When Nadiya Savchenko was released from Russian captivity in May 2016, she emerged onto the Ukrainian political scene as a fully formed national hero. The homecoming of the former army pilot—a brave soldier who was captured in eastern Ukraine, sentenced on trumped-up murder charges by the Kremlin, and endured a hunger strike in a protest against Putin’s war—became an occasion for a rare celebration of unity in a country that was desperately starved for it. Savchenko was granted a seat in Parliament, earned accolades from across the political spectrum, and was celebrated in the press as Ukraine’s very own Joan of Arc.
The fanfare that greeted Savchenko’s return, however, was nowhere to be seen this past month. In an interview on Ukrainian television, Savchenko stepped on a political landmine with her provocative comments on what Ukraine must do to settle the conflict in the Donbass:
“With regards to this being done by peaceful means, bearing in mind that Russia will not withstand sanctions, that this will surely mean the surrender of Crimea. For a certain period of time, as always, this will have to be placed on the back burner.
“No matter how certain MPs scream and tear at their vyshyvankas, as long as they scream that we will not surrender, they must give up on Crimea. It remains for now unrecognized, occupied territory. Crimea is another Transnistria. And to avoid making another Transnistria in the Donbass, they will leave Crimea occupied and take back the Donbass. I still don’t see any other peaceful route.”
The calculation inherent in Savchenko’s remarks—that Ukraine must accept Crimea’s annexation as a fait accompli in exchange for peace—ignited a political firestorm. Her remarks were denounced as widely as she was once celebrated, with parliamentarians alleging treason and calling on the security services to investigate her “anti-Ukrainian” comments. Since then, Savchenko has walked back her statement, saying that she was merely denouncing politicians who had already given up Crimea in 2014. But the message had been sent, and the damage done.
Savchenko has always been known as a firebrand, but there is good reason why her most recent comments have struck a nerve. They come at a particularly sensitive moment for Ukraine, as the country’s leadership adjusts to an eerie new period of uncertainty. Faced with a new U.S. President eager to make a deal with Putin, some Ukrainian elites are now broaching policies once considered unthinkable.
The oligarch-turned-philanthropist Victor Pinchuk got the ball rolling in December with a Wall Street Journal op-ed urging Ukraine to adopt unpleasant compromises to end the war. “The instinctive response of many Ukrainians to the new circumstances—to demand the same as before, but with greater intensity and urgency—may not work,” Pinchuk wrote. “Instead of issuing ever-shriller appeals, we must also adapt to the new reality, and help our international friends help us.” According to Pinchuk, that means putting Crimea on the back burner, accepting local elections in the east as soon as possible, and taking EU and NATO membership off the table.
In the weeks since Pinchuk and Savchenko made their comments, the situation in the east has rapidly deteriorated. A new outburst of fighting on the front line town of Avdiivka has killed dozens, with heavy shelling and rocket attacks heralding Ukraine’s worst violence in over a year. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has taken office in Washington, bearing no promises toward Ukraine but a clear interest in mending fences with Russia. In such a climate, will the compromises proposed by Pinchuk and Savchenko gain a more favorable hearing? Can Ukraine’s leaders accept painful compromises for peace?
For the past three years, policy on Ukraine has been sustained on all sides by polite, face-saving fictions that have upheld a shaky status quo without securing lasting peace. Moscow has denied that it has any troops at all in eastern Ukraine, pleading innocence even as its proxies routinely sabotage ceasefires and manipulate the OSCE to keep the Donbass a smoldering ruin. Berlin and Paris, eager to secure some semblance of a peace deal, have upheld the deeply flawed Minsk agreements in the face of clear evidence that the parties show no signs of adhering to them. Kyiv has rightly condemned Russia’s violations of that agreement, even while using such aggression as an excuse to stall on Minsk’s unpopular demands for devolving powers to Ukraine’s restive eastern provinces.
And above all this, the United States has hovered at a distance: delegating the diplomacy to Germany and France, toeing the line on the Minsk agreements, reaffirming Crimea’s status in Ukraine, upholding sanctions on Russia, and providing substantial aid to Ukraine (albeit no lethal weapons). As a cost-minimizing strategy to contain the conflagration and prevent over-commitment, this has served U.S interests reasonably well. As a strategy to actually resolve the conflict, it has proven woefully inadequate.
With the Obama administration now out the door, the very fundamentals of that strategy—and the pretenses that sustained it—could be up for debate. Already, the cracks are beginning to show. The latest surge of fighting in Avdiivka has offered a timely reminder that the ceasefire is not being respected on either side. At a joint press conference with Poroshenko to address the latest violence, Angela Merkel bluntly stated that “The ceasefire doesn’t exist,” even as she and Poroshenko both reaffirmed the need to implement Minsk. The State Department issued a muted statement asking all parties to implement the Minsk agreements, but it refused to specifically take Russia to task—and according to the Chicago Tribune, the statement came only after intense interagency deliberations that had the White House questioning the need to mention Minsk.
