Is This The End For Zelenskyy?

Is This The End For Zelenskyy?
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Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Western public has been sold the story of a Ukrainian front united in its unwavering commitment to a total military victory over Russia. Over the past few weeks, however, this narrative has started to crumble.

Despite the failure of Ukraine’s Nato-backed counteroffensive, which is now universally acceptedZelenskyy continues to stick to the maximalist victory-at-all-costs narrative — that Ukraine must go on fighting until it retakes every inch of lost territory, including Crimea, and that Putin should not be negotiated with. This is understandable: he has staked everything on achieving that objective — anything less would probably mean the end of his political career.

But Zelenskyy’s position is looking increasingly isolated. As Simon Shuster wrote in Time magazine, “Zelenskyy’s associates themselves are extremely skeptical about the [current] policy”, describing the president’s belief in Ukraine’s ultimate victory over Russia as “immovable, verging on the messianic”.

In early November, none other than Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, General Valery Zaluzhny, told The Economist that the war with Russia had reached a stalemate and was evolving into a long war of attrition — one in which Russia has the advantage. Many took this to mean that the general believes that the time had come to negotiate a deal with Russia. This led to a public confrontation between Zaluzhny and Zelenskyy, who rebuked the general’s assessment and repeated his refusal to negotiate any ceasefire deal with Moscow.

Since then, the rivalry between the two has grown into an all-out power struggle. According to the Ukrainian news site Ukrainska Pravda, Zelenskyy views Zaluzhny’s popularity as a political threat — and recent events have only heightened the president’s fears. Indeed, the army, it reports, is divided between those who are subordinate to Zaluzhny and those who are loyal to Ground Forces Commander Oleksandr Syrskyi, an ally of Zelenskyy.

But Zaluzhny has not been alone in criticising Zelenskyy. Last week, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko publicly supported Zaluzhny’s comments about the war, stating that Zelenskyy was “paying for mistakes he made”. At the start of this month, a long-standing conflict between Zelenskyy and the former president Petro Poroshenko also came to the fore, when Ukrainian authorities stopped the former head of state from leaving the country for a planned meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

According to his critics, this is evidence of Zelenskyy’s increasingly authoritarian grip on the country. “At some point, we will no longer be any different from Russia, where everything depends on the whim of one man,” Klitschko told Der Spiegel. Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Poroshenko’s former vice-prime minister, also spoke of “an authoritarian regression”.

But Zelenskyy isn’t just facing criticism over the way forward for Ukraine; some are now saying that the entire strategy was botched from the start. Oleksii Arestovych, Zelenskyy’s former presidential advisor now turned critic, recently wrote that “the war could have ended with the Istanbul agreements, and a couple hundred thousand people would still be alive”, referring to a round of peace talks that took place in March and early April 2022, mediated by Turkey.

On that occasion, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators had reached a tentative agreement on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement — whereby Russia had agreed to withdraw troops along the lines prior to February 24, 2022 in exchange for Ukraine’s neutrality — but the deal was allegedly blocked by Boris Johnson and representatives of the American State Department and the Pentagon. Even David Arakhamia, the parliamentary leader of Zelenskyy’s own Servant of the People party who led the Ukrainian delegation in peace talks with Moscow, recently claimed that Russia was “ready to end the war if we accept neutrality”, but that the talks ultimately collapsed for several reasons — including Johnson’s visit to Kyiv informing Ukrainian officials that they should continue fighting.

But Zelenskyy isn’t only facing growing opposition from rival politicians and the military — it’s also from ordinary Ukrainians. Across the country, the families of soldiers have started taking to the streets to demand a cap on military service time and the return of those who have served 18 months or more, as well as information about the more than 15,000 soldiers who have gone missing in action. Meanwhile, a petition demanding a change to mobilisation rules has reached the 25,000-signature threshold for presidential consideration, further complicating Zelenskyy’s push for more troops, which has already been hindered by massive draft dodging.

This growing tide of hostility towards the president — and Ukraine’s war strategy in general — means that his political future looks increasingly in doubt. According to a recent poll, Zelenskyy and Zaluzhny’s approval ratings are now almost identical, while The Economist reported that trust in the president has fallen to 32%. Another poll still indicated Zelensky as the favourite candidate, but with growing support for both Poroshenko — in second place — and Zaluzhny (whom, it should be noted, has not yet shown any political ambitions).

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Zelenskyy recently ruled out holding elections, originally scheduled for next March, citing problems of security and funding. Most Ukrainians reportedly support the decision, but this doesn’t mean Zelenskyy’s problems are over. After all, the failure of the counteroffensive is causing a backlash among his Western backers, as they realise that Ukraine is unlikely to improve its position on the battlefield.

Some Western analysts paint an even grimmer picture, noting that Ukraine isn’t even in a position to defend the territorial status quo. “Every category is in Russia’s favor and will continue to tilt in Russia’s favor”, according to former US Army Lt Col Daniel Davis, Senior Fellow and Military Expert at Defense Priorities. Even Nato’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that Nato “should be prepared for bad news”.

With such pessimism widespread, new aid pledges to Ukraine have fallen to their lowest level since the start of the war, according to the German-based Kiel Institute’s Ukraine aid tracker. EU member states have been struggling for months to reach an agreement on a €50-billion aid package to Ukraine, mostly due to Hungary’s opposition, and it’s no mystery that European leaders are “tired” of the war in Ukraine, as Giorgia Meloni recently told two Russian pranksters posing as officials with the African Union. The military deadlock is reinforcing the view in Germany — and in British diplomatic circles — that negotiations with Moscow would be in Ukraine’s best interest.

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, support for Zelenskyy’s strategy is at a record low. The Biden administration’s increasingly desperate attempts to convince Congress to approve a new round of emergency funding for Ukraine failed again last week, when the Senate blocked yet another aid bill. In some respects, Biden is in a similar position to Zelenskyy: he has systematically promised a complete Ukrainian victory and refused to negotiate with Putin, so is understandably concerned about doing an about-face before the next elections. Yet, in US defence circles, there is growing awareness that a protracted conflict would seriously jeopardise US interests.

One way for the Biden administration to save face could be to “freeze” the conflict for the time being — at least until the US elections — through some kind of informal agreement with Russia. But this strategy presents its own problems: not only is it far from clear that Russia would accept freezing the war while it enjoys a tactical advantage, but it would also require getting Zelenskyy onboard — or getting him out of the picture.

From the US perspective, a democratic regime change in Ukraine would arguably be the preferable solution; but, as noted, elections aren’t on the table at the moment. This doesn’t mean that change isn’t coming, though; if anything, it only heightens the risk of Zelensky’s opponents — inside and outside of the country — trying to get rid of him by other means. Indeed, Zelenskyy himself recently expressed concern that a new Maidan-type coup is being plotted in Ukraine — though he accused Russia, not local enemies, of being behind these plans. Regardless of how credible one believes this scenario to be, it speaks to Zelenskyy’s changing status on the world stage: as Western countries, and important segments of the Ukrainian establishment, look for an exit strategy, Zelenskyy is no longer seen as an asset — but as a liability.

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