27 May 2022

Time: “Inside Volodymyr Zelensky’s World”

The experience illustrated how much Zelensky has changed since we first met three years ago, backstage at his comedy show in Kyiv, when he was still an actor running for President. His sense of humor is still intact. It’s a means of survival, he says. But two months of war have made him harder, quicker to anger, and a lot more comfortable with risk. Russian troops came within minutes of finding him and his family in the first hours of the war, their gunfire once audible inside his office walls. Images of dead civilians haunt him. So do the daily appeals from his troops, hundreds of whom are trapped belowground, running out of food, water, and ammunition.

Friends and allies rushed to Zelensky’s side, sometimes in violation of security protocols. Several brought their families to the compound. If the President were to be killed, the chain of succession in Ukraine calls for the Speaker of parliament to take command. But Ruslan Stefanchuk, who holds that post, drove straight to Bankova Street on the morning of the invasion rather than taking shelter at a distance.

Stefanchuk was among the first to see the President in his office that day. It wasn’t fear on his face, he told me. It was a question: How could this be? For months Zelensky had downplayed warnings from Washington that Russia was about to invade. Now he registered the fact that an all-out war had broken out, but could not yet grasp the totality of what it meant. Maybe these words sound vague or pompous, says Stefanchuk. But we sensed the order of the world collapsing. Soon the Speaker rushed down the street to the parliament and presided over a vote to impose martial law across the country. Zelensky signed the decree that afternoon.

Simon Shuster

As the imminent danger of Russian troops capturing the capital subsided, reporters started getting access to Ukraine’s now-wartime President, Volodymyr Zelensky. I found it a bit ironic how much this article emphasizes his former job as comedian, including ending on this exact note (that is the role he intends to play) – not the most reassuring way to portray a leader during such a consequential conflict.

There are several bits throughout the piece that I found interesting and potentially significant. The paragraphs above make it look like Zelensky was wholly unprepared for a genuine Russian invasion, despite numerous and repeated warnings from the US – to be fair, few people, myself included, expected hostilities to begin because it seemed an awful and irrational decision for Vladimir Putin. Then again, I wasn’t the President of a country encircled by enemy troops… Some caution and foresight would be good traits to exhibit when invested with the high responsibility of leading a country.

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Besides misjudging Putin’s willingness to go to war, I think Zelensky’s second miscalculation was to put too much trust in American promises. Again, not entirely his fault, as the Biden administration repeatedly sent Ukraine encouraging signals, even though they were clearly not willing to intervene militarily against Russia. After the retreat from Afghanistan and constant signaling that America is less interested in fighting everyone’s wars, you should question whether the US would come to Ukraine’s rescue…

A few days later, Zelensky went on a ride that aides refer to as the borscht trip. At a checkpoint near the edge of the city, the President met a man who would bring a fresh pot of borscht for the troops every day. They stood there, within range of enemy snipers and artillery, and had a bowl of soup with bread, talking about the Soviet Union and what the Russians had become since its collapse. He told me how much he hated the Russians, Zelensky recalls. Then the cook went to the trunk of his car and pulled out some medals he had earned while serving in the Soviet military. The conversation left a deep impression on Zelensky. It felt right, says Yermak. Just talking to the people we work for.

Such outings were rare. Though he received frequent updates from his generals and gave them broad instructions, Zelensky did not pretend to be a tactical savant. His Defense Minister was seldom by his side. Nor were any of Ukraine’s top military commanders. He lets them do the fighting, says Arestovych, his adviser on military affairs.

This sections seems to imply that the President is scarcely involved in overseeing military operations, concentrating instead on being a symbol and gathering support for Ukraine’s cause. This may account for the mixed messages coming from Ukraine regarding their war goals, sometimes saying they are open to negotiations, otherwise taking ambitious yet unrealistic positions like reclaiming Crimea and demanding war reparations. It may be the best division of labor, considering the crisis and everyone’s limited time, but that may have unpleasant consequences down the line…

Some of his decrees after the start of the war bear the mark of increased authoritarianism, from banning multiple opposition parties, to combining all national TV channels into a single platform, to signing a law allowing Ukraine to confiscate assets of Russia supporters. Measures somewhat justified during a war for survival, but their true measure will come after the conflict ends. If these laws stay in effect, this will substantially erode Ukraine’s already feeble democracy and rule of law.

Zelensky, with his chief of staff Andriy Yermak, center, speaks to journalists in Bucha on April 4
Zelensky, with his chief of staff Andriy Yermak, center, speaks to journalists in Bucha on April 4 Metin Aktas—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Unfortunately for him, the longer the war drags on, the more difficult Zelensky’s position becomes. In Donbas, Russia is apparently gaining momentum, making a decisive Ukrainian victory a distant and unlikely perspective. A long and bitter stalemate will further devastate and impoverish the country, and eventually erode support in the West for Ukraine’s cause. Already polls indicate support is waning in the US, and with upcoming congressional election in November the likely Republican majority could drastically reduce military aid, or demand onerous conditions for its release, as Trump has done before.

On the other hand, public option inside the country overwhelmingly encourages continued fighting, as does the international public for now, including political figures in the Baltic countries and Poland. The slightest suggestion of negotiation and an eventual cease fire is met with disdain and dismissal, painted as appeasement and surrendering to Russia. This climate makes it almost impossible for Zelensky to achieve a negotiated settlement, as Ukrainians would fiercely reject it. Considering the relative autonomy of the military and the martial law in effect, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a military coup to remove the president, if his popularity drops abruptly. It would be trivial to paint him as a traitor to an angry populace if he agrees to territorial concessions in exchange for ending hostilities.

The best option would be to rapidly drive the invaders out, but for that Ukraine’s military must rely on arms deliveries from the West, which are not coming in as fast as they demand. We may debate the reasons – a reluctance to escalate against Russia, the limited extra capacity in Europe and slow replenishment rate – but the outcome is the same. I don’t see a clear path for Ukraine out of this predicament – nor for its president…

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