Standing up to Putin: how Russian threat has toughened up Ukraine’s Zelenskiy

Actor turned president has had profound political transformation in the face of Russian aggression

Volodymyr Zelensky meets Ukraine troops on the frontline in the Donetsk region Volodymyr Zelenskiy meets Ukraine troops on the frontline in the Donetsk region this month. Photograph: Ukrainian presidential press-ser/AFP/Getty ImagesVolodymyr Zelenskiy meets Ukraine troops on the frontline in the Donetsk region this month. Photograph: Ukrainian presidential press-ser/AFP/Getty Images

in Kyiv and in Moscow

In 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskiy rode a protest vote to victory in Ukraine, telling his supporters he would jail corrupt politicians and negotiate directly with Vladimir Putin to end Russia’s war in east Ukraine. Nearly three years later, Zelenskiy is staring down the threat of a Russian invasion, while he rallies western powers to his side and calls for aid. “We know what it means to defend one’s own state and land with weapons in hand,” he said during an address last week to the Kyiv Jewish Forum.

Under pressure from Putin, Zelenskiy has undergone a profound political transformation. One thing is clear: he is no longer the same dove that he was on the campaign trail. Russia is pushing Ukraine toward Nato, he says, and a membership action plan is now central to his foreign policy. This month, Zelenskiy toured the frontline outside Donetsk. Wearing a flak jacket and helmet, he chatted with service personnel who will be the first line of Ukraine’s defence should tanks from Russia begin to roll.

Russia has openly spurned Zelenskiy’s efforts to negotiate and talks have virtually ceased. Fifty Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since last year’s ceasefire, a fact that weighs heavily on Ukraine’s actor turned president. “I think he’s matured. He’s aged. You can see that,” said Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow and manager of the Ukraine forum in the Russia and Eurasia programme at Chatham House. “He’s simply had to experience the burden of responsibility.”

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Having massed tanks, artillery and even ballistic missiles near the border, Russia appears poised to invade Ukraine once more, following Putin’s annexation in 2014 of Crimea and de facto takeover of swaths of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east of Ukraine. A fresh offensive could begin in the new year, western intelligence agencies have warned.

The Kremlin has issued a list of demands over Kyiv’s head directly to the US. It wants a cast iron guarantee that Ukraine will never join Nato, despite the fact that such a prospect is a long way off, with little consensus among Nato members. Moscow wants special status for the separatist eastern territories, already run by proxies controlled from Russia. The demands amount to the de facto return of a Kremlin sphere of influence in eastern Europe. Western leaders are likely to reject them. Moscow can in turn use this as a predicate for war.

All of which presents Zelenskiy with the gravest crisis of his presidency. A former comedian, he played the role of president in a popular TV drama, Servant of the People, before getting the job for real. His predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, espoused hardline anti-Moscow views. Zelenskiy, by contrast, ran as the peace candidate.

“Zelenskiy was very naive about Russia’s policy. He said that to stop the war it was necessary to talk to Putin. His rhetoric was pacifist,” Olexiy Haran, professor of politics at the university of Kyiv’s Mohyla academy, said. Zelenskiy’s team played with the idea of possible concessions to Moscow, Haran added, including supplying water to Crimea.

In the early days of Zelenskiy’s tenure, this engagement strategy produced some results, leading to prisoner exchanges and a series of short-lived ceasefires along the so-called line of control – a fortified 250-mile frontline running through the Donbas, with the Ukrainian army on one side and Russian forces and their proxies on the other.

Volodymyr ZelenskiyVolodymyr Zelenskiy attends a summit in Brussels last week. Moscow has made no secret of its disdain for the comic turned president. Photograph: Johanna Geron/AFP/Getty Images

But it gradually became apparent deescalation wasn’t happening. “Putin didn’t stop shooting,” Haran said. “It was sobering for Zelenskiy. He thought: “I’m making concessions and nothing changes.’”

Moscow has made no secret of its disdain for the comic turned president. “Why contacts with the current Ukrainian leadership are pointless,” read the headline of an article written by the former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev earlier this year. In it, he laid out Moscow’s strategy of speaking directly to Washington: “It’s pointless for us to deal with vassals. Business needs to be conducted with the suzerain [sovereign].”

“There is a deep conviction that Zelenskiy is a guy with whom it doesn’t make any sense to try to discuss things politically,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign policy analyst. In the halls of power, he said, Zelenskiy was being compared unfavourably with Poroshenko, whom Moscow considered a “provocateur” but who at least understood where Russia’s “red lines” lay. By contrast, he said, Zelenskiy’s inexperience was seen as potentially dangerous.

Of course, Moscow never gave Zelenskiy much of a chance. The Kremlin began its relationship with the president-elect by playing hardball, offering to expedite Russian passports for residents of east Ukraine before his inauguration, deepening a conflict it had created in 2014.

