Ukrainian political scientist, head of the "Penta" Political Research Center

Volodymyr Fyasenko

answers these questions of

Yuriy Drakakhrust .

Briefly:

  • Lukashenka's statement about a possible peace between Ukraine and Russia with the uncertain status of the territories annexed by the Russian Federation is the Kremlin's trial ball, but through an unsuccessful mediator.

  • Peace talks between Ukraine and Russia are possible and even inevitable only when both sides come to the conclusion that victory is impossible.

  • Ukrainians still believe that Ukraine will repel Russia's attack, but the number of supporters of peace talks is increasing in Ukrainian society.

  • For the Ukrainian army and special services, strikes on the territory of Belarus are taboo until the Belarusian army enters the war.

  • Ukraine can count on the fact that Western aid will not be significantly reduced this year, although Kyiv has options for actions in case of different developments.

— On February 25, Alexander Lukashenko said at the polling station that Ukraine urgently needs to sign peace.

According to Lukashenka, the Russians are ready to make a concession - to sign peace by "suspending" the state of 4 territories - Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson regions.

And after some uncertain time, they agree to hold referendums there on statehood - to be in Russia or Ukraine.

What does this statement mean?

Can it be considered a trial ball of the Kremlin?

Or is this just Lukashenka's attempt to present himself as a significant figure in world politics?

Uladzimir Fyasenko

- I don't think that this is an improvisation of Lukashenka himself.

I assume that this is coordinated with the Kremlin.

This is a trial ball.

But the fact that it was done through Lukashenka devalues ​​the importance of such a proposal.

If it was announced through the President of Turkey Erdogan or through some other potential intermediary, it would have much more significance.

And Lukashenka slaps something - and it costs him nothing.

Tomorrow he will say the opposite.

Nobody takes such statements from him seriously.

Perhaps Lukashenko heard this from one of his Russian interlocutors.

And he decided to check.

And no one will ask him, Russia can deny it at any moment.

The main thing for him is to show himself as a carrier of confidential information.

The fact that Putin can send signals about his readiness for some negotiations is quite possible.

He does it publicly, say, through an interview with Tucker Carlson, and through other channels.

But now the West does not believe in Putin's readiness for negotiations.

And I have little faith in Putin's willingness to change the status of the occupied territories.

They have already included them in the composition of the Russian Federation.

— President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky recently gave a detailed explanation of Ukraine's military and political prospects.

In particular, he said that it is impossible to agree on anything with Putin, he does not keep his word.

But the world agreed with Stalin, Khrushchev, and Mao - they were also not examples of faithfulness to their word.

Or is it simply that there are no acceptable compromise options between Ukraine and Russia?

- At this moment, there is really no room for compromise.

By the way, Zelensky explained that he does not believe in Putin's willingness to negotiate, because Russia is trying to advance on the battlefield.

The other day, a meeting of high-ranking representatives of dozens of countries took place in Paris.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fitza complained that the conversation was not about peace negotiations.

I was at the recent Munich Security Conference - there was no talk of peace talks either.

There is a persistent belief in the West that if negotiations are started now, they will be held on Putin's terms.

Ukraine will not agree to this.

But the West also understands that if we start negotiations now, tomorrow Putin will start blackmailing EU countries, including by military means.

To begin with, Putin must be stopped.

And after a certain time, negotiations will become inevitable.

In my opinion, the only real subject of negotiations is a ceasefire.

Ukraine's membership in NATO can be discussed.

But I believe that the West will not give up this perspective for Ukraine.

In Istanbul, this topic was discussed at the negotiations.

But then the enemy was near Kiev.

The topic that Ukraine will soon become a member of the North Atlantic Alliance may be a subject of negotiations.

But neither Kyiv nor the West will take on the obligation that Ukraine will never join the Alliance.

Ukraine is now building a security architecture through bilateral agreements.

These are not direct security guarantees, but certain forms of support for 10 years.

As for Putin's ability to negotiate, in my opinion, he is ambivalent.

