Zelensky is fully invested in the “warring Ukraine” project, and today he personifies the party of war. However, being the president of war and a president of peace are completely different modalities, between which it is often impossible to move, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.
US President Joe Biden recently admitted that the conflict over Ukraine will become protracted, making it a kind of competition of wills between Russia and Europe. The conflict is really turning into a duel of endurance potentials: there is a determination on the Russian side to see things through to the end, there are no doubts about Ukraine’s determination to wage war, despite the large number of losses and the growing tension in society. Until the last Soviet cartridge is fired in Kiev’s arsenal, until the mistakes of the command give rise to a cascade of tactical defeats at the front, and as long as their Western sponsors support them with weapons, Ukraine will fight. We can state that both sides consider temporary resources to be their advantage.
However, this was not the case throughout the crisis. The negotiating line that Russia came up with in March can be seen as a big win for Kiev: recognition of the Donbass republics and Russian sovereignty over Crimea, removal of nationalists from government and law enforcement agencies, military neutrality of the country and demilitarisation.
An event that could finally incline Europeans to negotiations could be catastrophic: the complete collapse of the Ukrainian front against the backdrop of an inability to continue to supply weapons, a man-made disaster at energy or nuclear facilities, a major sabotage of energy pipelines that would call into question the energy security of Europe.
So far, in Europe, the course of inflicting maximum damage on Russia remains. Western intelligence continues to send data to Ukraine that allows for the killing of high-ranking Russian military personnel. Western military advisers remain present to help coordinate Ukrainian strikes against Russian military strongholds, warehouses and infrastructure.
The same course is provided in Ukraine itself. Zelensky works in a very dense elite environment, but the politicians who advocate the peace process are killed or forced out of Ukrainian politics. Of course, by eliminating alternative voices, the president provokes the creation of a large opposition bloc, which, in the event of a catastrophe at the front or the depletion of the country’s resources — whether human, material or international support resources — will readily launch a coup “to save the country”. In the meantime, Zelensky behaves like an unbridled Cossack ataman. First, the chieftain remains in his place only thanks to the will of the Cossack assembly, as Nikolai Gogol aptly depicted in Taras Bulba. Second, the ataman is a figure completely legitimised by the war: “At length, in one quarter and then another, it began to be rumoured about, ‘Behold, the Cossack strength is being vainly wasted: there is no war! Behold, our leaders have become as marmots, every one; their eyes swim in fat! Plainly, there is no justice in the world!’”
Zelensky, of course, is fully invested in the “warring Ukraine” project, and today he personifies the party of war. However, being the president of war and a president of peace are completely different modalities, between which it is often impossible to move. For example, a colossal outflow of people from the country, many of them obtaining Russian passports, creates high risks for Zelensky in the long run: how can he explain to his electorate why a significant number of their compatriots have decided to choose a Russian passport during the war?
On the eve of the military phase of the crisis, Ukraine was one of the most well-armed states, the third in terms of its military potential in Europe after Russia and Turkey. Its army had combat experience and, in terms of its training and strength, left the EU states far behind. After the end of the crisis, there is a high probability that Zelensky will not want to leave such a military-political configuration: as a war president, if he retains power, he will choose for himself the path of leading the country in any of its territorial forms with an army, well-equipped with Western weapons. An anti-Russian enclave armed to the teeth will emerge, ready to fight for its existence with a formidable neighbour by any means, a kind of an Eastern European Israel. Against the background of the gradual formation of the military-political confrontation between Russia and NATO, this only adds to the risks for the escalation of military crises in the future.