From the outset of Russia’s invasion in February of this year, Western elites have bestowed upon Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a level of adulation that few (if any) leaders have enjoyed.
Zelensky’s political rock star tour began with a speech to the European Parliament on March 1. He spoke with the United States Congress on March 16. By April 5, he had spoken to the Parliaments of seventeen other nations — all of them closely allied with the United States.
Zelensky’s tour hit a snag on April 8. On that day, Zelensky caused an uproar among Greeks when he shared in Greece’s Parliament a video byte of a neo-Nazi soldier from the notorious Azov battalion.
That little brouhaha was quickly swept under the Western rug.
Within the first six weeks of the war, Zelensky also addressed NATO, the G7, the European Council and the United Nations Security Council.
George W. Bush, a war criminal who has never been held accountable for his crimes, described Zelensky as “the Winston Churchill of our times” after spending “a few minutes” chatting with the Ukrainian entertainer in a videoconference.
Australia’s right-wing Prime Minister Scott Morrison hailed Zelensky as a “lion of democracy”.
French President Emmanuel Macron gushed that Zelensky was the “personification of honor, freedom and courage.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson lauded Zelensky for his “invincible heroism”.
Since ascending to Ukraine’s Presidency, what has Volodymyr Zelensky done to merit such lofty praise from such eminent people?
The political ascent of Volodymyr Zelensky
Zelensky first assumed the office of Ukraine’s Presidency in May 2019, at the age of 41. Prior to that time, he had never held elected office. As explained by the Wilson Center:
Zelensky came to power in the spring of 2019 with a mandate from 73 percent of voters—rich and poor, urban and rural dwellers, Ukrainian and Russian speakers—across all regions of Ukraine. At the same time, the older generation of Ukrainian politicians, as well as the Western and Eastern political establishments, regarded him with some concern and even suspicion: a humorist and showman with no prior experience in public administration, what Zelensky might do once in office was unpredictable. The new president was not a professional politician, his team included no known diplomats and activists, and his platform was both vague and heavily populist…
Zelensky and his team of “new faces”—politicians of the generation that had grown up during the era of independence and who were not connected to the old ways of getting things done, which too often involved cronyism and deal-making—were tasked by voters to achieve three goals: (1) peace in the Donbas, (2) economic betterment for ordinary Ukrainians, and (3) a noncorrupt and responsive government.
Zelensky’s electoral platform was, to put it mildly, a bit murky: he was so evasive in his campaign that, several days before Ukrainians began to vote, twenty Ukrainian news outlets issued a statement calling on Zelensky to stop avoiding the media.
The Presidential Comedian
Zelensky pursued a career in comedy from a young age. At 17, he performed a crotch-grabbing dance routine in the KVN comedy competition.
He later earned a law degree from the Kyiv National Economic University, but did not go on to practice law. Instead, he pursued a career in comedy.
Between the completion of his law degree and Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election, Zelensky appeared in numerous Ukrainian movies and starred in Servant of the People, a television series in which Zelensky played the role of Ukraine’s President.
When Zelensky switched from playing Ukraine’s President to being Ukraine’s President, Ukraine was a deeply troubled nation. It was the poorest country in Europe. It was notoriously corrupt. It was embroiled in a civil war in which as many as 13,000 Ukrainians had died. Its government had lost control of large swathes of Ukrainian territory. It was mired in a tense conflict with Russia.
Serving as president of a stable, peaceful and prosperous country is difficult enough. Serving as leader of a nation as troubled as Ukraine is a monumental challenge, and it was a challenge for which Zelensky was spectacularly unqualified.
Zelensky had no experience or formal training in economic management, no experience or formal training in public administration, no experience serving in any elected capacity, and no experience with military command.
If you needed brain surgery, would you hire your gardener to do it? A career comedian was no more qualified to be Ukraine’s President than a gardener would be to perform surgery on your brain. Don’t get me wrong, I respect comedians. For a long time, I’ve admired George Carlin, but I never thought that Carlin was qualified to be President of the United States.
Does life really mimic art?
It’s often said that life mimics art.
In Zelensky’s case, that’s not entirely accurate.
