Image credit: Presidential Office of Ukraine
By Alexander A. Hill
Volodymyr Zelensky is undoubtedly the most famous politician in the Western world at the moment. His resolve, bravery and media savvy have elevated him to a status that most politicians can only fantasize about. Western politicians and celebrities are falling over themselves to have an audience with him, no doubt hoping that some of his fame will rub off on them.
His nemesis, Vladimir Putin, has little or none of Zelensky’s appeal. Putin’s rare public appearances exude none of Zelensky’s charm or the ”sleeves rolled up” aura of a man who seems likely to get things done. However, while some of Zelensky’s fame is undoubtedly justified by his wartime resolve and commitment to an independent Ukraine, the extent to which his idolization will contribute to a lasting and equitable peace is debatable unless Zelensky makes good use of it. Zelensky’s recent statements suggesting that he is not willing to give up Ukrainian territory (where much of that which is disputed has already practically been given up since 2014) are sadly however likely to mean a long, drawn-out battle for eastern Ukraine that will not fundamentally change the ultimate negotiating positions of either party to this war.
Up until this point in the war, Zelensky’s service to Ukraine has certainly been significant. He has been the central figure in mobilizing Ukrainian resistance and Western support to prevent Ukrainian territory from being overrun by Russian forces. In a simple sense, there is no longer an existential threat to Ukraine. Russian tanks will not be rolling into Kyiv. For this, Zelensky can claim much credit. Now, however, it is arguably the time to start seriously thinking about bringing an end to this war. But there is currently no sign that Zelensky or Western leaders are willing to seriously consider the sort of peace terms that, sooner or later, will have to be considered – whether they like it or not.
As I have written elsewhere, if Vladimir Putin is to end this war, he is going to require not only some sort of acknowledgement of Russian sovereignty over Crimea, but also some sort of meaningful autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist regions. It is important to remember that their ”independence” is ostensibly the reason for which Russia went to war in the first place.
Currently Western strategy seems to be to hope that Vladimir Putin will simply be overthrown in Russia, allowing Ukraine to re-occupy or re-capture those territories lost to it since 2014. Besides the fact that the chances of this remain low, even if Putin was to be overthrown, there is no guarantee he would be replaced by someone more amenable towards the sort of total Russian defeat scenario that Western leaders seem to be aiming for. The ferocity of Western sanctions and vilification of Russia are likely doing much to unite a sizeable majority in Russian society that was otherwise starting to tire of Putin. How long that unity will last in the face of further Western pressure remains to be seen, but tightening the financial screw further on Russia is likely to hit Western populations – and particularly European consumers of Russian oil and gas – increasingly hard.
The chances of Ukrainian forces being able to push Russian forces out of Donetsk and Luhansk and crush the separatists once and for all are also very low. It is one thing for Ukrainian forces to defend against a foreign invader, and quite another to defeat a dug-in enemy. At least some of those defending Donetsk and Luhansk would see a Ukrainian advance into those regions as an existential threat. The separatists (who previously might have been satisfied with greater autonomy, but no more) themselves endured years of Ukrainian shelling and attacks and are not about to lay down their arms quietly.
Sadly, Western and Ukrainian policy to date has not exactly primed the separatists for compromise. Prior to the war, Zelensky’s government did little to improve relations with any separatist-inclined Russian groups in the east of the country. The language law that went into effect in Ukraine this January will undoubtedly have increased the resolve of the separatists. There was little sign before Putin’s invasion that Ukraine was willing to take the Minsk Accords of 2014-15 seriously, and when this language law went into effect it was a further nail in the coffin of compromise.
Although Zelensky’s banning of 11 political parties that are supposedly ”pro-Russian” in mid-March might be seen to be justified by wartime circumstances, for separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk this will be seen as further evidence of Zelensky’s desire to side-line those who identify as “Russian” in Ukrainian society – something that was obvious to them before Vladimir Putin’s invasion and such wartime exigencies as the banning of political parties. Such actions have gone down well with Ukrainian nationalists but will no doubt have further hardened the resolve of the separatists.
