December 5, 2023 - 1:05pm

In his former life as a heavyweight boxer, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko landed some well-timed blows. But perhaps none have had as much impact as his recent comments regarding Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Castigating his leader as increasingly isolated and authoritarian, Klitschko claimed that “at some point we will no longer be any different from Russia, where everything depends on the whim of one man.” He added that “people wonder why we weren’t better prepared for this war”, and that Zelenskyy is “paying for mistakes he has made”. 

That Klitschko should reserve opprobrium for the Ukrainian leader is unsurprising — the former boxer has been an ardent supporter of ex-president Petro Poroshenko, who was defeated by Zelenskyy in the 2019 election. The two also have a history of personal feuding, with Zelenskyy taking to the airwaves in November 2022 to publicly criticise Klitschko and his officials for having “not performed well” when establishing shelters for Kyiv’s citizens after Russian attacks. 

In this instance, though, Klitschko’s criticisms speak to a broader malaise rather than just a quarrel between two men. The Kyiv Mayor has not been alone in criticising  Zelenskyy in recent weeks — former presidential advisor turned critic Oleksii Arestovych last month claimed the Ukrainian leadership was “leading the country down an authoritarian path” and “spreading mass corruption”.

One need not search too hard to find the motivations of Zelenskyy’s critics. Although he stressed that he would not want to see a change of president during wartime, Klitschko said it would be “unwise” to discuss his own political ambitions currently, while Arestovych has not disguised his own desire to run for the leadership. 

With a presidential election due in March but banned under Ukraine’s martial law — not to mention logistically difficult at a time of armed conflict — Zelenskyy’s stated willingness to hold a vote seems to have fuelled his rivals’ ambitions and, in turn, their criticism of him. The sluggish pace of the war and growing public frustration have provided challengers with plenty to capitalise on as they position themselves for the post-Zelenskyy era, whenever it comes. Polling from the Economist puts the President’s trust rating within Ukraine at 32%, some way down from his public approval figures earlier in the conflict.

Last Thursday, announcing that the war had moved into a “new stage”, Zelenskyy admitted that the much-vaunted counteroffensive “did not achieve the desired results […] we wanted faster results.” This new stage is defensive, Ukraine now accelerating the construction of protective fortifications along the frontline as Russia continues to bombard the eastern town of Avdiivka and uses missiles and drones to hit Ukrainian critical infrastructure. 

Under such strain, there are further signs of cracks within the Ukrainian leadership, not least the President’s growing rift with General Valeri Zaluzhnyi, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Yesterday, Ukrainska Pravda cited a source close to Zaluzhnyi complaining that the army is divided between those subordinate to him — viewed by Zelenskyy as “the bad ones” — and “the good ones” under Ground Forces Commander Oleksandr Syrskyi, with the President establishing his own lines of communication with Syrskyi and other favourites. This comes after Zelenskyy publicly rejected claims Zaluzhnyi made in a November interview with the Economist that the war had entered a “stalemate”. 

While tensions are bound to develop during wartime and rivals will always jockey for power, such quarrels are symptomatic of genuine differences of opinion about what strategy to take after the disappointing counteroffensive. Arestovych himself has even suggested peace negotiations.

Underpinning all of this, Zelenskyy’s excessive ambition is proving a point of contention. Back in October, an aide to the President told Time magazine, “He deludes himself. We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that”.