Volodymyr Zelensky, Between a Rock and a Hard Place

A year and a half into the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky may be finding himself back in the same dilemma he was confronted with at the beginning of his presidency, only magnified by the disaster of war.

In April 2019, Zelensky won a surprising landslide victory, taking 73% of the run-off vote. He won, in large part due to a platform that featured making peace with Russia and signing the Minsk Agreement and due to massive support from the eastern ethnic Russian regions of Ukraine.

But despite the massive public support – at the time, over 70% of Ukrainians supported a negotiated settlement of the Donbas crisis the Minsk Agreements were meant to resolve – a small group of ultranationalists with disproportionately large power overwhelmed that support. Though, upon being elected, Zelensky told reporters that he would “reboot” peace talks with separatists in Donbas and that “we will continue in the direction of the Minsk [peace] talks and head towards concluding a ceasefire,” he “faced an immediate backlash at home.”

Ultranationalist leaders defied Zelensky and warned that a ceasefire and the direction he was taking in fulfillment of his campaign promises would lead to protests and riots. More seriously, they threatened his life. Dmytro Yarosh, the founder of the far right nationalist Right Sector paramilitary organization, threatened that, if Zelensky fulfilled his campaign promise, “he’ll lose his life. He’ll hang from some tree. . . . It is important that he understand this.” During a presentation announcing Zelensky’s creation of a National Platform for Reconciliation and Unity on March 12, 2020, Zelensky advisor Sergei Sivokho was thrown to the ground by a large gang from the Azov battalion.

But the alternative to implementing the Minsk Agreement was, as German Chancellor at the time of the signing of the agreement Angela Merkel and then French President François Hollande have confirmed, was using the agreement to buy time for Ukraine to build up an armed forces capable of a military solution to autonomous desires of the Donbas and the crisis in the region.

On the one hand, Zelensky faced violent threats from Ukraine’s small but powerful ultranationalist if he implemented the Minsk agreements; on the other hand, he faced on ongoing war in the Donbas and possibly, ultimately, war with Russia if he didn’t.

When in 2021, Russia pushed the twin demands of guaranteeing a neutral Ukraine outside of NATO and implementing the Minsk Agreement, and the US refused to negotiate the first and prevented Ukraine from negotiating the second, that horrible war happened.

More than a year and a half later, Zelensky may be between the same rock and a hard place but worse.

The war is going very badly. Armed with NATO weapons beyond imagination at the beginning of the war and employing troops with NATO training prepared by NATO planning and informed by NATO intelligence, the counted on counteroffensive has won only small amounts of meaningless land while losing tens upon tens of thousands of lives.

Zelensky is faced with pushing on with the war or negotiating its end. Pushing on will likely win little of Ukraine’s land back but lose many more of Ukraine’s lives. But negotiating will likely face the same ultranationalist backlash that it faced before the war. But now, Zelensky will face not the winds of wrath of the ultranationalists for negotiating away the Donbas to Russia, but the hurricane of wrath for losing the Donbas, Crimea, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. After all the loss of land and life, negotiating now could be even more unpopular than negotiating then.

But if Zelensky refuses to negotiate and continues to push the war, then the outcome will, again, be worse than then. Then, had the US and the UK not prevented him, Zelensky could have negotiated an early end of the days old war before the loss of life and before the loss of any land that had not already been lost. Even the Donbas, granted the autonomy sought by the Minsk Agreement, could have remained part of Ukraine.

Now, a policy of continuing the war appears even more futile and indefensible. A long war promises little prospect of victory or improved position at the price of almost certain continued unimaginable loss of life and land.

Both negotiating an end to the war and continuing fighting the war lead to the painful problem of defending the choice to continue fight the war in the first place. Had the US and UK not blocked Zelensky from negotiating a fast peace in Belarus, with then Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, or in Istanbul, the people of Ukraine would have won a better settlement than the one they are likely to win now after the war has been fought and the lives have been lost. Had they stopped the war then, there would have been less loss of land and life. Continuing the war leads to the question of why, to the question of sanity in policy. Russia’s attrition of Ukrainian lives will continue with little or no promise of improvement on the battlefield or at the negotiating table. Loss of life, and perhaps of land, will continue endlessly for nothing.

And the continuation of the war leads to a further unenviable dilemma for Zelensky. In a desperate attempt to survive, the Ukrainian armed forces are running through NATO supplied weapons at a rate that is impossible for NATO to keep up with. When Ukraine was willing to negotiate an end to the war in the very first few days, the US and UK restrained him. They demanded that Zelensky not cease the war for attainable Ukrainian goals but that Ukrainian soldiers continue to fight to attain the goals of the US and the political West. 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.

Unlike Russia, Ukraine is entirely dependent on its NATO supporters for weapons. Russia has an ever expanding capacity to create its own. If Zelensky does not ask for more weapons, Ukraine will run out long before Russia runs out with disastrous results. But if Zelensky does ask for more weapons, he is criticized and scolded for being ungrateful for what he has already received. Ukraine may be asking for a greater list of advanced weapons than was at first anticipated and that may risk an unacceptable escalation of the war. But Zelensky risked the people of his nation for a promise of whatever it takes for as long as it takes. It is not unreasonable for him to expect fulfillment of that promise when fulfillment of that promise is most existentially needed.

So, once again, Zelensky is stuck between a rock and a hard place: he and Ukraine are doomed if he doesn’t ask for more weapons, and the attempt to shore up support from his NATO supporters is damaged if he does ask for more weapons. And that adds one more rock to the rock and a hard place Zelensky is already stuck between: the dilemma of negotiating a peace that has threatened to be domestically and personally costly or continuing a war that promises to devastate his country for no foreseeable benefit.

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.