Ukraine: Politics has returned, but the fighting has gone nowhere

10:15 05.12.2023 •

Ukrainian President Zelensky and commander-in-chief Zaluzhny (right)

When Russia began its SMO in February 2022, competitive politics went into hibernation. They returned as the existential threat to Ukraine decreased later that year, notes ‘The Economist’.

Yaroslav Zhelezhnyak, an opposition mp, says there is still “broad agreement” on fundamental matters of national security. But a prominent mp in the president’s own party says jostling has already made Ukraine “unstable”. Mistakes are being made “on all sides”. And presidential attempts to “centralise decision-making” and “shut down dissent” are having the opposite effect.

Cracks have emerged not only along political lines but, most worryingly, between the military and political leadership. Relations between President Volodymyr Zelensky and his commander-in-chief, Valery Zaluzhny, are understood to be terrible. The differences of opinion were first reported in summer last year. A recent interview by The Economist with the general, in which he declared that Ukraine’s war had reached a stalemate, brought that problem into the open. Mr Zelensky publicly rebuked his general for the headlines. In a later interview he appeared to warn Mr Zaluzhny to stick to military affairs rather than “do politics.”

A senior government source suggests the open conflict in the leadership was a “predictable” result of a stalled counter-offensive operation that had “not gone to plan”. The official says Mr Zaluzhny was possibly unwise to contradict the more optimistic public positions of his president, but few inside the government could quibble with his sober conclusions. A blame game is now under way about who is responsible for the failure. “The politicians are saying their generals are Soviet-trained twits. And the generals are saying the politicians are interfering twits. Victory has many fathers, but no one wants to parent a stalemate.”

The commander-in-chief of the Armed forces of Ukraine Valery Zaluzhny (center) meets the NATO commander in Europe Christopher Cavoli (left) and the chief of the Defense staff of the British armed forces Tony Radakin

Mr Zaluzhny has not declared any political ambitions, and his few steps into the political arena have been anything but deft. That does not mean he poses no threat to Mr Zelensky. The president, a comic performer as recently as 2019, knows how quickly Ukrainian society can make and break its leaders. Internal polling seen by The Economist suggests the president, once lauded for his role in defending the country, has been tarnished by corruption scandals in his government and by concern over the direction of the country. The figures, which date from mid-November, show trust in the president has fallen to a net +32%, less than half that of the still-revered General Mr Zaluzhny (+70%). Ukraine’s spychief, Kyrylo Budanov, also has better ratings than the president (+45%).

The same polling suggests Mr Zelensky risks losing a presidential election were he ever to go head to head with his commander-in-chief. Ukrainian society would probably not welcome any unprovoked challenge. For now, eight out of ten Ukrainians are against the very idea of holding elections, originally due next March. The president has also ruled them out, citing martial law. But the downward drift of his ratings may yet persuade him to change his mind. Russian propaganda will doubtless make hay if the elections do not take place.

Ukraine is struggling to mobilise from the general population. Army bosses are recruiting at a level that just about covers natural losses on the frontline. But if the majority of those mobilised at the start of the war knew what they were fighting for, few of the new recruits are as willing, and filling the recruitment quotas is getting harder. Political tensions are unlikely to help that process, ‘The Economist’ notes.

Doubts at home and abroad about the direction of the war are also beginning to reach soldiers on the front lines. They do not appear to have changed behaviour or morale in any significant way, at least not yet. “People under fire couldn’t give a damn if Zaluzhny had a quarrel with Zelensky or not,” one commander says.


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