encouraged, but said it wanted to hear more specifics.
In Kyiv, Zelenskyy faced blowback, however. Because the Trilateral Contact Group meeting came so soon after his election, his offer raised concerns among some Ukrainians that the new president is making concessions to Russia in hopes of sealing a fast truce. Already, some politicians in Kyiv call his proposals a capitulation to Russia. The president can prove them wrong.
First of all, he should avoid rushing proposals in hopes of clinching a fast deal; Moscow in any case is unlikely to commit to concessions in return anytime soon. Secondly, no deal will be viable absent Ukrainian consensus on the conditions under which it can implement its commitments under Minsk.
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Out of Time
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