Liana FixProgramme Director, International Affairs at Körber-Stiftung
The exchange of prisoners, including prominent figures such as Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, is indeed a promising first step for a new diplomatic process between Ukraine and Russia: three months after the election of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, it demonstrates a willingness from both sides to work together and to compromise under mutually agreed conditions.
The circumstances are favorable: Zelenskiy has made it his campaign promise to bring Ukrainian prisoners back home and bring peace to the Donbas. For Russia, anyone but the former president Petro Poroshenko is acceptable as a negotiation partner. The wheels of diplomacy are turning again.
However, high hopes (especially in Paris) that this delicate rapprochement can lead to a quick fix in relations with Russia are risky. French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for a new relationship with Russia is an opportunity to position himself as the problem-solver in European security. But the wish should not be father to the thought. Too often in the past, such hopes were disappointed, as the fundamental principles of Russian foreign policy have not changed.
The next summit in the Normandy format will show whether both sides are willing to make serious progress in the implementation of the Minsk agreements and to move from symbolic to political results. It may not yet be the beginning of the end of the war, as claimed by Zelenskiy, but a first important diplomatic and humanitarian success.
Anna KorbutAcademy Robert Bosch Fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House
Zelenskiy has taken steps in the context of the war: establish communication with Russian President Vladimir Putin, push for more Normandy talks, and signal willingness to make progress on the Minsk agreements.
Putin encouraged these steps by authorizing the recent swap of prisoners, but this came at a price for Ukraine. In exchange for the return of its citizens illegally jailed in Russia, Ukraine released people who committed crimes, espionage, or acts of terrorism. More Ukrainian citizens, especially Crimean Tatars, remain jailed in Russia or Crimea.
More steps are being discussed or implemented regarding the ceasefire in Donbas and the withdrawal of troops. In his rhetoric, Zelenskiy is soft on Russia in an attempt to build some trust with the Kremlin. Now, Russia is voicing its next demands for Ukraine: in addition to the restoration of economic ties with the occupied territory in the east of Ukraine, and payment of pensions there, the Kremlin demands that Ukraine signs up to the Steinmeier formula for the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
Ukraine already rejected it under Poroshenko because the arrangement would help legalize facts on the ground that were established under Russia’s control. Zelenskiy has not spelled out his position on this but he might be willing to accept more compromises. While this may be a window of opportunity, Ukraine and its EU counterparts should not accept scenarios that can legitimize Russia’s leverage over Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policy in the long run.
John C. KornblumSenior counsellor at Noerr LLP
What détente? The deal is not a cause for celebration, as the U.S. government tried to claim, but for a heavy sigh of relief.
For Ukrainians, it was a humanitarian arrangement. For Zelenskiy, it was also a sign that he is working to end the Russian occupation of his country. But by acceding to Russian demands to include the MH17 tragedy conspirator, Vladimir Tsemakh, in Ukrainian custody only since July, Zelenskiy drew heavy criticism at home and abroad.
But maybe a small window for further dialogue has been opened. Russia’s sudden willingness to accept a deal as long as Tsemakh was included was the clearest admission of responsibility for the separatist violence so far. It also demonstrated Russian fear that Tsemakh might sooner or later have told the truth. In fact, the Ukrainian sailors may have been seized last year specifically as bargaining material for such exchanges.
Maybe this and the recent FSB assassination in Berlin will help wake up both the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump and those Europeans who still harbor illusions about chances for influencing Russian behavior.
If the Minsk process is to show any progress, Russia must negotiate with itself—both as mediator and as guilty party. Encouraging that Russia-Russia dialogue is probably the best route to success.
John LoughAssociate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House
Each side is testing the other. Putin clearly wants rid of western sanctions and is looking for ways to change the relationship with Kiev. Ukraine almost certainly showed much more resilience after Crimea than he expected. Not surprisingly, he senses that with Zelenskiy, who campaigned to end the conflict in Donbas, and a new Ukrainian parliament, there may be new opportunities. Each has an interest in exploiting the other’s dissatisfaction with the current situation, yet neither knows how far the other is prepared to go to achieve their goal.
