A Judgment Day Is Coming for Volodymyr Zelensky
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian advisers have argued in recent days that they do not want to cede any territory to Russia in the meantime. war in Ukraine. And while that view is widely adopted in Ukraine, they may be digging themselves into political quicksand.
Certainly Zelensky’s position, which he and his advisers have repeated countless times, is actively supported around the country. The Ukrainians absolutely do not want to cede any land to Russia—82 percent of Ukrainians are against itaccording to a poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology conducted in May.
Zelensky said Ukrainian fighter jets are capable of repelling Russian forcesand even hinted that they want to push Russia back not just before February 2022, but also back before Russia invaded in 2014.
But if Zelensky and his advisers were to one day face the realities of war and actually approach the negotiating table again and consider – or offer – territorial concessions, that could could bring Zelensky to the brink of political instability, according to Steven Pifer, a former US Ambassador to Ukraine.
“Zelensky will have to make some really tough decisions between what kind of concessions should be made versus defending positions of principle and what kind of concessions he might want to make to the Ukrainian public. acceptable,” Pifer told The Daily Beast. “I think it’s going to be a really, very difficult decision if they get to a point in a negotiation.”
However, Zelensky knew the point was when, not if, he would return to the negotiating table. Zelensky last week said he thought the fight would be decided on the battlefield, but ultimately admitted that he would try to make a deal again.
“Victory must be achieved on the battlefield,” Zelensky said. But “any war should be ended at the negotiating table.”
Early in the war, Ukrainian officials came to the negotiating table with the Russians to see if some sort of peace or agreement can reach. But Zelensky’s choice to entertain the idea that Ukraine could strike a deal with the Russians has been met with criticism from Ukrainians who cast doubt on his assertion.
As war rages on and Ukrainians have fallen victim to Russian atrocities, Ukrainians can only continue to engage.
“Attitudes have hardened in Ukraine, both within the government and among the people and so even if Zelensky wants to make some concessions that he might have considered 10 or 11 weeks ago, I don’t I’m sure the Ukrainian people will accept it. That’s it now,” said Pifer.
Consequences for Zelensky could play out in a number of ways. Politically, Zelensky’s stance has changed shape since taking power. Before Putin invaded Ukraine in February, his domestic approval rating had dropped. Even in the build-up to the invasion, world leaders questioned his judgment as he sought to deny the seriousness of Putin’s plans for Ukraine and not rapidly escalate. strengthen its reserve force.
But when the war started, Zelensky meets the moment, stormed into the streets and fought alongside his citizens. He became the president of the people.
And while he knows the Ukrainian people’s pulse and their resolve to fight back against Russia, it’s not clear how long the aura of a political wartime hero will last him, especially when he had to start making decisions. politically difficult to achieve real peace. According to Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum on Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, if Zelensky even comes to a negotiating table, his political future could be shot.
“This could really be the beginning of the end of Zelensky’s popularity if he gets involved in the negotiations,” Lutsevych said. “He has a very good path to go when there is some sort of negotiated settlement.”
Olena Lennon, assistant professor of Political Science and National Security at the University of New Haven, agrees that entering political negotiations with Russia at this point would be tantamount to political suicide.
“If Zelensky starts giving in now, he knows well where the public is and there will be a backlash. That would be the end of his career,” Lennon said, suggesting that a class of veterans could emerge to challenge Zelensky. “If he gives in, there will be a massive social movement against that.”
Apart from any social or political movement against the negotiations, Lennon said how Ukrainian fighters were invested in the war and how their focus on lasers pushed Russia out, if there were concessions, some dynamic skirmishes could be. could continue regardless of what Zelensky decides to do politically, Lennon said.
Lennon told The Daily Beast: “Guerrilla warfare could become a real possibility if the political leadership begins to give in to Russia. “A large number of Ukrainians have joined the territorial defense or enlisted in the army. Many others are armed and have military experience. So it is very likely that Zelensky’s administration could be threatened in a military coup if they start making concessions to Russia.”
For its part, the Biden administration is trying to stay out.
“We will not press Ukraine to make concessions, and we have consistently stated that sovereign states have the right to choose their alliances and make their own decisions about their security,” a State Department spokesman said. . “We believe Ukraine must define what it considers success.”
“Our focus is on helping Ukraine have as strong a hand as possible on the battlefield and on the negotiating table,” the spokesman said.
Zelensky emphasizes that successes in this war must first come on the battlefield — victories that have not yet materialized. Just last week, Russian and Ukrainian troops fought in the disputed and strategically important city of Severodonetsk, just the latest back-and-forth that could determine the future of the war.
Andrew Lohsen, a former supervisory officer at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said Zelensky was now in a politically safe space, as conversations about upcoming battles the end and concessions have yet to be made. in the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.
Lohsen, a former State Department analyst, told The Daily Beast: “We are not at a point right now where any form of territorial concession by Ukraine is in the cards. “Until we get to the stage where Ukraine is really facing increasingly serious logistical problems or is not able to actually deploy a capable defensive force, I don’t think we will be able to do that. We will talk a lot about territorial concessions.”
Ukrainian officials are likely not going to push ahead with negotiations any time soon, as they still think they can repel the Russians and are still concerned about giving Putin what could look like a reward. for the invasion, according to Bill Taylor, the former US ambassador. Ukraine, who served as Chargé d’affaires temporary advertising for Ukraine from 2019 to 2020.
Taylor told The Daily Beast: “It doesn’t look like they’re ready to negotiate at this point. “They know that some Ukrainian territory can be regained on the battlefield, and they also know that some Ukrainian territory, possibly Crimea, will take much longer and they are willing to accept, I think. that it will take longer”.
“Negotiation at this point would lock down Russia’s control over parts of southeastern Ukraine,” Taylor said. “So the Ukrainians – Zelensky and the people – are still not ready for this because they don’t want, A, to give up their claim and, B, they don’t want to reward the Russians for invading them.”