5 January 2022
Volodymyr Zelensky was an actor when he was elected President of Ukraine in 2019. Zelensky had appeared regularly on a TV series where he played a history teacher whose rant against political corruption vent viral and made him president. The Ukrainians, widely disillusioned with their own politicians, were so enchanted with the fictional story they made Zelensky the real president. The political party of the history teacher character on the television series, the “Servant of the People,” became the actual political party of Zelensky when he ran for president against incumbent Petro Poroshenko.
Zelensky was what all disaffected voters love – an outsider at least from conventional politics. And, he had said in his fictional viral rant, what many people knew to be true, i.e., that corruption was strangling the life out of the country. Hopes were high for Zelensky when he won election with 73% of the vote.
Two years later, Zelensky is struggling to fulfill some of the promises for fundamental social change he made during his campaign. In 2014, after pro-Russian puppet Viktor Yanukovych (for whom Paul Manafort worked) was ousted from the presidency and had to flee. Russia then seized Crimea and backed (or created) separatists who took over large areas of the region.
When Zelensky came to power, he promised to bring peace to the region and to end conflict in the Dunbas, another region where Russian separatists were taking over. Zelensky criticized his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, for not negotiating effectively to end these conflicts.
But, Zelensky has not been able to deliver on his promises of peace. The war between Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists continues and now there is a massive built up of troops on the Ukrainian border.
Zelensky initially made an effort to compromise with the Russians over their territorial claims. There were peace talks between the two countries, prisoner exchanges and moves toward establishing a peace process, known as the Minsk agreement. But, after Russia began issuing passports to the Russian-speakers in the contested territories, talks soured.
To make matters worse, the dictator of Belarus, Alyaksandre Lukashenka, has ceased to be a defender of Ukraine in its struggle with Russia.
When the Russian attack on Ukraine began in 2014, Lukashenka made great efforts to publicize his neutrality. He refused to recognize Russia’s claims to Crimea, politically declared that he would not permit an attack on Ukraine from Belarusian territory, and ridiculed Putin’s historical arguments justifying an invasion of Ukraine.
But, in August of 2020, Lukashenka launched a brutal response to nationwide protests over rigged presidential elections. This made him an international pariah. In the aftermath of the vote there were mass anti-regime demonstrations across the country. Lukashenka appeared to be in danger of losing power entirely. But, Vladamir Putin intervened and propped Lukashenka up with financial assistance, Kremlin propagandists and a public promise of security forces.
From this point onward, the dependence of Lukashenka on Putin only increased. Lukashenka launched a prolonged crackdown on domestic opposition and escalated an increasingly acrimonious confrontation with the West. One of the most widely publicized acts was a May 2021 incident where a commercial EU airliner was forced down while going over Belarusian airspace and a dissident Belarusian journalists was abducted from among the passengers.
After recent talks with Putin, Lukashenka has announced plans to deploy Russian air defense systems along the Ukrainian border.
Zelensky is making a courageous effort to confront corruption in Ukrainian society and fulfill his campaign promises, but he is also confronting a dangerous situation with Russia. It appears that Zelensky has reached the conclusion that Putin cannot be negotiated with and given the retreat of the West from foreign conflicts, he and the Ukrainians face this perilous situation by themselves.