Ukraine’s direction causing unease six years after loss of Crimea

Zelenskiy criticised over peace bid, sackings and stumbling reforms

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president. Photograph: Alexey Furman/Bloomberg

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president. Photograph: Alexey Furman/Bloomberg

 

Ukraine has marked the sixth anniversary of the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea amid growing criticism of how the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is handling reforms, key appointments and peace talks with Russia.

Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Crimea on Wednesday to celebrate the 2014 occupation, which took place just weeks after Ukrainian protesters ousted their Kremlin-backed rulers and as Moscow prepared to foment a separatist conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which has now claimed 14,000 lives.

Mr Zelenskiy, a popular comedian, swept to power last spring on promises to negotiate peace with Mr Putin and crush corruption, but recent controversial moves have hurt his standing at home and perturbed Ukraine’s western allies.

Several thousand people protested in Kiev last weekend against a decision by Mr Zelenskiy’s administration to form an “advisory council” in which representatives of Ukraine and the Donbas militants would discuss implementation of a framework peace deal signed in Minsk in 2015.

Critics accuse Mr Zelenskiy of bowing to Kremlin demands for direct talks between Kiev and the separatists, which would legitimise the militants and lend credence to Russia’s claim that it plays no part in what it calls Ukraine’s “civil war”.

Andriy Yermak, Mr Zelenskiy’s chief of staff and the man who signed the agreement last week, insists that it does not alter the legal status of the militants and the overarching peace talks will still be between Ukraine and Russia.

“It’s worse than sad,” Olena Zerkal, who was Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister for five years before resigning last November, said of the initiative.

“Instead of doing painstaking work to unite society, they continue to tear it apart and consistently plant Russian propaganda narratives,” she wrote on Facebook.

“I am sure Ukrainian society does not want peace at any cost and is not going to sacrifice its sovereignty and freedom,” she added.

Small steps

As part of a policy of small steps that he believes could lead to peace, Mr Zelenskiy hopes to hold his second meeting with Mr Putin next month and agree on another exchange of prisoners and the withdrawal of troops from further sectors of the front line.

Yet he also faces strong criticism in Ukraine and scrutiny from western allies for replacing his government and his well-regarded prosecutor general, Ruslan Ryaboshapka.

Critics say the new cabinet includes few committed reformers, and they question the credentials of Mr Ryaboshapka’s replacement, Iryna Venediktova, a close Zelenskiy ally who was approved by parliament on Tuesday.

“Ms Iryna and an understanding of the law are incompatible things,” said Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of leading Ukrainian anti-corruption group Antac.

“I understand that professionals can say no when necessary. And the president might not like that. But those who always say yes will simply drag the president and the country down to the very depths.”