In Servant of the People, Zelensky donned the mantle of an anti-corruption champion, but according to the widely cited Transparency International (TI), corruption levels in Ukraine remained essentially the same in the first two years of Zelensky’s term. On a scale of 0-100 (in which 0 equals the highest level of perceived corruption and 100 equals the lowest level of perceived corruption), TI accorded to Ukraine a corruption score of 30 in 2019. In 2021, Ukraine scored 32.
In September 2021, the European Court of Auditors issued a report in which it concluded that “grand corruption was still a key problem in Ukraine.”
In June of this year, a poll funded by the Wall Street Journal found that 85% of Ukrainians believe that corruption among Ukraine’s high officials and the wealthy is a “major threat” to Ukraine’s security.
On the campaign trail, Zelenskiy pledged to clean up Ukraine’s oligarch-dominated ruling system. And he railed against politicians such as the wealthy incumbent Petro Poroshenko who hid their assets offshore. The message worked. Zelenskiy won 73% of the vote and now sits in a cavernous office in the capital, Kyiv, decorated with gilded stucco ceilings. Last month, he held talks with Joe Biden in the Oval Office.
The Pandora Papers, leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and shared with the Guardian as part of a global investigation however, suggest Zelenskiy is rather similar to his predecessors.
The leaked documents suggest he had – or has – a previously undisclosed stake in an offshore company, which he appears to have secretly transferred to a friend weeks before winning the presidential vote.
Zelenskiy has not commented on the claim despite extensive attempts by the Guardian and its media partners to reach him. His spokesperson Sergiy Nikiforov messaged: “Won’t be an answer.”
The files reveal Zelenskiy participated in a sprawling network of offshore companies, co-owned with his longtime friends and TV business partners. They include Serhiy Shefir, who produced Zelensky’s hit shows, and Shefir’s older brother, Borys, who wrote the scripts. Another member of the consortium is Ivan Bakanov, a childhood friend. Bakanov was general director of Zelenskiy’s production studio, Kvartal 95.
All are associated with Zelenskiy’s home town in southern Ukraine, Kryvyi Rih. After winning power, Zelenskiy brought these close allies into government. Bakanov became head of Ukraine’s SBU security agency. Zelenskiy made Serhiy Shefir his first assistant, an unpaid role that involves handling the president’s daily schedule. A fourth member of this close-knit group, Andriy Yakovlev, is a film director and Kvartal 95 producer.
The Guardian also noted that, since entering politics, Zelensky had been “dogged by claims he is under the influence of Igor Kolomoisky, a billionaire whose TV channel screened Zelenskiy’s show”.
During the campaign, Zelenskiy’s opponents alleged $41m from Kolomoisky entities found its way between 2012 and 2016 into offshore firms belonging to Zelenskiy and his circle, including Film Heritage.” Politico reported:
Kolomoisky’s media outlet also provides security and logistical backup for the comedian’s campaign, and it has recently emerged that Zelenskiy’s legal counsel, Andrii Bohdan, was the oligarch’s personal lawyer. Investigative journalists have also reported that Zelenskiy traveled 14 times in the past two years to Geneva and Tel Aviv, where Kolomoisky is based in exile.
In 2020, the U.S. Justice Department accused Kolomoisky of stealing billions from a bank he owned and laundering this money all over the world. The next year, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on Kolomoisky in connection with the alleged fraud, although the ‘sanctions’ — a travel ban on Kolomoisky and members of his family — were farcical; after all, would Kolomoisky desire to travel to the United States when its government accuses him of having perpetrated a gigantic fraud?
Not only does Kolomoisky stand accused of fraud, he is also one of several Ukrainian oligarchs who have funded the far-right, Neo-Nazi-linked Azov battalion.
A “lion of democracy”?
Under Zelensky, Ukraine’s government has aggressively suppressed free speech and political pluralism.
In early 2021, Zelensky signed a decree banning three ‘pro-Russian’ television channels. According to Germany’s public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, “the channels are considered [in Ukraine] to be pro-Russian messengers anchored in the nation’s war-scarred east as well as its south.”
The Ukrainian Union of Journalists reacted harshly to Zelensky’s ban, stating “the deprivation of access to Ukrainian media for an audience of millions without a court … is an attack on freedom of expression.”