When negotiations came, Moscow also drove a hard line. Zelenskiy’s first domestic crisis came in October of 2019, after he announced he had agreed to the so-called Steinmeier formula with Russia, which would allow elections in the Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine to move forward under supervision from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Veterans and activists in Kyiv protested under the slogan “No to capitulation!” That effort to jump-start the Minsk peace agreements ultimately floundered.

The Kremlin grew angrier as smaller deals, such as one to create a consultative body within the Minsk agreements, also fell through. It began leaking details of its negotiations with Zelenskiy’s team and ultimately cut off most political contacts entirely.

Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND corporation, said it may have come down to Putin’s belief that Zelenskiy could not deliver the concessions he wanted. “They came to a conclusion that they don’t really have a partner to negotiate with,” he said of the Kremlin.

In the face of hardball tactics from Moscow, Zelenskiy took a tougher stand. In February, Ukraine’s national security council shut down three TV channels controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk, an influential pro-Kremlin Ukrainian politician and oligarch. It was a bold move. Putin is godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter. Medvedchuk is under house arrest and accused of treason.

These channels were spreading a pro-Russian narrative about the conflict in Donbas, Zelenskiy’s supporters say. One member of Medvedchuk’s opposition political party, however, said Putin viewed the clampdown as a “personal insult”. By arresting Medvedchuk, Zelenskiy removed a trusted interlocutor, leaving Moscow with only military options, the person said.

Some kind of Russian military action was now likely, Lutsevych added. This might stop short of a full-scale ground invasion. It could include punitive airstrikes on Ukrainian military infrastructure and the Russian army moving overtly into rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk, where residents would greet Putin’s soldiers with flowers, she said – a perfect image for Russian state TV.

Zelenskiy was a “bit despairing” about the west’s slow-moving response to the crisis, Lutsevych said, and its failure to provide Ukraine with additional defensive missiles. Kyiv and Moscow currently had irreconcilable differences over how to resolve the Donbas situation, she suggested. Zelenskiy wanted a ceasefire and the removal of heavy weapons before the region’s political fate was determined; Putin the exact opposite.

Moscow has a long history of baiting its neighbours into conflicts and has sought to portray Zelenskiy as another Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president defeated in a short war with Russia in 2008. And as Moscow maneuverers its troops along Ukraine’s borders and demands concessions that its diplomats know will not be granted, it appears Russia may look to provoke that very outcome.

“Many people here think that he is ready to risk an external crisis in order to solve his domestic problems, more than previous leaders,” said Lukyanov of the Kremlin.

Zelenskiy’s ratings have dipped since 2019, when he won an astonishing 70% of the vote. Halfway through his presidential term, he commands about 25% support. He remains the country’s most popular politician. As things stand he is likely to be re-elected in 2024 – assuming, that is, that Russia does not occupy Kyiv first and topple its pro-EU government.

“His character can be impulsive,” Ihor Todorov, a professor of international relations at Uzhhorod National University, said of Zelenskiy. Todorov added: “His electorate is pretty solid. There is an active patriotic majority.”

Todorov used to teach at Donetsk University and was forced to flee in 2014. He said he did not expect Russia to escalate its existing military conflict with Ukraine. Rather, he said, Putin was playing a “global political game” designed to divide the west and to extract maximum concessions.

Observers say Zelenskiy still shows moments of political immaturity, adding that he is excessively reliant on a small group of advisers who previously worked with him in TV. They cite his ad hoc suggestion last week that a referendum might solve the Donbas problem. And his renewed offer of talks with Putin – a non-starter in Moscow and a forum where Zelenskiy would likely struggle against a more experienced adversary.

“It would be KGB vs a comic,” Haran said. He added: “Zelenskiy is stronger mentally since the time he was elected. But there are no clear views in his mind. He believes he is going to do something good for the country. He doesn’t understand many things about politics. He believes that anyone who criticises him, for example, is somehow being manipulated.”

For now, Zelenskiy and the western world wait to see what Putin will do next. Russia believed itself to hold all the cards, Haran said. “For Putin it’s important to go down in history as a real national hero, as a person who reunited Russian Slavic lands. He has Belarus in his pocket. He has the DNR [the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic]. Many people there now have Russia passports. Putin can say he’s defending them.”

And for Putin, who views it as his duty to reverse Kyiv’s trajectory to the west, he sees Ukraine’s would-be peacemaker as an obstacle in his way. “Anything related to Ukraine is very personal for him, it’s not negotiable, he is willing to be punished in order to achieve this,” said a former Russian government official. “And when he looks at Zelenskiy, he doesn’t see an equal … He sees a person who is wasting his time.”


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