Volodymyr Zelensky was willing to end the war. On multiple occasions in the early days of the war, long before the escalation and long before the horrifying loss of life, limb and land, the Ukrainian president was willing to preserve his people’s land and protect his people lives in exchange for abandoning the dream of membership in NATO, a dream that, even as late as three months after Russia invaded, was shared by only 59% of Ukrainians.
But the US and the UK restrained him. They insisted that Zelensky refrain from a policy of negotiating with Putin in favour of pursuing US policy by engaging in war. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Zelensky that Russian President Vladimir Putin “should be pressured, not negotiated with” and that, even if Ukraine was ready to sign some agreements with Russia, “the West was not.” Zelensky was persuaded to offer the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers to continue the fight in the pursuit of US goals. Zelensky gave up peace for Ukraine for a promise – formal or informal – that the US and its NATO allies would provide it with all the weapons it needs for as long as it takes.
But when Zelensky calls in that promise and asks for what Ukraine needs for as long as it takes, he is accused of being ungrateful and is told that the time has come to negotiate.
And that is the first paradox. Zelensky was told not to negotiate and that he would get the weapons he needs to go on fighting; then he is told to no longer expect weapons because he should be negotiating.
When the flow of weapons showed signs of slowing, Zelensky reminded the Political West of its promise and asked for the tap to be turned up. The US called him ungrateful for what he had already received. UK defense secretary Ben Wallace said that the US and UK “want to see a bit of gratitude” from Ukraine and said that he “told them last year, when I drove 11 hours to be given a list, that I’m not like Amazon.” It’s true: Amazon delivers what it promised to.
The first paradox leads to a second one. Zelensky was told to fight, not to negotiate. Now he won’t negotiate. But that has made him, no longer an instrument of US goals, but an obstacle.
The goal of the US, as Biden keeps explaining, is to help Ukraine “fight on the battlefield,” so it can “be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table.” The end goal of the battle was the negotiating table. But if Zelensky won’t go to the negotiating table, there is no point, in the end, of the battle. And that is the second, and biggest, paradox. Zelensky has gone from instrument to impediment. His intransigence – intransigence that the US nurtured – now undermines US and Ukrainian goals. The battle was meant to build the negotiations, to negotiate a weaker Putin and a stronger NATO and Ukraine. But if the battle precludes the negotiations, it can only prolong the battle, which, as Ukrainian commander-in-chief General Valery Zaluzhny has pointed out, can only result in a stronger Russia and a smaller, weaker Ukraine.
While Zaluzhny says that the war can’t be won, and the US whispers that Ukraine might need to give somethings up and explore peace negotiations with Russia to end the war, Zelensky continues to forbid negotiations and insist on victory. He insists that victory means the full recovery of Ukrainian land, including Crimea: a position he did not hold at the beginning of the war when he was willing to discuss territory and territorial concessions. He insists that the war is not a stalemate and maintains his ban on talking to Putin. Negotiations with Russia, for Zelensky, remain “taboo.”
But if the point of the battle was to set up the negotiations, if there can be no negotiations, there was no point in the battle.
Zelensky has gone from a hero and US asset to an impediment and a problem. But if Zelensky won’t negotiate, others will. And if there is to be an election, that choice may be the central one.
Zelensky has ruled that their will be no election until after the war. That declaration seems to rule out negotiations. If there were an election in March 2024, as would normally occur, the only person so far to have declared his candidacy is former Advisor to the Office of the President of Ukraine Oleksii Arestovych. Though Arestovych believes that he is “definitely a potential presidential candidate,” sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko tells me that, although Arestovych “has his niche in the Ukrainian public,” it is unlikely that he “is a serious challenge to Zelensky.”
Unlike Zelensky, Arestovych has conceded that accomplishing Ukraine’s objectives on the battlefield is unlikely. In a recent interview he said that “Our army couldn’t take Tokmak. It’s quite possible that the country will soon lose Avdiivka. There’s definitely no more talk about the 1991 borders.” He has confessed to painting a misleadingly positive picture of the battlefield while in government and now says that the true picture needs to be projected to the public.
His platform includes the promise to immediately begin peace talks with Russia and the possibility of ceding territory as part of a diplomatic solution. It also includes reversing recent trends in Ukraine of “persecuting the Russian language,” and guaranteeing the freedom to use Russian in government, media and culture while prioritizing Ukrainian.
Arestovych has said that he will negotiate with Russia and that he is ready for what he calls “the Kissinger option.” Under this plan, Ukraine would accept the “obligation not to reconquer the territories occupied at the time of entry, but to achieve their return only through political means” in exchange for the rest of Ukraine getting “entry into NATO.” He maintains that Ukraine could return to negotiating the return of territory with the Russian leader who succeeds Putin.
As of now, though, there is to be no election. And that leaves the US with a paradox. Zelensky was a valuable and versatile instrument of American policy, exhaustingly campaigning to keep the Political West a unified backer of the war with a constant supply of weapons. But American nurturing of that role has now turned Zelensky into a liability who is not an instrument of their objectives but an obstacle to them. The war Zelensky yielded to when a settlement was possible and sold when it was difficult was intended to improve Ukraine’s place at the negotiating table. But if Zelensky now cannot or will not negotiate, then there was no point in the war, and both Ukraine and the US are left in a weaker and worse position rather than a better and stronger one.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.