An owner of one of the banned channels was said to be Taras Kozak, a lawmaker and member of the Ukrainian political party, Opposition Platform — For Life (OP-FL). At the time of Zelensky’s channel ban, Kozak’s party was the largest opposition party in the Ukrainian Parliament. Not anymore: Ukraine’s “lion of democracy” banned OP-FL in March of this year, along with ten other ‘pro-Russian’ and left-wing parties.
Zelensky’s government also arrested two youth communist leaders and accused them of conspiring to overthrow the government. Following their arrest, the World Federation of Democratic Youth, a U.N.-recognized global alliance of progressive youth organizations, stated “After being persecuted, repressed, kidnapped, and tortured by the…Ukrainian Security Service, now their right to defense from the accusations [against them] is being violated.”
None of the eleven parties banned by Zelensky is a far-right party. Evidently, Zelensky doesn’t regard Neo-Nazis as a threat to Ukrainian democracy.
This month, a Ukrainian court upheld Zelensky’s ban. It also ruled that OP-FL’s assets will be confiscated by the Ukrainian State Treasury.
Prior to Russia’s invasion, several opinion polls showed OP-FL leading hypothetical parliamentary elections or finishing second. When Russia launched its invasion, OP-FL condemned it.
It is important to understand that, while 78% of the people living in Ukraine are ethnically Ukrainian, 17% of Ukraine’s population is ethnically Russian. It should surprise no one that ethnically Russian Ukrainians might feel an affinity toward Russia. Does that affinity disentitle these Ukrainian citizens to free speech or political representation? A genuine Ukrainian democracy would not treat ethnic Russians as second-class citizens.
Weeks before the invasion, Zelensky launched an attack on another political opponent, Petro Poroshenko. The “chocolate king” served as Ukraine’s President from 2014 to 2019 and lost to Zelensky in the 2019 election. He is one of Ukraine’s wealthiest men. He acquired his riches by being, in the words of the Financial Times, one of the “quick movers in the post-Soviet years.”
No one can plausibly accuse Poroshenko of being ‘pro-Russian’. Poroshenko has called Putin a “fascist” and a “pathological liar”. He insists that NATO membership for Ukraine would have shielded Ukraine from Russia. Shortly after Zelensky’s election in 2019, Poroshenko went so far as to join protests against Zelensky’s (supposed) plan to make peace with Russia.
At the beginning of this year, Zelensky’s administration accused Poroshenko of “high treason” for allegedly helping to organize the sale of large amounts of coal from the war-torn eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass in 2014 and 2015. Prosecutors say that these sales helped to finance Russian-backed ‘separatists’. Zelensky also accused Poroshenko of fleeing Ukraine to avoid arrest.
In January of this year, while out of the country, Poroshenko called the charges “bullshit” and said he would return to Ukraine to face the charges. According to Politico:
Some Western diplomats have expressed dismay that Poroshenko chose to come to Brussels this week and draw attention to Ukraine’s bitter political in-fighting at just the moment that NATO allies were confronting Russia over its huge military build-up along the Ukrainian border.
In the statement, Podolyak [an adviser to Zelensky] said Poroshenko was not above the law and suggested that Ukrainian authorities would resist any external pressure to drop the charges against Poroshenko because that would mean interfering with an independent investigation….
He added, “Unfortunately, Petro Poroshenko simply uses foreign journalists to create pretexts for personal PR in Ukraine and to show in his media that he supposedly has a ‘good press’ and ‘a lot of things to do’ in Europe. One of the basic principles of any democratic state is the equality of all citizens before the law and the courts. We would not want Europe to return to the times when the high political or economic status of a particular person, including the ex-president, puts him above the law and frees him from the need to comply with court orders.”
Despite its lofty, law-and-order rhetoric, Zelensky’s administration folded to foreign pressure like a cheap suit. In February of this year, The Globe and Mail reported that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland both called Zelensky and persuaded him not to arrest and imprison Poroshenko. Since then, and despite the gravity of the charges against him, Poroshenko has remained a free man. He has appeared frequently on Western television to denounce Russia’s invasion and demand more weapons for Ukraine’s devastated military.
