Volodymyr Zelensky: The dismantling of a Hero

Public opinion – it is a bloodthirsty beast. It purrs and cajoles when a hero is born, it mercilessly rips him apart as soon as he stumbles or even begins to fall. The Ukrainian comedian was a nonexistent entity before he assumed his country’s presidency; he was a shining light to the West and beyond as he stood up to injustice on behalf of an invaded nation.

The injustice continues to this day. Russians under Putin’s leadership continue to trample on international law and human rights. But our outrage has begun to subside since our well-being, standard of living, and even, possibly, peace is threatened. People remember that until half a year ago Ukraine meant nothing to them, many did not even know that this country existed. And now, all of a sudden, drivers are supposed to pay double for oil, while companies must lay off more and more workers because they run out of the gas required to run their operations or can no longer pay for it. In Davos, it is mainly millionaires and billionaires who are worried about the future, but common people, workers, and employees, suffer much more. Off the record, many are beginning to ask themselves whether we here in the West should really care whether Ukraine is ruled by a man like Zelensky or by Putin.

Already voices are being raised that this comedian-president has long since overstepped the mark. Are we supposed to give up our comfortable lives and our achievements as an exporting country just because the Ukrainians want to join NATO and even the EU, which even now is barely getting along with its existing members? It this country really that important?

Zelensky himself seems to suspect by now that public opinion, this terrible beast, is slowly baring its teeth. He is no longer as radiant as before. His voice has become hoarse, his countenance has darkened. On the one hand, this may be due to the fact that the triumphant cries about an impending Ukrainian victory were obviously premature. Russians are tough, and they are known for their staying power. They usually show their greatest strength just when you think you can write them off. True, Putin had completely miscalculated when he thought he could bring Ukraine to its knees with a lightning raid, and he miscalculated no less when he speculated that the decadent West, hooked on the Russian gas and oil drip, would turn a blind eye to the brutal assault.

 We know: the exact opposite was the case. Appalled and outraged by Putin’s actions in violation of international law, Sweden and Finland will place themselves under NATO’s protective umbrella: NATO thus became larger, not smaller, as Putin wanted. In general, the West confronted the Russian president with unexpected unity and singlemindedness. However, the sanctions imposed by the West will only hurt Russia in the long run, as they are virtually ineffective in the short term. Because war is cheap for Russia – destruction is always comparatively cheap, only construction is costly. As one of the best experts on the Russian economy, the now exiled economist Vladislav Inozemtsev, calculates, it costs no more than ten billion dollars a month, the equivalent of just two and a half days‘ worth of Russian exports. Only Western arms deliveries to Ukraine do really harm Russia, so Inozemtsev. Only these are effective in the short term. But they, too, are so only, it should be added, because the Ukrainians under Zelensky’s surprisingly successful leadership have shown amazing resilience. Unfortunately, even the heroism of the Ukrainians did not prevent the the Russians from gaining a foothold in Lugansk and Donbass and on the Sea of Azov from Mariupol to just outside Odessa. In Kherson, Putin is already having Russian passports handed out to cut off any way back.

But the real reason for the growing dejection of the once shining hero Zelensky lies deeper. The Ukrainian president is beginning to realize that more and more he is nothing better than a make-believe hero. Despite all heroic resistance to the invader, he and his beloved country – which wants only one thing: freedom – have lost control of their destiny. No, not primarily because the millionaires and billionaires of Davos fear for their profits and because the workers, who are even more affected by incessantly rising prices, fear for their livelihood, and not even because all those Putin’s friends in the West are raising their head again. No, something more frightening has happened. Zelensky has come to understand that he and his country are merely puppets: puppets in the great game of two superpowers. The man is not only likeable as a personality but also very intelligent, so it cannot escape his notice that his repeated demand to talk to Putin, to face him in negotiations, will never be fulfilled – or only if he first concedes all the demands that his brutal, now no longer likeable but likewise highly intelligent adversary will pass on to him. 

For even more terrifying than the sometimes purring, then suddenly mercilessly biting monster we know as public opinion is the struggle of superpowers for power and influence, of which public opinion and ordinary citizens in general know little or nothing. The President of the Russian Federation has at his disposal an equally fearful instrument of extermination of all life on our planet as the United States – his power must be feared just as much as theirs. But it was not long ago that an American president unscrupulously dismissed his country as a third-rate regional power. The insult created deep resentment in Russia. As a result, a tremendous hatred of the West has spread over the country – not only among the elite. Without this hatred it would be hard to explain why the first Russian television channel dared to equate the current German chancellor with Hitler (see for instance the last edition of Besagon).

The Russians see Ukraine and its leadership as mere puppets of the United States, but they do not see Europe any differently. Since the war with Ukraine, Russian hatred toward Europe – especially Germany – is even greater than that toward the United States. Europeans try to overlook thisdevelopment. They don’t want to see that both Ukraine and Europe, which is militarily quite defenseless compared to the two superpowers, have become border areas between the fronts. What is happening in Ukraine today could tomorrow be the fate of the whole of Europe. The two superpowers themselves dare not attack each other. They know too well that they risk their own demise if they do, but the border areas between or beyond the fronts lend themselves to proxy wars below the nuclear threshold. So it was in Soviet times in Africa and the Middle East. And so it is today in Ukraine.

Zelensky seems to have suddenly realized that freedom or slavery of his country only seemingly depends on whether he makes glittering speeches at the UN or before Western parliaments. In truth, the fate of Ukraine solely depends on how far Russia and the U.S. can and will go without risking a nuclear holocaust. I assume that the war will by no means last for years, because the Russian armed forces, as well as the Western military arsenals, are already quite exhausted. This is, however, a most dangerous situation, because a sudden reversal of military achievements on one side or the other could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. In this critical situation, Russia and the United States will seek a compromise – Kissinger is already urging it. At this moment, Zelensky’s wishes will no longer count. In all likelihood, Ukraine will have to give up not only the Donbass and Lugansk, but possibly also part of its southern territory. Zelensky knows quite well that such a compromise would be nothing less than a political death sentence for him as for any other president. He would be accused of betraying his country.

Some compromise will have to be reached. After all the Russians are and will remain our neighbors. They are so under a moderate leadership, when we admire them as a great European cultural nation, and they remain so under Putin, who avowedly considers the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century, rehabilitates Stalin, and makes no secret of his desire to force decadent, fascist Europe once again under the Russian heel. If such a man meets with a lack of resistance – and without the U.S., Europe is no match for him militarily – there is no guarantee whatsoever that he will not achieve his goal. Toughness and willingness to compromise in this order, are both required in this situation.

From now on, there will probably be little talk of Volodymyr Zelensky. The Moor has done his duty, the Moor can go. Politics is that cruel – an even bigger beast than public opinion. In the end, the two superpowers will sacrifice this extraordinary man without hesitation. And we will even have to admit that their choice is inevitable. For what would be the alternative? A nuclear world conflagration. In the age of nuclear and hydrogen bombs, we must live together with our neighbors, even if, like Russia today, they are ruled by men who condemn the fascists, only to imitate them in every possible way.

*Just now (5/29/2022) Zelensky did a 180-degree turnaround. He let it be known that some territories occupied by the Russians could be recaptured only with hundreds of thousands of dead. It remains to be seen how and whether he will survive this bold move. If Putin understands Zelensky’s speech the way it is meant, namely as a peace offer, then the war could indeed soon be over.