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How US and Ukraine's far-right made pro-peace Zelensky a 'no peace' president
Elected in 2019 to bring peace to Ukraine, a Zelensky aide now declares that "there is no peace with Russia, and Ukraine must arm itself to the teeth."
Volodymyr Zelensky marked the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by rejecting any negotiations with the Kremlin.
“There is nothing to talk about and nobody to talk about over there,” Zelensky declared.
The Ukrainian President delivered the message just two weeks after his French and German counterparts urged him, at a meeting in Paris, “to start considering peace talks with Moscow,” the Wall Street Journal reports.
But as an adviser explained to the New York Times, Zelensky is now “more at peace with himself,” and therefore has no need to entertain the possibility of peace with his neighbor.
“He has a clear understanding what Ukraine should do,” the adviser said. “There is no ambiguity: There is no peace with Russia, and Ukraine must arm itself to the teeth.”
Zelensky’s “clear understanding” of the need to reject peace with Russia and turn his country into a NATO arms depot is a resounding victory for the Ukrainian far-right and its US government allies. As I wrote here last year, these two powerful forces, aligned by their converging interests in prolonging the post-2014 war in Ukraine’s Donbas region, sabotaged the peace platform that Zelensky was elected on in April 2019. As Adam Schiff put it, the US has used Ukraine’s civil war “so that we can fight Russia over there, and we don't have to fight Russia here.”
The commemoration of the first anniversary of Russia’s cross-border invasion to end Schiff’s bipartisan “fight” has yielded more insight into how the US, in concert with its ideological allies in Ukraine’s powerful far-right, helped convert Zelensky from pro-peace candidate to “no peace” president.
In a fawning profile, the Washington Post approvingly recounts how Zelensky shifted from naively “thinking peace with Putin was possible” to now believing that “victory is the only answer.” Although the Post attempts to cast Zelensky’s “transformation” as the result of “Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat,” the details tell a different story.
The Post describes a summer 2019 exchange between the then-rookie president and the top US diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor. At the time, Zelensky was “expressing curiosity” about the Steinmeier Formula, a German-led effort to revive the stalled Minsk Accords. Minsk, reached in 2015, called for granting limited autonomy to the rebellious Donbas regions in eastern Ukraine in exchange for their demilitarization. Ukraine’s far-right, the driving force behind the 2014 Maidan coup that triggered the ensuing Donbas war, had opposed Minsk’s implementation at every turn.
Zelensky, Taylor recalls, “hoped” that the Steinmeier initiative “might lead to a deal with the Kremlin.” The Ukrainian president “pointed to a document explaining the formulation, thinking that somewhere in the details of the legalese a workable compromise with Moscow might be found.”
But Washington knew better: no compromise with Moscow could be allowed. “No one knows what it is,” Taylor told Zelensky of the German plan. “Steinmeier doesn’t know what it is... It’s a terrible idea.”
The Steinmeier plan was in fact a simple idea, and a welcome one to anyone interested in bringing peace to Ukraine. For his part, Taylor was never shy about advocating war. In a December 2014 letter to The Washington Post, Taylor denounced an opinion article that had opposed sending US arms to Ukraine and advocated an agreement between NATO and Russia to resolve the Ukrainian crisis. Backers of such steps, Taylor wrote, are “advocating that the West appease Russia.… Now is not the time for appeasement.”
This explains why Taylor was similarly hostile to the “terrible” plan named after former German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The Steinmeier Formula called for holding local elections in the rebel-held Donbas areas under Ukrainian law and international supervision. If OSCE monitors certified the results, then Ukraine would regain control of its eastern border and enact a special status law granting the rebellious Donbas regions limited autonomy.
But this road map, along with a similar initiative from French diplomat Pierre Morel, “got nowhere because of opposition in Ukraine,” former UK diplomat Duncan Allan observed for the UK government-funded think tank Chatham House. When Zelensky tried to revive it in late 2019, Allan added, “[a]nother sharp reaction in Ukraine forced him to back down.” As the New York Times now notes in passing, “a backlash at home — with street protesters in Kyiv accusing him of treason for surrendering land — steered the Ukrainian president to a political formula in which he rejected concessions” with Russia.
Specifically, that “backlash” in Ukraine included not only violent protests but outright threats to Zelensky’s life.