Now he is ready for negotiations, but on his terms.

He can agree to negotiations if he understands that Russia will not win the war.

But this does not guarantee that there will be no new war.

But it is not inevitable.

If Putin understands that Ukraine will fight back, that the Western partners will support it, if he understands that an attack on the Baltic states will mean a war with the whole of NATO, he will not go to such a war.

And we will have to negotiate in any case.

Even in the ideal scenario, when we reach the borders of 1991, we will still have to agree on the cessation of hostilities, including at sea and in the air.

- You mentioned the connection between the situation at the front and the prospects for negotiations.

Now the Russians are advancing, and this is not the time to negotiate.

And, let's say, at the end of 2022, when the Ukrainians liberated and returned Kherson and Izyum, when the USU was advancing - was there time?

- Real peace negotiations will be possible only when both sides are equally ready for them.

If one side believes that it can achieve more by continuing military operations, it will not lead to negotiations.

But when there is a stalemate, when both sides realize that they will not win the war, sooner or later negotiations will begin.

- To what extent does the Ukrainian society remain united in its readiness to fight?

Sociological polls, including the most recent ones, show that Ukrainians still have faith in victory.

According to polls, the majority considers the goal of the war to be a return to the borders of 1991.

On the other hand, according to polls, since the beginning of the war, Zelensky's approval rating has fallen from about 90% to about 60%, and there are problems with mobilization.

So how can you describe the mood of Ukrainians?

- As for Zelensky's rating, as well as the current rating of Zaluzhnyi, they are abnormal.

90% rating is an anomaly, certainly for Ukraine.

Such a ranking is possible only in conditions of war.

In the first year of the war, the support of the president was almost unanimous.

As political scientists and historians say, this is "solidarity around the flag."

Now it is kept at the same level in relation to USU and their symbol — General Zaluzhnyi.

According to the latest survey of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), 64% trust Zelenskyi.

But they also asked the question: should new presidential elections be held now?

(Zielensky's term of office expires this year.) 69% of those polled were against holding elections in the middle of the war — according to them, he should exercise his powers until the end of hostilities.

For this, even more than those who trust Zelensky.

In January, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Great Britain, David Cameron, spoke at the "Ukrainian breakfast" in Davos.

He said that Zelensky's ratings have decreased, but any leader of any European country would envy his current rating.

However, in general, the mood of Ukrainians has indeed become more contradictory, more ambivalent.

The main indicator of this is general assessments of the development of the situation in the country.

Last year, the majority of Ukrainians believed that Ukraine was developing in the right direction.

Before the war, it was usually the opposite - about two-thirds of Ukrainians believed that the situation in the country was developing in the wrong direction.

But since September last year, the situation began to change.

This is certainly related to the disappointment from the failed offensive, the disappointment from the inflated expectations that the war will end quickly.

And now only a relative majority of Ukrainians believe that the situation in the country is developing in the right direction.

This is a critical indicator.

This is more important than Zelensky's ratings and the belief that Ukraine will endure.

Ukrainians maintain strategic optimism, they do not want to surrender to Putin and believe in their country.

But the current situation - both at the front and in politics - is critically assessed.

I would not dramatize these sentiments yet, but they should be taken into account.

The situation at the front is unlikely to change in the near future.

Therefore, it is necessary to demonstrate greater flexibility within the country and decide whether to compensate for the problems that arise.

Last year, KMIS measured the attitude towards possible peace talks, and compromise ones at that.

In 2022, about 5% supported peace talks.

At the end of 2023 - about a third.

There is a difficult question, but the conversation was actually about freezing the conflict.

My prediction is that the share of those who are in favor of peace talks will increase.

I will emphasize, the conversation is about compromise, not about capitulation.

Most of the supporters of such peace talks are residents of the frontline regions.

They suffer more from Russian shelling, and their request for peace is clearer.

The deeper into the rear, the more critical people are towards the negotiations.

- And how do these mass sentiments manifest themselves in the political plane?

- I assume that we will have an internal political discussion this year.