What are we to make of Zelensky’s capitulation to foreign pressure? Either the charges against Poroshenko were trumped up for the purposes of neutralizing Zelensky’s primary political opponent, or Zelensky has sacrificed equality before the law, which (to borrow the words of Zelensky’s adviser) is “one of the basic principles of any democratic state.”
Either way, Ukraine’s “high treason” fiasco raises serious questions about Zelensky’s commitment to the rule of law.
Torture and Gender-Based Violence in Ukraine
For many years, Ukraine’s security services have engaged in torture. During Zelensky’s term as President, the use of torture has remained widespread.
In Amnesty International’s annual country report on Ukraine for 2021, Amnesty stated “impunity for torture and other ill-treatment in general remained endemic. Investigations into more recent allegations remained slow and often ineffective.”
With respect to gender-based violence — another chronic human rights issue in Ukraine – Amnesty’s 2021 Ukraine report stated:
Gender-based violence and discrimination – particularly against women – and domestic violence remained widespread. Support services for the survivors as well as legislative and policy measures intended to combat domestic violence, although improved in recent years, remained insufficient. No progress was made in ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on combating and preventing violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention).
Neoliberalism on Steroids
In 2019, Zelensky defeated Poroshenko in a landslide, with 73% of the popular vote.
By the time of Russia’s invasion in February of this year, Zelensky’s approval rating had plummeted to 31%.
In a lengthy, April 2022 interview given to The Grayzone Project, Olga Baysha, a Ukrainian sociologist and academic who authored Democracy, Populism, and Neoliberalism in Ukraine: On the Fringes of the Virtual and the Real, attributed Zelensky’s fall from grace to his fervour for radical neoliberalism. As she explained:
The basic argument presented in my recent book is that the astonishing victory of Zelensky and his party, later transformed into a parliamentary machine to churn out and rubber-stamp neoliberal reforms (in a “turbo regime,” as they called it), cannot be explained apart from the success of his television series, which, as many observers believe, served as Zelensky’s informal election platform. Unlike his official platform, which ran only 1,601 words in length and contained few policy specifics, the 51 half-hour episodes of his show provided Ukrainians with a detailed vision of what should be done so that Ukraine could progress.
The message delivered by Zelensky to Ukrainians through his show is clearly populist. The people of Ukraine are portrayed in it as an unproblematic totality devoid of internal splits, from which only oligarchs and corrupted politicians/officials are excluded. The country becomes healthy only after getting rid of both oligarchs and their puppets. Some of them are imprisoned or flee the country; their property is confiscated without any regard to legality. Later, Zelensky-the-president will do the same towards his political rivals.
Interestingly, the show ignores the theme of the Donbass war, which erupted in 2014, a year before the series started being broadcast. As the Maidan and Russia-Ukraine relations are very divisive issues in Ukrainian society, Zelensky ignored them so as not to jeopardize the unity of his virtual nation, his viewers, and ultimately his voters.
Zelensky’s election promises, made on the fringes of the virtual and the real, were predominantly about Ukraine’s “progress,” understood as “modernization,” “Westernization,” “civilization,” and “normalization.” It is this progressive modernizing discourse that allowed Zelensky to camouflage his plans for neoliberal reforms, launched just three days after the new government came to power. Throughout the campaign, the idea of “progress” highlighted by Zelensky was never linked to privatization, land sales, budget cuts, etc. Only after Zelensky had consolidated his presidential power by establishing full control over the legislative and executive branches of power did he make it clear that the “normalization” and “civilization” of Ukraine meant the privatization of land and state/public property, the deregulation of labor relations, a reduction of power for trade unions, an increase in utility tariffs, and so on.
Zelensky betrayed not only his populist message, but also his promise to pursue peace
To the credit of the Ukrainian people, they elected Zelensky in a landslide due largely to Zelensky’s vow to pursue peaceful relations with Russia, but Zelensky betrayed that promise. How did he do so? Let us count the ways:
- Like his predecessor Petro Poroshenko, Zelensky failed to implement the Minsk accords, which were designed to end the civil war in Donbas by according to that region political autonomy within Ukraine.