“Zelenskyy said he was ready to lose his ratings, popularity, position,” Right Sector co-founder Dmytro Yarosh, commander of the Ukrainian Volunteer Army and former senior Ukrainian military advisor, said shortly after Zelensky’s May 2019 inauguration. “No he would lose his life. He will hang on some tree on Khreshchatyk - if he betrays Ukraine and those people who died in the [Maidan] Revolution and the [Donbas] War.” (Two years after threatening to hang the president from a tree, Yarosh was given a repeat appointment as an advisor to the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian military. The Ukrainian military subsequently claimed that the appointment was withdrawn).
Despite the internal and external opposition, Zelensky departed a meeting with Putin in December 2019 feeling “hopeful”, the Post reports. “Within weeks, Russia agreed to a broader prisoner exchange and offered Ukraine a $3 billion gas arbitration settlement as well as a new gas transit deal.”
But on top of the far-right backlash at home, Zelensky’s peace initiative faced direct hostility from Ukraine’s patron in Washington. After warning Zelensky against pursuing a “terrible” European-brokered peace plan, William Taylor soon became a hero of Trump’s first impeachment over Ukraine. At the impeachment proceedings, which kicked off in October 2019 just as Zelensky was trying to follow through on his peace mandate, Taylor was summoned to assure Congress and a Russiagate-crazed media class that Trump’s pause on weapons subsidies for the Ukrainian fight against the Russia-backed Donbas rebels endangered “our national security.” (For his services, the New York Times lauded Taylor as “a septuagenarian Vietnam veteran with a chiseled face and reassuring gray hair,” while the Washington Post declared him to be a “meticulous note taker.”)
The prevailing imperative to use Ukraine “to fight Russia over there” (Schiff) meant that Zelensky had no chance to pursue the “terrible” Minsk agreement that Taylor and other influential proxy warriors opposed.
“The reality is that Ukraine depends on political, diplomatic, economic and military support from the West, and particularly from the United States,” Samuel Charap of the Pentagon-tied RAND Corporation wrote in November 2021. Up to that point, “Ukraine has shown little desire” to “[implement] its obligations under the Minsk II agreement,” and the US had “not yet used its influence to push for progress on the Donbas conflict.” If the Ukrainian government could be pushed “toward complying”, Charap noted, that “might actually invite de-escalation from Russia” while saving Ukraine “from calamity.”
But by then, Zelensky had decided to side with the forces that had sabotaged him. According to the Post’s account, citing David Arakhamia, the leader of Zelensky’s faction in parliament: “By early 2021, Zelensky believed that negotiations wouldn’t work and that Ukraine would need to retake the Donetsk and Luhansk regions ‘either through a political or military path.’” As a result, “[t]he Kremlin disengaged.”
Zelensky’s early 2021 decision that “negotiations wouldn’t work” explains why, in early 2022, he shunned all opportunities to prevent Russia’s looming invasion. At the final talks on implementing Minsk, a “key obstacle,” the Washington Post reported, “was Kyiv’s opposition to negotiating with the pro-Russian separatists.” When Germany proposed a last-minute deal in which Ukraine would “renounce its NATO aspirations and declare neutrality as part of a wider European security deal,” Zelensky turned it down, according to the Wall Street Journal. After rejecting diplomacy, Zelensky’s government then significantly increased its shelling of the Donbas, a potential step toward trying to “retake the Donetsk and Luhansk regions” via the “military path” that the Washington Post has newly confirmed.
And as the recent disclosures of former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet underscore, the US went from sabotaging Zelensky’s peace mandate before the Russian invasion to blocking diplomatic efforts in the period since.
As a result, the exalted version of Zelensky promoted to NATO state audiences today is a sharp contrast to the pro-peace candidate that Ukrainians overwhelmingly elected four years ago.
In October 2019, as he took steps to implement Minsk in the face of far-right protests and US hostility, Zelensky assured Ukrainians that he was “the president of peace,” and that “ending this war is of utmost importance to me.” He added: “I, the president, am not ready to sacrifice our people. And that is why I choose diplomacy.”
By now choosing to reject diplomacy, President Zelensky has shown that he is more than willing to sacrifice his people for the sake of his NATO state patrons’ desired proxy war against Russia. Accordingly, one year into the catastrophic Russian invasion that it helped provoke, it is no wonder that the same US political establishment that sabotaged Zelensky’s peace mandate now holds him up as a hero.
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