Head to Head Interview: Will Zelensky and Putin Agree on Donbas Situation?
Mykhailo Samus is the Deputy Director for International Affairs at the Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky held a telephone conversation with French President Emanuel Macron, during which he informed about the deaths of four Ukrainian soldiers in Donbas and also called on the leaders of the Normandy Four countries for a special meeting. The French leader supported the initiative and added that he would contact Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to get their consent for this initiative.
To discuss this we welcome to the studio today Mykhailo Samus, he is the Deputy Director for International Affairs at the Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies.
— Hello and thank you for joining us!
— So just to remind our audience, on August 6, four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in shelling in the Donbas conflict zone, and this happened during the so-called “harvest ceasefire.” After this, the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said that now it’s absolutely clear who does not want peace. He had a phone conversation with Vladimir Putin, although it’s not clear what Vladimir Putin actually answered, and Ukraine’s representative in Minsk negotiations Roman Bezsmertnyi said that now the controllability of the militants is at a very low level. In your opinion, what could this mean?
— To be honest, I really don’t understand what I’m talking about, because for the last five years we understand who is who, and from my estimation, we don’t have any militants or guerillas in the occupied Donbas, we only have the occupying forces. It’s actually not really important what they look like. Guerillas look like Russian soldiers, but it’s Russian soldiers anyway because all of them are under contract with the Russian Armed Forces, FSB, and GRU. In our center, for five years, we’ve known that we have a civilian administration for occupation and military occupation administration on military occupation forces by Russia. And as I understand, for our president Zelensky, as he just arrived at the office, it’s very important to understand the, let’s say, the space and the framework of this conflict, because he was pretty far from all of this stuff, and now he is trying to understand together with our foreign partners. Because he called Mr. Putin and asked him to ask people in Donetsk to stop shelling Ukrainian forces. I think it doesn’t make sense and it’s against the logic of all of the Ukrainian position for now. And I think that unfortunately, the new administration in Ukraine doesn’t have a real strategy and concept for this conflict.
— In your personal opinion, this concept, what should it be?
— It depends, of course, on the understanding of the conflict by the administration, because they have the responsibility, not me, and not you. During the election campaign, candidate Zelensky said that we need to find a way for peace. But of course, we understand that peace means capitulation or victory. For Putin, peace, when we’re talking about Ukraine, is the victory of Russia, not some compromise and not, let’s say, a step back. I think Zelensky should understand this as soon as possible, but it’s not easy to understand for him, and I think that these, let’s say, negotiations and maybe Normandy format meeting will be very important for him to understand reality.
— Speaking of the Normandy format meeting, president Zelensky said that he has urged all the other members to have an urgent meeting. Just like you said earlier, the war has been going on for the sixth year now and we’ve had plenty of Normandy format meetings. Would the upcoming meeting, if it does happen, will it change anything?
— I think it’s very important for president Zelensky to understand reality, but it’s not important for all of the process of finding a way from the conflict. I mean, we had a lot of meetings in Normandy format and we understand that in this Normandy format, unfortunately, if we’re talking about the reality, we have a free mediator in one country, Ukraine, which it looks like we need some help. So France, Germany, and Russia are not, let’s say, a side of the conflict. And Russia, they present themselves like they are not a part of the conflict in the “Ukrainian crisis.” And Ukraine needs to find, the Kyiv leadership needs to find a way to speak with Donetsk leaders, and this is one of the main requirements or one of the main ideas by Mr. Putin: to find an approach for direct negotiations between Kyiv and Donetsk. And of course, it’s against the reality, but unfortunately, Berlin and Paris are not clearly against this, let’s say, the approach of Moscow. So this is a problem for president Zelensky because when he tries to give an impulse in the Normandy format, I’m not sure it will change the Normandy format. That’s why I propose to destroy the Normandy format and try to build something new together with Washington, for example, and London and the European Union, not Paris and Berlin. Because I’m not sure that Berlin and Paris are the subjects we need to have on the table.
— Do you think we need more parties in the discussion?
— Yeah, I’m sure because we have a deadlock on these, we understand that Paris and Berlin have their own interest in this. For them, the main interest is to find the solution, to make this conflict stop, maybe frozen, maybe with the victory of Russia, maybe a capitulation of Ukraine. To be honest, they don’t care. They just want to stop the conflict, to stop the fighting, to stop the killing of the people. But if we are talking about the national interests of Ukraine, of course, they don’t care. They care about their own interests. And that’s why I propose to give more space for other countries like the United States, European Union as an organization, because it’s more complicated to find one voice of a country’s, but I’m sure it could be more, let’s say, honest and more maybe pragmatic compared to the voice of Berlin, which has absolutely clear interest, for example, in the energy sector to stop the conflict.
— Right, economically motivated.
— And in any case, to stop the conflict and continue business with Russia in the energy sector or other sectors of business, they have a lot of investments in Russia.
— Well, the United States has already made a proposition this week to organize a meeting with the special representative for Ukraine from America, Kurt Volker, and the Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov. Of course, there is no response from Russia, but in your opinion, how could this meeting change the course of the conflict, if that’s possible?
— Now we have two problems here. The first problem is that President Trump doesn’t need to have the Ukrainian case in his presidential campaign, because the active phase will start very soon, and I’m not sure that the Ukrainian case could be successful for him totally. Remember the North Korea case, the Balkan case, Iran. What else? Actually, a lot of tries for Trump to be successful in the international arena. We don’t have any success stories, and I’m not sure that, of course, Mr. Putin understands it, the second problem is connected to him. If he finds motivation for himself to agree on this format, a new format together with the United States. For example, if Trump says that we will meet every two months together on the TV, on the media, and Putin will be interested in this, I think it could be one of the motivations for Putin to agree on this new format together with Trump and the UK and other leaders. So to be presented on the high level of international relations. But otherwise, I’m not sure that Putin is really interested in stopping the conflict, because this conflict with Ukraine is a great instrument, of course, to influence Ukraine, to keep Ukraine under control. Because can you imagine that now we don’t have any conflict between Ukraine and Russia, Putin will be out of Ukraine totally. So this conflict and the Crimea, of course, are instruments to keep Ukraine closer and keep Ukraine under control and try to make even more. But on the other side, this conflict is an instrument to be at the top of the international politics for Putin. Because if we look at the Russian reality, not like we understand it in our still common informational space between Ukraine and Russia that “Russia is a great country, Russia is almost the same as the Soviet Union.” In reality, Russia now is a simple regional state with a very weak economy and old military, and Russia cannot be a real competitor for China and the United States now. But in informational reality, we have this strong empire, and Putin tries to keep this image. And Ukraine, the conflict with Ukraine…
— For the Russian citizens also.
— Yeah, of course. The main purpose of Putin is to keep the authority, keep the power inside of the country for him and his team. And this is a great way to keep it, the Ukrainian crisis, the so-called Ukrainian crisis, the conflict with Ukraine. So for president Zelensky, it’s a huge problem to understand that Putin doesn’t want to finish…
— To make peace.
— To make peace, of course. Putin could talk about it all the time, every second, but I am not sure that this is a motivation for Mr. Putin to stop this war.
— We all hope that the conflict will resolve eventually with the most optimistic outcome for Ukraine as possible. Thank you so much for coming.
— Thank you.