- Knowing full well that Ukraine’s admission into NATO was the brightest of red lines for Russia’s government, Zelensky clamoured loudly for NATO membership. His government went so far as to threaten openly to acquire nuclear weapons if Ukraine was not admitted to NATO. Zelensky’s government enthusiastically collaborated with Western powers to render Ukraine a de facto member of NATO. One year into Zelensky’s Presidency, NATO declared Ukraine to be a “partner country”. During Zelensky’s first two years in office, NATO trained at least 10,000 Ukrainian troops annually through classes, drills and exercises. In May 2021, Ukraine and NATO launched “Operation Sea Breeze” (two weeks of massive military exercises in the Black Sea), and did so only six days after Russian armed forced had fired warning shots and dropped four bombs in the path of HMS Defender, a British warship that had provocatively entered the territorial waters off Crimea, claimed by Russia. Less than three months later, Ukraine and numerous NATO states officially started more military exercises in Ukraine under the moniker “Rapid Trident 21”, which featured, for the first time, “battalion tactical exercises of a multinational battalion with combat shooting in a single combat order”. The avowed aim of “Rapid Trident 21” was “to increase combat readiness, defense capabilities and interoperability” between NATO and Ukrainian military forces.
- In early 2021, Zelensky’s government adopted a decree which left no ambiguity as to its determination to retake Crimea by military means.
- As reported by Jacques Baud, a retired Colonel in Swiss intelligence who served in Ukraine in NATO training operations, artillery shelling of the population of the Donbass increased dramatically (according to daily reports of OSCE observers in the region) in the week prior to Russia’s invasion.
- Zelensky worsened strains with Russia by banning ‘pro-Russian’ Ukrainian television stations in 2021.
An honest and comprehensive assessment of Zelensky’s record leads inexorably to the conclusion that, not only did he fail to fulfill his electoral promise of pursuing peace with Russia, but he adopted policies that dramatically increased the risk of military conflict.
Unsurprisingly, a recent poll in Ukraine, funded by the Wall Street Journal, found that 70% of respondents believed that the Ukrainian government bears either “some” or a “great deal” of responsibility for the conflict with Russia.
The “lion of democracy” is as fictional as the “servant of the people”
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, Western states have expended billions of dollars to prop up Zelensky’s government, both militarily and economically.
By late May, the United States alone had committed a total of US$54 billion to Ukraine, over US$30 billion of which was military-related.
In response to Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, Canada has announced successive shipments of military goods to the Ukrainian government. As of mid-May 2022, the value of all committed transfers was in excess of $150-million, with military aid worth a further $500-million proposed in Canada’s 2022 federal budget. The volume and speed of these government-to-government transfers, conducted by the Department of National Defence (DND), are unprecedented in recent Canadian history.
Britain has committed the equivalent of US$2.8 billion of military aid to Ukraine. Other NATO states have contributed billions more.
Despite NATO’s massive and unprecedented weapons transfers to Ukraine, Ukraine is losing this war badly. Within the past two days, Russian and LPR forces captured Lysychansk, the last major Ukrainian stronghold in Luhansk. Lysychank fell within only one week of the fall of Severodonetsk.
With every military failure, Zelensky vows to retake cities that have been lost to Russian and separatist forces, but there is little if any reason to believe that Ukraine will be able to do so.
Quite apart from the issue of Ukraine’s inability to defeat Russia, there looms a larger question: is Volodymyr Zelensky the kind of leader who merits Western support?
The fictional Zelensky is a “servant of the people” and a “lion of democracy”.
The real Zelensky is an anti-hero who has degraded whatever democracy existed in Ukraine. Moreover, Zelensky refused or failed to end the use of torture. He instituted a profoundly unpopular program of neoliberalism. He has deep ties to a shady oligarch who funded Ukrainian neo-Nazis. Perhaps worst of all, he betrayed his promise to seek peace with Russia by pursuing policies that greatly heightened the risk of war.
After all that Western governments have done to destabilize Ukraine and to use its people as cannon fodder in a proxy war with Russia, the least that we can do is to support Ukrainians in their hour of desperate need, but there are far better ways to support the Ukrainian people than glorifying and propping up Zelensky.
The West can and should provide direct and robust humanitarian aid to Ukrainians. We should embrace and care for Ukrainian refugees. And, above all, we should work tirelessly to achieve a negotiated resolution to this calamitous war.