Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme,
Chatham House
Leo Litra
Senior Research Fellow, New Europe Center

Volodymyr Zelenskyi at a press conference during a visit to Germany on 18 June. Photo via Getty Images.

Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s priority is domestic, not foreign policy, so his approach to international relations is only starting to take shape. A better understanding of Zelenskyi’s foreign policy goals will only be achievable until after the early parliamentary elections in July, and it is unclear when they will be fully set out and how he will differentiate achievable intentions from electoral promises.

But some things are clear. He is likely to pay less attention to international affairs than his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. It appears from the outset that he is focusing on continued balanced relations with Ukraine’s Western partners. Unlike Poroshenko, Zelenskyi is not as pushy promoting Ukraine’s interests. If Poroshenko at times lectured the West, Zelenskyi is not yet as brazen. He is a newcomer in world affairs and wants to be well-received. He is an ‘active listener’, a quality sometimes lacking in Kyiv.

The EU and NATO

Zelenskyi’s initial steps have been pro-European. His first official state visit took place in Brussels in early June, where he met with EU and NATO representatives. He chose Paris and Berlin, key partners in conflict management in Donbas, for his second state visit. Placing former ambassador to NATO Vadym Prystaiko as deputy head of the presidential administration, de facto foreign policy adviser and likely future foreign minister is a sign that no rollback in Ukraine’s relations with NATO and the EU should be expected, from the Ukrainian side at least.

Still, Zelenskyi may reshuffle the narrative. Poroshenko used to prioritize Ukraine’s potential membership of the EU and NATO before reforms. The new president is likely to do the opposite, believing reforms should come before seeking further integration. If implemented, this approach should be appealing to the West.

Growing ‘Ukraine fatigue’ across the EU and pressing internal issues in Brussels constrain Zelenskyi’s foreign policy. The result of European parliamentary elections will, at least for now, limit the establishment of high-level working relations. Another concern is the increasing number of EU member states who are sceptical towards sanctions against Russia. Kyiv may find that unconditional European support for Ukraine can no longer be taken for granted, it will have to be won.

Conflict settlement in Donbas

Another key priority, and an electoral promise, is conflict management in eastern Ukraine. On this issue, Zelenskyi seems interested in listening to public opinion. The problem, however, is that his wide electoral basis has conflicting ideas, if not dangerous ones, such as holding direct negotiations with the self-proclaimed leadership of the unrecognized ‘People’s Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk. Furthermore, the head of the presidential administration Andriy Bohdan floated the highly-divisive idea of a possible consultative referendum to decide the best negotiation strategy with Russia over Donbas.

Despite Zelenskyi’s more moderate line on Russia compared to his predecessor, Vladimir Putin has given him no room for manoeuvre, issuing Russian passports to residents of the occupied territories, instituting an oil blockade, celebrating ‘statehood’ for the occupied territories and continuing to violations of the ceasefire. This gives Zelenskyi little chance to implement his policy on conflict settlement unilaterally.

Zelenskyi’s priority in Donbas is the human dimension of the conflict, but regaining the sympathy of compatriots in the occupied territories requires tools Ukraine does not possess: access to the media in the occupied territories and freedom of movement. A possible way forward is to focus on social aspects, such as improving infrastructure on the line of contact or diminishing administrative hurdles for Ukrainians affected by the conflict.

This is only one side of the problem. The security and political aspects of the conflict remain largely unaddressed. And a humanitarian agenda does not necessarily translate to a peace settlement – Ukraine cannot resolve these issues on its own. Furthermore, Kyiv is unlikely to compromise regarding conflict settlement when engaging Moscow.

Relations with the United States

Relations with Washington will be high on Zelenskyi’s agenda. However, in the last months of Poroshenko’s mandate, bilateral relations were affected by statements from Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, who mentioned the possible role of Ukraine in influencing the result of the 2016 US presidential election as well as in an investigation into Joe Biden’s son.

This could have an unpredictable impact on the domestic agenda in Washington in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections. Removing Lutsenko from office, which is expected no later than after the parliamentary elections, would only solve part of the problem. The ambassador to the US is also likely to be changed to reflect the political situation in Kyiv.

It is important for Ukraine to avoid getting caught in US politics and keep bipartisan support in Congress – Zelenskyi will likely stay on course. He might seek innovative ways to diversify relations with Washington, and not just focus on pushing back against Russian aggression.

A regional alternative?

Zelenskyi seems determined to improve relations with Ukraine’s neighbours, which were sometimes ignored by Poroshenko. Relations with Poland, Hungary, Romania and Belarus deteriorated over recent years. Among the most pressing bilateral issues are the divergencies over history with Poland and education with Hungary. These will have to be addressed –Poland is an important partner for Ukraine in the EU and Hungary is blocking certain co-operation formats between Ukraine and NATO.

In his post-election speech, Zelenskyi dubbed his victory an example that people could change their leaders if wished so elsewhere. The message was primarily addressed to Russia but also to the entire post-Soviet region.

As an actor and comedian, Zelenskyi is well-known and appreciated by people in the region. As president of Ukraine, he could capitalize on his popularity and become a source of Ukrainian soft power, and potentially empower citizens across post-Soviet countries.

Chatham House and New Europe Centre are working in partnership on the Ukraine’s Elections in Focus project.