The prisoner swap changes the atmosphere at a time when Ukraine’s Western allies sense a new reformist drive in Kiev. This probably gives them hope that diplomacy between Ukraine and Russia can resume and bring a new impulse to the stalled Normandy talks. Putin can see that some EU countries are tired of the standoff over Ukraine and are searching for a reset button in relations with Russia. France is a case in point.
At the same time, despite his inexperience on the international stage, Zelenskiy represents a challenge for Putin. His modern political style and the popularity among Russians of his message to Ukrainians cannot be disregarded.
Mikhail MinakovSenior Advisor on Ukraine at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute
Partial détente is a possibility. However, it cannot be full and comprehensive until the issue of Crimea is resolved and the militarization of Eastern European countries is ended.
The long-awaited prisoners’ exchange is a good step. Initiatives of the ombudspersons from Moscow and Kiev show that the two countries prepared rules-based agreements on how to communicate on humanitarian issues. The warming of EU-Russia relations may also add some impetus for the positive development in Ukraine and the wider region.
However, the military conflict in Donbas is far from being frozen. After a degree of relative calm in August, the military attacks returned to the contact line in September. Recently, the number of killed and wounded increased significantly. There is also continuing military and trade tensions in the Sea of Azov. In addition, human rights violations in Crimea remain high.
In short, there is a long away to go before a stable peace and détente in Ukraine and Eastern Europe can be reached. But with a new president in Ukraine the hope is strong.
Gwendolyn SasseNonresident Senior Fellow at Carnegie Europe and Director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS)
It is too early to talk about a détente between Russia and Ukraine.
For the moment, we are seeing a degree of willingness on both sides to engage in more frequent and more substantive discussions about the Donbas. No more, no less. The exchange of prisoners and the possibility of a meeting in the Normandy format in the near future should neither be over- nor underestimated.
The prisoner exchange included painful choices on both sides. The widespread commentary about who paid the bigger price is disrespectful to the individuals involved and misses the point of this type of exchange. Prisoner exchanges are one of many necessary confidence-building measures that can, in the best-case scenario, underpin a lasting commitment to peace.
If other meaningful steps will follow is highly uncertain at this point, but in the absence of other options it is worth taking seriously the exchange and renewed momentum behind the Normandy and Minsk negotiations. All sides know that the Minsk II agreement of 2015 cannot be implemented as it was written down. This is also not a specificity of this war.
Détente will be real when a sequence of steps and rules of interaction are agreed upon and implemented.
Andreas UmlandSenior Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation
While the latest prisoner exchange was a big relief in Ukraine and the West, it was a very elegant deal for Putin.
The twenty-four Ukrainian sailors taken hostage by Russia in the Black Sea last year should arguably not have been released via negotiations with Ukraine, but separately and unconditionally as a result of Western sanctions. Their exchange for Russian prisoners of war implies that Moscow has still not accepted the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea’s May 2019 ruling on the incident.
Several of the other Ukrainian prisoners in Russia, most notably Oleg Sentsov, had become an international image problem for Russia and albatrosses around Putin's neck. Their release was unavoidable. Above all, Putin got in exchange the (perhaps) only usable witness for Ukraine: Tsemakh, a key witness in the Kremlin's July 2014 MH17 disaster.
Western pressure on Kiev—against seemingly favorable recent developments—to go ahead with more compromises toward Moscow would amount to a risky strategy. In the worst case, it could lead to a situation similar to the one in August 2015, when then president Poroshenko succumbed to Western pressure to include an ad-hoc additional clause, related to the Minsk agreements, into an ongoing constitutional reform. This produced a brief but deadly confrontation in front of Ukraine's parliament in Kiev, in which five people were killed and dozens injured.
Should Zelenskiy go the same way as Poroshenko in 2015—that is, too far in his compromises toward Russia—Putin might eventually get the real (and not only pseudo) civil war in Ukraine that he has been trying to trigger for more than five years now.