A part of Ukrainians - as before and now - will be against any negotiations with Putin.

This position is approximately the same as that of Zelensky.

Others will argue in favor of negotiations, on the grounds that we don't have the resources to win outright, that we need to preserve the country and the people.

According to a well-known proverb, a bad peace is better than a long war for an indefinite period and with uncertain results.

We had a similar dilemma, albeit in a slightly different form, regarding the Minsk agreements.

Something similar will happen this year.

So far this is only sentiment, there is not a single political force in favor of peace talks.

To use a Russian analogy, there is no Ukrainian Yavlinsky.

But we have political forces in the parliament that are critical of the bill on mobilization.

For ethical reasons, I will not say what these political forces are.

One is a faction, the other is a deputy group within the "Servant of the People" faction.

These are opposition groups that, in fact, adhere to peace-making positions.

If they see that the peace talks have a lot of supporters, they can voice it publicly.

This debate is inevitable.

It will certainly arise, unless a miracle or a catastrophe happens.

— According to the latest survey of the Sociological group "Rating", compared to 2022, the feeling that Belarus is an enemy country has increased even more in Ukrainian society.

There are no shellings (since October 2022), no attacks.

And the attitude worsened.

Why?

- This is the effect of war, inertia, accumulation and crystallization of emotions.

I will give an example of the opposite.

Now there are problems in relations with Poland, I mean the situation on the Ukrainian-Polish border.

And at the same time, although the attitude towards Poland has worsened, it remains among the leaders of Ukrainian sympathies, among the countries that Ukrainians consider friendly.

Previously, Poland was the leader in this rating of friendliness.

A similar story with Belarus, only with a different sign.

Before the start of the full-scale war, we were dominated by a positive attitude towards Belarus.

There were quite a few who liked the Belarusian social model.

The war became a shock, the attitude towards Belarus deteriorated sharply.

But I would like to note that the conversation is about the attitude to the state of Belarus, to Lukashenka's regime, and not to the Belarusian people.

This is the difference from the attitude towards Russia and Russians.

Already in the first year of the war, a very negative attitude towards the Russian state and the Russian people was formed.

Previously, the attitude was different, many (though not all) had a negative attitude towards the state of the Russian Federation.

But only about a third were critical of the Russians as a people.

As for Belarus, now this state, Lukashenka's regime, is perceived as an ally of Russia.

I don't see such a biased attitude towards Belarusians in public opinion, as there is towards Russians.

— On the eve of the elections, Belarusian security forces allegedly detained a group of Ukrainian saboteurs.

The saboteurs are strange - one of them is Belarusian, an adept of "Russian peace".

But a year ago, a Russian A-50 gunner plane was blown up at an airfield in Belarus.

In your opinion, military actions on the territory of Belarus are a taboo for Ukrainian military and special services?

Was the A-50 detonation in Machulyshche last year an exception that proves the rule?

Is it possible in Russia, but not in Belarus?

- One of the goals of the leadership of Ukraine is to minimize the risk of involving Belarus in a direct military conflict with Ukraine.

This risk exists, it existed in 2022, it exists now.

Certain measures have been taken for this purpose.

You have already mentioned that for more than a year, attacks on Ukraine have not been carried out from the territory of Belarus.

There are no signs of preparations for attacks and strikes from Belarusian territory.

At the moment, if Lukashenka's behavior does not change, the taboo on attacks on the territory of Belarus will continue.

It is possible to strike on the territory of Russia, because we are at war with it.

And we are not at war with Belarus and we do not want to war with it.

This taboo is not absolute.

If Lukashenka's regime enters the war with its troops or allows Russian troops to attack Ukraine, the taboo may be lifted.

- Couldn't some Ukrainian hothead from among the military decide: "Belarus is our enemy, we will attack them.

What is Zelensky to me?"

— I think that something similar could have happened in 2014.

Now the situation is different.

The level of discipline in the Armed Forces of Ukraine has become much higher.

The example with the resignation of Zaluzhny was illustrative.

