For the West, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky no longer seems to be a hero who bravely struggles to defend his country against Russian aggression. Since the Eastern European nation’s 2023 counteroffensive failed, many Western media and analysts have openly criticized the Ukrainian leader.
By Nikola Mikovic
Zelensky is accused of pursuing an ineffective military strategy and being responsible for the endemic corruption. But does that mean that the United States and its allies plan to abandon Kyiv?
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Zelensky’s approval ratings at home were low. In December 2021, just 31 percent of Ukrainians supported the former actor who became their president in 2019. But due to Moscow’s actions in the former Soviet republic, Zelensky’s popularity skyrocketed. In the summer of 2022, according to the International Republican Institute’s Center for Insights in Survey Research, 91 percent of Ukrainian citizens approved his job performance.
Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive, launched in June 2023, and a challenging economic situation seem to have impacted Zelensky’s popularity. In July 2023, 78 percent of respondents believed Zelensky was directly responsible for corruption in the government and military administrations. Moreover, his approval ratings dropped to 62 percent. At the same time, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, is seen positively by 88 percent of the Ukrainian population.
It is, therefore, not surprising that rivalry between Zelensky and Zaluzhnyi began to grow. Indeed, Zelensky certainly has many reasons to worry about Zaluzhnyi’s growing popularity. He attempted to fire Ukraine’s top general several times, but the 50-year-old military commander seems to have strong backers in the West.
The fact that very influential Western publications, such as CNN and The Economist, gave Zaluzhnyi a platform to express his views on the ongoing war could mean that certain political factions in the West did not want Zelensky to get rid of Ukraine's embattled army chief. But in the end, on February 8, the Ukrainian President finally sacked Zaluzhnyi, and that move could have severe consequences for the Ukrainian leader.
The dominant Western media narrative of the “infallible” Zelensky seems to have begun to disappear from the public arena. Even in Ukraine, he was accused by the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, of being “increasingly isolated and autocratic.” Zelensky’s former adviser, Oleskiy Arestovych, also turned against the Ukrainian President. He called Zelensky a “dictator who is divorced from reality” and announced that he would run for office in the next presidential election whenever it happens.
But the problem for self-exiled Arestovych, who now lives in the United States, is that Ukraine’s martial laws prescribe the extension of the authority of the President of Ukraine if the constitutional term of his powers expires during martial law. Hypothetically, Kyiv (pressured by the West) can temporarily terminate (lift) martial law to hold presidential and parliamentary elections this year. Such a move, however, would undoubtedly impact Zelensky’s political fate, especially if Zaluzhnyi decides to run for president.
Being out of Ukraine, Arestovych is not a severe threat to his former ally. However, until recently, he was the third most popular political figure in the war-torn country. Now that he criticizes the way Zelensky fights the war, he is seen by many Ukrainians as a “traitor.”
For now, Zelensky is expected to stay Ukraine’s indisputable leader, but the situation on the front can soon begin to undermine his position.
If Russia captures more land, Zelensky’s approval ratings will almost certainly decline, and Kyiv’s Western partners may start looking for another political figure to replace the unpopular president. At this point, from the Western perspective, Zaluzhnyi seems to be the best choice.
Alternatively, Zaluzhnyi – widely seen as someone who insists on a total mobilization aiming to defeat Russia – might have been replaced with the Russia-born General Oleksandr Syrsky (who is reportedly despised among Ukrainian military officials) because the West is not interested in Ukraine’s victory.
Therefore, with Zelensky still in office and Syrsky as a new Commander-in-Chief, some groups within the Western elite might seek to de facto freeze the conflict. If that happens, it would likely give Ukraine enough time to consolidate and prepare for another round of fighting.
If the West and the Kremlin decide to put the Ukraine war “on hold,” the Eastern European country will almost certainly hold general elections, and Zelensky is unlikely to come out as a winner.
He might have won the battle against Zaluzhnyi, but the war is far from over.