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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Ukraine And The West: Here's How Zelensky Must Tweak The Script

With the Middle East burning and domestic politics splintering, Ukraine is now just one of multiple priorities for the West. For President Zelensky, it's time to move past the narrative of the past two years.

Photograph of U.S. President Joe Biden meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the Oval Office

September 21, 2023, Washington: U.S. President Joe Biden, meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Ukraine Presidency/ZUMA
Roman Romaniuk & Roman Kravets


KYIV — Ukraine is entering a new phase of the war and a new stage of relations with its partners. Even Time magazine's "symbol of 2022," Volodymyr Zelensky, is finding it increasingly challenging to stay in the global news spotlight.

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Nevertheless, diplomats in Zelensky's team believe that interest in him remains high. One of them told Ukrainian news site Pravda that, "We have Zelensky, and there will be no other president until the end of the war. As a country, we must place our trust in him. Fortunately, Zelensky continues to be a superstar for most Americans. Even now, when other topics like the Israel conflict have emerged, and we are getting less screen time, he is still a celebrity."

While the Ukrainian war is still one of the most important topics for the West, it is now one of many. The sudden shift in focus to the Middle East following aggravated fighting in Israel is a clear example of this.

"The honeymoon phase in our relationship is over,” conceded an influential member of the Ukrainian president's team involved in international affairs. “Now, we need to pay more attention to our partners' recommendations and consider them carefully in order to secure further aid and assistance."

Both the U.S. and the European Union have provided a substantial list of recommended reforms for Ukraine.

As the world enters election season, Ukraine must become a "donor of victories" to its friends and partners, whether through wins on the front lines or by implementing necessary reforms. Failure to do so could jeopardize support and, consequently, the prospects of achieving a comprehensive victory against Russia.

Jittery partners

Ukraine enjoys support from a host of democratic countries, which sets it apart from the autocratic alliances led by Moscow. This unique strength also presents several challenges.

One of them is the necessity to win genuine elections and be responsive to the wishes of Ukrainian society. As Ukraine enters its third year of resistance, this has become a hot topic amid numerous European and American elections.

Political forces in power in various countries have strongly sided with Ukraine so far. But as the election races approach, assistance to the Ukrainian army has drawn sharp criticism from the opposition in many places. Some leaders, such as Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico, have made outlandish claims, such as: "Slovaks have worse problems than Ukrainians."

Similar rhetoric can be heard in the U.S., both from potential presidential candidates and current members of Congress. Fortunately, the provocative statements are mostly limited to the far-right, pro-Trump minority within the Republican Party.

Nonetheless, this minority caused a management crisis in the House of Representatives a few weeks ago, leading to the ousting of Speaker Kevin McCarthy due to his "secret support for Ukraine." More recently, this minority also managed to install Trumpist Mike Johnson as the new speaker against the wishes of the majority.

In the words of a Ukrainian diplomat knowledgeable about American affairs, "In Congress, across both parties, the majority is still on our side. This noisy minority against us isn't a new development; it's just that Speaker Pelosi used to put our projects up for a vote, and there were votes. Now, they're still there, but no one is putting our issues to a vote. That's why this minority has become so visible. It's an internal matter in the U.S., where we've been held hostage."

While Ukraine's place on the American agenda is important, it shouldn't be exaggerated. For the media as well as for millions of Americans, issues like school bus shortages before the school year and abortion bans are often more important than distant wars.

However, some conservative elites, influenced by figures like Elon Musk, are increasingly concerned about the situation in Ukraine, fearing that it might lead to a nuclear war.

To be sure, the recent Polish and Slovak elections proved that attempts to involve Ukraine in their internal politics and exploit the emotions of a nation in crisis could come not only from far-off nations like the US but also from neighboring European countries.

Ukraine cannot afford to get entangled in these political games. It pays the price for every day of delay in aid, not in sympathy or ratings, but in lives and territory. Hence, it should not allow all the controversial statements from figures like Fico, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, or Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy to hinder productive collaboration with partners.

Photograph of Ukranian soldiers checking  their tank after an action in the forest.

October 27, 2023, Kupiansk, Ukraine: A group of Ukrainian soldiers checking their tank after an action.

Marco Cordone/ZUMA

Aid Depends On Success

At the beginning of this year, the Ukrainian leadership began to acknowledge that unwavering Western support might not last indefinitely, and that they could encounter significant challenges in receiving financial and military assistance in the future.