There was a lot of talk about disobeying orders and even about a military coup.

Nothing like that happened.

The second point is that the border with Belarus is monitored with special vigilance.

Including in the sense of preventing provocations.

Theoretically, there is a risk of provocations, including provocations from the Russian side.

But in Kiev they understand it.

Paradoxically, the border with Belarus is now monitored more closely than the border with Russia, precisely in the sense of preventing provocations.

I believe that the appropriate work is being done with the Belarusian opposition on the territory of Ukraine - so that they do not allow actions that could create a conflict situation on the border with Belarus.

- Donald Trump is not yet the president of the USA and it is not known whether he will become one.

But the House of Representatives is already at least delaying the adoption of the aid package for Ukraine.

The European Union managed to overcome Viktor Orban's position and approve the aid program for Ukraine.

In addition to Orban, there is also the new leader of Slovakia, Robert Fitz, who also has a negative attitude towards supporting Ukraine.

This year, there is a cascade of elections all over the world: in the European Union, there are elections to the European Parliament, and elections in Austria, Belgium, and Portugal.

As a result of these elections, Orbans may come to power.

Does Kyiv have a plan B - what to do in the face of a reduction in Western aid?

- Now the problem is mainly with American aid.

This was not expected, it was an unpleasant surprise.

But from what I heard, including from congressional Republicans during the Munich Security Conference, they are preparing their version.

They are unlikely to support President Biden's bill.

The problem there is not in Ukraine at all, not in Trump's position regarding Ukraine.

The matter is a sharp pre-election conflict between Biden and Trump.

Trump's position is no compromise with Biden.

This created a problem with the help of Ukraine.

Aid to Israel is also frozen there, despite the influence of the Israeli lobby in the Republican Party.

The compromise option, which Republican congressmen are developing, is to keep the military component of the aid, but reduce or cancel the budget support for Ukraine.

The probability of resuming military aid from the US is quite high.

I can tell you that in Kiev they are preparing for the possible coming of Trump to power in the USA.

They are looking for communications with Trump's entourage or have already found them.

A week ago, Mike Pompeo, who was the secretary of state in the Trump administration, came to visit us.

He was accompanied by a Republican congressman who heads a support group for Ukraine and has good relations with Trump's team.

You can also recall the CNN interview of Budanov, the head of military intelligence of Ukraine.

He spoke very gently, but complimentary about Trump.

There is a plan B in case he comes to the White House in Kyiv.

As for Europe, the aid program for Ukraine for 4 years in the European Union is still accepted.

Yes, there is a problem with Orbán.

But both he and Fitz made concessions.

In the Netherlands, a right-wing populist party, such a Dutch Orban, came to power in the elections.

But the government has not yet been formed there.

The current Prime Minister of Belgium actively supports Ukraine.

In Belgium and Austria, any new government will most likely be a coalition.

There are risks, but they will be solved by finding compromises.

As it is happening now.

There may be hesitations and delays in the provision of assistance.

I do not think that the composition of the European Parliament will change significantly as a result of this year's elections.

Perhaps there will be more representatives of right-wing populist parties.

But right-wing populists are also different.

How many fears and warnings were there about the arrival of the right in Italy.

And they came.

But Italian Prime Minister Giorgio Meloni is one of the most consistent supporters of Ukraine.

So the situation in Europe is more predictable than in the USA.

Europe is aware of the high risks of a war with Russia.

Not now, but in the future.

As for the USA, Trump can be swayed in different directions.

At the first stage, he may reduce aid to Ukraine.

He can push Ukraine to negotiate with Putin.

But if he does not see concessions from the Kremlin, he may increase support for Ukraine.

At the last press conference, Zelensky said about the existence of various military plans for 2024.

But there are also different political plans, depending on the development of the situation in Europe and the USA.

Kyiv is confident that the support of most of our foreign partners will continue.

  • Yuri Drakakhrust

    Journalist of Radio Svaboda


    drakakhrusty@rferl.org

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