Given Trump’s overtures to Russia, such uncertain early signals have caused serious anxiety in Kyiv. Poroshenko is already busy reaching out to the Trump team, hiring a major DC firm on retainer to lobby an administration that, by some accounts, Ukraine’s government worked covertly to oppose. But as Poroshenko scrambles to make inroads with Trump, he does not seem to be making a major policy pivot. Aside from the lost cause of U.S. lethal assistance, the government’s official statements have doubled down on familiar Ukrainian priorities: upholding the sanctions on Russia and keeping the aid money flowing. Poroshenko has notably distanced himself from the more conciliatory approach proposed by Pinchuk, pointedly boycotting his event at Davos after the fallout from his op-ed. And in the wake of the latest fighting in Avdiivka, Poroshenko has been unequivocal about maintaining the status quo: “Ukraine stands by Minsk. There is no alternative to Minsk.”
Why this uncompromising stance? Poroshenko’s position is largely a product of domestic political realities, not a reaction to Trump. As untenable as the Minsk agreements may be, abandoning them could be even worse for Poroshenko’s political standing. Halfway through his presidential term, Poroshenko’s approval ratings are already in the tank, with a mere 12% of Ukrainians approving of his performance according to a December poll. That brings Poroshenko even with his opportunistic sometime rival Yulia Tymoshenko: a divisive figure in her own right, but one who could stand to gain if early elections were called. And if Poroshenko made major concessions to Russia, he could squander whatever political capital he still has, and give his opponents just the excuse they need to make such elections possible.
For the time being, then, Poroshenko will likely pursue precisely the course that Pinchuk advises against: making the same essential demands of Washington, only more insistently. It remains to be seen how much clout such a stance will hold with President Trump. Ukraine will surely get a friendly hearing with familiar advocates on Capitol Hill like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have lately been seen proudly supporting Poroshenko. But the decision-makers in Congress and the White House, despite nominally sharing a party, are deeply split on Ukraine. Trump appears to conceive of sanctions primarily as a tradable asset in a bilateral deal with Russia, not an essential component of a Ukraine policy. And Trump has shown little reverence toward the American position that Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine; this, too, seems to be on the bargaining table.
If Trump does indeed lift sanctions and acknowledge Crimea as Russian territory, Ukraine would be loath to play along with such terms. Despite the realist tradeoffs envisioned by the likes of Savchenko and Pinchuk, a majority of Ukrainians would find such compromises intolerable. According to a poll by the International Republican Institute, 61% of Ukrainians insist that the country remain unitary, while only single digits would accept a federal solution or the surrender of Crimea. Many Ukrainians already reject the Minsk agreements as an unbearable imposition on Ukrainian sovereignty; officially giving up on Crimea or the Donbass would be tantamount to surrender.
The question follows, then: what could Poroshenko plausibly offer the Russians if he wanted to make a deal? He might be able to quietly settle the $3 billion loan dispute with Russia, which has remained a legal sticking point between the two sides and is currently being litigated in UK courts. He might be able to do some backroom deals to lift the sanctions imposed by Ukraine on Russian individuals and businesses. He might be able to work through back channels to explore other possibilities.
But it is unlikely that such half-measures would satisfy Putin, who has his higher goals in mind: the acceptance of Crimea, a constitutional framework in the Donbass that will privilege Russian interests, and assurances that Ukraine will not integrate further with Western institutions. If Trump and Putin attempted to impose such terms on Ukraine, the result would less likely be peace than the fall of Poroshenko’s government and a protracted power struggle within Ukraine.
It is an old adage of American foreign policy that only Nixon could go to China, since the president’s reputation enabled his followers to accept a radical change they could otherwise not have tolerated. One of Ukraine’s problems is that it has no comparable figure, no one with both the credibility and political standing to make the public swallow the kind of compromise proposed by Pinchuk and Savchenko.
Of course, there are no guarantees that such a compromise would work anyway. Ukrainians have good reason to suspect that Moscow will be emboldened, rather than placated, by concessions impinging on Ukraine’s own sovereignty. Under these circumstances, Poroshenko’s course—to muddle through with the current status quo, in the hopes that Trump will come around—may be the least bad option.
Ukraine has always faced painful choices and unpalatable tradeoffs, caught between irresolute Western partners and an implacable Russian foe. Trump did not create that reality, but his election looks to accentuate it, shredding the comforting illusions that have kept the sickly status quo around. The danger for Ukraine is that the status quo could collapse with nothing to replace it.