A confidential source close to the office of the president revealed that "sometime in the winter, the president mentioned in a private setting that the future could be more challenging, and therefore, they needed to find new arguments to engage with their partners."

However, despite President Zelensky's early predictions, his team was unprepared for how quickly foreign politics would shift away from Ukraine's position as the "leader of the free world" and attempt to involve Ukraine in their internal conflicts.

The Ukrainian government is trying to come to terms with this new reality. The president himself, according to those in his circle, recognizes the possibility of difficulties in aid flows and understands that emotional manipulation of partners won't resolve these issues.

Zelensky's closest advisors relayed his perspective: "We must demonstrate some success. Without success on the battlefield, support may wane. It's all interconnected. Therefore, we can't stop; we must keep moving forward. We need a slow, incremental victory."

Sources from Zelensky's team added that during a meeting with President Joe Biden, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, "When you achieve success on the battlefield and show results in implementing reforms, you make our work much easier."

The meeting with Biden saw an agreement on the first ATACMS missile system. Nevertheless, according to insiders, the Ukrainian government is seriously considering involving the EU more in the matter of military aid as insurance from Washington's internal intrigue. This move isn't due to value differences with the US, but rather to avoid a situation where any one partner gets to determine what counts as a victory for Ukraine.

There's still a lack of consensus on this critical issue between Kyiv and its allies. Zelensky has repeatedly emphasized his position, which includes the borders of 1991, the punishment of criminals, and the remaining points of the "peace formula."

However, a significant section of Ukraine's partners hold a radically different stance. They believe that Ukraine has already won by preventing Putin from destroying the country and capturing Kyiv, and they suggest seeking a negotiation platform.

Zelensky believes that the only way to convey to these "peacekeepers" that Ukraine's struggle is ongoing is to provide partners with a daily dose of victory. As he put it, "Ukraine needs a result every day".

"We must resist Russian assaults, defeat the occupiers, and advance," he declared. "Even if it's by a kilometer or 500 meters, we must move forward every day to improve Ukrainian positions and exert pressure on the occupiers. This strengthens the state and motivates the world to assist us."

Therefore, triumphant news about the destruction of S-400 complexes with new missiles, drone strikes on Sochi from over 1,000 km away, images of Russian equipment columns burning near Avdiivka, or strikes by advanced naval drones that force the Russian fleet to leave Crimea remain critical.

What's most significant in most of these news items is that Ukraine is making these significant gains with its own resources. While domestic production can't fully meet the extensive needs of the armed forces, Ukrainian successes allow them to request newer high-tech weapons from their partners.

"When we possess our own long-range missiles, it will be significantly easier to negotiate with our partners, including discussions about ATACMS," explained one government official to Pravda. Ukraine can then say: What's stopping you from sharing your resources when we have shown that we can win victories with weapons we developed all on our own?

"When Ukraine achieves success on the battlefield and shows results in implementing reforms, it makes our work much easier." – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Another crucial avenue the authorities are pursuing is involving Western arms manufacturers in collaborative projects in Ukraine. Ukraine has already reached initial agreements with the US in this regard.

"We approach them not with a request for a handout but with our own project, for instance, in air defense. We outline what we can contribute and where we have gaps that they could fill. When we present it this way, they start to see the benefits of such projects, and we [work as] partners, not beneficiaries. There's nothing more important than that," emphasized a member of Zelensky's team.

However, as Ukraine's allies are a coalition of democracies, strengthening ties with them goes beyond just developing the military. Joining this coalition involves implementing reforms, combating corruption, democratization, and more. The specific criteria to integrate into Western institutions like the EU is well-known. We cannot emphasise enough that reforms are crucial as military victories. If the unchecked greed of the elites continues to influence governance, Ukraine might succeed in the war but miss out on a historic opportunity.

As Ukraine enters a protracted war, President Zelensky faces a whole new challenge. The entire government and its communication practices will have to undergo a transformation. Just as on February 24, 2022, when Zelensky transitioned from being a peacetime president who didn't want to fight to a leader who boldly accepted the battle, a new president must emerge – one with a strategic, long-term approach.

To endure this new phase of the prolonged war of attrition, Ukraine must engage in constructive, pragmatic dialogue with its partners while simultaneously addressing its internal challenges. Either Ukraine seizes the opportunity to turn friends into genuine partners, or it risks losing their support.

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