Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council and the author of the forthcoming book, “Battleground Ukraine: From Independence to the War with Russia” (Yale University Press).
In recent weeks, discourse about the war with Russia has turned deeply pessimistic in Ukraine.
A difficult Ukrainian counter-offensive, with lesser results than anticipated, has fueled deeply dark discussions about a deadlocked and bloody long-term war with Russia. Meanwhile, analysts and politicians have started to snipe at Ukraine’s military and political leaders, blaming them for the war effort’s failure and even speculating about defeat.
Further feeding this atmosphere of pessimism is evidence of tension between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the country’s military command, as well as delays in military aid from the United States. And these pressures now need to be addressed.
Clearly, the period of euphoria propelled by major Ukrainian military victories and territorial advances is over. So, too, is the period of grandiose promises by Ukrainian officials.
Last winter, an official spokesman for the president had proclaimed he expected to spend the next summer in Crimea. No less extravagant a promise was echoed by the head of military intelligence, who predicted Crimea would be liberated within six months, bringing official promises of a major spring counter-offensive with significant territorial gains along with it.
Early battlefield success also contributed to near universal approval for Zelenskyy among Ukrainians. Despite slow Russian advances in the Donbas and scant Ukrainian victories later on, happy talk on the state-dominated TV “marathon” — joint programming produced by the bulk of the country’s main television networks — continued to promote frontline success, helping Zelenskyy maintain his popularity.
All this changed, however, when Ukraine’s 2023 counter-offensive stalled. The massive loss of fighters amid meagre gains and a slow-moving positional war eroded public trust in the president and his team for the first time since the war began.
A subsequent mid-November poll gave Zelenskyy a trust rating of only net 32 percent plus — meaning two-thirds of Ukrainians trusted the president, while a third now did not. This was a steep decline from polls earlier in the year, and far below the trust ratings of the armed forces and their commander, General Valery Zaluzhny.
A later poll conducted for the President’s Office and leaked to the Ukrainska Pravda news site showed Zelenskyy was neck and neck with Zaluzhny in a hypothetical race for president. Moreover, Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party — which currently holds over two-thirds of the seats in parliament — would see its presence shrink dramatically if elections were held today.
And as Zelenskyy’s support weakens, Ukraine now faces a number of challenges and difficult decisions. These include a deadlock on the front, a rapidly depleting supply of munitions, some erosion of support from Europe, and an impasse in the U.S. Congress over a bill to provide for the military needs of both Ukraine and Israel. His star power notwithstanding, Zelenskyy faces new difficulties in maintaining high levels of military and financial support for Ukraine both in North America and in Europe.
Additionally, the ranks of Ukraine’s armed forces — initially populated by experienced military professionals with combat experience and highly motivated volunteers — have suffered mass casualties during these brutal two years of war. Аs a result, military recruiters — now called “people snatchers” — are scouring cities and villages in search of males aged 18 to 60 for military service. Sometimes, these recruiters are not merely using coercive tactics against draft dodgers but detaining and pressuring those not called or exempt from service into signing on. And such tactics are contributing to justifiable public anger toward the authorities
In addition to such unpopular tactics, Zelenskyy will soon likely need to need to dramatically widen the national military mobilization and shift social spending toward military expenditures, if only to hedge against any decline in, or interruption of, financing from key allies. Both moves will be highly unpopular.
All this doesn’t mean Russia will prevail. Indeed, Ukraine has basically fought Russia to a standstill. Taking minor territorial losses in the Donbas, while gaining modest territory in the south and forcing Russia’s navy to the eastern reaches of the Black Sea, it has effectively restored freedom of navigation for commercial vessels in the sea’s west.
Zelenskyy has also been a courageous and successful wartime leader. But much of this was dependent on steadfast public support. Near-universal domestic approval gave him political carte blanche to shape policy and strategy. But while Ukrainians remain united in their aim of defending the country, unqualified support for Zelenskyy and his policies is declining. And the embattled democracy is subsequently witnessing a revival in national politics.
Zelenskyy’s team itself has contributed to this politicization. After Zaluzhny soberly spoke about the difficulties of Ukraine’s war effort, while providing a road map that could ensure victory, his public comments were shot down by officials from the President’s Office.
In early November, Zelenskyy’s foreign policy advisor Ihor Zhovkva went on national television to assert that Zaluzhny’s statement “eases the work of the aggressor” by stirring “panic,” adding there should be no public discussion of the situation at the front. Zelenskyy himself then chided the general in an interview, warning the military not to engage in politics.
Deputy Head of the Committee on National Security, Defense and Intelligence Maryana Bezuhla piled on, alleging Zaluzhny had ignored U.S. General Mark Milley’s recommendations to mine Ukraine’s border with Russian occupied Crimea back in 2021 — an act of negligence, she implied, that cost Ukraine large swaths of territory in the south. However, Zelenskyy is unlikely to seek Zaluzhny’s dismissal, as it would instantly launch the soldier on a political career.
And that’s not all. On the heels of this kerfuffle, Zelenskyy’s allies in parliament then blocked a visit to Poland and the U.S. by former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The ostensible reason behind this was a report from Ukraine’s security service suggesting Poroshenko’s trip would be exploited by Russian propaganda. Of particular concern was a planned meeting between Poroshenko and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
The idea that a seasoned leader like Poroshenko, whose tenure as president earned Western praise for his diplomatic skills, could be manipulated is, on the face of it, preposterous. And it later turned out that Zelenskyy himself would be meeting Orbán and didn’t want to be preempted.
These clear fractures need to be dealt with now.
Furthermore, as importantly, as domestic support erodes, Zelenskyy’s term in office is due to formally expire in May 2024, while the parliament’s four-year term expired in October. New elections are well-nigh impossible with millions of voters outside the country, a million engaged at the front and millions more internally displaced or under Russian occupation. Elections amid bloody combat and constant missiles and drone attacks on urban centers are unlikely, and would require both legislative and constitutional changes.
This issue of expiring mandates would be moot were the ratings of Zelenskyy and his party unassailable, but polls show a creeping disenchantment with both.
In this context, the time is ripe for Ukraine’s president to consider establishing a broad-based government of national unity. Opening the government to opposition and civil society leaders in this way would instantly provide legitimacy to the leadership team, reduce opposition criticism and widen the circle of voices that have the president’s ear.
There are compelling precedents for such a step too. For example, as World War II began, Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill understood Britain faced an existential threat that required sustaining national unity and created a broad-based coalition government. Churchill installed his main rival — Labour leader Clement Attlee — as deputy prime minister, and added Labour’s Ernest Bevin, a former trade union leader, to the national unity cabinet.
Similarly, this practice was followed most recently by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who offered opposition party leaders a place in a unity government after Hamas’s brutal October 7 attacks. The proposal was accepted by centrist Benny Gantz.
Since the beginning of his presidency, Zelenskyy has relied on an exceedingly narrow circle of trusted advisors. But while he meets with his top military command, intelligence officials, visiting Western leaders and the media, he has largely shut himself off from civic leaders, political critics and rivals — including some with important foreign policy, national security and economic experience.
Their inclusion in leadership posts would offer Zelenskyy additional input on policy options, allow for discussions of alternative tactics and contribute to new approaches when it comes to external relations. With national unity showing signs of fraying, a government that includes the opposition would truly give it a boost.
The only questions are whether Zelenskyy is flexible enough to overcome his contempt for most opposition leaders, and change his style of governing from highly centralized decision-making to more broad-based consensus-building.
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