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Ideas

Servant Of The People: Why Zelensky Will Concede Nothing To Russia

Those calling for Kyiv to negotiate away part of its territory, understand neither history nor the current reality of Ukrainian democracy.

Photo of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivering his daily video address to Ukrainians

Zelensky delivering his daily video address to Ukrainians

Anna Akage

In democracies, politicians depend on the will of the people. Making choices that defy the wishes of the majority may, at worst, cause them to lose the next election. But in transitional democracies like Ukraine, when the majority disagrees with a leader who has suddenly strayed too far in his own direction, it can cost him far more than an election. A fast-rising career can suddenly implode in a wave of protests that often force the dethroned to spend the rest of his days in exile, with no right to a name and no position in society.

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This is what happened to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who did not abide by the public desire for Kyiv to move closer to the European Union. Four years after his legitimate 2010 election victory, when he tried in vain to quelch student demonstrations in Maiden Square, he was forced to flee to Russia.


Yanukovich is just one politician of the post-Soviet era who the Ukrainian people have swept away, in an expression of their absolute refusal to return to dictatorship and subjugation. I wrote about this on the eve of the war: To take Ukraine, Putin would first have to drown it in blood. Look at the cities that the Russian army has managed to capture — Bucha, Kherson, Mariupol — and the sacrifice that Ukrainians were prepared to suffer.


What Kissinger doesn't understand

The current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, has unprecedented support, inside and outside the country. And he perfectly understands that his popularity ratings rest on his unshakable defense of justice and honor for the Ukrainian people. Neither international support nor international pressure will keep Zelensky in the president's chair; only the will of the Ukrainians can do that.

And with more and more rumblings from abroad of the need to negotiate a compromise over territory, Zelensky must face the question of what Ukrainians want. According to the latest data, 78% of Ukrainians (in the regions where it was possible to conduct a poll) are against giving any concessions to Russia — calling for total victory instead. Only 2% of respondents explicitly call on Kyiv to make concessions at the negotiating table.

The sincere gratitude of Ukrainians for the help and support of the international community does not mean they will agree to a bad peace with Russia for the sake of reduction of gas prices in Berlin or Paris.

With growing calls for “peace talks” coming from retired experts like Henry Kissinger, but also some in positions of authority in certain Western governments, the steadfastness of the Ukrainian people on their position about concessions should be well understood vis a vis the room for maneuver of the Ukrainian president. It may have been fiction, but let’s remember the name of the television series that made Zelensky popular before he ever went into politics for real: Servant of the People.
Photo of a Ukraine flag flying in front of ruins in Zhukovsky, near Kharkiv

In Zhukovsky near Kharkiv

Aziz Karimov/SOPA Images/ZUMA

"Peace" is not peace

Zelensky knows that negotiations that involve any mention of ceding territories will betray the trust of the Ukranians: the kind of victory that the people are demanding is not only the return of all our territories, but also the certainty that in the foreseeable future no Russian leader — Putin or otherwise — will dare to underestimate Ukraine again.

Ukraine was forced to take such an uncompromising stance in this war for reasons rooted in centuries of relations with Russia, and the simple fact of its geographic location. We have an eternal neighbor who has cost us millions of lives and hundreds of years of slavery.

For too long Moscow's rulers have viewed Kyiv as their backyard.

Peace with Russia has long been impossible, and it's not just the war that started on February 24, or even January 2014. Peace with Russia is impossible not only because of more than 70 years of Soviet denationalization and the famine of the 1930s, but because of the lessons of the previous eras when Ukrainians lived under the Russian Empire, where they were considered second-rate citizens, subjected to Russification.

Russia has not changed its vision of Ukraine for centuries: In the 21st century, the president of the Russian Federation says, in all seriousness, that Ukraine was an “invention” of Vladimir Lenin.

Freedom or death

A few days ago Kyiv celebrated its 1,540th birthday (it is counted not from the date of the real foundation of the city, but the date when its name was first mentioned in chronicles). Moscow celebrates its 875th anniversary this year.

Comparing our authentic histories is as ridiculous as commenting on Putin's bogus history lessons.

Many in Ukraine now say that war with Russia has been long overdue: For too long Moscow's rulers have viewed Kyiv as their backyard, and for too long their idea of a "younger brother" has hung over Ukraine as a curse.

But the world has changed too much since the times of serfdom and World War II, the Kievers and Muscovites have "grown up" too differently, our social and political choices diverge, our leaders utter opposites.

Trying to restore either the USSR or the Russian empire, Putin put the Ukrainians before a simple but unambiguous choice: freedom or death. And for Ukraine, “peace” with this Russia can only mean death.

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