Only history can judge Zelensky’s big gamble

Published by The i paper (12th February, 2024)

Volodymyr Zelensky is a bold, competitive and determined man, driven by an astonishing sense of self-belief. These personal traits took him from his background as a small Jewish kid growing up on the tough streets of a gritty industrial city in eastern Ukraine to fame and wealth as an actor and comedian. They carried him to the summit of politics and power after winning his country’s presidency against the odds. And they served him well as leader of a society under onslaught from a large and hostile neighbour, his cocky defiance and courageous refusal to flee symbolising the resolute response of his nation in face of atrocities, brutality and war crimes.  

But the big question now for Ukrainians is whether these same personal attributes that have served them so well in their fightback against Russia – binding citizens together at home while galvanising support abroad – can still carry them forward as both the war and geopolitical situation shift to a new phase.

Zelensky has always been prepared to take risks. Yet his sacking of Valery Zaluzhny, the hugely-popular military commander who led the fightback against Kremlin forces after the full-scale invasion two years ago, comes at a fraught time as the president admitted to “the feeling of stagnation” affecting his citizens.

Certainly, the danger signs coculd not be flashing any clearer, 10 years after Russia first began grabbing chunks of Ukrainian terrain in Crimea and the Donbas. Along the 600-mile front line carving through the country, both sides are dug in to near-static lines as the war becomes attritional and losses rise.

Vladimir Putin desperately wants a propaganda “victory” ahead of next month’s electoral confirmation as president after banning, jailing and killing his rivals, so his forces have intensified their assault on Avdiivka, sitting just miles from Donetsk, the stolen capital of his so-called “people’s republic”. Fewer than 1,000 residents remain amid the ruins of this town where I stayed shortly before the war.

The fascistic dictator has given an interview to a far-right American patsy that shows his true colours with comparison in his falsified historical ramblings to Adolf Hitler, absurdly claiming that Poland “forced” the Nazis to invade them in 1939.

Meanwhile Donald Trump – ahead in polls for this year’s US presidential election – says he would “encourage” Russia to attack Nato members that fail to pay bills while his Republican soulmates shamefully block essential aid to support Ukraine’s fight for freedom. Yet Boris Johnson, still hoping to win the Tory crown again, absurdly claims that Trump’s return to the White House is “what the world needs” for stability. Who can now doubt that populism is corroding democracy in the West?

Little wonder that when I was last in Ukraine two months ago, there was growing fear among its weary people that they face a long and lonely struggle for survival. Their mood of resistance felt even stronger after enduring such suffering and loss, but it was tinged by dark realism after all that bravura talk of swift victory in the wake of early battlefield successes.

There was discussion over how best to ensure sufficient flow of citizens ready and trained to risk their lives in this epochal struggle for national survival, with conscription extended several times already. The average age of their fighters is 43. On the front line, the men and women who have fought so heroically are hampered by arms shortages since most of Europe still fails to see the scale of challenge confronting our continent. Their summer offensive failed. And there is tiredness among the surviving troops who rushed to sign up two years ago.

This was the backdrop to Zelensky’s decision to replace his military chief. The pair had disagreements in the run-up to Russia’s full-scale attack, Zaluzhny wanting stronger border fortification and mass call-up of reserves after rightly seeing the seriousness of Putin’s threat. Yet they worked well together to save their nation, their respective strengths dovetailing as the soldier focused on Kyiv’s defence while the politician used his incredible promotional flair to shore up global support.

But rumours have grown of a falling-out after the summer offensive flop whether due to bickering on military strategy, Zaluzhny’s public pressure for mass conscription, his forceful clashes with Washington or – the most likely reason – fears that the general might leverage his cult-like popularity into political rivalry.

Politics never really disappears, even in a time of war. Even Sir Winston Churchill faced a no-confidence vote in the summer of 1942 after setbacks in North Africa. And a president is entitled to sack a military chief in whom he has lost confidence, as seen often in history, since power is vested in politicians in a democracy.

Every European who cherishes freedom can be grateful to Zaluzhny for leading Ukraine’s fightback that blunted Putin’s cruel plan to crush a sovereign country. Zelensky has made pointed public criticism about too many personnel in headquarters leaving a minority of soldiers among the million-strong armed forces “actually at the forefront, actually fighting” – although he is also well aware of the unpopularity of extending conscription once again.

It is a risky strategy for the president to sack this national hero – especially when his replacement, Oleksandr Syrsky, seems less trusted by many of those tired troops in the trenches. The new military chief instantly announced speeding up weapons deliveries and rotation of units, along with more investment in drones and electronic warfare. Zelensky has defended his action, saying that their citizens speak less of success. “But the Ukrainian spirit has not lost faith in victory. Ukraine retains its historic chance. It is our duty to realise it.”

Now history will judge the outcome of this gamble upon which the future of his country as a free, democratic and united state depends – although the bigger question is not over this president’s courage, but over the weak allies that have failed to back these people with sufficient arms to defeat the darkness confronting democracy on our continent.

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