President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has achieved something of which no other Ukrainian leader was ever capable in the past: he united Ukraine.
Russia attacked Ukraine from the North, East and South on February 24, 2022 with over 120, 000 soldiers, tanks, heavy artillery, and vast air forces. Despite the pessimistic predictions of many experts, who expected the defeat of Ukraine after a couple of days, the Russian army has proved incapable of occupying any large Ukrainian city or any Oblast centre (except Kherson, a city with a population of 280,000 people) after more than a month of intensive battles. This outcome became possible, to a large extent, due to the highly competent leadership of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has employed a smart strategy of defence and achieved extraordinary diplomatic success in uniting democratic countries all over the world in a joint endeavour to help Ukraine protect its borders. Contrary to the chaotic and perplexed response to the Russian attack in 2014, in 2022 the reaction of Ukrainian officials was quick and professional, implying that the government realistically assessed the risks well in advance.
Zelenskyy has achieved something of which no other Ukrainian leader was ever capable in the past: he united Ukraine. In his always gender sensitive and inclusive speeches the Ukrainian President managed to equally address Ukrainian women and men from the East and West, living in the country and abroad, coming from large cities and small villages. Zelenskyy’s regular clear and reaffirming messages, issued every day since the beginning of the war, have lifted the fighting spirit of the people, whatever their contribution to the common goal: military defence, civil protection, humanitarian aid, the evacuation of the civil population, work for the Ukrainian economy, volunteering, counteracting Russian propaganda etc.
One of the main messages Zelenskyy managed to deliver to the world in the first days of the war was that the Ukrainian people were not going to surrender and were ready to fight for their lives, for their country and their freedom. In more general terms, Ukraine took on the task of protecting the European order and security, while Russia endangered it by starting a brutal war in the middle of Europe and even more so by applying methods of nuclear terrorism (e.g. ostentatiously demonstrating nuclear weapons, occupying the Chernobyl and South Ukraine nuclear power plants). The atrocities committed by the Russian army are shocking. Despite claiming to target only military infrastructure, Russian military forces are systematically killing civilians in massive numbers, relentlessly bombarding and destroying residential districts, civil infrastructure and cultural heritage, and committing war crimes.
Apart from the suburbs of Kyiv, the major destruction has occurred in the East and South of Ukraine, where most of the Russo-oriented Ukrainian citizens lived. The brutality of the war has caused a rapid change of people’s opinions and an upsurge of support for NATO and EU integration. The endorsement of Ukraine’s move towards joining NATO reached the highest level in history: 76%, while 91% of Ukrainian people endorsed EU integration (sociological group Rating, March 2022). Consequently, support of the EU and NATO in Ukraine has increased by over 20 percentage points as compared to the pre-war period, mainly through the changes of people’s orientation in the South and East of Ukraine.
Since 1991, Ukraine has elected six Presidents. Each of them enjoyed a relatively high level of support from the population at the beginning of their presidency, which tended to decline until they were quite unpopular by the end of their presidential term. Volodymyr Zelenskyy also followed this pattern but after the beginning of the war broke it and became the first President in the history of Ukraine, who reached an unprecedentedly high level of support of 93% in March 2022 (sociological organisation Gradus), which even surpasses his fairly high initial level of support (73%) in 2019.
Diplomatic success and security in Europe
One of the most impressive messages which Zelenskyy sent to the international community after the beginning of the war demonstrated the strength of his position: despite ample opportunities to escape the country he refused to leave and stayed in Kyiv even though he and his family were explicitly named as the primary target by the Russian aggressors. By doing so, the Ukrainian leader clearly signalled that his personal interests are less important than the interests of his country. This position served as a firm ground for cooperation between Ukraine and other democracies to defend the borders of Europe. Zelenskyy’s direct speeches in the US Congress, in the European Parliament, and in the German, UK, Japanese, Australian and other national parliaments helped speed up processes that often take months or years. The three main priorities of Zelenskyy’s diplomatic efforts included economic and personal sanctions imposed on Russia, weapons delivered to Ukraine, and financial support for Ukraine. In all three aims Ukraine has achieved a notable success.
Despite demonstrating an unwillingness to close the sky over Ukraine and directly confront Russian military forces on its territory, Ukraine’s partner states approved the providing of Ukraine with military equipment and weapons, including Javelin anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft Stinger missile systems.
International military aid is very important. However, the strong performance of Ukrainian military forces in 2022 has also been driven by another factor – the army reforms that were successfully launched by Zelenskyy’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko. Drawing lessons from the lamentable state of unpreparedness to resist the occupation of Crimea and some parts of Donbas and analysing the reasons for their poor combat performance in 2014, the Ukrainian army was reformed with respect to five major dimensions: the improvement of command and control, planning, operations, medical help and logistics, and the professional development of the armed forces. In close cooperation with the US, Canada, UK, Lithuania and Germany, Ukrainian military forces experienced a remarkable transformation. After 2016 Ukraine’s modernised army became a well-functioning institution, thus inducing high levels of trust in the population.
