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Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Ukraine’s leader stood on platform of peace, but finds himself on brink of war | Ukraine

When Volodymyr Zelenskiy sought to become Ukraine’s president he stood on a platform of peace. Zelenskiy promised to sit down with Vladimir Putin and to reach a deal with Russia. He would end the unpopular war in the east and concentrate on important domestic reforms. These included ridding the country of corruption and oligarchs.

The plan didn’t work out. Nearly three years after winning a landslide victory, Zelenskiy is a president on the brink of war. About 190,000 Russian troops are poised on Ukraine’s borders. The US president, Joe Biden, has warned of an attack on Kyiv. A Kremlin military offensive – whether full-scale or more limited in scope – seems likely, possibly within hours or days.

This existential crisis for Ukraine has brought Zelenskiy global attention. Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz are among European leaders who have visited Kyiv and expressed support for its pro-western government. On Saturday Zelenskiy met the US vice-president, Kamala Harris, and Johnson at the Munich security conference, where Ukraine’s fate was discussed, and from which Russia was glaringly absent.

But critics fear that by refusing to make concessions to Moscow, Zelenskiy is steering his country towards disaster. They argue he needs to find a pragmatic solution to the dangerous standoff with Putin – ruling out Nato membership for Ukraine, at least for now – a key Russian demand. The US and its allies would go along with such a declaration, privately breathing a sigh of relief, they argue.

“The Russians will keep on until Zelenskiy gets the message,” Vasyl Filipchuk, a former senior Ukrainian diplomat and foreign affairs spokesperson said. “They want him to stop what they see as anti-Russian rhetoric. A statement on Nato would calm the situation down. Moscow and Nato would be happy. A few in Ukraine’s establishment would be displeased.”

Ukrainian troops patrol at the frontline outside the town of Novoluhanske, eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian troops patrol at the frontline outside the town of Novoluhanske, eastern Ukraine. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Filipchuk said he was increasingly concerned about the likelihood of a Russian attack, having discounted the threat up until last week. Since Thursday there has been intense artillery bombardment from separatist positions. Several allegedly false-flag events – a car bomb in Donetsk, a shell landing on Russian territory – have fuelled fears that a Russian offensive is inevitable.

“The risks of direct military fire are there. It’s thinkable. I put the chances of a fully fledged war in the Donbas at 30%,” Filipchuk said. “Zelenskiy has had a very bad crisis. He doesn’t understand the depth of the problem. He’s badly advised. And he’s afraid.”

The president’s refusal to compromise over 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, hawkish predecessor – and rightwing nationalists. In recent months, Zelenskiy’s once high ratings have fallen, while his Servant of the People party has found itself mired in scandal.

“Winston Churchill promised nothing but blood, sweat and tears. I’m afraid Mr Zelenskiy is not capable of that,” Evgeniy Kiselyov, a leading journalist and talkshow host, said. “A real politician is one who can speak at a moment of national emergency.” The president “lagged behind events” and was “too much” shaped by his previous career as a celebrity actor, Kiselyov suggested.

In public, western governments have expressed solidarity with Zelenskiy. The US, UK and Lithuanians have sent anti-tank weapons and defensive arms. Washington and London have cast Ukraine’s struggle with Russia as a civilisational fight between democracy and authoritarianism. At stake is a sovereign country’s right to make its own security choices and alliances, versus an outdated imperial model of spheres of influence, they recognise.

But behind the scenes, there has been exasperation with Zelenskiy too. He has irked his allies, especially the Americans, by dismissing predictions of Russian invasion as panic-mongering and media hysteria. These scenarios have damaged Ukraine’s economy, devalued its currency and undermined business confidence, he has publicly complained in recent weeks.

Zelenskiy has also faulted the US for closing down its embassy in Kyiv and relocating diplomatic personnel, including CIA officers, to the western city of Lviv. “We do not have a titanic situation here,” he told the Guardian earlier this month. He pointed out that Ukraine has already been at war for eight years, ever since Putin annexed Crimea and organised a pro-Russian uprising in the Donbas region.

“I don’t think it is a good strategy. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” Kiselyov said, of Zelenskiy’s US critique. “Some key members of his team are so much afraid of Putin and unprepared psychologically. They don’t know what to do if he strikes.” Would Putin invade? “Difficult to say. I think he is a madman. I don’t think he lives in the real world,” Kiselyov replied.

Kisleyov said Zelenskiy might have been shrewder in his dealings with the White House, grumbling only in private rather than airing his grievances. “He could have said: ‘I will support you. But give me something in return such as a couple of bucks to help the economy.’ Instead, Zelenskiy is seen whining,” he said.

Zelenskiy’s party colleagues, however, say the president is doing a good job in difficult circumstances. They point out he remains Ukraine’s most popular politician, according to polls. He has a good chance of winning reelection in 2024 – assuming, that is, Moscow does not remove him by force. His party, Servant of the People, is faring less well. It looks certain next year to lose its Duma majority.

“The president stays strong and calm,” Nikita Poturaev, a deputy in Zelensiky’s party and political consultant, said, speaking from his parliamentary office in Kyiv, across the road from Zelenskiy’s palace residence.

Zelenskiy enjoyed meeting world leaders and was quick to build relationships with them, Poturaev added. He said Zelenskiy was not personally corrupt, unlike previous holders of the job. They include Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s pro-Russian leader, who looted the state budget before fleeing to Moscow in 2014, after his security forces opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing 100 of them.

Perhaps the greatest criticism of Zelenskiy is that he has failed to prepare his citizens for a bloody war. Ukraine’s army is in better shape than in 2014, when it suffered a series of humiliating defeats. Thus far, Zelenskiy has declined to hand out weapons to civilians, possibly fearing that they might be used to overthrow his administration. Instead, volunteers have organised training and national defence.

Serhiy Leshchenko, a former MP and prominent journalist, said Zelenskiy had withstood pressure from Moscow to implement the “toxic” Minsk accords, signed in 2015 at a moment of Ukrainian military weakness. Under the deal, Kyiv would grant autonomy to the separatist regions – in effect handing Moscow a veto over foreign policy – in return for demilitarisation.

“Zelenskiy didn’t betray Ukraine or give Putin what he wants,” Leshchenko said. “It’s just possible if he survives this crisis he can regain his political credibility.”

“I think the threat is great. I’m more with our allies than the Zelenskiy side,” Olexiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said. He cited a recent poll by the Kyiv international institute for sociology which indicated half of Ukrainians thought Zelenskiy should have done more to get ready for a conflict with Russia.

Haran added: “The rhetoric coming from Moscow is very dangerous. Putin has increased stress so high. It is difficult to see how he can back down now.”

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