Ukrainian leader stood on a platform of peace, but finds himself on the brink of war | Ukraine
When Volodymyr Zelenskiy sought to become President of Ukraine, he stood on a platform of peace. Zelenskiy promised to sit down with Vladimir Putin and reach an agreement with Russia. He would end the unpopular war in the East and focus on major domestic reforms. These included ridding the country of corruption and oligarchs.
The plan didn’t work. Almost three years after winning a landslide victory, Zelenskiy is a president on the brink of war. About 190,000 Russian soldiers are stationed on the borders of Ukraine. US President Joe Biden has warned of an attack on Kiev. A military offensive from the Kremlin – whether full-scale or more limited in scope – seems likely, perhaps within hours or days.
This existential crisis for Ukraine caught Zelenskiy’s world attention. Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz are among European leaders who have visited Kyiv and voiced support for its pro-Western government. On Saturday, Zelenskiy met with US Vice President Kamala Harris and Johnson at the Munich security conference, where the fate of Ukraine was discussed, and from which Russia was conspicuously absent.
But critics fear that by refusing to make concessions to Moscow, Zelenskiy could lead his country to disaster. They argue he must find a pragmatic solution to the dangerous standoff with Putin – ruling out Ukraine’s NATO membership, at least for now – a key Russian demand. The United States and its allies would accept such a statement, privately breathing a sigh of relief, they claim.
“The Russians will continue until Zelenskiy gets the message,” said Vasyl Filipchuk, a former high-ranking Ukrainian diplomat and foreign affairs spokesman. “They want him to stop what they see as anti-Russian rhetoric. A statement on NATO would calm things down. Moscow and NATO would be happy. A few in the Ukrainian establishment would be unhappy.
Filipchuk said he was increasingly concerned about the likelihood of a Russian attack, having ruled out the threat until last week. Since Thursday, there has been intense artillery shelling from separatist positions. Several allegedly false flag events – a car bomb in Donetsk, a shell landing in Russian territory – have fueled fears that a Russian offensive is inevitable.
“The risks of direct military fire are there. It is thinkable. I put the chances of a full-fledged war in Donbass at 30%,” Filipchuk said. “Zelenskiy went through a very bad crisis. He does not understand the depth of the problem. It is badly advised. And he is afraid.
The president’s refusal to compromise on NATO is based on his fear of unpopularity, observers suggest. They believe he is terrified of a backlash from supporters of Petro Poroshenko – Zelenskiy’s ambitious and warmongering predecessor – and right-wing nationalists. In recent months, Zelenskiy’s once-high ratings have plummeted, while his Servant of the People party has been mired in scandal.
“Winston Churchill promised nothing but blood, sweat and tears. I’m afraid Mr. Zelenskiy is not capable of that,” said journalist and talk show host Evgeniy Kiselyov. true politician is one who can speak at a time of national emergency.” The president “fallen behind events” and was “too much” shaped by his previous career as a famous actor, Kiselyov suggested.
In public, Western governments expressed their solidarity with Zelenskiy, who received a standing ovation in Munich. The United States, the United Kingdom and the Lithuanians sent anti-tank weapons and defensive weapons. Washington and London framed Ukraine’s struggle with Russia as a civilizational struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. At stake is the right of a sovereign country to make its own security choices and alliances, versus an outdated imperial model of spheres of influence, they acknowledge.
But behind the scenes, there was also exasperation with Zelenskiy. He angered his allies, especially the Americans, by dismissing Russian invasion predictions as panic and media hysteria. These scenarios have hurt Ukraine’s economy, devalued its currency and undermined business confidence, he has complained publicly in recent weeks.
Zelenskiy also blamed the United States for closing its embassy in Kyiv and moving diplomatic personnel, including CIA officers, to the western city of Lviv. “We don’t have a titanic situation here,” he told the Guardian earlier this month. He pointed out that Ukraine had already been at war for eight years, since Putin annexed Crimea and staged a pro-Russian uprising in the Donbass region.
“I don’t think that’s a good strategy. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” Kiselyov said, of the American criticism of Zelenskiy. “Some key members of his team are so scared of Putin and not psychologically prepared. They don’t know what to do if he knocks. Would Putin invade? “Hard to say. I think he’s crazy. I don’t think he lives in the real world,” Kiselyov replied.
Kisleyov said Zelenskiy might have been wiser in his dealings with the White House, only grumbling in private rather than airing his grievances. “He could have said, ‘I’m going to support you. But give me something back, like a few dollars to help the economy. Instead, Zelenskiy is seen whining,” he said.
Zelenskiy’s party colleagues, however, say the president is doing a good job under difficult circumstances. They point out that he remains Ukraine’s most popular politician, according to polls. He has a good chance of being re-elected in 2024 – assuming, that is, Moscow does not remove him by force. His party, Servant of the People, is doing less well. He seems certain to lose his majority in the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, next year.
“The president remains strong and calm,” said Nikita Poturaev, an MP from Zelensiky’s party and a political consultant, speaking from his parliamentary office in Kyiv, opposite Zelenskiy’s palace residence.
Zelenskiy enjoyed meeting world leaders and quickly built relationships with them, Poturaev added. He said Zelenskiy was not personally corrupt, unlike former office holders. Among them is Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian Ukrainian leader, who plundered the state budget before fleeing to Moscow in 2014 after his security forces opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing 100 of them. between them.
Perhaps Zelenskiy’s greatest criticism is that he failed to prepare his citizens for a bloody war. The Ukrainian army is in better shape than in 2014, when it suffered a series of humiliating defeats. So far, Zelenskiy has refused to distribute weapons to civilians, perhaps fearing they will be used to overthrow his administration. Instead, volunteers organized training and national defense.
Serhiy Leshchenko, a former MP and prominent journalist, said Zelenskiy had resisted pressure from Moscow to implement the “toxic” Minsk agreements, signed in 2015 at a time of Ukrainian military weakness. Under the deal, Kyiv would grant autonomy to breakaway regions — effectively giving Moscow a veto over foreign policy — in return for demilitarization.
“Zelenskiy did not betray Ukraine or give Putin what he wanted,” Leshchenko said. “It’s just possible that if he survives this crisis, he can regain his political credibility.”
“I think the threat is great. I am more with our allies than on the side of Zelenskiy,” said Olexiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He cited a recent survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology which indicated that half of Ukrainians thought Zelenskiy should have done more to prepare for a conflict with Russia.
Haran added: “The rhetoric coming from Moscow is very dangerous. Putin has raised the stress so high. It’s hard to see how he can back down now.