International attention is fully focused on the fight against COVID-19. The topic of Russian aggression against Ukraine has so far rarely appeared in the world media. At the same time, Russia has intensified its efforts to take advantage of the coronavirus through the promotion of its not always useful assistance to Western countries or via the requests to terminate the sanctions. What should Ukraine be prepared for? What to expect from Russia? How will the EU and the US act? The Center “New Europe” asked the experts, how the pandemic affects the negotiations on Donbas.

Dzhejms Sherr

James Sherr, Member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Center “New Europe”; Senior Research Fellow, Estonian Institute of Foreign Policy / International Center for Defense and Security; Associate Analyst, Chatham House

System realities will not change. Russia will not give up its decision to subjugate or destroy Ukraine. As long as the current group of leaders is in power, this priority will remain regardless of any troubles and external pressures. Thus, the most important variable is the impact of the pandemic on the internal stability of this group. Other variables will be the Kremlin’s perception of Western cohesion and Ukraine’s resilience.

Today, Russia has no answers to these questions but will use available means to reduce uncertainty and test its opponents. If their reaction is uncoordinated and weak, Putin may be tempted to change his approach.

Demoralization and disorder in Ukraine (Russia will do everything possible to worsen the situation) can be a prelude to a real threat of military intervention with a high probability. This will push the West to meet the reality, that Ukraine is an unresolved “mess” and to have talks behind Ukraine. This may be a thoughtless Russia’s scenario (which is already not the first one actually), but its consequences can be catastrophic even if it fails.

Arkadij Moshes

Arkady Moshes, Director of the EU and Russia Eastern Neighborhood Research Program of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

The only visible effect so far of the pandemic influence on the negotiation on the situation in eastern Ukraine is their further displacement to the European politics periphery, and in many ways Russian politics as well. At the same time, changes in Russian approaches do not take place and are not visible. If the crisis appeared to be relatively short-term, Russia will get out of crises less economically affected than Ukraine, even with low oil prices, due to its accumulated resources. Then it’s pressure on Kyiv can increase, as the Kremlin will need political grades inside and outside. And only if the crisis turns out to be so economically painful for the Russian economy that it will need Western aid, loans, etc., then the approaches to the Donbas problem may be changed within a general review of relations with the West framework.

Sergiy Solodkij

Sergey Solodkyi, Deputy Director of the Center “New Europe”

The pandemic will slow down the negotiation process. However, it would have been on a break without a pandemic as well. Even before the quarantine implementation, strains in negotiations increased. The pandemic allows each counterpart to some extent to find excuses why there is no progress.

How will the pandemic affect Russia’s actions? Even under the pressure of stronger circumstances, Moscow did not back down from its goals concerning Ukraine. The essence of Russia’s approaches was to exhaust Ukraine. In this regard, the pandemic contributes to the Kremlin’s calculations, as it has a disastrous effect on the vital functions of Ukraine.

Russia perceived the advent of Zelensky’s rule, as a kind of window of opportunity, i.e. a chance to enforce its settlement plan upon Kyiv. The estimation turned out to be incorrect (at least now). The pandemic partly forced Moscow to focus more on domestic politics. However, as soon as the epidemic downtrends, we can expect an increase in blackmail, more intense provocative actions by Russia.

The EU and the United States should prepare for a negative scenario – the sanctions against Russia should not just be extended, but strengthened. Russia has to understand that its actions remain visible. Putin can be tempted to use the card he has already played, namely use the electorate mobilization through the military adventures abroad under deteriorating economic and social situation in Russia and preparations for the 2021 parliamentary elections.

Valerij Kravchenko

Valery Kravchenko, Director of the Center for International Security; Senior Research Fellow, National Institute for Strategic Studies 

The COVID-19 pandemic diverts the world’s attention from sorting out the common problems of humanity, first of all, war and peace. At the same time, the global nature of the problem creates an illusory screen, which some individual actors who consider themselves more resistant to problems would like to use. Of course, we are talking about autocracies, regimes with outright expansionist views.

Russia already tries to use the screen for humanitarian purposes – to lift sanctions, reduce human sufferings in Crimea and Donbas, and, of course, resume trade with Russia to reduce the devastating effects of the 2020 economic crisis for Europe and the whole world.

For this purpose, Russia will use any negotiating platform – from the UN and the OSCE to the G-20 meeting and the expert level of the Normandy format. Russian pressure has a clear goal – to force a weak Ukraine, which suffers from the economic crisis effects, to make concessions, including direct talks with Donetsk and Luhansk.

The political process of “Minsk” should be suspended – the negotiations in video format will not bring results (correspondingly, there are no realistic prospects for elections in the occupied territories this year).

Ukraine should focus on a long-term acceptable plan for the humanitarian saving of the occupied territories, develop a model of involving the migrants in the negotiation process, and agree upon a Ukrainian plan for de-occupation and peaceful reintegration of Donbas and Crimea. These steps should be discussed in the Ukrainian expert community and explained to the general public right now – there is enough time during the quarantine.

Natalia Tolub

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