Letter From the Editors
Political influence begins with convincing powerful people to talk to you. Take, for example, Leonid Pasechnik, president of the breakaway Lugansk people’s republic, who tells Izvestia that he would very much like to meet President Zelensky. But Ukraine has always asserted that the Donetsk Basin rebels are not independent parties to the conflict. In Pasechnik’s words, Zelensky “needs to show that he can meet with Putin, that he can speak with Putin, that he can even take a photograph with Putin to illustrate his favorite legend – that Ukraine is at war with Russia.”
Well, Zelensky now has Russia’s reply. Just not from Vladimir Putin.
“A goat went racing with a wolf; only the goatskin remained,” thus Dmitry Medvedev began his letter to Kommersant with a proverb in the original Ukrainian. The point being that, as a Jew and grandson of a World War II Red Army veteran, Zelensky’s alliance with Ukrainian nationalist forces (some of whom revere Axis-aligned militias of the time) will end poorly. Meduza quotes the letter: “At some point, when the political situation changes, they’ll sew a yellow star on your back.”
“It’s a shame that a once-respectable newspaper is forced to print something that in terms of genre and quality resembles a drunken propagandist’s late-night blog post,” Fyodor Krasheninnikov summarizes the tone of the letter. “This vitriolic diatribe leaves no doubt that Medvedev’s text is really coming from Putin.”
Medvedev intentionally echoed Ukrainian rhetoric on the Donetsk Basin in denying Zelensky future dialogue. Just as Ukraine will never negotiate with the breakaway republics as agents of the aggressor state, Medvedev said with regard to the Ukrainian president: “It’s pointless to deal with vassals.”
It could not have been lost on Zelensky that, the very day Medvedev’s letter was published, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland arrived in Moscow for direct negotiations. Nuland is best known in Russia for “the cookies she handed out on Kiev’s Independence Square,” which resulted in her falling under reciprocal sanctions in the years after the annexation of the Crimea. Her very arrival in Russia required certain mutual concessions.
The Kremlin isn’t really sore at her, though. As Vladimir Frolov points out, “Moscow likes to deal with Nuland, because she is one of the few Western diplomats willing to put pressure on Kiev and demand that it delivers on its obligations under the Minsk Agreements. In the summer of 2015, Nuland personally oversaw the voting process in the Supreme Rada when the Ukrainian parliament had to approve the bill on the special status of the Donetsk Basin.” The Russian press also reports that, while Nuland visited several other countries on her trip, Ukraine was not one of them.
Finally, former Crimean prosecutor general Natalya Poklonskaya is now set to assume her post as Russian ambassador to the Cape Verde Islands, in spite of international sanctions and a warrant for her arrest in Ukraine. This, too, reflects Russia’s overall Ukraine strategy: Normalize a Russian Crimea and, until there is a more pliable government in Kiev, a frozen conflict in the Donetsk Basin.
Which brings us back to Krasheninnikov’s first complaint about Medvedev’s letter: “It’s about Ukraine, which is a turnoff in itself – enough already!” All our commentators on Nuland’s visit would agree that this is precisely the point of the negotiations: The parties are sick of discussing Ukraine, so they want to rule out a hot war and move on to other, higher priority issues.
Zelensky’s initiatives, such as organizing the Crimean Platform (mocked by Medvedev as “moronic”), are all aimed at preventing the international community from seeing the situation as normal. But his cool reception in Washington [see Vol. 73, No. 36, pp. 10-12], as well as the events laid out here, may give Zelensky reason to worry. Many a past Ukrainian leader has been frozen out of geopolitical negotiations by more powerful chieftains in foreign capitals. Zelensky wanted the US to join the Normandy Four – but is his own country’s place in it secure?