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Geopolitics

Limits Of Martyrdom, Why Zelensky Should Lead Ukraine From Exile

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky seems ready to accept death on the battlefield — but he would be doing his people an even greater service if he fled Ukraine to establish a government-in-exile.

photo of people passing by a Zelensky graffiti in Barcelona, Spain

Zelensky street art in Barcelona, Spain

Ansgar Graw

-Analysis-

BERLIN — The former KGB lieutenant colonel Vladimir Putin likes to be photographed with a rifle in his hand or on horseback, in both cases bare-chested. But he's lost his status as a war hero to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who until recently appeared on camera as a comedian.

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Hollywood could not have come up with a better quote than what he reportedly said when he refused the U.S. offer to get him out of the country: "I need ammunition, not a ride."

And while Putin currently seeks publicity only occasionally with rather enraptured video speeches, there are plenty of pictures of Zelensky showing up at the front in Kyiv, dressed in military fatigues and standing shoulder to shoulder with other freedom fighters. Pure masculinity, which yesterday was deemed archaic, is now suddenly becoming trendy again, against the backdrop of a turning point in Europe.


And it is far more than rhetoric and staging. It has now been three weeks since Russia's attack, and Ukraine is standing up to the aggressor in a hail of bombs with fighting courage and a high death toll.

No battlefield victory is possible

But Kyiv cannot win — that much honesty is necessary. And Ukraine cannot hope to receive any help from NATO, be it in the form of combat troops, the establishment of a no-fly zone or even the transfer of fighter aircraft, because such measures could expand the regional war into a world war with a possible nuclear dimension.

The Ukrainians' disappointment at this refusal is as understandable as the West's attitude is legitimate. Realpolitik is the order of the day, especially in times of crisis. And that is why Kyiv, already abandoned by half of its population, must negotiate a ceasefire, especially to save the lives of the remaining civilians, who still include many women and children.

Ukraine doesn't need a memorial stone for a war hero: It needs a commander.

It is not a matter of unconditional surrender, but of an agreement in which the weaker party will have less control than the stronger one. At the end of his brutal course of action, there would then be a success for the battered Putin.

Kyiv does not need memorial statues 

But victory in the battle for Ukraine does not mean victory in Putin's war to restore neo-imperial greatness. Ukraine has demonstrated too much national greatness and refueled too much identity just in the past few weeks to become a Russian province.

Zelensky, meanwhile, seems determined to die on the battlefield. But Ukraine doesn't need a memorial stone for a war hero: It needs a commander who will fight on from elsewhere.

The Ukrainian president, who has not always been convincing in his political career, would therefore be doing his people a great service if he were to flee Ukraine before it surrenders, not as a defeated man, but as a crystallizing figure for his nation.

Like Poland in World War II

And he would immediately set up a government-in-exile. It could have its base in Warsaw or Berlin or (like the Polish government in exile during World War II) in London. Not in Washington, which is too far away and would appear like Zelensky's farewell to European politics.

In fact, with a government-in-exile in Europe, he would continue by all means the struggle for his country's independence and its right to self-determination. Most elements seem to suggest that this government in exile could rely on a Ukrainian resistance movement at home.

The free world, forced into a spectator role on the battlefields, would have to support Ukraine even after a ceasefire — through a determined policy of isolating Russia on the political, economic, cultural, sporting, scientific and civil society levels.

Photo of \u200bZelenskyy posing for a selfie with a wounded Ukrainian soldier at a military hospital in Kyiv on March 13.

Zelensky with a wounded Ukrainian soldier at a military hospital in Kyiv on March 13.

Ukraine Presidency/Ukraine Presi/Planet Pix/ZUMA

A victory — but an expensive one

As the West is busy looking for new sources of gas and oil (Venezuela, Iran) Putin would lose his last means of leverage once Europe and the U.S. have weaned themselves off Russian energy. It is also true that China will buy even more oil and gas from Russia in the future.

At the time of the Beijing Olympic Games, Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping announced the extension of existing supply contracts by 25 to 30 years — a good 100 billion euros will flow to Moscow in return. But this does not compensate for the sums Moscow has received from the West so far.

The door must remain open for a diplomatic solution.

Russia and its people will pay bitterly for Putin's campaign. The isolation of the country and the West's renunciation of oil and gas from there will also be expensive in Europe, especially in Germany.

But the consequences of a new ice-cold war will be felt even more severely by the Russians, who will initially be able to buy practically nothing from abroad — no consumer goods, no food, no spare parts for machines and engines. The conquest of Kyiv could be more expensive for the supposed victor than any other success in global military history.

Envisioning Europe's future architecture

On the other hand, economic destruction and psychological humiliation of Russia must not be the goal. Such a triumph of the West would not be a victory, but the catalyst for continuing Russian revanchism. The door must remain open for a diplomatic solution, which Zelensky now has the standing to negotiate from abroad.

Should Ukraine regain its independence, certainly without Crimea and presumably without the separatist areas around Donetsk and Luhansk, the wounds of this Russian invasion would continue to bleed for a long time. But the bombing and fighting and dying would be over.

And then, perhaps years later, there would be a chance for a new beginning in Europe's security architecture, in which Russia's security interests — which have not been considered seriously enough in recent years, would have to be taken into account — but also those of Ukraine and other states that have emerged from the bankrupt mass of the former and irreversibly defunct Soviet Union.

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Martin Schutt/dpa via ZUMA
Stefanie Bolzen, Philipp Fritz, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister, Mandoline Rutkowski, Stefan Schocher, Claus, Christian Malzahn and Nikolaus Doll

-Analysis-

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Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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