The separatists are now of course openly backed by Russian armed forces that have become the butt of many memes in the West, but their performance in those areas where separatist sentiments are strong is likely to be better than when they were trying to rush Kyiv with inadequate forces and resources in the face of stiff resistance. Although overall Russian military capabilities are far lower than the raw data for troops numbers might suggest, Russia did not throw anything like its full capabilities into the initial phases of the war against Ukraine. Focusing on the Donbass region will alleviate, even if not solve, many of the Russian army’s logistical inadequacies. To write off the Russian armed forces and start to believe in Ukraine sweeping them out of all Ukrainian territory is simply naïve – no-matter how many weapons the West provides it.
If we are to accept that Zelensky’s attempts to drag NATO and the West into a direct confrontation with Russia can only lead to a calamitous escalation and are not in Western interests (despite the best efforts of some ‘hawks’ in the West to suggest otherwise), then it becomes clearer that the time for a more measured tone from Western leaders towards negotiation has also come.
Some Western leaders may sadly be keen to see this war drag out for as long as possible. Not only do they seem to think that the longer the war goes on the greater the chances are that Putin will be overthrown, but a continued war is also of course convenient in distracting from their own political problems, from low approval ratings to political scandals. For the US in particular, a prolonged war promises even greater increases in defence spending by other NATO nations – much of which will benefit US manufacturers and its economy. Although France’s Emmanuel Macron has shown some inclination towards negotiations, he stands out as being somewhat isolated in that regard. With the West providing little impetus towards negotiation, it is left for Zelensky to take the lead.
If he chooses to look for a viable peace, then Zelensky currently has a lot of political currency in the bank. Zelensky could choose to focus his political efforts on highlighting what Ukraine has actually achieved – rather than where it is unlikely to succeed. Ukraine has resisted its larger neighbour and all but guaranteed its ultimate acceptance into the EU as long as it can prove its democratic credentials.
Even if Russia gains some of what it wants from this war – and in particular recognition of its control over Crimea and some sort of “independence” for the separatist regions (even if not for all the territory they claim) – it will be apparent to much of the world that the end result was not a Russian victory. Russian forces have clearly been humbled on the battlefield and Russia will no doubt remain isolated from and vilified in the West.
Although some have suggested that Ukraine should have a fast-tracked admission to join the EU, one assumes that the EU will apply some standards to Ukraine before accession. Part of the process of joining the EU will undoubtedly require it to show that it can be benevolent towards linguistic minorities within its borders. Perhaps Zelensky could in that regard begin by showing now that he has the statesmanship not only for bold wartime statements, but also for the more nuanced business of being a successful leader after the fighting is over. A good place for Zelensky to start would be to indicate that any remaining Russian minority in Ukraine (where there are many “Russians” outside the separatist regions) will not be subject to excesses by nationalist right-wing groups after this terrible war has come to an end.
Given that Zelensky is probably at the apex of his popularity, perhaps now is the time for him to start to negotiate seriously for peace. A long dragged-out war over the separatist regions is unlikely to lead to a substantially different outcome and may even see his popularity wane. If Ukrainian forces start to recapture significant amounts of territory from a dug-in enemy, then it will be the Ukrainian side that will have to start making much greater use of less discriminating weapons such as artillery. Western audiences may forgive them for some “collateral” damage under the circumstances, but increasing civilians deaths at the hands of Ukrainian forces would undoubtedly start to chip away at Western support for a prolonged war – and might even become an impediment to Ukraine’s fast-tracked membership of the EU.
As it stands, Volodymyr Zelensky has the opportunity not only to be the great wartime Ukrainian leader who oversaw the defence of Ukraine against Vladimir Putin’s aggression, but also the great peacemaker and statesman who oversaw a stable and lasting settlement and Ukraine’s incorporation into the “West”. Negotiating with Russia now – including over the vexed issue of territory – may not be particularly palatable, but in all probability has to happen at some point and is ultimately in Ukraine’s interest. So far, Zelensky has gambled and won – but now is the time for him to cash in his chips.
Professor Alexander A. Hill has taught history at the University of Calgary since 2004. He has PhD in Social and Political Sciences from the University of Cambridge and specializes in Soviet military and political history, with a particular emphasis on the period 1928-1945 and on Soviet Cold War involvement in Africa. He also has a Diploma in Russian from the University of Cambridge. He has written a number of books on the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War, including The Red Army and the Second World War (Cambridge University Press, 2016). His most recent book, The War on the Eastern Front: The Soviet Union, 1941-1945 – A Photographic History has just been published by Pen and Sword (2021).