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Is Ukraine turning on Volodymyr Zelenskyy?

Ukraine's faltering war effort has taken the shine off Zelenskyy's halo. Credit: Getty

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”.

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
4 months ago

He should have told BoJo to pound sand and negotiated a peace deal with Russia when terms were most favorable to Ukraine. Absolutely tragic waste of life.

Michael Cazaly
MC
Michael Cazaly
4 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

However, no profit for either in that…

L Brady
L Brady
4 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Except the peace deal you mention is NONSENSE. It has been disproved over and over. Still if you choose to believe Putin propaganda I’m sure I can’t change your opinion.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
4 months ago
Reply to  L Brady

You keep saying that the peace deal has been disproved without providing a shred of evidence for your assertion. Some might say you were falling for Western propaganda.
Why not consider the views expressed by those who were there. https://braveneweurope.com/michael-von-der-schulenburg-hajo-funke-harald-kujat-peace-for-ukraine

Micael Gustavsson
MG
Micael Gustavsson
4 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

As favorable to Ukraine as Hitlers deal to the U.K. was in 1940.

Anna Bramwell
AB
Anna Bramwell
4 months ago

What deal was,that? Think he tried to make peace but wouldnt comply with tbe British ultimatum.

D Walsh
D Walsh
4 months ago

For Zelensky the exit is always the hard part

If he makes out alive he can enjoy his millions on a nice beach in Israel, while laughing at the suckers who voted for him

L Brady
L Brady
4 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

If he wanted to make money, he’d have taken Putin’s filthy billions, like all the rest.

Cormac McGahon
CM
Cormac McGahon
4 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

On a not really Secure Israelli beach, where the UN turn a blind eye to Ethnic cleansing.
But will have come from a non UN supported country of being being Ethnically cleansed.

UN: stick their finger in the Air. “A North East wind!” Our policy on Israel and Russia is…….

Micael Gustavsson
MG
Micael Gustavsson
4 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Russian propaganda and antisemitic too.

D Walsh
DW
D Walsh
4 months ago

When it happens, don’t forget to apologise

Lorcan Smith
Lorcan Smith
4 months ago

Reverting to calling a contrary opion to yours as antisemitic is just name calling, and may Jews contest the conflation of antizionism with antisemitism. A senior minister from a previous Israeli government has pointed out that Israel routinely smears critics of its policies as antisemites as a tactic for deflecting fact-based criticism.

Micael Gustavsson
MG
Micael Gustavsson
4 months ago
Reply to  Lorcan Smith

Well, saying a head of state of Jewish descent have to be unpatriotic and really identify with Israel (thus “beach in Tel Aviv) rather than the state he leads is antisemitic. Especially since he has shown total devotion to the state he leads (and all the stories about his corruption that Russia repeaters spread are continually debunked).

Micael Gustavsson
MG
Micael Gustavsson
4 months ago

I would add two things: I agree that anti Zionism isn’t necessarily antisemitic, and that Zelensky is rich, but as an Ukrainian movie star he was so before going into politics (just like Schwarzenegger earned his millions before becoming governor of California).

Hans Daoghn
HD
Hans Daoghn
4 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

“For Zelensky the exit is always the hard part” Prior to his current job, Zelensky was a stand-up comedian. I wonder if he knew when it was time to exit the stage – before the hook pulled him off. His current sense of his audience isn’t very good these days.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
4 months ago
Reply to  Hans Daoghn

I think Boris was a better stand-up comedian and he exited the stage most unwillingly