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Zelenskiy’s obstacle course to save Ukraine

The president faces rising opposition in the United States and Europe to maintaining aid, growing domestic unrest, and stalemate on the front lines of the war

Zelenski Guerra en Ucrania
Volodymyr Zelenskiy during an event to mark Armed Forces Day in Kyiv, December 6.HANDOUT (AFP)

Volodymyr Zelenskiy stood up both the U.S. Senate and Congress on Tuesday. The Ukrainian president was due to appear via videoconference at two closed-door meetings to brief U.S. legislative representatives on the need for the immediate approval of a new economic and military assistance package for his country. Zelenskiy did not connect to the meetings, without further explanation on his part. The reason, according to speculation in the U.S. press, is the opposition of the Republican Party toward the most recent aid package proposed by the White House.

“It’s a war, so the situation can change,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov told Fox News to justify Zelenskiy’s absence. But the Ukrainian president never misses an opportunity to explain Kyiv’s situation in international forums, especially if it is to address the lawmakers and senators of his greatest ally, alongside the European Union. Zelenskiy’s reaction has been interpreted mainly as a sign of nervousness in the face of the growing difficulties he is facing on the international scene and on the front lines.

Umerov visited Washington this week together with Zelenskiy’s right-hand man, Andriy Yermak. The latter told Voice of America that if the $61 billion appropriation that President Joe Biden has requested from Congress for Ukraine is not approved, there is a “big risk” that Kyiv will lose the war.

The White House warned last week that there are only sufficient funds to support Ukraine until the end of this year. The Republican Party — skeptical about the multi-billion-dollar packages being provided to Ukraine — is demanding that along with the new provisions for Kyiv, Israel, and Taiwan requested by Biden, an extraordinary investment be added to further fortify the border with Mexico. The Democrats have so far resisted, and time is on the side of Russia’s invading forces.

Mikola Bieliskov, a researcher at the Ukrainian National Institute for Strategic Studies, stated on social networks on December 4 that the impasse in Congress questions the veracity of the rhetoric of Ukraine’s allies that they will support Kyiv’s war effort for “as long as it takes.” The Ukrainian authorities are optimistic that an agreement between Republicans and the White House will be forthcoming, but sources close to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry confirmed to EL PAÍS that the delay foreshadows the storm clouds that may appear in 2024, especially during the tension that will accompany the U.S. presidential election campaign.

Kyiv’s international headaches are not limited to Washington. The European Union will hold a summit this month that should formalize the beginning of negotiations on Ukraine’s accession to the EU. A threat — Viktor Orbán — is hovering over it. The Hungarian prime minister, who is aligned with Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical interests, has insisted on blocking the start of negotiations if the Hungarian minority in Ukraine is not granted more autonomy.

The situation on both sides of the Atlantic indicates that these problems will increase. EL PAÍS reported in November that EU member states have failed to agree on how to finance a further €50 billion ($53.9 billion) for Ukraine in the bloc’s budget before the end of the year. This coincides, moreover, with the border blockades on the transport of Ukrainian goods and agricultural products by Poland and Slovakia, which consider their low costs to represent unfair competition.

Political battle

The stalemate on the front lines — with no sign of Ukraine being able to advance militarily in 2024 because of Russian superiority in resources — is fueling a new state of unrest in Ukraine. Political hostilities flared up this week. Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, accused Zelenskiy of running the country in Putin’s likeness. “We will no longer be any different from Russia, where everything depends on the whim of one man,” he was quoted as saying in Der Spiegel. Klitschko also criticized the president for failing to adequately prepare the country in 2022 in the face of warnings of a possible Russian invasion, and for an excessive accumulation of power to the detriment of parliament and the government. Alexei Goncharenko, the most visible face of European Solidarity, an opposition party, made the same point, adding that Zelenskiy’s office had most of the media under its control.

Umerov noted on Fox that Klitschko’s words were “the beginning of the political season.” But it is not only the Kyiv mayor’s statements that have shaken Ukrainian politics in recent days. The government denied Petro Poroshenko, Zelenskiy’s predecessor in the Ukrainian presidency and founder of European Solidarity, permission to travel to Hungary to meet with Orbán. Martial law in Ukraine prevents men between the ages of 18 and 65 from leaving the country, and Poroshenko is 58 years old. The former president’s intention, according to his party, was to discuss with Orbán his opposition to Ukraine’s accession to the EU. Poroshenko was unable to cross the border last Friday because the Ukrainian Security Services (SSU) refused permission on the grounds that Russia would use it for propaganda.

A spokesman for Orbán told the press that his government “does not want to play any role in President Zelenskiy’s political infighting.” European Solidarity reacted by complaining that the authorities grant permits to leave the country to deputies from Zelenskiy’s party, Servant of the People.

Clash with Zaluzhnyi

Surveys indicate that the stalemate on the front lines of the war has been sapping the spirits of society, especially among those who do not want to be involved in a conflict that will potentially last for many more years. Even though he continues to be the most highly valued politician in the country, confidence in Zelenskiy’s management is decreasing. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, is a hugely popular figure and the deteriorating relationship between the political and military leaders of the war-torn country is already an open secret. The daily Pravda published an extensive report on the differences between them, especially because of Yermak’s demands that Zaluzhnyi should not have a public presence and the president’s unilateral decisions on military appointments. Pravda claims that Zaluzhnyi has even openly criticized Zelenskiy in his meetings with top U.S. military commanders, something that the president is aware of and which has further alienated them.

The presidential office fueled a debate in the media last summer on the advisability of holding legislative and presidential elections. The former were to be held this fall and the latter in March 2024. The Constitution prohibits the holding of elections while martial law is in force, but both Zelenskyi’s team and the president himself indicated that a legal reform was possible to allow the elections to be held. Washington has applied pressure to the two main parties to push ahead but a majority of Ukrainians are against the idea because of the difficulties in organizing a vote with sufficient security guarantees and opportunities for the opposition.

In principle, the beneficiary of an election would be Zelenskiy, who still has a high level of support, especially in the absence of a public debate and an opposition that has so far avoided breaking unity during the war. But the president himself admitted in November that he saw an election as highly improbable because of the organizational difficulties involved while Russia occupies part of the territory and attacks targets throughout the country. His wife, Olena Zelenska, said last week in The Economist that she does not want to see her husband stand for a new election because she wants to see the family return to normality.

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