Tired Zelensky looks too weak to achieve victory

Article published in The Sunday Telegraph, 6 January 2024. © Richard Kemp

Today Volodymyr Zelensky faces the greatest test of his leadership, greater even than the days almost two years ago when Russian invasion forces rolled across the border. Back then, when he was offered a ride to safety by the West and asked for ammunition instead, he led a country united in a fight for its life.

That’s not so much the case now. There are growing public divisions between Zelensky and other political leaders, such as former President Petro Poroshenko and Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, as a blame game builds over failures in the war so far. Worse still, Zelensky and the Commander-in-Chief, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, also seem to be in conflict. When Zaluzhnyi admitted that the war had reached a stalemate, Zelensky publicly rebuked him.

Apart from the overriding need for national unity in war, this suggests that Ukraine lacks a clear strategy for the future prosecution of the conflict. Zelensky continues to insist that Ukraine will regain all its territory taken by Russia; although, after apparently over-promising on the summer offensive, he no longer seems to talk of timelines. Demoralised by the failure of that counter move, some are now talking in terms of some kind of peace accords. It has even been suggested that a potential peace agreement could be put to a referendum.

When I was last in Kyiv, there was certainly discussion among some political leaders about the idea of a peace deal in which Russia would accept Ukrainian membership of Nato in exchange for guarantees that there would be no Ukrainian efforts to re-take occupied territory. Such talk might well be mere exasperation, but it is mana from heaven for Biden and many European leaders who want nothing more than such a peace agreement and as soon as possible.

Any serious consideration of peace talks pretty much guarantees Ukraine’s defeat. Putting aside domestic politics in the US and EU that have, for the time being at least, essentially stifled further military aid, Biden and the Europeans have refused so far to equip Ukraine to win the war.

That brake was applied out of the unfounded fear of provoking Russia into escalating against them. With any hint of peace talks in prospect from the Ukrainian side, to that would be added the new fear of Russia refusing to acquiesce or if it did, of pulling out. “Provocative” weapons supplies would dry up for the long term. Putin is only too well aware of that, which is why he has repeatedly said he would be prepared to talk peace.

Zelensky needs to put a stop to this. With this year’s elections unlikely to go ahead in the midst of conflict, he should form a national unity government to help control the increasingly corrosive domestic dissent that can only weaken Ukraine’s war effort. He should also set out his country’s unified strategic vision.

So far he has not put forward any real strategy – beyond suggesting that the centre of gravity would shift to Crimea and the Black Sea while defending against potential Russian advances in the east, which is not good enough if he expects the West to keep putting its hands in its pockets.

Nor is it adequate to tell the West that Ukrainians are fighting not just for their own country, but for the whole of Europe which will itself be under threat from Moscow if Putin succeeds in this war. That is certainly true, but there is no sign that the US president or Western European leaders really believe it. If they did, they would long ago have pulled out all the stops to contain Putin and to supply Ukraine with the massive amounts of weaponry it needs to defeat Russia.

Zelensky may be drained by almost two years of war, but he must now focus on regaining the initiative.