Why did Volodymyr Zelensky do a volte face from an election pledge to pursue positive relations with Russia? Photo: AFP

In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky, a novice politician and former television comedian, rose to the Ukrainian presidency on the strength of a peace platform. But once in power, the peace candidate turned into a hardline president, refusing to implement the Minsk peace deal; refusing to rethink the wisdom of joining NATO; refusing to question the wisdom of hosting a US military base in Yaroviv or of sending Ukrainian paramilitaries to the US for training.

What explains the change? Informed speculation suggests Zelensky was captured by the ultras of the Ukrainian far right: No peace could be made with the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk if the maximalists fighting in the east of the country refused to stand down and negotiate, as required by the Minsk Protocols that were agreed to by Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany in 2015. 

Zelensky’s behavior these past months would seem to confirm that his room to maneuver at home was severely circumscribed by the Ukrainian far right. Worse, he seemed to take Western promises of financial and military support, such those enshrined in the November 2021 US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership, at face value.

That was his first mistake. 

His second was to follow the lead of the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by refusing to take seriously the terms of the draft treaty issued by Russia in mid-December. 

His third and perhaps fatal mistake, made shortly after the US rejected the terms of the Russian démarche, was to travel to the Munich Security Conference, where in a fiery, defiant address before the trans-Atlantic security establishment, Zelensky committed political malpractice on a grand scale. 

As Russia built up its invasion force on Ukraine’s border, US President Joe Biden’s administration repeatedly warned that the war was coming. Yet Zelensky publicly and forcefully pushed back on that: On January 28, he complained to reporters, “There are signals even from respected leaders of states, they just say that tomorrow there will be war. This is panic – how much does it cost for our state?”

He was wrong; the war came.

And now the local sitcom star is a global celebrity: the Lion of Kiev, a reincarnation of Winston Churchill. The liberal UK magazine New Statesman has gone gaga over Zelensky. After watching Zelensky’s sitcom Servant of the People, British journalist Rachel Cooke penned an embarrassing Valentine to the Ukrainian president, writing:

“Zelensky has one of those irredeemably transparent faces, one that makes you feel (rightly, or wrongly) that he cannot ever lie; emotions pass over it like clouds across the sky. While it may be close to impossible to imagine this man using a gun, suddenly it’s not at all difficult to understand how, in another life (three words to which we must give their fullest weight), he has been able so stirringly to rally the motherland.”

After Zelensky’s address to the US Congress, state-funded National Public Radio gushed, “All other addresses to Congress by foreign leaders have paled in comparison to Churchill’s, until Zelenskyy’s this week.”

Churchill? Sorry, no: more like Chauncey Gardner.

Recently, in a series of ahistorical and increasingly hysterical speeches, Zelensky has implored Western countries to become active belligerents in the conflict.

Speaking before Congress, Zelensky invoked the Pearl Harbor attacks of December 7, 1941, which was apt, but not in the way he (or his audience) seemed to think. And his reference to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in order to bait an auditorium full of credulous US congressmen smacked of opportunism.

He went even further in a speech to the German Bundestag, in which he declared that the slogan “never again” would be rendered meaningless should Germany not support the Ukrainian war effort.

A speech before the Israeli Knesset landed him in hot water when he repeatedly invoked comparisons between Ukraine’s war with Russia and Holocaust. Said an Israeli government spokesman, “The Ukraine war is awful, but the comparison to the atrocities of the Holocaust and the final solution is an outrage.”

Meanwhile, this erstwhile champion of democratic values has turned increasingly authoritarian at home, suspending 11 opposition parties from the Rada, including the “Opposition Platform – For Life,” which holds 43 seats in parliament.

But is this anti-democratic behavior really all that surprising, given his well-documented ties to the Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky?

Zelensky’s tenure has amounted to one big missed opportunity, and this will become especially clear if he signs a treaty along the lines offered by the Russians before the invasion. Future historians may ask: Was the chance to join NATO someday worth all this bloodshed? 

In the end, Zelensky seemed to believe that he could ignore, even provoke, the Russians because his amen corner in the US would ride to the rescue. 

What a tragic miscalculation. 

James W Carden is a former adviser to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the US Department of State. His articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Nation, The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, The Spectator, UnHerd, The National Interest, Quartz, the Los Angeles Times and American Affairs.