Caught in the middle - GulfToday

Caught in the middle

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a man caught in the middle of an East-West Cold War-style tussle and is trying to do the best for his vulnerable, conflicted country. While his first language is Russian — although he speaks Ukrainian and some English — and he has affinity for Russian culture, Zelensky is a patriot who personifies the divisive dual national identities of his country.

Ukraine’s current troubles spring from this identity crisis Zelensky cannot hope to resolve. Ties between Russians and Ukrainians are tight. While Russians comprise 17 per cent and constitute the largest minority in Ukraine, Russian is the household language of 43-46 per cent of the population, roughly the same as Ukrainian. Despite a Ukrainization campaign many Ukrainians prefer to operate in Russian.   Russian is spoken exclusively in southern and eastern districts and many young Ukrainians migrate to Russia seeking employment.

Nevertheless, Ukrainians yearn for freedom, democracy, economic advancement, and Western level living conditions.  Its politicians are under pressure to deliver their demands by Joining Nato and the European Union (EU). Membership to both is rejected by Russia.

These push-and-pull forces have made Zelensky inconsistent when addressing the current confrontation between Russia and the US-led West. While he has upheld Ukraine’s right to join Nato and the EU, he has warned US President Joe Biden against creating tension and panic in Ukraine by repeatedly announcing that Russia is on the brink of invading that country to prevent it from aligning with the West.

Born in 1978, the young Zelensky is the sixth president of Ukraine. His father is head of the Department of Cybermetics and Computing Hardware at the Kryvyl Rih Institute of Economics, his mother formerly worked as an engineer. Zelensky earned a law degree from this institute but never

worked in this field. Instead, he chose to go into television and cinema and established his own film company. Between 2015-19, he starred in a popular comedy television series, “Servant of the People” in which he played the Ukrainian president.

He assumed the role of a high school teacher who wins an election after a video showed him castigating corruption in Ukraine. At that time, Ukraine was considered the most corrupt country in Europe and one of the three most corrupt countries in the world. In 2018, after the series became influential on the Ukrainian political scene, Zelensky founded a political party called “Servant of the People.”

He was not first actor to play a president and was urged to run for the office. Veteran US actor Martin Sheen was touted as a potential presidential candidate after playing the US president in “The West Wing” television series which ran from 1999-2006. He refused, arguing that the White House would not welcome a pacifist and human rights campaigner. Unfortunately he was right.

After an energetic but largely social media campaign, Zelensky was elected to the presidency in 2019, defeating businessman Petro Poroshenko in a landslide in the second round. Zelensky promptly dissolved parliament and his party won a majority of 254 seats in the 450-member legislature, a rare feat for Ukraine. All those elected from his party were newcomers.

As a freshman in power with the strong mandate, a great deal was expected of Zelensky. He won credit for managing the covid pandemic well and dealing with the resultant economic recession but has had mixed success in tackling endemic corruption. This is seen as a greater danger to the state than the Russian build-up on its borders. The battle against graft is not going smoothly and progress is slower than expected as corruption is “a deeply engrained culture,” Dan Peleschuk wrote on eurasianet.

Zelensky also promised to travel to Moscow, sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin and draw up a peace plan. But Zelensky stumbled en route over Ukraine’s insistence that it should have the freedom to join Nato and the EU. This is a mirage: Ukraine is far from meeting the criteria required to join either — corruption being a major obstacle – and will not qualify for or a decade or decades. When Ukraine first proposed joining the alliance in 2008, Germany flatly rejec- ted the country as a candidate. Unanimity is essential for entry.

Therefore, considering Russia’s vehement opposition to the possibility of Ukraine joining Nato, in particular, it would be wise for Ukrainian politicians to stop talking of membership until Ukraine is close to meeting the requirements for entry to the alliance and opponents change their minds.  

Zelensky left his country’s capital to attend the Munich security conference last Saturday despite alarmist US warnings that Russia could exploit his absence to mount a coup against him. A clearly annoyed  Zelensky responded by saying that he had left a competent team back in Kyiv and he had breakfast at home and would have dinner at home.

Throughout this building crisis, he has delivered mixed and confusing messages. While he relies on the West for backing, he has warned against adopting a policy of appeasement. It is clear that he does not trust Biden and other Western leaders because he told them not to “agree to [any course of action] behind our backs.”    

Aware than Nato forces will not fight for Ukraine, he has said that his country will defend itself and appealed for arms and money. But funds may be a problem because of corruption.

While pressing for a diplomatic solution, Zelensky has adopted an unrealistic approach by proposing the imposition of sanctions now as a deterrent to Russia. He argues that there would be no point in employing sanctions after Russia invades his country. However, enacting sanctions at this point could prompt Moscow to retaliate by invading portions of Ukrainian territory and would be counterproductive.

Sanctions now are not realistic. The US and Europe disagree with him. Furthermore, Europe disagrees with Washington on when and how to activate sanctions and argues that punitive measures should be calibrated to match the extent of Russian military action, depending on whether it occupies all or portions of Ukraine.

Since the 27-member EU requires unanimity on sanctions as well as membership, unity on sanctions would be difficult to achieve. Italy and Germany, which depend on Russian natural gas, would like to take a measured approach to sanctions and Putin ally, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who faces an Zelenksy has realistically called for negotiations on arms control in Eastern Europe.

US and Russian officials met in Geneva in September and agreed to set up working groups to pursue potentiall agreements on nuclear weapons and other global threats before high level talks could convene but nothing substantive has been reported so far and major differences remain. Ukraine’s best hope is that the ongoing crisis could spur Russia and the West to engage seriously on these existential issues.

Photo: TNS

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