Furthermore, Zelenskyy has proved to be open to unconventional ideas, creating the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine and calling on volunteers to “join the defence of Ukraine, Europe and the world.” According to the Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba more than 20,000 people from 52 countries have volunteered to fight for Ukraine by the beginning of March 2022.
At the front of the information war with Russia, Ukraine is actively working to counteract propaganda and disinformation from the Russian media and to inform the global community of real developments during war time. The united effort of Ukrainian media groups to produce confirmed reports and stream news about the war 24 hours a day is complemented by grass-root initiatives from volunteers and IT specialists.
Support of small and medium enterprises
The war has had a negative effect on the economy of Ukraine. According to the survey results of the sociological organisation Gradus, around 85% of enterprises have either stopped working or had to reduce their activities. Promptly replying to the demands of businesses, Zelenskyy declared a set of measures to bring relief to Ukraine’s economy under martial law. Starting from April 1st, small businesses may pay tax voluntarily. That is, if taxes are not paid, there will be no prosecution. Larger businesses (enterprises with a turnover up to 10 billion UAH) should pay a flat rate of 2% of their turnover. Many firms face major problems in continuing business such as decreased demand (lack of customers), lack of personnel due to people’s displacement, logistics problems and others. Hence, this policy step is very welcomed by small and medium-size enterprises. Strategically, governmental measures of support from small and medium businesses are of crucial importance, since these enterprises play an important role in terms of employment and are considered a major pillar of modern developed economies.
Reimbursement, reconstruction, recovery
By no means least important is the future-facing tone of President Zelensyy’s speeches. The Ukrainian President continues to affirm that when the war is over, there are good prospects for Ukraine: the country will rebuild its infrastructure, people whose private property was ruined or damaged will get the appropriate reimbursement and the economy will recover. The President’s overriding message is that justice will be restored. In this context, perhaps the greatest public demand for justice is related to the prosecution and punishment of the war crimes committed by the Russian occupants. Russia’s use of cluster munitions and vacuum bombs has led to huge casualties among civilians in many cities in Ukraine. The liberated Ukrainian territories left by the Russian troops have provided ample evidence of atrocities against the local population. In reaction to these crimes, President Zelenskyy has called on the International Criminal Court to open war crimes investigations.
According to the survey of the sociological group Rating in March 2022, the majority of Ukrainians had optimistic views concerning the reconstruction of their damaged country after the war: 51% of people in Ukraine believe that the country will be able to rebuild its cities within five years.
Furthermore, Zelenskyy is setting the world agenda for the elaboration of viable instruments and agreements that in the future would quickly and effectively protect peaceful states from the danger of military aggression. As the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 which was supposed to provide security assurances and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine proved to be unviable, the voluntary abandonment of nuclear weapons by Ukraine may appear to have been premature. To avoid such consequences for future international security agreements and to elaborate on truly effective security treaties, Zelenskyy is initiating the process of negotiations on arrangements that would have concrete and distinct instructions on how the guarantors are to react in case of military aggression.
Three pillars of Ukrainian solidarity
To sum up: under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion has been united, strong and well organised. Its strength is ultimately based on the three main pillars of social solidarity. First, the country is mentally united as never before. For the first time since independence, the Ukrainian population is showing a remarkable unity in values and political orientation. There is hardly any discrepancy in the perception of what is the right path of development for Ukraine. The unequivocal and clear choice of Ukraine is EU and NATO integration. By choosing this direction Ukraine finally rules out the alternative path of typical post-Soviet authoritarianism and political dependence on Russia with consequent vulnerability to military attacks and frozen conflicts. The second pillar of Ukrainian solidarity is the functional interconnectedness of the Ukrainian people, in which everyone is performing their duty and contributing in various ways to bring a Ukrainian victory closer. This includes not only military defence activities but also humanitarian and other work by volunteers for the needs of the army and the civil population, evacuation, hosting and the support of refugees in Ukraine and abroad, work for the economy of the country, engagement in counteracting Russian media propaganda etc. Finally, the third pillar of solidarity is a common goal – the defence against a cruel enemy, who invaded Crimea and Donbas in 2014 and returned to conduct all-out war in other parts of Ukraine eight years later.
On the Ukrainian side, there is a great will to end the war as soon as possible. If the level of political and military support of their partner states – including the US, UK and other NATO countries – is timely and powerful enough, the world has every chance of witnessing a story of David and Goliath in the near future.
This text also appeared in German language in Ukraine-Analysen No 266 (11.04.2022)
Featured image: The Presidential Office of Ukraine, CC BY 4.0